Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Context


Theatrical Performances in Shakespeare's Time

Because women were barred from performing on the Elizabethan stage, young boys would generally assume female parts. A contemporary audience would have been comfortable with Viola cross-dressing to play Cesario in Twelfth Night, but identities would become even more complicated in Act 4 when a boy (Sebastian) acts a girl (Viola) who pretends to be a boy (Cesario). Elizabethan plays were most often performed in open-air theaters and on a very simple stage. The stage would have a few doors for entrances and exits, possibly some pillars or a balcony, and sometimes a trap door allowing a character to pop out from under the stage. Furniture would include only what was absolutely necessary; for Twelfth Night, it might be no more than some chairs, brought on when needed, or a "tree" of some sort for the scene in which the conspirators (Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and Fabian) hide to watch Malvolio find the letter supposedly written to him by Olivia.

The theater usually had two viewing areas. Balconies ringing the stage were the expensive section. Here, wealthy people congregated, hobnobbed, and showed off their expensive clothes. The area closest to the stage was inexpensive because no seating was provided; audiences had to stand during the entire play. Tickets for this area were a penny each, and the people who purchased them were called "groundlings" because they stood on the ground. Groundlings also frequently brought snacks with them. Archeological excavations of London theater sites have turned up empty bottles and the remains of food.

When Shakespeare was writing his plays, no one knew his works would still be read and performed 400 years later. He was writing plays not for posterity, but to be performed immediately. He himself sometimes worked as an actor and later became a part owner and manager of a troupe of actors. His plays existed only in scripts intended for actors and were not published until after his death. As a result there are some inexplicable errors and inconsistencies in his plays. In Twelfth Night Orsino is referred to both as a count and as a duke, for example. Viola and Sebastian are described as twins, yet a line refers to Viola's birthday as if it were not also Sebastian's birthday.

Twelfth Night

Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night sometime between 1600 and 1602. The first confirmed staging of Twelfth Night occurred in February 1602, although it is possible the play had been performed earlier. Few details are provided about the audience's reaction to the performance.

The plot of Twelfth Night is similar to those of several Italian plays as well as to a romance, Gl'ingannati (1531), by Italian author Matteo Bandello (c. 1480–1562). Shakespeare likely would have known this story from English writer Barnabe Rich's rendition of Bandello's tale (with the characters renamed Apollonius and Silla) in Riche His Farwell to the Militarie Profession (1561). The tale includes the elements of a brother-sister separation, a shipwreck, a sister dressing as a man, and parallels to the Orsino and Olivia characters. Shakespeare borrowed plot elements from some of his own plays in Twelfth Night, including The Comedy of Errors, which turns on mistaken identities. He also used the theatrical device of a young woman who dresses as a man in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and in As You Like It.

Elizabethan Attitudes toward Women and Marriage

Although Elizabeth I (1533–1603)—known as the Virgin Queen—remained unmarried and without progeny, noble women of the period were expected to marry and to produce multiple children. Because Elizabethan society was deeply patriarchal, a woman would not select her own husband. Instead, her father would choose a husband for her, or, if her father were dead, another male relative would take on the task. In Twelfth Night, Olivia's loss of both her father and her brother is, therefore, significant. Her only male relative is her hapless uncle, Sir Toby. He has brought Sir Andrew to her as a possible candidate for marriage, but Olivia will not even see him. She is willful and stubborn in an unladylike way. Hence the lovesick Orsino, another interested suitor, is frustrated with her. However, in the context of the Elizabethan era, Olivia cannot just send her suitors away. Her opinion as a mere woman would not have much weight against social judgment in praise of a worthy suitor. Orsino expresses similar ideas to Viola's, describing women as creatures needing tender care and protection.
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