Pre-Show Preparation, Questions for Discussion, and Activities

Note to Educators: Use the following assignments, questions, and activities to introduce your students to Twelfth Night and its intellectual and artistic origins, context, and themes, as well as to engage their imaginations and creativity before they see the production.

  1. Exploring Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Before the Performance.  The questions for discussion immediately below are designed for both teachers able to incorporate the reading of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (available online via Project Gutenberg) into their pre-performance curriculum (read Section A, then proceed to C), as well as for those whose students will not have the opportunity to read the play in advance of their experience of the performance (begin with Section B).

    1. After reading Twelfth Night either aloud as a class or individually, ask your students to brainstorm a list of themes central to the play.  [See section B for a list of themes.]

    2. William Shakespeare begins his romantic comedy Twelfth Night by shipwrecking his heroine Viola on the semi-fictional, quasi-Italianate shores of Illyria;  Alone, unprotected, and thinking her twin brother, Sebastian, drowned, she disguises herself as a young man and becomes attached to the court of Illyria's Duke Orsino, with whom she falls madly in love.  Enlisted as his page, Viola (in the guise of her male alter ego, Cesario), is sent to woo the woman for whom Orsino pines, the countess Olivia, who immediately falls head over heels in love with the cross-dressing Viola.  In true Shakespearean comic fashion, confusion, crisis, love triangles, hate triangles, humor, subplots, and swordplay ensue and engender a number of compelling themes, including:  the joy and the pain of love; the types and natures of painful love (i.e., unrequited love, unspoken love, and lost love) and how they manifest themselves in humanity; the sadness, longing, loneliness, and anxiety that accompanies the loss of a loved one; the conflicts that crop up between opposing social groups (men and women, young and old, master/mistress and subordinate); the social order and decorum upended by the chaos of love, blind/foolish ambition, the blurring of class lines, cross-dressing/gender confusion and mistaken identity; how and why people deceive other people and how and why they deceive themselves; and madness and how a person's sanity is judged, defended, and dealt with/punished. Share these themes with your students.  (For a more thorough explication of the story of Twelfth Night see the plot synopsis in this resource guide.)

    3. Ask your students if they find an intellectual or personal connection (either in relationship to their own experience or someone that they know) to any of the themes of Twelfth Night.  Have them write/journal about one theme with which they personally connect.  If appropriate, students may volunteer to share their thematic connection with the rest of the class for purposes of discussion.

    4. Ask your students to recall and make connections to other plays or works of literature they have read, studied, or seen in performance with themes similar to those of Twelfth Night.  [Homework suggestion:  Extend this activity into a competitive mini-research assignment by having your students investigate the plots/stories of other Shakespearean comedies (e.g., A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing,  The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Taming of the Shrew) to see who can come up with the most thematic connections.]

  1. In Context:  William Shakespeare and Twelfth NightTo prepare your students for Twelfth Night and to deepen their level of understanding of and appreciation for the life, work, and theatrical and cultural influence of the Bard of Avon, have your students research, either in groups or individually, the following topics:
    • William Shakespeare:
    • Biography
      • Early Life, Family and Education
      • In London and Early Theatrical Career
      • Late Career (c. 1600 to death)
    • Shakespeare's London (Overview)
    • Major influences on and sources for Shakespeare the Playwright
    • Renaissance Acting Troupes—Types and Basic Structure
    • Shakespeare's Troupe:  Lord Chamberlain's Men (later called the King's Men)
  • The Renaissance Public Playhouse
  • Shakespeare's Tragedies (Overview)
  • Shakespeare's Histories  (Overview)
  • Shakespeare's Romances (Overview)
  • Shakespeare's Other Major Comedies:
    • A Midsummer Night's Dream
    • As You Like It
    • Much Ado About Nothing
    • The Merry Wives of Windsor
    • The Taming of the Shrew
  • Shakespeare's Sonnets
  • The First Folio and Shakespeare's Influence

Have your students teach one another about their individual or group topics vial oral and illustrated (i.e., posters or PowerPoint) reports.  Following the presentations, ask your students to reflect upon their research process and discoveries.

  1.  Twelfth Night Casting Collage.  One of the most challenging aspects of directing a play is casting the right actors.  One major issue involves making sure that the people you employ have the acting prowess to effectively and believably perform their roles, especially in a Shakespearean play, where they need to be able to handle highly poetic language (For more information on iambic pentameter see the article entitled "Shakespearean Verse" in this resource guide.)    In addition to acting ability, an actor is also often chosen for a certain temperament or emotional energy s/he gives off, and her or his demeanor often inform a director if s/he is right for a given role. 

    Have your students, either individually or in groups, create a casting collage for their "distinctive" production of Twelfth Night.

    • Using the list and descriptions of characters from Twelfth Night below, ask your students to find images online or in magazines of people they think would be best suited to play each role. [Note:  The clothing the people in their found images wear does not need to be from any particular time period, but should, along with the person’s attitude and energy, give a sense of why they were chosen for each character.  Images can be of anyone, including historical figures and celebrities.]

      • Orsino:  The overly romantic Duke of Illyria. He is in love with Olivia—who refuses his proposals.
      • Olivia:  A distinguished, wealthy countess in mourning over the deaths of her father and brother. [She has vowed not to marry for a period of seven years, though some think this may only be a ploy to put off Orsino, who relentlessly courts her.] 
      • Sebastian:  Viola’s twin brother.  He is nobleman presumed lost at sea .  His features are identical to those of his sister’s, as they are often mistaken for one another when she is dressed as a man.
      • Viola:  Twin sister to Sebastian. Rescued by a sea Captain after a shipwreck, Viola lands in Illyria, disguises herself as a boy named Cesario, and enters Orsino’s service.   
      • Feste:  Olivia’s jester. This clown is particularly adroit at witty wordplay and recognizing the foolishness of others. 
      • Malvolio:  A snobbish steward. He is first among Olivia’s servants.  His self-righteousness is exceeded only by his desire for increased social standing.
      • Sir Toby Belch:  Olivia’s slovenly uncle. His fondness for drink interrupts his niece’s dismal atmosphere and Malvolio’s puritanical order. 
      • Sir Andrew Aguecheek:  Sir Toby’s friend. He is a foppish nobleman and unsuccessful suitor to Olivia. 

    • In addition to their found images, students will need an 8½” x 11” sheet of paper and glue to complete their collages.  [Or educators might also opt for their students to create electronic collages by utilizing PowerPoint technology and images gleaned from the Internet.]

    • Once completed, students should be given time to show their finished character collages to the class to explain what thoughts went into their casting decisions.

  2. An Actor Prepares: Scene from Twelfth Night.  To prepare themselves to begin rehearsing a play, actors need to look for clues in a play's text about who their characters are and how to play them.  An actor asks:  “What are the hints the playwright has given to me?”  “What does my character say about him or herself?” and “What do other characters say about me?”  If other characters in the play are constantly making mention of how suave a character is, then the actor has been given a pretty good clue from the playwright about how his or her character might walk and talk. 

    Have your students explore how an actor prepares to play a character by having them study and present scenes from Twelfth Night.

  • Break your class up into scene-study groups and assign them (or have them choose) one of the following scenes to prepare/rehearse for script-in-hand presentations for the class.
    • Act I, scene iii (lines 1-141):  Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria (pronounced Mah-rye-ah)
    • Act I, scene v (lines 1-98):  Maria, Olivia, Malvolio, and Feste (Clown)
    • Act II, scene i (lines 1-148):  Sebastian and Antonio
  • Have them look for the clues given by Shakespeare.  Let the clues inform them about how to talk, how they might move, and with what energy they approach their lines and reactions to one another.  If their scene is in iambic pentameter, refer them to the "Shakespearean Verse" article included in this resource guide.

  • Additionally, have your students answer the following questions about their characters before they rehearse:

    • What do other characters say about me?  Not only in the things they say, but also in the things they do.  (E.g., in Act I, scene iii, when Maria politely refuses Andrew’s affection and then makes a few jokes at his expense, this should tell Andrew about his prowess to impress the ladies.

    • What is my “objective?” Consider what your character wants in the scene and how he or she goes about trying to get it?  (E.g., Feste’s objective in Act I, scene v, might be “to rescue Olivia from her melancholy state” and he might go about doing this by, “trying to make her laugh by making Malvolio look like a fool.”  This is also referred to by actors as your “want” or “action.”)

    • How important is it for me to achieve my objective?  Consider how much there if for your character to gain or lose.  If the stakes are really high, then this will inform you about how passionately you need to play your scene. 

    • What sorts of tactics do I use to try to achieve my objective?  When Sir Toby tries to get Sir Andrew to stay in Illyria, does he try to build his confidence by convincing him that he still has a chance with Olivia?  If that is his tactic, then this should inform the actor playing Sir Toby about how to play the scene.
  • Following scene presentations, lead students in a discussion of their experience preparing, rehearsing, and presenting their scenes.  Questions might include:
    • What are the pleasures and challenges of staging and performing Shakespearean characters?
    • What insights regarding the characters of Twelfth Night did you gain from putting the scene on its feet?