English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3     




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Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




 ***   18. Twelfth Night, part 1  ***


A Feast of Fools
Vol. 1B, pages 1273-1276 and 1288-1347
  from the
Longman 3rd ed.
"William Shakespeare" and "Twelfth Night"

Online versions of the play appear at



The assignment for this lesson is simply to read or watch a production of Twelfth Night. The quiz and journal for this assignment appear in the next lesson, Lesson 19.


Adapted and enlarged by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature
(New York: Longman, 2003)


How to Begin with Shakespeare

Beginning students are challenged by the texts of Shakespeare, but the plays can be grasped  easily from performances. We get only an interpretation when we see and hear a performance. Various interpretations of the texts are possible. Nevertheless, a good performance makes Shakespeare comprehensible and entertaining, even to those who have difficulty reading his plays.

In Lesson 18: watch a performance of Twelfth Night on VCR or DVD. At least two good versions currently are available. First, for VCR or DVD, there is a wonderful cinematic production directed by Trevor Nunn starring Imogen Stubbs, Ben Kingsley and Helen Bonham Carter (British 1996, 134 minutes). . . Second, for DVD, there is an excellent made-for-TV theater production by Kenneth Branagh and The Renaissance Theatre Company (British 1988, 157 minutes) with a Victorian dreamlike setting reminiscent of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol

In Lesson 19: take your textbook, and sit down in front of the VCR or DVD player again. This time as the performance plays, follow the lines in the textbook, marking important passages as you read. The performances are not 100% faithful to the text, especially if you are watching a cinematic version like Trevor Nunn's, so you may need to watch a scene first, then pause to read it. In any case. repetition will cause the play to stick in memory.

Queen Elizabeth I

Left: Elizabeth 1 with apparent supporters in procession (Robert Peake 1601). The  litter of this independent monarch was actually on wheels!

The Tudor Conquest. The Tudors ended  more or less forever the late medieval state's central problem, the risings of the barons against the crown. They used both carrot and stick. The stick was military force: the private armies of the aristocracy were outlawed, and royal forces were maintained though a more or less perpetual state of foreign wars in France, Spain, Ireland, Scotland and the Caribbean. This aggression was a high risk strategy as little England forced its way onto the world stage.

The carrot was entertainment in a diversionary social scene in which aristocrats could play. The court, and more broadly London, became an entertainment center during much of the year, and in summer when there was a high risk of plague in London, the court made "progresses" (i.e., retreats) out of the city to the country estates of the rich and famous, who hosted the nonstop pageants, tournaments, masques, plays, readings, music and dancing. This cultivation produced knights and nobles who were more like Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch and Cesario, than they were like Beowulf, William the Conqueror, and Sir Mordred.

Tudor-Stuart literature and arts generally can be seen in relation to this royal pacification program. Great talents like Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Ben Jonson were content to curry favor at court and so to grow famous, with the prospect of gaining real wealth.  Not always meeting the royals' propaganda needs, other artists like Thomas More (lesson 14), Walter Raleigh (lesson 17) and Christopher Marlowe ended their lives much less well, despite their literary skill.

William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was an artist of his age as a craftsman of sophisticated entertainments designed for the courts of Elizabeth and James. Though patriotic and royalist, his writing is not overtly political. It does not side with any political faction against other serious political factions. However, most of the plays contain clear allusions to current events and topics of royal interest.  In Twelfth Night the clearest example is the butt Malvolio, who is associated with Puritanism. Dissatisfied with Elizabeth's Church of England, which preserved some elements of Catholicism, Puritans sought further religious reforms such as the abolition of Christmas. Elizabeth found these dissenters arrogant and dangerous. She would have had little sympathy for mean-spirited Malvolio.



Shakespeare at Notre DameYet, despite his distinctly Elizabethan and Jacobean references, Shakespeare speaks to audiences of all kinds and conditions. He is "modern" in the literal sense: his popularity indeed grew enormously through the 20th century, thanks to mass distribution of performances via sound recordings, films and television. There are more productions today than ever.

Shakespeare is also modern as a professional business man. His first plays were so popular that he was offered an economic stake in an acting company, which was known in Elizabethan times as the Chamberlain's Men (named after the Lord Chamberlain, the officer in charge of Queen Elizabeth's royal chambers upstairs, where the court was entertained). After the queen's death and King James' accession in 1603, the royal  company name was changed to the King's Men, and Shakespeare stayed on. In effect the acting companies functioned as professional business partnerships with the partners sharing in the risks and income.

Even though these companies were paid for performances at court, they also worked the public theater houses which had sprung up in the outskirts of London. In this entertainment district in 1599 Shakespeare and several partners built their own public theater, The Globe. Plays also could be taken on the road. Twelfth Night for instance is known to have been performed in the Middle Temple (a London law school) on 2 February 1602.

This flexibility of settings for performances is the practical reason that Shakespeare's dialogue engages in descriptive scene painting.

      Viola: What country, friend, is this?
      Captain: This is Illyria, lady.


And this lends an imaginative element to Shakespearean plays. They can be played almost anywhere that is acoustically sound. Few props or stage effects or even costumes are required.

Nor is there much attempt to present any overpowering illusion  or verisimilitude: the audience remains aware throughout a Shakespearean play that the actors are acting. Note for example in Twelfth Night the use of soliloquy, prologue, epilogue, aside and direct address by the players to the audience. These are reminders to the spectators that they are watching a play. (Recall these illusion-breaking techniques from the morality, Mankind in Lesson 12.) Viewers therefore recognize and can appreciate the artistry of the actors. 

It was in this context of Elizabethan bare stages that the star system was born in the entertainment industry. Whatever else Twelfth Night may be, it is a wonderful collection of roles for a troupe of talented performers. Olivia, Feste, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Malvolio are significant roles involving a range of emotion, challenging the actor to show his or her stuff. Ahead of them at the top of the bill, Viola  demands the child actor to show his and her stuff! The fad in London playhouses when Twelfth Night was written was performance by children, and Shakespeare surpasses convention with the complexity of Viola.

Left: Malvolio discovers Maria's letter while Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek observe in Branagh's Twelfth Night.















Below: interior of the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.


See Dr. G's A Shakespeare Timeline and Shakespeare Play Chart

Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman (1620)

Haec-Vir; or, The Womanish Man (1620)

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Theater related websites

Shakespeare's Globe Online

"The Elizabethan Theatre": a lecture with slides

Royal Shakespeare Company: Exploring Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre 3D Model

Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival

Stratford Connecticut Shakespeare Festival

You can catch a trailer preview of the Trevor Nunn film at Barnes & Noble: http://video.barnesandnoble.com/search/product.asp?z=y&EAN=14381135626

A wild online student production from Stanford is also available, but the students' sound and camera quality are weak.
The Stanford Shakespeare Society
2 hr 7 min 9 sec - Aug 1, 2005

If you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

 Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess.