English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   




Link Library




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




***  19. Twelfth Night, part 2  ***



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

Online versions of the play appear at



The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings or make notes you will find useful on the final essay. Some other journaling ideas for today include:

How does the play help us to recognize folly? Is there a wisdom that comes from this recognition?

What is your favorite scene in the play? What is especially good about it?

How does Twelfth Night compare to modern television situation comedy?

What would the Queen have liked about this play?









See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.

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

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is named for the holiday twelfth night, which is the twelfth day of Christmas and the feast of the Epiphany. This event celebrates the homage to the infant Jesus of the three wise men, the Magi as recorded in Luke's gospel. In medieval times, this holiday sometimes was associated with the mid-winter Feast of Fools, in which hierarchical authority was flouted and general merrymaking was licensed in the darkest time of year.

The world turned upside down spirit of celebration appears everywhere in the fooling and madness of Twelfth Night but perhaps most famously in the challenge of drunken Sir Toby Belch to the sanctimonious steward Malvolio, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, / there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (2.3.90). As a mere servant Malvolio is unable to control the rowdy household disrupted by his social superiors and the fool, so to the mistress of the house, Olivia, he complains, which leads the revelers' retaliation against him. A forged letter leads him to believe that Olivia wants him to marry her.

Shakespearean lovers are always foolish in love, but the puritanical servant, who expects everyone to go to bed early and sober, is a lover only of power. Olivia's apparent proposition interests him insofar as it is the means to become Count Malvolio, and so to gain dominance over Olivia, Toby, and the fool.

Lacking self-awareness that his judgment is clouded by ambition, Malvolio is easily duped by the forged love letter. When he learns that he has been made a fool by the hoax, he is unable to find any fault in himself, or to laugh and become reconciled to those who have tricked him. This separates him from the play's true lovers, who come to understand and accept their foolishness. Mistaken identity is thus not only a plot device which drives the play's main action; it is also a theme which in its variety of instances highlights the play's core meaning.







 Left: Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch (cir. 1490, Louvre Museum) captures the spirit of the medieval feast of fools.




Today we might call it Mardi Gras or carnival, a time that celebrates what it makes fun of. The foolishness of erotic desire is mocked in Orsino, who self-indulgently pines for Olivia, without knowing from a distance who she is. Olivia is similarly deceived in courting a boy who we understand to be a cross-dressed woman. Viola, the third side of the triangle, knows the object of her desire but pretends to him to be other than she is. Courtship turns to married love when delusions are exposed and real identities are revealed. However, it is the fantasy of the courtship that gets laughs, so this is the focus of the comedy.

The common enemies of carnival, sadness and sobriety, are very much present throughout the play. Shakespeare makes the audience aware of sadness of all of the major figures: Viola, Orsino, Olivia, Sebastian, Feste, Toby, and of course Malvolio. Always, however, unhappiness is shown in a detached perspective. Viola's brother is not dead, nor is Sebastian's sister. Olivia's brother is dead but prolonged mourning is only a disguise that she puts on to keep undesired suitors from bothering her. Orsino cultivates melancholy so that his mistress will pity him, but the strategy doesn't work. Malvolio's unhappiness with his station in society is a product of personal arrogance.

Though the comic wins out over the tragic in Twelfth Night, frequent reference is made to both the brevity of life and the propriety of seizing the day. It is Epiphany, but it is also mid-winter. Shakespeare in this play commences the mixing of light and dark that will be characteristic of his later work.

Left: famed Shakespearean actress Judi Dench plays Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Part of Shakespeare's job, like Chaucer's, was to make the monarch laugh. When dour James made this strategy obsolete in 1603, Shakespeare turned to tragedy and tragi-comedy to meet satisfy the new emotional needs at court.




The personification of the feast of fools is of course Feste. Wherever he goes, the fool confronts sadness with jokes, riddles, chop-logic, and songs, and he is mostly successful at his job. He has been away from Olivia's household until the start of the play. Malvolio would keep Feste away, but Feste instead puts Malvolio away, at least temporarily. Later the fool appears at Orsino's and finally he meets with Sebastian so that the stage is set for the joyous conclusion that brings all the strands of the plot together.

The songs of Feste running through the play deserve attention for their lyric brilliance and musicality. The companion CD to our textbook, if you have it, pairs Orsino’s melancholy opening speech with Purcell and Heveningham’s far more celebratory song “If music be the food of love, play on,” illustrating how British musical tradition continued to play on, and even against, Shakespeare’s poetry.

Of Clowns and Kings

Twelfth Night illustrates the idealized "golden" world of poetry acclaimed by Sir Philip Sidney (Lesson 15). But The Defense of Poesy ridiculed traditional native drama for indecorously mingling high and low matters, serious and humorous characters, and for shifting settings and times (Lesson 15). The playwrights of ancient Greece and Rome did not make these mistakes, Sidney noted.

Twelfth Night plainly continues native tradition in its blends of characters, tones, and settings, its shifts of scene, and the time passage of the story (three months), and its anachronisms (e.g., reference both to Jove and to Puritanism). Yet our editors' statement that "Shakespeare . . . was not classically inclined" (Damrosch 1273) is nonsense. Twelfth Night is Shakespeare's remake of The Comedy of Errors, which was young Shakespeare's imitation of The Brothers Menaechmus, an ancient Roman comedy. Twelfth Night is full of classical allusions, especially to Homer's Odyssey, where a drowned hero returns home to the Illyria area to find his wife beset with unwanted suitors. At the time of Twelfth Night's composition, the Odyssey was being translated for the first time into English by Shakespeare's acquaintance George Chapman. Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, and Hamlet are are all influenced by the new interest in Troy.

What makes Shakespeare's plays unique is not that his personal imagination was so active that he did not need literary models as bases for his  composition. He knew and held present in his mind all kinds of literature--ancient, medieval and contemporary-- from which he so skillfully combined features as to seem entirely original. Even the old morality play (Lesson 12) is present in Twelfth Night, with Feste the Vice and Malvolio the Virtue--or should it be the other way around?


Left: Feste from contemporary artist John Link's Shakespeare paintings.




Elizabethan Theater from Bartleby

Internet MetaSites for Shakespeare

Terry Gray's Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet

Sites on Shakespeare and the Renaissance

Electronic Shakespeare: Sources for Researchers

Internet Shakespeare Editions (U Victoria)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (MIT)

Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Shakespeare

Early Modern Literary Studies (scholarship)

Teachers First (simple guides)

Shakespeare and Other Writers (source texts)

Official Site of the Royal Shakespeare Company 

Twelfth Night


Internet Shakespeare Editions: Twelfth Night



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.