Twelfth Night – Planning Overview

Written by Dan

Last updated

Whether teaching William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night for the first time or simply looking for a new and creative approach, taking on one of The Bard’s great masterworks can be unsafe. But fear not! With our handy planning overview, we’ll ensure your experience is productive and enjoyable.

From setting realistic expectations to finding inspiration and resources that appeal specifically to students – we’ll provide an easy-to-follow guide on how to get the most out of this timeless comedic classic. So gather your troop of eager learners as it’s time to start embarking on an incredible journey through Shakespeare’s adventures in Illyria!

Twelfth Night – Breakdown

Act I

Act I begins with a shipwreck separating Viola and Sebastian, who are twins. Viola then assumes the disguise of a man named Cesario and serves under Duke Orsino. The Duke has been pining for Olivia, who is still mourning her brother’s death.

Act II

In Act II, Viola (as Cesario) is sent to woo Olivia on behalf of Orsino. This time, however, Olivia falls in love with Cesario, not realizing it is Viola in disguise. Antonio, who saved Sebastian from the shipwreck and wants to help him in any way possible, gets into an altercation with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, leading them to attempt to challenge him to a duel.


In Act III, Sebastian eventually arrives at Olivia’s house despite all the chaos created in Act II. He does not realize his twin sister Viola is also present as Cesario. Finally, Sebastian meets up with Antonio, and they decide to have lunch together since Antonio wants to take care of him due to saving him from the sinking ship earlier. Meanwhile, at Olivia’s house, she still believes that Cesario is a man and expresses her sorrow for losing her true love (Cesario/Viola).

Act IV

Act IV starts with Malvolio trying to impress Olivia by wearing yellow stockings and crossing his legs excessively happy while presenting himself at one of her parties, resulting in mockery from Sir Toby Belch and his friends Maria, Fabian and Feste who plan a trick involving fake letters supposedly written by Olivia telling Malvolio how he should act when around her for her approval towards him.

Shortly after this scene takes place, Feste takes Viola’s identity away, revealing that she is a woman, as well as introducing her brother Sebastian whom she did not know made it out alive from the shipwreck back in act I making them both believe they were orphans throughout this entire play only now realizing they were siblings all along.

Act V

The finale of this Shakespearean romantic comedy concludes in act V, where marriages between characters take place, such as Duke Orsino marrying Viola; Maria marrying Sir Toby Belch; lastly but most importantly, separating Sebastian from Countess Olivia due to their wedding being declared invalidated due to lack of consent prior marriage as if Sebastian twin sister was going against what he wanted that would ultimately create an incestuous relationship between both siblings something which most likely will never happen again since everyone reunited now knows who each other indeed are.

Key Themes of Twelfth Night

Disguise and Deception

Disguise and deception play an essential role throughout the story, with the main characters using them to create various comedic moments. Viola disguises herself as a man, while Maria and Sir Toby Belch write a fake love letter to Malvolio to trick him. These deceptive tactics often result in helping certain characters mend broken relationships or win the attention of someone they have been in pursuit of.

Love and Relationship

Love is another strong theme explored through various relationships between different characters. Duke Orsino is willing to do anything to pursue his love for Olivia, while Olivia falls for Cesario (Viola). Meanwhile, Malvolio has a hilarious encounter when he attempts to gain favour from Olivia by wearing yellow stockings and crossing his legs excessively happy.

Lastly, we have Sebastian, who finds himself being married off to countess Olivia without even realizing it was Viola (his twin sister) the entire time whom he had been speaking to during these conversations making this relationship seem incestuous at first, only now being saved by Feste’s timely revelation exposing both twins real identities before anything goes too far between them.


The use of disguise presents an opportunity for some characters on their path of self-discovery. By taking on a new identity, Cesario/Viola learns what it feels like to take charge and make difficult decisions as a man who helps solidify her character development throughout the story.

Similarly, Malvolio’s decision to try and win over Olivia in such an embarrassing way reflects very poorly on him. Still, it serves as an eye opener towards how not to try to find love or be accepted into someone else’s life/heart/circle etc.

Key Characters of Twelfth Night


Viola is a young woman separated from her twin brother due to a shipwreck. She disguises herself as a man named Cesario and serves under Duke Orsino to learn more about the object of his affection, Olivia. Through this journey, she discovers more about herself and her identity than she could ever have imagined.

Duke Orsino

Duke Orsino is a nobleman whose heart lies with Olivia, whom he hopes to pursue and make his beloved wife. He sends Cesario (really Viola) to woo Olivia on his behalf, unaware that she, too, is in love with the same individual he had sent off to do the task for him.


Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Viola), not knowing it is Viola instead of a man like Duke Orsino would lead her to believe. This love triangle adds another layer of comedy and drama throughout Twelfth Night as each individual must come to grips with their feelings and accept their fate regarding marriage between characters.

Sir Toby Belch & Sir Andrew Aguecheek

Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are two foolish companions who cause plenty of mischievous moments throughout Twelfth Night. They incite trouble for Malvolio by pretending to be someone else through letters, leading them into a duel against Antonio after challenging him for interfering with their plan regarding Malvolio’s embarrassment in Act III.

These characters serve more as comedic relief than anything else in this play. However, they still manage to add some tension in those few scenes they appear in due to the amount of chaos they cause whenever they decide to do something foolish or try something outrageous such as the letter-writing prank pulled off on Malvolio earlier on making them quite integral yet insignificant at times throughout this romantic Shakespearean play’s entirety.

Olivia’s Emotions for Cesario/Viola

Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who she believes is a young man, even though he is Viola in disguise. She quickly develops solid emotions for him, leading her to deny Duke Orsino and his advances. She is surprised when Viola reveals her true identity near the end of the play. Throughout the story, Olivia is unknowingly in love with her twin brother, which is a great surprise and shock to both. Her feelings for Sebastian (Viola’s twin) run so deep that she agrees to marry him after Twelfth Night because of it.

Viola’s Transformation into Cesario

In the Twelfth Night, Viola disguises herself as a male page named Cesario. Through her disguise, she can access Duke Orsino and his court. While in this disguise, she can observe matters more closely and make connections with individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have taken notice of her. This enables her to develop relationships with characters like Olivia and Orsino while acting as Cesario.

She also uses physical activities such as sword fighting to help strengthen the illusion of being a man. Eventually, though, most of the characters learn that Viola has been posing in disguise, thus bringing about the play’s denouement and allowing for her true identity to be revealed at last.

How Viola’s Transformation into Cesario Facilitates Relationships with Olivia and Orsino

Viola’s disguise as Cesario is instrumental in developing relationships with Olivia and Orsino. While disguised, she can gain entry into Duke Orsino’s court where her gender would otherwise prevent her from doing so. Her conversations with the Duke prove crucial in his understanding of love and the misdirection of his affections. Furthermore, by taking on the role of a man, she can catch Olivia’s eye and win her affection.

This leads to Olivia spurning the Duke’s advances and allows for a relationship between Viola and Olivia that would not have been possible without Cesario/Viola’s disguise. Ultimately, this facilitates a resolution near the end of the play as it allows both characters to recognize their feelings towards one another.

How Viola shapes Duke Orsino’s Understanding of Love as Cesario

His conversations with Viola significantly impact Duke Orsino’s understanding of love while she is disguised as Cesario. Through their interactions, she challenges his idea of true love and encourages him to take a more rational approach. As he sees that his idealized notion of love cannot be fulfilled in Olivia, he begins to understand that it takes more than superficial traits to form a connection with someone else.

In addition, Viola helps him realize that if he wants Olivia to appreciate him honestly, he must show her respect instead of trying to overpower her as he had done with other women. This ultimately leads Duke Orsino to accept reality and acknowledge his feelings for Viola, allowing them both to live happily ever after in the play’s resolution.

Lesson Plan for Teaching Themes in Twelfth Night


By the end of this lesson, students will be able to identify and analyze themes in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night.


Copies of Twelfth Night for each student; blank paper, pens or pencils


  1. Introduction (5 minutes): Ask students if they know William Shakespeare and how his plays represent a significant part of English culture. Explain the basic plot of Twelfth Night and ask what they think some of the main themes may be.
  2. Group Discussion (10 minutes): Divide students into small groups and have them discuss what they think some of the core themes in the play may be. Once finished, regroup and have each group share their ideas with the class. Possible themes include love, gender roles, identity, deception/masquerade, etc.
  3. Close Reading Activity (20 minutes): Have students take out their copies of Twelfth Night and assign one page or scene to each group to read together and analyze for different themes from the earlier list. After giving them 10-15 minutes to do this activity, regroup as a class to discuss their findings before moving on to the next step.
  4. Writing Activity (15 minutes): Pass out blank paper and have students brainstorm different ways these themes are explored throughout the play using specific examples from what was discussed during close reading practice earlier in class. Give them 10-15 minutes to complete this task before asking several volunteers to share their work with the rest of the course (making sure not to single out one student).
  5. Conclusion (5 minutes): Conclude by summarizing the importance of analyzing literature for its underlying themes that often connect to life experiences. Discuss how this process can help develop critical thinking skills and a deeper understanding of artistic works like Shakespeare’s plays.

Essay Exam Questions on Twelfth Night

Question 1: Describe how gender roles are challenged in Twelfth Night.

Answer: One of the main ways in which gender roles are challenged in the Twelfth Night is through the character of Viola, who disguises herself as a man, Cesario, to gain access to Orsino’s court. This challenges traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity as she successfully navigates her new identity while dealing with different social pressures.

In addition, other characters also challenge gender roles throughout the play, such as Olivia, who rebels against her father’s wishes when she refuses to marry any suitor and instead chooses Sebastian, whom she believes to be Cesario (not knowing his true identity). Finally, even Orsino overturns his traditionally masculine notions of love by choosing Viola (who he had seen as a son figure at first) over Olivia.

Question 2: How do disguise and deception affect the plot of Twelfth Night?

Answer: Disguise and deception significantly impact the plot of Twelfth Night as it helps propel the story forward. Through Viola’s disguise as Cesario, she can access Orsino’s court, which sets off a chain reaction that leads to many unexpected realizations for many characters throughout the play.

In addition, various types of deception also occur throughout, such as Malvolio assuming that Olivia loves him or Sir Toby and Maria creating a fake letter from Olivia which significantly affects Malvolio’s actions. These elements all help create an exciting plot full of twists and turns that keep readers engaged until its resolution at the end.

Question 3: What role do comic elements play in Twelfth Night?

Answer: Comic elements are essential in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. These comedic scenes provide lighthearted relief from some of the more serious themes and allow us to see certain aspects of each character’s personality that wouldn’t otherwise be revealed through their interactions with one another in more serious moments.

For example, Sir Toby Belch is often portrayed as a drunken reveller whose shenanigans provide comic relief during darker moments, like when Malvolio is locked up after being fooled by Maria’s fabricated letter from Olivia pretending to love him.

Similarly, Feste also serves a vital role since his songs and witty remarks are often used to comment on current events within Illyria, adding a layer of comedy throughout much of the play.

Question 4: What themes does Shakespeare explore through music within Twelfth Night?

Answer: Music plays a vital role throughout Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night as it serves both practical purposes like helping set or change the mood within scenes and provides insight into some recurring thematic elements present throughout, such as love, longing and heartache, death/mortality, joyousness/celebration etc.

For example, “O Mistress Mine” reflects Viola’s inner turmoil over her unrequited love for Orsino, who still pines for Olivia.

At the same time, “The Wind & The Rain” conveys Maria’s anger towards Malvolio after he scorns her joke letter from Olivia, questioning how far people will go for love if someone else’s feelings for them deceive them.

As these examples suggest, music allows us to gain greater insight into some core themes explored within Twelfth Night, providing further evidence for why it remains such an enduring work that speaks directly to modern audiences today despite its ancient origins almost 400 years ago now!

Question 5: How do society’s expectations shape individual relationships in Twelfth Night?

Answer: Society’s expectations have a strong influence on individual relationships in Shakespeare’s play twelfth Night ranging from those between family members (represented mainly through Duke Orisno’s relationship with his niece Viola) right down to those exploring romantic desires (like what happens between Viola disguised as Cesario & Duke Orisno).

Throughout, we see that due to this pressure, there exists a fear that comes with acting outside these norms, especially when considering things like a marriage where Lord Tobias acts out against traditionally accepted behaviour when he prevents his ward from marrying whomever he wishes yet allows his daughter Maria free reign when it comes finding suitors despite having no dowry, unlike most marriages during this period which would’ve been arranged by families themselves suggesting there must be more than economic reasons behind these unions!

Ultimately though, whether between friends or family, these societal expectations provide more obstacles than solutions when forming lasting connections between people providing great fodder for dramatic tension both onstage & off!

10 Most Popular Shakespeare Plays

  1. Romeo and Juliet
  2. Hamlet
  3. Macbeth
  4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  5. The Taming of the Shrew
  6. Othello
  7. King Lear
  8. Twelfth Night, or What You Will
  9. The Merchant of Venice
  10. Much Ado About Nothing*

Book Resources

Here are five books on the subject of Twelfth Night:

  1. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
  2. No Fear Twelfth Night – SparkNotes Editors
  3. Twelfth Night: Critical Essays – Susan Snyder
  4. Exploring Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – Veronica Sullivan, Tom Merriam, Nick Bruce
  5. The Cambridge Companion to Twelfth Night – Edited by Emma Smith

About The Author

I'm Dan Higgins, one of the faces behind The Teaching Couple. With 15 years in the education sector and a decade as a teacher, I've witnessed the highs and lows of school life. Over the years, my passion for supporting fellow teachers and making school more bearable has grown. The Teaching Couple is my platform to share strategies, tips, and insights from my journey. Together, we can shape a better school experience for all.






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