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Twelfth Night

Secondary School Shakespeare Festival

Did You Know?


Historically, from a religious perspective, Twelfth Night was the time the three kings brought gifts to the infant Jesus after his birth. In the years that followed, much of the religious connotation was lost, but the idea of gift-giving remained.


By Shakespeare’s time, Twelfth Night ended the winter festival and the celebration of the 12 days of Christmas. The first day of Christmas was December 25, and the twelfth night following was January 6. It was a time of feasting and revelry. A “Lord of Misrule” was randomly selected and the carefully maintained “world” was turned upside-down when this person was elevated above his superiors and made “king” for the night. Rules of conduct were suspended, and confusion reigned.


Religious reformers attempted to end celebrations like Twelfth Night. The character of Malvolio is sometimes thought to represent the puritans and their work against the theatre. The idea of “misrule” is echoed by the disorderly revelry presided over by Sir Toby Belch.


"If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On"


Music is an important part of Twelfth Night. Characters use music differently, mainly to communicate something that is important to them.  This tells us about the character and also shows how versatile music can be.

Orsino uses music to suppress his lovesickness, calling it “food” that can cause his appetite to “sicken and so die” (1.1.1-3). When he finds a song that fits his yearnings, he listens to it over and over (2.4.1-3). He surrounds himself with music so much that Olivia associates his wooing with music, calling it a tune that is “fat and fulsome to [her] ear” (5.1.109-111). Sir Andrew and Sir Toby use music as entertainment, again reinforcing their pure love of fun and lack of seriousness (2.3.30-31).


Feste, the clown, uses some music as entertainment, but mostly to open his audiences’ eyes to truths they have missed or ignored. He sings a few lines of a song to Malvolio to remind Malvolio that Olivia loves another. Malvolio interrupts Feste several times by calling him a fool, but it is Malvolio’s foolishness that prevents him from seeing the truth (4.2.73-80). Feste also sings the last song of the play about learning how harsh life can be, countering the play’s happy ending (5.1.385-404).

Can you name other moments where music is used in this play?


Notable Quotables. Discuss the following as a class or individually:

•  What do you learn about Malvolio from these lines?

A. Marry sir, sometimes he is a kind of puritan.
B. Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, that there should be no more cakes and ale?
C. You know he brought me out o’ favor with my lady about a bearbaiting here.
D. Oh, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite.
F.  Go, hang yourselves all! you are idle shallow
things: I am not of your element.
G. He is sure possessed, madam.


•  Who says these lines? What do the words tell you about the characters?

A. Be not afraid of greatness.
B. Above my fortunes, yet my state is well. I am a gentleman.
C. My purpose is indeed a horse of that color.
D. Confine? I’ll confine myself no finer than I am.
E. Why this is very midsummer madness!


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