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Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: A Reflection of Renaissance

written by: Peter Boysen • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 2/19/2014

Is Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" a reflection of Renaissance culture and thought? Challenge your students with the ideas and activities in this article.

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    What's in a Name?

    One way in which we can consider Twelfth Night a reflection of Renaissance mores comes from the very name of the play itself. Twelfth Night by Shakespeare "Twelfth Night" was one of the more colorful of the Renaissance holidays -- the last of the "twelve days of Christmas." On this day, all of the roles that people were expected to fill in the social order were suspended -- even the rights of nobility. This might not seem like much of a holiday in our own time, but in the centuries when serfdom was the order of the day, and peasants lived generation after generation tied to the same plot of land, the virtual property of the landowner, this was a night that the downtrodden cherished.

    This subversion of roles makes several appearances in the plot of the play. Malvolio is a servant in Olivia's house, and he has developed a reputation for being foolishly proud and domineering over those few under his command. His open contempt for the ideas behind the Twelfth Night holiday brings him into the crosshairs of Maria and Sir Toby, who start a campaign to convince Malvolio that his mistress Olivia wants to become his lover -- and even his wife, a prospect unheard-of in Shakespeare's time.

    Another way in which roles change is in the bending of gender. When Viola comes ashore and needs work, she disguises herself as Cesario, and finds work in Orsino's home. Viola starts falling for Orsino, who also seems to be falling for her -- but in the guise of Cesario. Meanwhile, Olivia falls in love with "Cesario," creating an extremely complex love triangle.

    Here are some questions that you can ask your students regarding these ideas:

    1. What holiday do we celebrate that is most similar to Twelfth Night?

    2. Do we need a holiday that is more exactly like Twelfth Night? What would we call it? Why do we need it?

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    Unrequited Love

    If you are going to declare Twelfth Night a reflection of Renaissance ideas, you will also want to include the presence of unrequited love. A common conceit in Renaissance drama, unrequited love served as the central conflict for many of the plays written before, during and after the time of Shakespeare.

    Many of Shakespeare's romantic comedies feature love that certainly has a hard time finding resolution. Think about Much Ado About Nothing, for example. There are two couples that end up together in that play: Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero. Benedick and Beatrice are self-affirmed single people that have both declared there is no such thing as true love, and they have no interest in finding a lifelong mate. Claudio and Hero are a traditional couple, but the villain Don John makes Claudio believe that Hero has been unfaithful. As one might expect, Benedick's heart softens just in time for Beatrice to be able to urge him to clear Hero's name if he wants Beatrice's hand. Everything works out, just in time for a double marriage at the play's end.

    Twelfth Night has an even stickier situation, as is detailed above. And while the formulaic happy ending often plays out, it doesn't work that way for everyone this time. Malvolio is still despised and alone at the play's end. Antonio's feelings for Sebastian never receive satisfaction. Orsino and Viola ("Cesario") end up marrying, and Olivia and Sebastian end up together as well -- but Olivia had only proposed to Sebastian, because she thought he looked like Cesario (she had fallen in love with Viola's disguise).

    Here are some questions that you can ask your students regarding these ideas:

    1. What is it about us as people that makes us treasure happy endings? Why do so many romantic stories end this way?

    2. Why do so many romantic stories end at the wedding?

    3. What is a movie you have seen that is similar to Twelfth Night in terms of plot and theme? Compare and contrast the two.