William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has everything a good play needs comedy, romance, jealousy, and Viola dressed as Cesario! Where to begin when it comes to getting to grips with a Shakespearean Rom-Com for GCSE? This article explains how to get the most out of Twelfth Night.
Studying Shakespeare can be overwhelming. Aside from understanding language from almost 400 years ago, there are themes to remember, quotations to memorise… So, if you find you’re struggling with Twelfth Night then don’t panic, because you’re not alone.
When it comes to revising for Twelfth Night, it is suggested that students make sure that understand the key characters and themes really well. It also helps to revisit the plot of the play before the exam. When analysing Twelfth Night it is very important to understand the context of the play, this will help to interpret the play in the correct way. Therefore, make sure you’re clued up on what was going on in the Elizabethan era.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known comedies. On the surface, the play is about the bizarre ways in which love has gone askew amongst its characters. Beneath this, the play explores the impact on such individuals and how the human spirit copes with lost love, as well as the Elizabethan social pressures of sexuality and gender roles. Whilst there is love and suffering that courses through the play, this also contributes to its comedic qualities and both emotions are the catalyst for many practical jokes, often with Shakespeare’s skilful use of dramatic irony interlaced.
A shipwreck begins the play where Viola has been separated from her brother Sebastian. She assumes he has drowned and takes on his identity in order to settle into this new strange place. Under the guise of her new identity as Cesario, she serves Duke Orsino. What follows is an entanglement of love and lust, where the major characters all suffer as a result of Viola’s disguise. Their desires are thwarted by Viola’s necessity to keep her true womanhood a secret, simultaneously burdening herself and preventing her from being true to the person she loves.
The play’s more minor characters also suffer at the hand of love and the cruelty of trickery as we see their own story’s develop in the form of sub-plots. The play dances around confusion, silliness and absurdity which makes it both comedic and reflective of the maddening effects of love and desire. In the end, the couples are aligned as the siblings are reunited and Cesario can reveal herself as Viola, bringing at last a sense of harmony to the play.
Uncertainty of gender is an important theme in the play, and central to much of the confusion. Shakespeare uses this theme to be suggestive about certain characters and their sexual curiosity, though repressed by social expectations of the time. The fact that gender is such a prominent theme in the play also tells us that though there were ‘rules’, people were not averse to the fluidity of gender. Take for example Sir Andrew, who has affections for Sebastian, or Duke Orsino who comments on Cesario’s beauty suggesting he is attracted to her, in order to demonstrate the play’s homoerotic subtext. Notwithstanding, Viola’s disguise is a symbol of the play’s transvestite qualities.
The lines are indeed blurred and Shakespeare speaks to us about the complicated, unconventional, and irrational ways of love, and the choices we can make about who we love. This theme is a powerful plot device but also helps to illuminate the intentions and more subtle feelings of the characters.
Every major and some minor character in Twelfth Night experiences a form of love and suffering. Although a comedy and the play ends in wedded bliss, the characters suffer and there is an ongoing chaos as the character’s personal circumstances are out of sorts, until the final scene. As an audience, we are constantly going from one character’s suffering to another.
Shakespeare demonstrates not only the complexities of love but how the characters play the ‘’game’’ of love. As the play progresses and the characters find themselves disappointed by love, the more their language and employed metaphors intensify. Although the play ends well for a number of characters, Malvolio and Antonio are excluded from any sense of joy. Antonio cannot express his love to Sebastian because of social norms at the time and Malvolio is socially unworthy of Olivia. It is through both characters that we are reminded of love’s exclusionary and preferential nature.
Whilst characters disguise their true affections and even deceive themselves at points, Viola’s disguise as a man is the magnet to which chaotic love consumes. Given the context of the time, Viola is safer in disguise as a man but she soon discovers it is not merely an act of concealment, but far more complicated with dangerous implications. One of the more advantageous outcomes of her disguise is that Viola can speak more freely dressed as a man, not having to follow such strict rules around etiquette and decorum.
It is worth examining this theme in detail and evaluating how true the character’s feelings are and whether they are being true to themselves. Whether Orsino’s childish approach of his love for Olivia is real and equally, whether Olivia’s melodramatic love for Cesario is real, particularly when the two characters are so quickly appeased at the end. Through this theme, Shakespeare raises the idea of how much in our own lives we play different roles.
Royal Shakespeare Company – Expertise knowledge from RSC
LitCharts – Detailed notes with every aspect of the novel covered
Spark Notes -Extensive explanations and analysis featuring important contextual information
The British Library -Excellent resource for digging deeper into Twelfth Night’s social and historical context
Edexcel is the only exam board to have Twelfth Night as one of its Shakespeare plays.
For a candidate to score the higher marks on the paper, context must be used and used as part of their explanation and analysis of the text. An example of the play’s context could be in the significance of the title and its festive nature in Shakespeare’s time, or the social rules around gender and sexuality in Shakespeare’s time which is clearly seen in the play’s characterisation. Read around your set text and ensure your contextual knowledge is robust. Ask your teacher for suggestions for further reading. Read comparative texts and any media adaptations of the play. Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted extensively and there are many fantastic adaptations that each provide you with a unique and thought-provoking interpretation.
A candidate wanting to score a 9 must be able to analyse the language with perceptive detail, as well as analysing form and structure. The candidate must interpret what the writer’s intentions are behind the language and discuss the meanings and effects of the text’s language. Correct terminology should be applied to describe any literary devices. Nuanced and thoughtful analysis will help to secure a 9, where the student will know the text in detail and be able to discuss various inferences that the language, structure, form and context poses.
Candidates should practice being able to write in a consistent critical style and all GCSE
students will need to practice this. Students should therefore aim to write as many practice essays or shorter critical pieces as possible, prior to the exam and to use this exercise to develop their core written arguments. They should write practice essays until they have clear, detailed and well-structured notes on all the main GCSE essay topics that regularly come up for the Twelfth Night.
A candidate’s sentences and overall writing needs to be expressed clearly, accurately and with a wide range of vocabulary. Meaning is clear and accurate spelling and punctuation is applied. No colloquialisms or conversational language should be used unless directly quoting from the text.