GCSE Twelfth Night

GCSE Prose Analysis – Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare 

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, Viola and Malvolio in the garden, Act 2 Scene 2

What is Twelfth Night about?  

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.  

What are the major themes of Twelfth Night?  

Uncertainty of gender  

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.  

Important quotes on the theme of the uncertainty of gender  

  • Sir Toby Belch: ‘’Go, Sir Andrew. Scout me for him at the corner the orchard like a bum-baily. So soon as ever thou seest him, draw, and as thou draw’st, swear horrible; for it comes to pass oft that a terrible oath, with a swaggering accent sharply twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever proof itself would have earned him. Away!’’ (Act 3 Scene 4) 
  • Olivia: ‘’Blame not this haste of mine. If you mean well,Now go with me and with this holy man Into the chantry by. There, before him And underneath that consecrated roof, Plight me the full assurance of your faith’’ (Act 4 Scene 3) 
  • Malvolio: ‘’Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy—as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a cooling when ’tis almost an apple. ‘Tiswith him in standing water, between boy and man. (Act 1 Scene 5) 
  • Orsino: Then let thy love be younger than thyself, Or thy affection cannot hold the bent. For women are as roses, whose fair flower, Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour. (Act 2 Scene 4) 

Love and suffering 

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.  

Important quotes on the theme of love and suffering:  

  • Olivia: Even so quickly may one catch the plague? (Act 1 Scene 5)  
  • Viola: “My state is desperate for my master’s love” (Act 2 Scene 2).  
  • Orsino: ‘’If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it; that surfeiting / That appetite may sicken and die.’’ (Act 1 Scene 1) 
  • Feste: What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter / Present mirth hath present laughter/ What’s to come is still unsure / In delay there lies no plenty’’ (Act 2 Scene 3) 

Disguise and deception  

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.  

Important quotes on disguise and deception: 

  • Viola: I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers, too—and yet I know not. (Act 2 Scene 4) 
  • Sebastian: I never had a brother … I had a sister … Of charity, what kin are you to me? (Act 5 Scene 1) 
  • Orsino: Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou never shouldst love woman like to me. (Act 5 Scene 1)  
  • Feste: Well, I’ll put it on and I will dissemble myself in’t / and I would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown’’ (Act 4 Scene 2) 
Scene from Twelfth Night where everyone is in the bar drinking Ale.

Twelfth Night Essay Topics:  

  1. How is romantic love presented in the play? What messages might Shakespeare be creating about romantic love?  
  2. Twelfth Night is based on mistaken identities and the subversion of gender. How do these mistaken identities and disguises add to plot development in the play?  
  3. The play is named after a holiday where everything is turned upside down and distorted. What are the ways in which things are similarly turned upside down in Illyria? 
  4. Compare the subplot of Sir Andrew and Malvolio’s love interests, to that of the main romantic plots 
  5. Disguise is a central theme to Twelfth Night. Which characters are in disguise and why is this thematically important? 
  6. Malvolio’s transformation is one of the most complex in the play. From a stiff puritan at the start, to dressed in yellow garters attempting to romanticise Olivia to then be locked away and confined at the end of the play, what might Malvolio represent and how is the audience made to feel towards him throughout the play? 
  7. Consider the different ways love is shown by characters. Which types of these love relationships are more selfish and which are more selfless? What statement is Shakespeare making about human interaction? 
  8. Assess the different types of madness found in characters throughout the play. What is Shakespeare saying about human nature through these characters? 
  9. Explain Viola’s motive for disguising herself as Cesario and discuss how this affects both herself and other characters. Refer to social and historical context in your response.  
  10. Orsino is presented as an inexperienced lover and unbeknownst to him, is being educated about love by a woman. Why is this irony important to his own character and the play’s themes of gender, sexuality and deception? 
  11. Discuss Twelfth Night as a comedy referencing the whole play  

Twelfth Night resources 

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  

Which Exam Boards have Twelfth Night as a set text for GCSE English Literature?  

Edexcel is the only exam board to have Twelfth Night as one of its Shakespeare plays. 

How to get a 9 with your Twelfth Night Set Text 

Show understanding of the context of the novel 

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.  

Ideas always need to be supported by textual evidence with insightful and thoughtful analysis  

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.  

Write in good English  

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.

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