Head NoteEdit

The extract this project will endeavour to research, understand and present in a way that may makes the context the language of Shakespeare less formidable is from Act 1, Scene 5, lines 509 to 567 of Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is based on the short story of Apollonius and Silla by Barnabe Riche and was first performed around 1600-1 (Bevington 11,12). The first place we know of it being performed is on February 2, 1602 at Middle Temple which was a place famed for giving plays that ridiculed the government.  The plot of the play is structured around a woman whose recluse and passive nature are among her chief characteristics and her household. Its appearance towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth, whose reign had grown progressively more repressive, and its appearance within the month of the first anniversary of the execution of Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex, Twelfth Night demonstrates the anxieties of this time (Hamilton).

Something else occurring at the time was a massive change in the social hierarchy. The middle class was rising and it was no longer necessary to be born a peer in order to gain wealth and position (Stephenson).

Mish mash

Shakespeare’s language very often comes across as complicated which is because he used a vocabulary double that of any other English writing authors (Bevington 4).

In this scene, Viola (dressed as Cesario) attempts to convey the love of the Duke, Orsino, to Olivia and convince her to be his bride. Viola at one point even claims to not understand why Olivia does not love Orsino in return:

Viola “In your denial I would find no sense;

   I would not understand it” (1.5 253-6)

This is a reminder that Viola is a woman. She suggests that she can’t understand how a woman could not love Orsino.

The conflict of a transvestite character might have been used as a sort of comedic device, it reminds the audience that no matter how good the disguise is, Cesario is Viola. In the original context this would have meant a man playing a woman who was playing a man and the confusion may add to the comedy.  It is possible that the cross-dressing also allows the play to suggest things that were not approved of in Elizabethan times such as same sex relations. Viola as Cesario’s love for Orsino would have been deemed wrong but as Cesario is woman in drag, this can be read as acceptable and may also be why we have little reminders of Viola’s true gender.  It has also been suggested that the illusion of a man playing a woman playing a man is part of an illusion play-goers expected when attending the plays and as Shakespeare intended his plays for entertainment purposes (Greenblatt 1) this kind of ruse would have been enjoyed by his audiences.

Leaving the comedic element behind, the women of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly the cross dressing ones, show this undeniable strength in times of distress, Viola is shipwrecked and almost instantly finds a way to get work and make herself useful, yet the only way she can accomplish this is as a man. At the time of the play in England women had no authority and no respect afforded them but this was at odds with the fact that Queen Elizabeth sat on the throne. Shakespeare offers a type of freedom for women but only in dire circumstances (Greenblatt, p. 60) and only if they give up their feminine identity., though as Maslen states “disguise is an escape from powerlessness” (197).

Annotations: Edit

Give us the place alone: we will hear this divinity.

Exeunt MARIA and Attendants

Now, sir, what is your text?


Most sweet lady,--


A comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it. Where lies your text?


In Orsino's bosom.


In his bosom! In what chapter of his bosom?


To answer by the method, in the first of his heart.


O, I have read it: it is heresy1. Have you no more to say?   


Good madam, let me see your face.


Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate with my face? You are now out of your text: but we will draw the curtain and show you the picture. Look you, sir, such a one I was this present: is't not well done?



Excellently done, if God did all.


'Tis in grain, sir; 'twill endure wind and weather.


'Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white Nature's own sweet and cunning hand laid on: Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive, If you will lead these graces to the grave And leave the world no copy.


O, sir, I will not be so hard-hearted; I will give out divers2 schedules of my beauty: it shall be inventoried3, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will: as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth. Were you sent hither to praise me?


I see you what you are, you are too proud; But, if you were the devil, you are fair. My lord and master loves you: O, such love Could be but recompensed4, though you were crown'd The nonpareil5 of beauty!


How does he love me?


With adorations, fertile tears, With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire.


Your lord does know my mind; I cannot love him: Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble, Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth; In voices well divulged6, free, learn'd and valiant; And in dimension7 and the shape of nature A gracious person: but yet I cannot love him; He might have took his answer long ago.


If I did love you in my master's flame, With such a suffering, such a deadly life, In your denial I would find no sense; I would not understand it.


Why, what would you?


Make me a willow cabin at your gate, And call upon my soul within the house; Write loyal cantons8 of contemned love And sing them loud even in the dead of night; Halloo9 your name to the reverberate hills And make the babbling gossip of the air Cry out 'Olivia!' O, You should not rest Between the elements of air and earth, But you should pity me!

1.       Belief contrary to orthodox religious doctrine





2.       Of various types

3.       Listed

4.       To make amends for loss


5.       No match/ equal

 6.       Telling of private information


7.       A measurable extent of a particular kind

 8.       Subdivision of a country


9. Noise made to attract attention

2014 Tony Awards Show Clip Twelfth Night01:37

2014 Tony Awards Show Clip Twelfth Night

Olivia and Viola/Cesario

Sample Questions and Answers Edit

- How does Shakespeare use humour and dramatic irony in the extract?

Shakespeare uses humour to lighten the mood in this extract – Olivia frets over whether or not Orsino loves her, while Cesario (Viola in disguise) reassures her. This would have been quite a comedic scene in Shakespearean times, as the audience would have been aware of Cesario’s true identity. This is also a good example of dramatic irony within the extract. There are no characters that know that Cesario is actually Viola, apart from Viola herself. The audience, however, has followed Viola’s journey up to this point and they know Viola’s romantic feelings towards Orsino. We are aware of the significance of Viola’s/Cesario’s actions, but Olivia is not. 

- What does the extract tell us about the societal conventions of Shakespeare’s time/attitudes towards women (re: female characters played by men)?

Up until 1660, female theatrical characters were played exclusively by young boys and men. When reading this extract, the societal attitudes of this time towards women become clear. Olivia is depicted as a somewhat shallow woman who is only concerned about the love of Orsino. Although we know that Cesario is actually Viola, in this scene, it is for all intents and purposes a man who reassures Olivia of her beauty. It is only when a ‘man’ confirms her beauty that Olivia is placated. There is little value placed on women in this extract and they are depicted as emotionally erratic and self-obsessed. 

- Is this extract a good example of Shakespearean meta-theatre? Why/why not?

In this extract, we see an excellent example of Shakespearean meta-theatre. There is a clearly romantic atmosphere here as Olivia and Cesario/Viola interact with each other, with Cesario praising Olivia’s beauty. There are many different layers to this scene, each of which the audience would have been aware of. At its foundation, this scene would have featured two male actors interacting with each other. One of the actors would have been dressed as a female, while the other would have been dressed as a female, who is in turn dressed as a male. It is almost as if the story of the play does not take precedence in this scene – rather, the different meta-theatrical levels of the scene are emphasised. 

- Does the extract tell us more about relationships between women or between women and men?

While both kinds of relationships are explored in this scene, the relationships between women are placed to the forefront. Ostensibly, we see a female character and a male character interacting with each other. However, Viola uses her sense of empathy to calm Olivia and also tell her what she wants to hear. Viola appears to relate well to Olivia, and is well aware of her love for Orsino. The extract depicts the relationships between women positively. Viola’s romantic feelings for Orsino are developing at this stage of the play, but instead of trying to discourage Olivia from loving Orsino, she puts emphasis on Orsino’s love for Olivia. There is no spiteful scheming from Viola but instead support and encouragement. 

- When adapted to a modern setting, is anything about the story lost?

In modern day versions of the play, some of the more comedic scenes can be underdeveloped or cut out altogether. When producing a modern version of the play, it is important that the humour featured in this particular scene is preserved. Some adaptations (such as Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film) can focus more on the cinematic and dramatic sides of the play rather than focusing on the comedic side. 

- How could you perform it to an audience of today?  

The excerpt could be performed in either a comedic way or a serious way depending on your own interpretation, an audience of today would enjoy either of these performances. Today the props we have available could enhance the scene and aid the message you are trying to give to the audience.Staging could be how it was when the play was originally written or it could be done in a more modern setting depending on how you want the audience to react and what you want them to take from it. The tone and actions used by the actors could be used in a dramatic fashion to get laughter from the audience or subtle and serious tones to get the seriousness across. 

- How has the language Shakespeare used changed?  

The language Shakespeare used in his plays has changed in today’s language. He might have used a word that in the context of the scene made perfect sense but read today it would not make sense to us. Over time the meaning of plays themselves has changed along with the language and context of words. This shows us that language, like most things develop and change over time and it will continue to change for many years to come. 

- In what ways has the performance changed?

The original performances of this extract were performed only with men and boys. Younger boys would be employed to play the women of the play, over the top costumes and make up were worn to distinguish who were women and who were not. This also helped delude the audience into thinking these men were actually women, sexuality was an almost giddy and exciting new development. These men embraced their sexuality and these aided their performance as either men or women and in this case both, it could prove difficult to play a man who is pretending to be a woman, pretending to be a man. 

- What are the characteristics of a comedic play written by Shakespeare?  

Shakespeare wrote comedies with certain themes and distinctions for us to analyse today. The defining features of a comedy are generally seen as when it ends with a marriage, or a happy ending. The themes include love and intrigue to keep us interested, the plot is ironic to us and not always clear as to keep us guessing. The tone is light and kept light through majority of the play, to elicit laughter from the audience; laughter is the key to any comedy. They almost always emphasise human goodness and how our being has decent and worthwhile characteristics. 

Suggested Further Reading Edit

- Onions, C. T., and Robert D. Eagleson. A Shakespeare Glossary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

A Shakespeare Glossary is an essential guide of Shakespeare's language for those studying at third level, as well as those involved in the performance of Shakespeare's work. The Glossary defines and explains words and phrases that appear in Shakespeare's works whose meaning may be unfamiliar to the modern reader or whose meaning may have changed over time. Colloquial phrases from Shakespeare's time of Elizabethan English are explained in an informative and user friendly style, making the interpretation and adaptation of Shakespeare's work a much easier task.

- Dunton-Dower L., and Alan Riding. Essential Shakespear'e Handbook. DK ADULT; Reprint edition, 2013

An Essential Shakespeare Handbook is a fantastic means to developing insight and understanding into Shakespeare's works. The Handbook is divided into the categories Shakespeare's works fall under, covering everything from his histories to his romantic plays. Twelfth Night can be found under the category 'comedies' within the Handbook. The book contains essays explaining each genre along with a discussion of the themes and concepts that can be found in Shakespeare's work. There is a comprehensive and detailed analysis of each individual play. This includes the inspirations for the play, a summary of each Act within the play including pertinent quotes and an annotated list of the characters and concepts to think of whilst reading the play. A wide array of pictures are provided in the Handbook pertaining to relevant locations and people.

- Dobson, Michael, and Stanley W. Wells. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare is an ideal accomplice for Third Level English students and performers alike. The Companion contains input from a group of scholars, all of whom are internationally recognised. These include Helen Vendler, American poet and literary critic and Jonathan Bate, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. This wide array of scholars provide their own observations on the life and works of William Shakespeare and how they have been interpreted in different areas of the world. All of Shakespeare's plays are discussed in more than 3,000 compact and interesting entries. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare is well illustrated with an abundance of pictures making it visually appealing and stimulating for the reader.

- Cambridge Student Guide to Twelfth Night (Cambridge Student Guides). Cambridge University Press, 2002.

The Cambridge Student Guide to Twelfth Night is specifically aimed at students of both Second and Third Level studying Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night. It was designed with the aim to guide students in developing an in-depth understanding of Twelfth Night. Readers will gain insight into the historical, social and cultural context of the play, along with a language analysis of the language used in the play. A large amount of background information is provided for the play, allowing students and performers to understand the conditions that the text was written and performed under. The reader is also given access to the different interpretations of the play, allowing them to form a well rounded response.

- Crystal, David, and Ben Crystal. Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary and Language Companion. London: Penguin, 2004.

Shakespeare's Words; A Glossary and Language Companion is an outstanding companion for the contemporary reader of Shakespeare's work. Compiled by David Crystal, British academic and author and Ben Crystal, an actor best known for his work performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Words contains an index of more than 10,000 words and phrases that can be easily misinterpreted by those reading Shakespeare today. It also covers those words that are unrecognisable to the modern reader, such as words no longer being used in contemporary society. Relevant quotes and examples of the words in use are provided throughout to aid in the reader's comprehension. Also included in Shakespeare's Words is a catalogue of all words used by Shakespeare in his plays in French, Latin, Spanish and Italian.

Works Cited Edit

Bevington, D. How to Read a Shakespeare Play. Oxford:Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Print.

Maslen, R. W. The Arden Critical Companion, Shakespeare and Comedy. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006. Print.

Oxford English dictionary.(

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. 2011. EBook.

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Norton Shakespeare: based on the Oxford edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 2nd. London New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Stephenson, Henry Thew. Life in Shakespeare's London From Shakespeare's London. New York: H. Holt, 1905. Shakespeare Online. 16 Oct. 2014. < >.

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