Don’t know where to begin with your study of Twelfth Night for AS & A2? Or worried you’re running out of time? Fear not – we’ve come up with a great tip sheet to help you get your bearings.
Below are some of the most useful and important things to consider when studying this text. From language to context; themes to essay writing skills, we’ve got it covered to help you get the best grade for you!
As with any text, it is necessary to read Twelfth Night, in the first instance.
It’s simple: the better you know the text, the easier you will find it to quote from, reference and remember.
Remember, though, that Twelfth Night was written to be performed! At first glance, Shakespearean humour can seem alien to modern audiences. Do yourself and Shakespeare a favour and go and see the play acted in front of you! It will help your understanding of the play, as the actors and the staging bring to life the puns, innuendos and other comedic devices!
So, whether it’s in the West End or a local performance, try and see at least one live production.
With Twelfth Night regarded as Shakespeare’s last comedy, it helps to know why, where and how the humour is generated.
When tackling language, it can be helpful to think about who is saying it and why. We are much more likely to have puns and wordplay from Feste and Viola, double-entendres and innuendos from Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and sharp satire, irony and wit used in scenes with Malvolio and those complicit in the plot against him!
REMEMBER: The idea is not to understand absolutely everything you read, but to focus on key passages and the way that the play is written.
Make your essay as easy to follow and engaging as you can by signposting your ideas.
There are many phrases you can use to guide the examiner through your argument, such as: ‘On the other hand …’; ‘This idea is explored by …’; ‘It is important to mention/remember that …’; ‘There is one other factor to consider …’; ‘Conversely …’; ‘One could argue that …’
REMEMBER: Always keep the essay title in mind! After each paragraph, ask yourself, ‘Does this answer the question?’
It is tempting to make a good point as quickly as possible, but you risk ‘overpacking’ your sentences and paragraphs. Don’t rush: unpack your argument. Take it step-by-step to clarify and refine your argument. There’s nothing more frustrating than a good point made badly – it can take the punch out of your essay!
The key to not overpacking your answer is – surprise, surprise – planning effectively before you begin your response! Check out the Essay wizard and Essay plans in the Revise section of our online guide for tips and guidance on writing your way to a great grade!
Taking a thematic approach to Twelfth Night will really help you to unlock the plot and characters, as well as to make interesting and imaginative contextual inferences. The title gives us a clue to some of the central themes.
Remember, the play’s full title is Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The double title reflects the theme of doubling in the play (twins, double identities, double plot). The word ‘will’ reveals a link to the theme of puns and the subjectivity of language. Consider the number of ways in which we can interpret the word ‘will’.
Does it refer to the will of the individual – the idea of new possibilities and identities (Viola as Cesario; Olivia as wife; Malvolio as count)? Or perhaps, should we consider ‘will’ to mean ‘desire’, i.e. what do you want? This links to the themes of Excess embodied by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and points to its opposite in the form of puritanical Malvolio.
Twelfth Night is essentially made up of two plots: the main plot involving the twins, Olivia and Orsino, and the sub-plot around the ‘gulling’ of Malvolio. Think about how these plots contrast with one another and the interplay between them.
Think about the role of juxtaposition and the effect of such a technique. How does the double plot structure link to both the themes of Twelfth Night and the effect of the comedy? How does it create dramatic irony?
Also consider how this play compares to Shakespeare’s other comedies, for example, As You Like It and The Comedy of Errors. Are there any prevalent motifs or tropes across these comedies? What does this tell us about the way that Shakespeare structures his comedies?
REMEMBER: To get a high grade, consider the way in which the structure of Shakespeare’s comedies evokes particular audience responses.
Whether you use psychoanalytic theory or you apply a feminist reading to the play, make sure you are aware of the critical debates that surround Twelfth Night.
Try and group together different critical perspectives on Twelfth Night – perhaps using a spider-diagram to organise the different opinions for each school of thought!
REMEMBER: Literary criticism can be used to bolster your argument as well as providing something to argue against! Be brave and argue well!
Do not forget that Twelfth Night is a play, and therefore designed to be watched. Theatre reviews and critics are crucial when examining the play in performance.
Articles, reviews and interviews with actors and directors are readily available on the internet. Don’t just opt for the big West End performances – why not scour local or regional newspapers for reviews of fringe productions?
This approach should give you an idea of how twenty-first-century audiences are reacting to Twelfth Night, and reveal any trends in the staging of Shakespeare’s comedies today!
Knowing the context of the play is key to understanding the presentation of important characters.
For example, look at puritanical Malvolio – why is he treated with such contempt by the other characters? What was going on in England and Europe at this time?
But don’t just assume that Shakespeare followed the rules! Ask yourself whether Twelfth Night follows theatrical and societal tradition, or whether this play pushes the boundaries.
Do you think that Twelfth Night subverts rather than reinforces the values of Shakespeare’s age? To what end?
Twelfth Night lends itself extremely well to imaginative comparisons with other texts. Below are some of the main themes of Twelfth Night and the texts that could be studied alongside it:
✓ Gender and transformation: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
✓ Love and obsession: Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love
✓ Art as artefact/language vs reality: John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
✓ You could also draw parallels between Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Twelfth Night in terms of genre, characters and the themes of language, identity, narcissism and desire.
REMEMBER: Don’t shoehorn contextual references in to an argument – only mention them if they are relevant to your essay title and mark scheme!