John Basil, founding member of the American Globe Theatre in New York City, directed graduate students from Penn State's School of Theatre in this production of selected scenes from William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night during Penn State's 2007 theatre season.
Jennifer Evans, Josie Gildow, and Gary Masquelier, English teachers from central Pennsylvania, wrote lesson plans based on these video segments.
In this video from Penn State's School of Theatre production of Twelfth Night, Duke Orsino, hopelessly in love with beautiful Lady Olivia, refuses to do anything and commands his servants to entertain him while he pines away for her. His servant Valentine reminds him that Olivia does not return Orsino’s affections and is mourning her dead brother. She wears a dark veil and swears that no one will see her face nor will she marry for at least seven years. Her vow to stay chaste entices Orsino more. He sulks, desiring only to lie about while dreaming of his love.
Duke Orsino is introduced in this act, and he is established as a Petrarchan lover of Lady Olivia. A Petrarchan lover is someone who puts a woman on a pedestal and never wishes to have a real relationship with her. The woman is considered unattainable (whether she is or not) and the lover revels in her rejection of him. That Shakespeare pokes fun at lovers of this kind is clear in the first scene of the first act. Orsino is pining for Lady Olivia and enjoying a verbal account of the Lady’s dismissal of his attempts at wooing her. Moreover, she has decided to stay chaste for the next seven years following the deaths of her father and brother, adding to the sweet woes of Orsino. Love is, thus, seen as capricious and based on utterly romantic ideals that are far from the truth and have nothing to do with the character of the loved one. In fact, this is one of the major themes of the play, and it is also reflected in the behavior of other characters later on.
The availability of a good singer in Shakespeare’s acting company was uncertain, so most of Shakespeare’s comedies did not include songs. Twelfth Night, however, is the exception. This is the most musical of all Shakespeare’s plays, and almost every act contains a song – usually sung by Feste, the Fool. Twelfth Night begins with music and ends with music, and music is strewn throughout the action of the play. Shakespeare often used popular tunes of the day to accompany his lyrics; at other times it is assumed that Shakespeare originated both the tune and the lyrics.
Orsino, whose name was derived from a high-ranking Spaniard when Spain and England were rivals, is wallowing in sappy self-pity. He beckons his musicians to play the most heartrending song they can muster, declaring in a famous line, “If music be the food of love, play on.” He takes his position, his unrequited love, and even himself far too seriously. The song has no name and no lyrics, but is a maudlin love song. Orsino wants to both stimulate and fuel his pain of unrequited love that he seems to enjoy so very much.
Characterization of Orsino:
If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it
How does this introduce the plot conflict and Orsino’s mood?
So full of shapes is fancy / That it alone is high fantastical
This introduces the idea that romantic love and notion so often are a product of the lover’s imagination. Fantasy or what is “fantastical or capricious” is a major theme of the play.
We’ve known Orsino for about three minutes now; what can we tell about him already?
Characterization of Olivia (Lines 25-33)
Through Valentine, we learn Olivia’s plight and chosen mourning method.
Aristotle believed the focus of comedy to be on love, marriage, and continuation of community. How does Olivia’s vow of chastity conflict with this idea?
INTRODUCTION TO Twelfth Night
DEFINITION OF COMEDY:
Twelfth Night is a very traditional comedy. Aristotle defined comedy as having common elements, such as
Theme: Caprice -- a frivolous, whimsical attitude toward life and toward love. In a very real and pervasive sense, Twelfth Night is a satire on love, at least of Petrarchan love. Petrarch in his poetry created a distance, an unworthiness, between the loved one and the lover. The female is idealized and the male should be content to worship her from afar. The man places the woman on a pedestal – an unequal relationship is implied. This makes the last characteristic of comedy, i.e. procreation, impossible. A Petrarchan lover must be taught a more reasonable, more practical attitude toward love. This is a major theme in Twelfth Night.
Disguise has been an element in western comic theatre since ancient Greece and it continues full throttle even today. Cross-dressing takes this comic element up another significant notch. Remind students that there were no female actors in Shakespeare’s day. This compounded the humor for the Elizabethan audience. Their ‘disbelief was willingly suspended’ to believe that a male actor was portraying female characters such as Olivia, Maria, and Viola. Imagine the continually humorous component when a man pretends to be a woman (Viola) who then pretends to be a man (Cesario).
CLASS ACTIVITY: Defining Key Terms
1. Distribute dictionaries to selected class members; perhaps 10 dictionaries can be placed at random seats before the class begins. Each dictionary has a slip of paper with a word on it. The students with dictionaries should look up the following words:
6. mal (prefix)
7. fest/festival (as in ”Feste”)
9. viola2. Begin the class with a definition of “Twelfth Night” (see below).
Background extraneous to the play, but pertinent to the theme.
“Twelfth Night” is a common, pedestrian name for a period in the Church calendar called Epiphany (have a student with a dictionary read both definitions of the word “epiphany”). This is the time when the Magi (a.k.a. Wise Men) brought gifts of tribute to the Holy Family after the birth of baby Jesus. In many countries, Christmas is a “High Holy Day,” commemorated with church attendance, reverence, reflection, restraint, and, above all, seriousness. Epiphany, or Twelfth Night (traditionally celebrated on January 6th), is the day designated for parties and festivities. So, one might expect Twelfth Night to be a Christmas play, to have stories or themes relevant to the birth of Jesus – but it doesn’t. Twelfth Night, the play, was actually written for a party that occurred at one of the Inns of Court in 1602, an Epiphany celebration that was apparently absolutely secular and even quite bawdy. This was a time of masques, revels, defiance of authority, and general foolishness. Basically, the title of the play, Twelfth Night, has nothing to do with the content.
That brings us to the alternate title: What You Will. The alternate title evinces an even more flippant, carefree, attitude toward the content of the play: What You Will or Call this Play Anything You Want, It Just Doesn’t Matter,even Whatever! What the alternate title indicates is that Shakespeare takes nothing seriously in this play even before the action begins, nor should we – the audience and/or reader. From the maudlin song that starts the play even before the action begins, to the final, ostensibly frivolous song that ends the play, it is all for fun.
Shakespeare actually wrote a play quite similar to Twelfth Night (or What You Will) approximately two years earlier, entitled As You Like It). The title again is irrelevant. This is another madcap comedy written just ‘as you like it.’ It also contains a savvy woman, a quipping jester, and the potential for tragedy presented in a fanciful manner.
Have the class quickly look over the list of characters to recognize familiar words. Some characters are obviously described through their names, others are a bit more subtle. Those whose names are not evocative have been omitted from this list.
Orsino – When Shakespeare wrote the play, Twelfth Night, the Spanish Ambassador was named Orsino. Given the incredible rivalry between England and Spain in the Renaissance, it makes it much more fun to mock a foolish character who is named for Orsino, a Spaniard of high rank.
Ask the class if there is a political character whose very name appearing in a contemporary cast of characters would amuse an audience.
Valentine –Although he is a character of very little consequence to the action of the play, what better name for a character in a play devoted completely to love?
Curio – Definition: “a knick-knack.” Both Curio and Valentine are minor characters, but their appearance might enhance the comedic atmosphere.
Have the class suggest casting possibilities and possible costumes.
Sir Toby Belch – Belch is a synonym for ‘burp,’ and Toby was a traditional name for ale. The connection is obvious—ale makes one burp. An alternate, modern name to suggest to the class would be “Sir Budweiser Belch.” Furthermore, the fact that this is Sir Toby Belch gives Shakespeare the opportunity to mock nobility. Show a picture of current collectable Toby Mug figurines based on Toby Ale (available online through a search engine).
Have the class suggest famous actors who might be well cast as Sir Toby.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek – Again, an opportunity to mock nobility, Aguecheek is an empty headed aristocrat. Have a student read the definition of “ague” (a sickness marked by fever and spasms; the [pl]ague). In essence, Andrew Aguecheek’s name might be modernized to Andy Plague-face – not the name for a handsome leading man.
Suggestions for casting?
Malvolio – The prefix “mal” means “bad.” A character in Romeo and Juliet is named Benvolio, a name indicating ‘good will,’ ‘good feeling,’ or ‘good humor.’Malvolio’s name implies ‘bad will’ or a perpetual feeling of crankiness. To compound the unattractiveness of this character, Malvolio is described as a Puritan. Puritans were the archenemies of dramatists, including Shakespeare. Play acting, and indeed drama in general, were regarded by Puritans as sinful, essentially a lie. Thus their desire to close the theatres threatened Shakespeare’s very livelihood.
Who would the students suggest to cast as Malvolio? Why? How would Malvolio, virtually a butler and a Puritan as well, be costumed?
Feste – The jester or clown. Have a student with a dictionary read the definition of “festival” and the root word “fest” – i.e. celebration. Feste’s traditional costume would have been “motley.” Have a student read this definition. The function of this character would be to mock characters, yet simultaneously for the audience to discern the worth of a character. If the character can laugh at herself/himself, the audience likes her or him. It is unattractive when people are unable to laugh at themselves. How a character reacts to Feste determines the worth of that character – if characters laugh, we like them; if they become angry, we want to see them brought down or humbled. In Shakespeare’s other great comedy, As You Like It,the similar jester is named “Touchstone.” Webster’s dictionary defines “touchstone” as “a test or criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of a thing.”
Viola – The main character. This name is pronounced VI – ol – lah. Viola is the leading character in the play, the one with whom readers/viewers most identify. Not just a stringed instrument, a viola is also a flower. Have the student with a dictionary read the definition. A viola is a small flower, similar to but smaller than a pansy – like a violet. Poets often use the violet/viola metaphorically. A viola is a flower that grows both in the shade and so close to the ground that its beauty often goes unnoticed. Since the viola is not a flashy or showy flower, one has to be perceptive to notice its beauty; this is so very true of Viola, the character, as well. When Viola disguises herself as a male, she assumes the name “Cesario,” or “Little Caesar.” This counterfeit male is reputed to be very handsome.
What famous actor or what attributes in a woman would the class seek when casting Viola?
Olivia – There is a strange phenomenon among the cast of characters that so many of them have similar letters in their names. Norrie Epstein says: “Note that several of the major characters’ names contain or are near anagrams of the word ‘volio,’ which in Italian means ‘will.’ . . . For the Elizabethans, ‘will’ meant desire, specifically sexual desire. The play’s subtitle, ‘What You Will,’ suggests the clichés of the 1960s: ‘Whatever turns you on’ and ‘Do your own thing.’ Characters love whom they will in this comedy: male, female, upper-class, lower-class – it makes no difference. It’s spring time, the mating season, and everyonemust fall in love” (141).
Illyria is an actual geographic region on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, currently part of northern Albania. Just as the title, Twelfth Night, has nothing to do with the content of the play, there is absolutely nothing particularly Albanian about this play either. Shakespeare probably chose the setting because Illyria has a more temperate climate and because it is a setting quite “remote and exotic and therefore suitable to a tale of disguise, intrigue, and romance” (Boyce 308).
When Viola is washed ashore, she states that although she has landed in Illyria, her brother is possibly in Elysium. Elysium in Greek and Roman mythology (also known as the Elysian Fields or the Islands of the Blessed) was the place for the afterlife of virtuous souls. The souls there enjoyed sunshine, flowers, dancing, music, and perpetual joy. Illyria, on the surface, may seem a very similar place; for the privileged classes like Olivia and Orsino, it might be a veritable paradise. Yet later in the play, Antonio states that “ these parts, which to a stranger, unguided and unfriended, often prove rough and unhospitable” (III, 3, 9-11). Perhaps Antonio is “reflecting on the unsavory reputation of the Illyrian coast, which was a notorious den of piracy until the 17th century. There are references to Illyrian pirates elsewhere in Shakespeare (2 Henry VI, IV, 1, 107; Measure for Measure IV, 3, 70) and in other Elizabethan literature (Boyce 308). This potential for great peril in Illyria certainly explains why Viola finds it is necessary to disguise herself immediately.
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