Die Heuning Pot Literature Guide
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Themes

In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare explores the workings of the theater and other related forms of artistic performance – licensed "Fooling," music, and singing, which also happen to be forms of revelry associated with the Twelfth Night festivities for which the play is named. The play also meditates on the relationship between performance art and other forms of entertainment like bear-baiting, a popular Elizabethan blood-sport that was often lumped into the same "low-brow" category as the theater. It's important to note that Twelfth Night's self-referential (or "meta-theatrical") portrayals of the transvestite stage (all actors were male in Elizabethan theater) allow Shakespeare to address (and mostly mock) concerns raised by Puritan theater critics. As in all of Shakespeare's work, Twelfth Night's interest in performance allows him to critique traditional notions of gender, sexuality, class identity, and morality.

Questions About Art and Culture

  1. Are there events in Twelfth Night that draw our attention to the fact that we are an audience to Shakespeare's play? What are they? What's their function?
  2. How does Feste's singing (and other forms of music) help set the play's tone at various moments in Twelfth Night?
  3. Does knowing that Shakespeare's plays were originally performed by all-male acting companies change the way you think about Twelfth Night and performance (as opposed to merely reading the play)?
  4. If you were a director, would you cast a man or a woman in the role of "Viola"? Why? Why should this question even matter?
  5. What does Fabian say is the reason for his absence from his friends at Olivia's court?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Twelfth Night's self-conscious references to artistic performance forces audiences to think about the workings of the theater and the controversies surrounding "low-brow" entertainment.

On the one hand, Twelfth Night's inside jokes about the bubonic plague being spread at theater houses acknowledges the dangers of play-going. Yet, Feste's delightful and "heal[ing]" humor points to the stage as a very necessary and therapeutic space.

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