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Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Lesson Plans by Kristy Littlehale

Find these Common Core aligned lesson plans and more like them in our High School ELA Category!

Twelfth Night Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Twelfth Night Include:

Twelfth Night is a lighter piece by William Shakespeare, and a good break from the usual tragedies and histories he is most well-known for. The play challenges the traditional gender roles of the time by putting a woman (Viola) into a very convincing man’s disguise. She is so convincing that Olivia falls in love with her and Orsino never notices. The play also follows a subplot which finds Malvolio questioning his sanity in a dark room while wearing yellow stockings. Students are likely to laugh at this play, be intrigued by the themes of deceit, disorder, madness, the triviality of love, and wonder at the implausibility of such a case of mistaken identity ever happening today!


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Twelfth Night Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Twelfth Night Five Act Structure

Twelfth Night Five Act Structure
Twelfth Night Five Act Structure

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Students can create and show a storyboard that captures the concept of the Five Act Structure by making a six-cell storyboard, like the one below. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the acts in order: Prologue, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement.



Example Twelfth Night Five Act Structure


Act 1: Prologue

Duke Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia, who is in mourning for her recently-deceased brother. Olivia refuses to marry anyone for seven years, but Duke Orsino is determined to win her over. Meanwhile, Viola, a beautiful aristocrat, is shipwrecked on the island of Illyria, and she believes her twin brother Sebastian has likely drowned.


Act 1: Conflict

Viola disguises herself as a man and calls herself Cesario, and begins to serve in Duke Orsino’s court. She ends up falling in love with Duke while still in disguise as a man. The Duke sends Cesario as an envoy to Olivia on his behalf, but Olivia ends up falling in love with “Cesario” and gifting “him” with a ring.


Act 2: Rising Action

Sebastian is actually very much alive, and staying with a man named Antonio on another side of the island. Like Viola, Sebastian believes his sister drowned. Meanwhile, members of Olivia’s court conspire to make her obnoxious steward Malvolio think that she has fallen in love with him. They deliver a letter in her handwriting telling him to act and dress strangely to prove his love for her.


Act 3: Climax

Sir Toby convinces Sir Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel in order to win Olivia’s heart. Antonio enters as the two are about to duel and thinks that “Cesario” is Sebastian, whom he has come to care for very much. He steps between the men and is carried away by guards because he is an enemy of Duke Orsino. However, because “Cesario” doesn’t recognize him, he believes “Sebastian” has betrayed him. Malvolio’s behavior alarms Olivia, and she believes he has gone crazy. Maria, Sir Toby, and Fabian take the opportunity to lock Malvolio up.


Act 4: Falling Action

Meanwhile, Sirs Toby and Andrew come across Sebastian nearby, and mistake him for Cesario. Andrew attacks Sebastian, and Olivia arrives, separating the men and bringing the very bewildered Sebastian back to her home because she believes him to be her Cesario, too. She asks him to marry her, and he happily agrees. Feste, the Fool, disguises himself as a priest and messes with Malvolio, making Malvolio begin to wonder if he is crazy after all.


Act 5: Denouement

Antonio is brought in to see Orsino, and his rantings about Sebastian’s betrayal are bewildering to Cesario because “he” does not know him. Olivia comes in and greets Viola, thinking that she is the man that she just married. Sebastian arrives, and Viola reveals her true identity. Orsino comes to realize that he’s in love with Viola, and the couples are happy. Malvolio is released from his prison when it is revealed that the letter was a forgery; he swears his revenge.



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Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of Twelfth Night.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Separate the play into the Prologue/Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement.
  3. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the acts.
  4. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.
  5. Save and submit the assignment. Make sure to use the drop-down menu to save it under the assignment title.



Five Act Structure Template
Five Act Structure Template

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Twelfth Night Character Map

Twelfth Night Character Map
Twelfth Night Character Map

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As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a novel, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!


Twelfth Night Characters

  • Viola (Cesario)
  • Sebastian
  • Duke Orsino
  • Olivia
  • Feste/Fool
  • Malvolio
  • Antonio
  • Maria

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Student Instructions

Create a character map for the major characters in Twelfth Night.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify the major characters and type their names into the different title boxes.
  3. Choose a character from the "Medieval" tab to represent each of the literary characters.
    • Select colors and a pose appropriate to story and character traits.
  4. Choose a scene or background that makes sense for the character.
  5. Fill in text for Character Traits, Love Interest, and Quote.
  6. Save and submit the assignment. Make sure to use the drop-down menu to save it under the assignment title.


Character Map Template Blank
Character Map Template Blank

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Literary Conflict in Twelfth Night

Literary Conflict in Twelfth Night
Literary Conflict in Twelfth Night

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Storyboarding is an excellent way to focus on types of literary conflicts.

Having students create storyboards that show the cause and effect of different types of conflicts strengthens analytical thinking about literary concepts. Have your students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict them using the storyboard creator. In the storyboard, an example of each conflict should be visually represented, along with an explanation of the scene, and how it fits the particular category of conflict.


Examples of Literary Conflict in Twelfth Night


MAN vs. MAN

Sir Andrew is very jealous of Cesario because he holds the attentions of the Countess Olivia, even though Cesario is really Viola in disguise. He challenges Cesario to a duel at the prompting of Sir Toby, but after Antonio intervenes, thinking Cesario is Sebastian, Sir Andrew holds onto his grudge until he sees Sebastian and attacks him, thinking he is Cesario.


MAN vs. SELF

Malvolio, who is also in love with Olivia, is sent a mysterious letter which he believes to be from her, but it was written by Maria. It tells him to do ridiculous things, including smiling incessantly and wearing yellow stockings. Sir Toby, Fabian, and Maria lock him in a dark room, and Feste, the Fool, dresses as a priest and taunts him, making Malvolio begin to wonder if he really has gone mad. He requests a pen and paper so he can write to Olivia for help.


MAN vs. NATURE

A shipwreck at the beginning of the play places twins Viola and Sebastian on the island of Illyria, in the western Balkan islands. Each believes the other has drowned at sea, and they both think they have now lost all of their family members.


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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows at least three forms of literary conflict in Twelfth Night.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify conflicts in Twelfth Night.
  3. Categorize each conflict as Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Society, Character vs. Nature, or Character vs. Technology.
  4. Illustrate conflicts in the cells, using characters from the story.
  5. Write a short description of the conflict below the cell.
  6. Save and submit the assignment. Make sure to use the drop-down menu to save it under the assignment title.



Literary Conflict Template
Literary Conflict Template

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Twelfth Night Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in Twelfth Night
Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in Twelfth Night

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Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the play, and support their choices with details from the text.


Themes to Look For and Discuss

The Triviality of Love

The love triangle in Twelfth Night happens as the result of mistaken identity for some. Viola falls in love with Duke Orsino, but the Duke is in love with Olivia. In disguise as Cesario, Viola can’t reveal her feelings to the Duke anyway; in the meantime, Olivia falls in love with “Cesario”. Eventually, Sebastian stumbles onto the scene and gets drawn into the love triangle when Olivia convinces him to marry her, thinking he’s Cesario. Malvolio is in love with Olivia and makes a fool out of himself in order to impress her. Sir Andrew is also in love with Olivia, and he wants to duel with Cesario for her honor. While the love in this play seems superficial, in the end, it brings all of the characters together except Malvolio.


Deception and Madness

Viola, alone on the island of Illyria and believing that now all of her family is dead, decides to create a new persona for herself and serves in the Duke’s court. Her hidden identity, however, causes a major mix-up when Olivia falls in love with her alter ego Cesario and then mistakes her brother Sebastian for him. Maria also deceives Malvolio by writing him a letter pretending to be Olivia, so that he would do ridiculous things in order to impress her and then be treated as mad. Since he is so obnoxious, the others see this as an opportunity to be rid of him. Feste compounds this theme by pretending to be a priest in order to confuse Malvolio even more.


Disorder

The chaos and disorder that are caused by Viola’s original deception plays out comedically well. Her disguise leads to confusion, duels, a fight, an accidental marriage, and a marriage of her own. While Viola’s deception does cause problems, ultimately, it leads to restored order by the end of the play: Olivia and Sebastian are married, she and the Duke will be married soon, and even Maria announces her marriage to Sir Toby. Antonio also resolves his feud with Duke Orsino.


Gender Roles

The play centers around disguises and the ability of Viola to transition seamlessly into her male alter-ego, Cesario. She is not only able to fool the Duke and other servants, but she also develops a close relationship with Olivia, even though she refuses her advances. Viola is not only able to break the gender barrier in her ruse, but she challenges the Duke’s ideas of how women love: he does not believe that anyone can love as fiercely as a man can, but in fact, she loves him just as fiercely as he seems to love Olivia.



Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

The Ring

Olivia, after meeting Cesario, sends him a ring which she insists Cesario brought to her; however, when Malvolio delivers the ring to “Cesario”, Viola realizes that there is meaning hidden behind it. Instead of Olivia falling for the Duke’s lines about love, Olivia has fallen for Cesario. The love triangle begins with this ring.


The Letters

There are three letters that are written in the play: the first is the Duke’s letter of love to Olivia, which Cesario has to memorize and deliver to her, beginning the triangle; the second is the fake letter from Maria to Malvolio, purportedly from Olivia, which sends Malvolio into extreme measures to impress her, leaving Olivia and himself questioning whether or not he is mad. The third letter is Malvolio’s letter to Olivia, which clears up the misunderstanding about the fake letter from before. While this letter earns Malvolio his freedom, his anger at the chaos the others have caused for him leaves him fuming at the end of the play.


Malvolio’s Dark Room

Malvolio doesn’t really understand that he’s been hoodwinked by Sir Toby, Fabian, and Maria in a fake letter purportedly sent to him by Olivia until he is thrown into a dark room. Feste, the Fool, comes to him dressed as a priest and further confuses him by asking him nonsense questions. Feste even tells him that the room is not actually dark, it’s filled with light, but Malvolio cannot see it. This begins to confuse Malvolio, because he doesn’t believe he is mad, but the chaos caused by deception makes him question what is happening to him.


Costumes and Clothing

The costumes and clothing of the characters in the play keep the disorder and deception going. First, Viola disguises herself as a man, and does so quite well; then, Malvolio begins to dress in ridiculous clothing in order to capture Olivia’s attention, per Maria’s fake letter; finally, once he is imprisoned for madness, Feste poses as a priest to further confuse Malvolio’s mind. At the end of the play, even though the Duke hasn’t yet seen Viola dressed as a woman and they are waiting for her clothes to be delivered to her, he still agrees to marry her, challenging the strictness of gender roles even further.


(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Use This Assignment With My Students", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in Twelfth Night. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify the theme(s) from Twelfth Night you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for an example that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit the assignment. Make sure to use the drop-down menu to save it under the assignment title.



Template: Theme
Template: Theme

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Vocabulary in Twelfth Night

Vocabulary in Twelfth Night
Vocabulary in Twelfth Night

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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from Twelfth Night. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the play, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.


Twelfth Night Vocabulary

  • allay
  • surfeit
  • nonpareil
  • grapple
  • attest
  • recompense
  • commendation
  • exasperate
  • approbation
  • tarry
  • notorious
  • feign

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Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in Twelfth Night by creating visualizations.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  3. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  4. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  5. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  6. Save and submit the assignment. Make sure to use the drop-down menu to save it under the assignment title.



5 Word Vocabulary Template
5 Word Vocabulary Template

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Teenage Boys in Elizabethan Theatre

The part of Viola was played by a teenage boy on Shakespeare’s stage, which adds to the plot twist of Viola being in disguise as Cesario throughout the play. When theatre was in its infancy in England, women were not allowed to perform in plays because the profession was not deemed to be a credible one. Have students explore this unusual set of circumstances in Elizabethan Theatre.

https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com


For a more serious take on children’s roles in Elizabethan theatre, and with older, more mature groups of students, have them explore the recent research conducted by Oxford University into the kidnapping and exploitation of children for use in English theatres. Students may wish to have a discussion about kidnapping and exploitation of children which still goes on today, as well.

http://www.ox.ac.uk

Mistaken Identity?!

Likely, many students will not find Viola’s disguise so plausible that she fools so many people. Likewise, they may also not understand why Malvolio is so gullible to Feste’s priest ruse. However, cases of mistaken identity happen all the time! Have students check out these famous cases of mistaken identity, some serious and some silly, and discuss the cases. In particular, students may want to explore if racial profiling plays a role in cases of mistaken identity in some of the criminal cases listed below:


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