Twelfth Night Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for Twelfth Night

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in Twelfth Night


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Activity Overview

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.


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.

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Template and Class Instructions

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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 "Start 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.

Template: Theme


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