Summary of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is believed to have been written by William Shakespeare around 1601-02.


Act I

Act I opens with Duke Orsino listening to a group of musical performers and meditating on the nature of love and desire. Posturing himself as a passionate lover, he remarks on love as swift and lively and full of constantly changing moods and emotions. His changing moods are reflected in his shifting desire to listen to music one moment; and stop the very next. When his attendant-Curio asks him about going to hunting, Orsino puns on the words- ‘hart’ and ‘heart’; and overturns the Petrarchan image of the beloved as hart (deer) and the lover as hunter. Another attendant- Valentine enters a few moments later to give him news about his object of affection-Olivia. The news contains information about Olivia being still in mourning about her dead brother and refusing to see anyone. Orsino, however, refuses to accept defeat and takes it as a positive sign of her infinite capacity to love.

Scene 2 introduces us to Viola, a shipwrecked lady on the coast of Illyria. Separated from her twin brother- Sebastian, Viola has been saved by a sea captain. She is anxious about the fate of her brother, but the captain comforts her by telling her about the sight of Sebastian binding himself to a strong mast and perhaps surviving. He also offers her support in this time of crisis by giving her information about the Duke of Illyria who is courting the Countess Olivia at present. Olivia has lost both her father and brother and renounces the sight of all men. Since Olivia will admit no one in her company, Viola decides to serve the Duke disguised as a eunuch.

Scene 3 begins with Sir Toby – Olivia’s kinsman engaged in a confrontation with Maria- Olivia’s female attendant about his transgression of norms of decent behavior. Maria informs Toby about how Olivia doesn’t take kindly to his drinking and staying late at night; while Toby in turn doesn’t understand his niece’ excessive grieving. The conversation then turns to Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a knight and a friend of Toby’s whom he has proposed as suitor for Olivia. Toby exaggerates his friend’s qualities- his handsome inheritance, his musical ability and his gift for languages. However, all these are exposed as empty claims when Sir Andrew himself intervenes in the scene and comes across as a dumb and foolish knight. He can understand no word of Maria’s banter and ends up being mocked and jeered. After Maria leaves the scene, Andrew himself admits to lacking wit or any chance with Olivia. Toby, however, who is more interested in wringing money out of his rich friend, somehow convinces him to stay for another month to try his luck with Olivia.

In scene 4, we see Viola playing the role of Cesario-a gentleman attending Orsino. ‘He’ has already won the confidence of the Duke in a short span and ‘his’ rising esteem has left the other attendants and servants feeling threatened. The Duke entrusts Cesario with a special task of wooing Olivia on his behalf and unfolding his tale of love. He thinks that Cesario is specially suited for the task because of his youthful and feminine appearance- his lips like Diana’s and his voice like a woman’s. These lines reveal tensions about Cesario’s gender and carry homoerotic overtones. The scene ends with Viola confessing to the audience in an aside that she herself desires to be Orsino’s wife.

The next scene introduces us to the character of Feste-the witty fool. Maria questions him about his disappearance from Olivia’s household but he avoids the question by instead engaging in double entendre. Olivia and Malvolio (her steward) enter a little while later and exhibit varying attitudes to the Fool. While Olivia marvels at his wit; Malvolio regards her as a fool for laughing at Feste’s dry jests. Olivia protests and chastises Malvolio for being ’sick of self-love’.

Maria intervenes to inform Olivia about a young gentleman at the gate desirous of speaking to her. Assuming it to be another suit from Duke Orsino, Oliva sends Malvolio to quickly dismiss him. The gentleman however refuses to budge from the gate until he speaks with her. Her curiosity is intrigued when Malvolio describes him as someone not ‘old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy’. She conceals her face with a veil and agrees to meet him alone. Unlike Orsino who is studied and artificial in his protestations of love, Cesario – the young gentleman is spontaneous and prompt and instantly catches Olivia’s attention. He convinces Olivia to reveal her face, and with his ardent statements, expresses the depths of love. He bewitches her by describing the extent to which he would go if he loved her as much as the Duke. This first meeting between Cesario-Olivia achieves an unintended objective as it leaves Olivia falling prey to the charms of the young and handsome gentleman of the Duke’s court. So much is she impressed that she quickly invents a ruse to meet him again by sending Malvolio after him to give back a ring that she claims he left and providing reasons for her refusal if he comes again the next day.

Act II

Act II begins with a parting scene between Sebastian and his rescuer- Antonio, a sea captain. We get to know that Sebastian was living under the refuge of Antonio for months until the moment when he has decided to take leave. Unlike the parting scene between Viola and the sea captain in the first act, this scene is more ardent and intense. Antonio entreats Sebastian to stay with him or let him accompany; but Sebastian refuses to let his unfavorable fate affect his friend. Before leaving however, he does provide some background information about his real name, his family and his being bound for Orsino’s court.

In Scene 2, we see Malvolio going after Cesario to return the ring as instructed in the previous act. Cesario doesn’t reveal his suspicions about the ring in front of Malvolio and pretends to have given the ring to Olivia. However, once Malvolio, leaves, Viola (as Cesario) meditates on the nature of disguise and wonders if Olivia has indeed fallen in love with her. She muses upon the complex and tangled web of disguise through which three people- Orsino, Viola and Cesario – have been tied up together. In her disguise as a man, Viola can never aspire to Orsino’s love; whereas as a woman, Olivia’s love for her will never be realized.

Scene 3 brings together the characters of Toby and Andrew who are painting Olivia’s house red in their usual merry making element. Feste enters and reminds them of their folly by referring to the picture of the two fools and the spectator as the third. He is then enjoined by the duo to sing a love song. The song reflects on embracing the joys of the present since the future lies uncertain. While the three have joined together in singing, Maria enters to remind them to stop creating a scene since Malvolio would be there soon to put an end to their revelry. As assumed, Malvolio enters a short while later and castigates them for disrespecting codes of time, place or person and lacking wit, manners and honesty. He also warns them that Olivia has threatened to oust them from her household if they don’t mend their ways. Outraged at the tone of the steward, Toby lashes out at him for presuming that he is more virtuous than others. After Malvolio leaves, the group then discusses about seeking vengeance from the ‘affectioned ass’. Maria devises a plan where she would drop a letter in Olivia’s handwriting that would praise Malvolio and drop hints that she is in love with him. Being susceptible to flattery and full of self-love, Malvolio will readily believe the contents of the letter to be true.

Scene 4 takes place between Orsino and Cesario at the Duke’s palace. Viola (as Cesario) comes close to expressing her love for Orsino in this scene as she subtly reveals that she is in love with someone of the same age and temperament as the Duke. She also narrates the story of her father’s daughter (herself) who pined in love for a man but did not express her feelings. She demonstrates to the Duke that a woman can love as passionately as a man. The unsuspecting duke still wants Cesario to go after Olivia; and sends a jewel as a token of his love.

Scene 5 begins with the characters Toby, Andrew and Fabian in the role of spectators watching the unfolding of Maria’s trick on Malvolio. This scene is also known as the box-tree scene since the aforementioned characters hide behind a cluster of shrubs, and watch Maria making ‘a contemplative idiot’ of Malvolio. Maria drops the letter that she herself has written in Olivia’s handwriting to delude Malvolio into thinking that the Countess loves her. However, it is important to note that even before Malvolio picks up and reads the letter, he is already day-dreaming about the Countess and his marriage to her. He imagines being ‘Count Malvolio’, calling and commanding officers around him, dressing in a ‘branched velvet gown’, ensuring people regard their station, adopting the manner of high rank and admonishing Toby for wiling away his time.

It is after this that he picks up and reads the letter which contains certain alphabets of his name, which Mavolio quickly assumes to be a reference to him. The cryptic letter contains instructions for Malvolio to embrace the gift of the fate by being hostile to Olivia’s relatives; rude and antagonistic to her servants; adopting the garb of singularity; wearing yellow cross gartered stockings and smiling all the time. The instructions carefully plotted by Maria are meant to actually incense Olivia since she detests yellow stockings, cross-gartering, and smiling (as she is mourning for her dead brother).


Act III begins with a sparkling conversation between Cesario and Feste. In his usual witty manner, Feste turns the meaning of every question posed by Cesario and answers in a manner he deems fit. He ends by comparing husbands to fools, and Cesario generously tips him. Viola (as Cesario) also makes an accurate summing of Feste’s character by remarking on his wit, observance and astuteness.

Cesario announces his arrival and requests to speak alone with Olivia; who then readily agrees and commands her attendants to close the door and leave them in privacy. She boldly leads the scene in wooing Cesario by holding his hand immediately and refusing to converse about the Duke. She refers to her act of sending the ring, risking societal judgments and violating norms of feminine behavior. Cesario can only respond with pity to this. But Olivia still takes it as a positive sign, and confesses – ‘I love thee’. Realizing that Olivia has fallen deeply in love with him, Cesario forewarns her several times about the dangers of falling in love and emphasizes the fact that no woman shall ever be the mistress of his heart.

In Scene 2, Toby and Fabian convince Andrew to keep pursuing Olivia while he expresses doubts about her lack of interest in him. He protests that she is more interested in the Duke’s messenger, to which Fabian responds by assuring him that it was only to awaken his sleeping valour and make him jealous. Toby, in turn, persuades Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel to prove his love for Olivia.

In Scene 3, we return to Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio who has followed Sebastian all the way to Illyria makes reference to his keen desire and willing love for the latter. The scene is riddled with homoerotic overtones as Antonio talks about braving all odds by coming to a country where he is unwelcome; just to protect his ‘unguided’ and ‘unfriended’ friend Sebastian. They promise to meet each other at the Elephant inn as Antonio also hands Sebastian his purse.

Scene 4 starts with Olivia deeply anticipating Cesario’s return and hopeful of a positive response from him. She asks Maria to send for Malvolio as she believes his grave temperament will be amenable to her moods. Malvolio, however, enters cross-gartered and smiling and follows all instructions written in the forged letter to the T. While Olivia wonders what has happened to him; he keeps quoting from the words of the letter. A message from a servant informs Olivia that Cesario has returned. She goes to meet him even as she asks Maria and Toby to look after Malvolio, who has been acting strange in her presence. Toby decides to lock Malvolio in a dark room and convince Olivia that he has turned mad.

Meanwhile, Andrew writes a letter challenging Cesario to a duel. Toby promises to deliver the letter but doesn’t do so because he realizes that such a nonsensical letter will breed no terror in a gentleman of good breeding like Cesario. Instead, he plans to deliver the message of duel word of mouth to Cesario by exaggerating Andrew’s valour. This would in turn frighten both Andrew and Cesario.

Olivia and Cesario meet again, and she gives him a jewel containing her picture. She asks him to meet her again and promises to give him anything he wants. Cesario asks for love for his master, which Olivia refuses to give since she has already given her heart to the former. As she exits the scene, Toby and Fabian enter and inform Cesario about a man desirous of seeking revenge upon him. Cesario fails to make sense of the situation and is worried that a duel will expose his lack of manhood. As both Cesario and Andrew get ready to draw swords at each other instigated by others, Antonio intervenes and offers to fight on behalf of Cesario (whom he mistakes as Sebastian). At this moment, Orsino’s officers enter and arrest Antonio after recognizing him as the pirate who had destroyed their ships in the past.

While he is leaving with the officers, Antonio asks Cesario for his purse that he had given him. Since it is Viola and not Sebastian, she fails to recognize Antonio and offers to give him whatever money she has in exchange for his help in saving her. Antonio is outraged that a man he saved from the jaws of death refuses to even acknowledge him. He utters Sebastian’s name, which makes Viola wonder if her brother is still alive.

Act IV

As directed by Olivia, Feste runs after Cesario to ask him to speak with her. He stumbles into Sebastian instead, mistakes him for Cesario and gives him the message from Olivia. However, Sebastian refuses to recognize him and quickly dismisses him. Toby, Fabian and Andrew enter a short while later. Seeing Sebastian and still seething from his previous confrontation with Cesario, Andrew hits him. Sebastian strikes back, not understanding what is going on. Feste runs off to fetch Olivia while Toby and Andrew hold Sebastian back. Olivia is enraged to see that his people are drawing swords at a man she loves and asks Sebastian (who she believes is Cesario) to not take offence. Sebastian fails to understand why a strange woman is being so kind and polite to him. He accompanies her and exits the scene.

In Scene 2, the servants imprison Malvolio in a dark room and take voyeuristic pleasure in his humiliation. On the instructions of Maria, Feste disguises himself as Sir Topas, the curate and tries to convince Malvolio that he is possessed by a devil. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Feste in disguise torments him about his supposed madness. At last however, Feste relents and agrees to hand over ink and paper to Malvolio so that he can write an explanatory note to Olivia and extricate himself out of this imprisonment.

Scene 3 begins with a wonder struck Sebastian questioning whether the incidents around him are a result of madness, accident or just a stroke of fortune. He ponders about Antonio’s absence, Olivia’s attitude and the conflict between his reason and senses. Though he recognizes that all this may be an ‘error’, yet he quickly accepts Olivia’s offer of getting married in secret in a church.

Act V

Act V begins with Fabian asking Feste for Malvolio’s letter but the latter refusing. Duke Orsino enters with Cesario and his other attendants and asks to see the lady of the house. Meanwhile, Antonio also arrives with some officers and Orsino instantly recognizes him as the man who fought valiantly against them in a sea battle and did damage to their ships. His nephew also lost a leg in this ensuing battle. Cesario adds that he had been saved by Antonio, but did not understand his strange behavior later. Antonio explains that he exposed himself to dangers for Cesario’s sake and tended after him for three whole months. Orsino protests that Cesario has been in his employ for all these months.

Olivia also enters at this stage, and increases the comedy of mistaken identities when she sees Cesario still serving as an attendant to the Duke. While she wishes to speak to her ‘husband’, Duke Orsino still attempts to woo her and break her rigidity and coldness. When he sees that she is showering more attention on Cesario, he is enraged and threatens to kill the latter. Cesario is ready to become the victim to be sacrificed and follows the Duke. Olivia addresses Cesario as her husband and pleads him to stop. Orsino is shocked to hear the words and accuses Cesario of being ungrateful to him. Olivia produces the priest who married them as proof of their wedding.

Sebastian enters a few moments later, and it is the first time that we see the brother-sister together on stage. All the assembled characters express surprise at two similar looking men with ‘one face, one voice, one habit’. Sebastian thinks about his sister but still can’t recognize Viola in her masculine attire. Viola clears the confusion by confessing that she is indeed a woman in male attire. She is ready to produce the sea captain who rescued her as proof. Orsino both surprised and happy wonders if Ceasrio’s statements about loving him were indeed true. Viola accepts that they are and Orsino then promises to make her his wife when he will see her in her womanly attire. The truth of the matter is still under wraps because the sea captain has been arrested at Malvolio’s instigation.

Malvolio is called upon and he refers to the letter written by Olivia. She denies having written any such letter and understands it must be Maria’s trick. While Malvolio claims he has been wronged and abused, Olivia can only offer him the consolation that he will get justice. Dissatisfied, Malvolio pledges to seek revenge upon the pack, leaving a jarring note in the play’s conclusion. We are also informed that Toby has married Maria for the ingenuous trick she played. The play ends with three unions- Toby-Maria, Olivia-Sebastian and Viola- Orsino. However, none of the marriages are depicted on stage. Antonio’s fate is also left uncertain. Feste has the final word in the play as he sings a song about the different stages of life. The song reminds us that life is full of struggles but the actors and the players would strive to please the audience every day.

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