Twelfth Night; or What You Will was composed by William Shakespeare in either 1600 or 1601 as the last of his three "mature comedies" (the other two being Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It). Like his early comedies, The Comedy of Errors or The Taming of the Shrew for instance, Twelfth Night is essentially a celebration of romantic love and can be viewed as a traditional romantic comedy. The play has many of the elements common to Elizabethan romantic comedy, including the devices of mistaken identity, separated twins, and gender-crossing disguise, and its plot revolves around overcoming obstacles to "true" love. And, like other representatives of the genre, Twelfth Night also features a subplot in which a self-inflated "sour" or "blocking" character, the steward Malvolio, is brought to his knees through a trick orchestrated by a ribald if also self-inflated character in the person of Sir Toby Belch.
But unlike his early comedies, Shakespeare also strikes some discordant notes in Twelfth Night, including a conception of love and other themes that are not part of the conventional romantic comedy formula. Thus, for example, the subject of insanity surfaces as a salient theme and as a force within the plot. Indeed, while Twelfth Night concludes with tandem weddings, Shakespeare also speaks about the madness of love.
Summary of the Play
This is a play about love, placed in a festive atmosphere in which three couples are brought together happily. It opens with Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, expressing his deep love for the Countess Olivia. Meanwhile, the shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as a man and endeavors to enter the Duke’s service. Although she has rejected his suit, the Duke then employs Viola, who takes the name of Cesario, to woo Olivia for him. Ironically, Cesario falls in love with the Duke, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola disguised.
In the midst of this love triangle are the servants of Olivia’s house and her Uncle Toby. The clown provides entertainment for the characters in both houses and speaks irreverently to them. He is the jester of the play. Maria, Olivia’s woman, desires to seek revenge on Malvolio, Olivia’s steward. To the delight of Sir Toby, Olivia’s uncle, and his friend Sir Andrew, Maria comes up with a plot to drop love letters supposedly written by Olivia in Malvolio’s path. When she does, they observe him, along with Fabian, another servant, as Malvolio falls for the bait. Believing that Olivia loves him, he makes a fool of himself.
The love plot moves along as Cesario goes to woo Olivia for the Duke. The second time that Cesario appears at Olivia’s home Olivia openly declares her love for Cesario. All along, Sir Andrew has been nursing a hope to win Olivia’s love. When he plans to give up on her, Sir Toby suggests that Sir Andrew fight with Cesario to impress Olivia. Cesario, however, refuses to fight.
In the meantime, Viola’s brother, who is also shipwrecked, makes his way to safe lodging in Illyria with Antonio the sea captain. After the fight between Cesario and Sir Andrew begins, Antonio intervenes to save Cesario, whom he takes for Sebastian. But the Duke’s officers promptly arrest Antonio for a past offense. Olivia later comes upon Sir Andrew and Sebastian wrangling at her house. Olivia, thinking Sebastian is Cesario, leads Sebastian to marriage in a nearby chapel.
The complications of identity are unraveled in the fifth act. Cesario finally reveals that he is Viola. Sebastian recognizes her as his sister. The Duke takes Viola up on her love offerings and proposes to her. Olivia assures Malvolio that she did not write the letter that so disturbed him. Sir Toby marries Maria in appreciation for her humiliating scheme.
Estimated Reading Time
You can read through Twelfth Night in about three and a half hours. But, when reading Shakespeare, you should plan to re-read at least one more time. When you read more carefully, paying attention to difficult words and Shakespeare’s exquisite use of language, your reading time will necessarily increase. Your more careful reading may take about six hours.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Viola and Sebastian, brother and sister twins who closely resemble each other, are separated when the ship on which they are passengers is wrecked during a great storm at sea. Each thinks that the other is dead and sets out alone with no hope of being reunited.
The lovely and charming Viola is cast upon the shores of Illyria, where she is befriended by a kind sea captain. They decide to dress Viola in men’s clothing and have her take service as a page in the household of young Duke Orsino. Dressed in man’s garb, Viola calls herself Cesario and becomes the duke’s personal attendant. Impressed by the youth’s good looks and pert but courtly speech, Orsino sends “him” as his envoy of love to woo the Countess Olivia, who is mourning the death of her young brother.
The wealthy Olivia lives in a splendid palace with her maid, Maria; her drunken old uncle, Sir Toby Belch; and her steward, Malvolio. Maria and Sir Toby are a happy-go-lucky pair who drink and carouse with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, an ancient nobleman who is much enamored of Olivia. In return for grog supplied by Sir Andrew, Sir Toby is supposed to press Sir Andrew’s suit with Olivia. Actually, however, Sir Toby never stays sober long enough to keep his part of the bargain. All these affairs are observed disapprovingly by Malvolio, Olivia’s ambitious, narrow-minded steward, who cannot tolerate jollity in those about him.
When Cesario arrives at the palace, Olivia is instantly attracted to the page—thinking her a man. She pays close attention to Orsino’s message, but it is not love for Orsino that causes her to listen so carefully. When Cesario leaves, she sends Malvolio after her with a ring. It is a shock for Viola, who hitherto enjoys playing the part of Cesario, to realize that Olivia fell in love with her in her male clothes.
Meanwhile, Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew decide to stop Malvolio’s constant prying into their affairs and devise a scheme whereby Malvolio will find a note, supposedly written by Olivia, in which she confesses her secret love for him and asks him to wear garish yellow stockings tied with cross garters and to smile continually in her presence. Overjoyed to receive this note, Malvolio soon appears in his strange dress, capering and bowing before the startled countess. Olivia decides that Malvolio lost his wits; to the amusement of the three conspirators, she has him confined to a dark room.
As the days pass, Viola falls in love with the duke, but the latter has eyes only for Olivia, with whom he presses his page to renew his suit. When Cesario delivers another message from Orsino to...
(The entire section is 1080 words.)
Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Orsino: the Duke of Illyria, who is madly in love with Olivia
Curio: one of the Duke’s attendants
Valentine: another gentleman attending the Duke
The play opens at the Duke’s palace in Illyria. The Duke is lovesick, and so the first 15 lines express his powerful love for the Countess Olivia. He pours forth sweet words of passion for his love object.
He desires to have music feed his appetite for love. He feels at first that he can’t get enough of the energizing “food of love,” but abruptly urges the musicians to stop playing: “Enough, no more!”
Then, addressing the “spirit of love,” he characterizes it as so broad a force that nothing can outdo or overcome it. Love is very, very powerful.
After this outpouring, one of the Duke’s attendants, Curio, asks him if he plans to go hunting. But Orsino is in no mood for recreation; he is deeply in love. So his response is more than a mere “no.” He says that his desire for Olivia has stronger control over him than anything else.
Valentine, another attendant, enters with words that the Duke does want to listen to because they concern Olivia. Valentine informs the Duke of Olivia’s mourning. She is grieving the loss of her dead brother and plans to stay in mourning for a long time. So, for her, love is out!
This news frustrates the Duke. He realizes that he will not achieve the object of his desire—at least, not yet. He recognizes that Olivia is full of love, but is channeling it in another direction, away from him. Still, his lover’s hope does not lessen as long as he feels that love will awaken in Olivia.
The first scene leads us instantly into the major theme of the play—love. Shakespeare, the skillful dramatist, wastes no time in developing it. In so doing, he uses poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, puns, and synesthesia to reveal the extraordinary nature of true love.
The poetry of the Duke’s opening speech clearly...
(The entire section is 854 words.)
Act I, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Viola: the female of a twin brother–sister pair, who enters Illyria disguised as Cesario and finds love
A Sea Captain: a friend to Viola who comes ashore with her
The setting of this scene is appropriately away from the majestic atmosphere of the Duke’s palace. We meet Viola and a captain on a seacoast. Viola’s practical nature serves to complement the Duke’s romantic character.
Shipwrecked, Viola asks the Captain and sailors where she is. The Captain tells her that they are in a region called “Illyria.” Her brother, who had also been on the ship with her, is separated from them, which causes Viola to wonder if he has drowned. The...
(The entire section is 672 words.)
Act I, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Sir Toby Belch: Olivia’s uncle, who drinks a lot
Maria: Olivia’s lady-in-waiting
Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Sir Toby’s friend, who thinks he is a potential suitor for Olivia
This scene is set in Olivia’s house, but we do not as yet meet Olivia. She is in extended mourning. Sir Toby, her uncle, opens with a question about Olivia. He is talking to Maria, Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, who responds with a complaint about Toby’s late carousing.
Maria refers to Sir Toby’s friend, Sir Andrew, as a fool. She heard that Sir Toby had brought him to the house to woo Olivia. Sir Toby, on the other hand, praises the many virtues his friend...
(The entire section is 703 words.)
Act I, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
We find Viola (now named “Cesario”) on her fourth day in the Duke’s palace, her disguise having gained her the access she wished. Valentine is amazed, in fact, at how much favor she has already gained with the Duke.
The Duke assigns Cesario the task of pursuing Olivia for him. He urges him to be aggressive: “Be clamorous and leap all civil bounds.” The Duke is confident that Cesario can effectively persuade Olivia to respond to his true passion. Cesario is doubtful.
Part of the Duke’s confidence owes to his intuition of Cesario’s real feminine qualities. He implies, in other words, that she can play the womanly matchmaker role well. He promises him a reward if he is...
(The entire section is 440 words.)
Act I, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis
Olivia: the countess with whom Orsino is in love and who rejects him
Clown: servant to Olivia who sings and provides entertainment
Malvolio: steward to Olivia
This scene opens with Maria and the Clown engaged in conversation. Maria, wondering where the Clown has been, tells him that he’ll be punished for his absence unless he has good reason for it. This threat fails to scare the Clown, as he shows in his offhand replies.
The Clown is equally offhand with Olivia when she enters. He responds to her with insult, ironically calling her a “fool.” Although she tries to get rid of him, the Clown prevails on her to prove that she is the...
(The entire section is 852 words.)
Act II, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Antonio: a sea captain, friend to Sebastian, who wishes to serve him
Sebastian: Viola’s twin brother, who survives the shipwreck and initially believes Viola has drowned
This short scene serves the purpose of letting us know that Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, has reached the shores of Illyria. We need this information to prepare our understanding of later scenes.
Sebastian tells us a little about himself, thus informing us that he has a twin sister. He thinks that she drowned while he managed to gain safety.
He wishes to separate from Antonio and wander about the area. But shortly afterward, he contradicts himself in this...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
Act II, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Malvolio catches up with Cesario to give him the ring from Olivia. Naturally, he is surprised inasmuch as he knows he did not leave a ring. Malvolio also repeats Olivia’s desire not to have any further dealings with Orsino. Before leaving, Malvolio puts the ring on the ground.
Left alone on stage, Cesario utters a soliloquy in which he expresses his confusion over the ring. He now realizes that Olivia has fallen in love with him. “She loves me sure,” he asserts. He acknowledges that the disguise must be responsible for stirring up her love. He finishes up the soliloquy wondering how this mistaken love on his part and frustrated love on his master’s part will be resolved. As matters currently...
(The entire section is 541 words.)
Act II, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
In case we’d forgotten about the merriment of the play, this scene puts us back in Olivia’s house and opens with the leader of the party, Sir Toby. If we follow the love plot of the previous scene, we are then led astray by what these two men say. They begin by talking about going to bed early. Sir Toby says that going to bed after midnight is equal to going to bed early. Toby calls for some wine to have with their food.
When Feste the Clown enters, Andrew compliments his singing voice and his skill displayed in entertainment the previous night: “Why, this is best fooling, when all is done.” Then, continuing in this vein, Sir Toby calls for another frequently used element in Shakespeare’s...
(The entire section is 759 words.)
Act II, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
In this scene, we are back at the Duke’s palace. Once again, the Duke wants to hear some music, the food for his love. He calls for the Clown, who happens not to be there at the moment. While waiting for the Clown to be located, he speaks with Cesario.
The Duke affirms his true love. He continues to be the passionate lover who yearns for his beloved. His emotions, as a lover, are topsy-turvy.
The Duke surmises that Cesario had once also been in love, as he currently is. He answers “yes” that she was of the same age and temperament as the Duke. He responds with his belief that the woman should be the younger of the pair, so as to ensure that the love remain robust.
(The entire section is 698 words.)
Act II, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis
Fabian: the servant to Olivia who is the third spectator to Malvolio’s humiliation
This scene is devoted exclusively to the devious comic plot. Sir Toby gathers Fabian, another servant, and Andrew to enjoy the exercise in shame that Maria is about to execute. Fabian seems to have a bone to pick with him, so he is interested in what will happen to Malvolio.
Maria has the whole trick worked out. They will hide in a box tree and observe as Malvolio picks up the falsified letter to read it. Olivia is on Malvolio’s mind when he enters. Sir Toby and Fabian believe that Malvolio’s arrogance makes him suitable game for the trap that’s been set. Malvolio...
(The entire section is 987 words.)
Act III, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Cesario and Feste the Clown are conversing in Olivia’s garden. Cesario, of course, has arrived with the purpose of courting Olivia. Cesario begins by asking the Clown if he earns a living with his tabor. In addition to engaging Cesario in wordplay, the Clown comments on the arbitrariness of words. People can do whatever they like with them regardless of good or bad intentions. Cesario briefly turns the conversation to identifying the fool. Feste, as usual, cannot give her a straight answer. He answers ironically that Olivia has no fool until she marries the man who will accept the role. In a short span, the Clown mentions a beard for Cesario, coins earning interest, and the love story of Troilus and...
(The entire section is 1045 words.)
Act III, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Sir Andrew is disappointed that Olivia has not shown an interest in him. He has seen her giving more attention to Cesario than to him. Fabian claims that Olivia was deliberately trying to exasperate Andrew so as to spur him to more aggressive action. Andrew should have seized the moment to prove his masculinity: “You should have banged the youth into dumbness.” Having failed to act has put Andrew way out of Olivia’s thoughts, unless he can act quickly to arouse her admiration with his valor. Andrew agrees.
Sir Toby’s idea for Andrew to achieve Olivia’s love is to challenge Cesario to a fight. A fight will kindle her admiration. Sir Toby tells Andrew to write out a provocative...
(The entire section is 480 words.)
Act III, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
This short scene lets us know that Sebastian and Antonio are making their way into the action; they have not been left out. Antonio explains to a grateful Sebastian that both love and concern for his safety urged him to catch up to the youth. Antonio knows the area; Sebastian does not.
Sebastian desires to do some sightseeing in town, to see the “memorials and the things of fame,” but Antonio has to back out. Antonio is wanted by Orsino’s court for his part in a previous incident at sea. Sebastian reckons that perhaps he has murdered. Not so; Antonio says he is only guilty of piracy.
Antonio gives his money to Sebastian in case he wishes to purchase something, while Antonio lays...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Act III, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
Servant: the one who informs Olivia of Cesario’s return
First Officer: one of the Duke’s officials who comes to arrest Antonio
Second Officer: accompanies the First Officer to carry out the arrest
Olivia, longing for Cesario and out of sorts, wonders where Malvolio is. Here, she commends his nature as agreeable to her. Maria alerts her to his agitated state: “He is sure possessed.” In accordance with the letter, Malvolio is smiling about the place. Nonetheless, Olivia wants to see him because she feels as disturbed as he.
Malvolio speaks to Olivia as though she knew about the letter. His smiling doesn’t fit the mood Olivia is...
(The entire section is 1555 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
The Clown and Sebastian are talking in front of Olivia’s house. Sebastian, unlike his sister, has not taken so well to Feste. They seem at odds with each other. Sebastian dismisses the Clown, maintaining that he has no business with him. The Clown, characteristically clever, responds by denying the reality of everything: “Nothing that is so is so.” Indeed, Sebastian is not Cesario. Sebastian orders Feste to take his folly elsewhere. The Clown, clever though he be, is not omniscient, so he thinks that Sebastian is just pretending ignorance. He requests a message for Olivia. Sebastian dismisses him with an insult, but not without giving him a tip. The Clown is thankful.
Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, and...
(The entire section is 702 words.)
Act IV, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Maria gives the Clown a gown and beard, apparently wishing to prolong the sham with Malvolio. Feste readily accepts the offer to play Chaucer’s Sir Topas. He has a stereotyped notion of a curate and a student, which he doesn’t fit, though he does account himself an honest man and a good citizen. Sir Toby enters, greeting him as a parson, and pushes him on to Malvolio.
The Clown, dressed as Sir Topas, visits Malvolio in a very dark room. Malvolio immediately orders Sir Topas to go to Olivia without specifying the contents of his message. Malvolio perceives himself as a wronged man. He says that to Sir Topas and, in the same breath, he asserts his sanity. Sir Topas responds with assurance of his...
(The entire section is 826 words.)
Act IV, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
This scene is set in the garden, a fitting locale for the culmination of a love match. Sebastian tries to come to terms with his good luck in his opening soliloquy. This love match is so quick that we have no inkling as to Sebastian’s feelings about love as an experience and as they relate to Olivia.
He tells us that she gave him a pearl. He marvels at his new-found sweetheart and discounts that he is mad. He wishes for Antonio, who he couldn’t locate at the Elephant, and for his esteemed advice. The improbability of his good fortune leads him to doubt the reality of what has happened. Unlike Cesario, however, he doesn’t reject Olivia’s gift of love. When the thought crosses his mind that...
(The entire section is 370 words.)
Act V, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
This scene forms a conglomeration of previous elements in the play. We are before Olivia’s house when it opens with Fabian and the Clown. Fabian is asking Feste to show him Malvolio’s letter to Olivia, which he doesn’t want to show him.
After this brief exchange, the Duke, Cesario, Curio, and other lords are on the scene. After inquiring of Feste and Fabian if they are connected to Olivia, the Duke recognizes one of them as the Clown. Upon being asked how he is, the Clown starts in with his wordplay. He answers ironically that, as far as his foes are concerned, he is better, and as far as his friends are concerned, he is worse. That makes no sense to the Duke, so he requests an explanation....
(The entire section is 1433 words.)