At a Glance

In Twelfth Night, Orsino attempts to woo the Countess Olivia. The shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as a man, takes on the name Cesario, and enters the Duke’s service. In the end, Viola and the Duke wed, and Olivia marries a man named Sebastian.

Twelfth Night summary key points:

  • Viola disguises herself as Cesario and falls in love with the Duke. Olivia falls in love with Cesario.

  • Maria, Olivia’s servant, plays a trick on Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, by leaving him love letters purportedly written by Olivia. Malvolio makes a fool of himself as he is led to believe that Olivia loves him.

  • The Duke asks Cesario to woo Olivia for him, but Olivia confesses her love for Cesario. Sir Andrew, another of Olivia’s suitors, challenges Cesario to a fight but Cesario declines the invitation.

  • Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, is also shipwrecked. Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and leads him to marriage.

  • Cesario is revealed to be Viola. The Duke asks Viola to marry him and Sir Toby marries Maria.


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.

Synopsis 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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 Olivia, the countess openly declares her love for the young page. Cesario insists, however, that his heart can never belong to any woman. So obvious are Olivia’s feelings for Cesario that Sir Andrew becomes jealous. Sir Toby and Maria insist that Sir Andrew’s only course is to fight a duel with the page. Sir Toby delivers Sir Andrew’s blustering challenge, which Cesario reluctantly accepts.

While these events unfold, Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, is being rescued by another sea captain, named Antonio, and the two become close friends. When Sebastian decides to visit the court of Duke Orsino at Illyria, Antonio decides to accompany him, even though he fears that he might be arrested there because he once dueled with the duke. Upon arriving in Illyria, Antonio gives Sebastian his purse for safekeeping, and the two men separate for several hours.

While wandering about the city, Antonio chances upon the duel between Cesario and Sir Andrew. Mistaking the disguised page for her brother, Antonio immediately goes to the rescue of his supposed friend. When officers arrive on the scene, one of them recognizes Antonio and arrests him in the name of the duke. Thinking that Viola is Sebastian, Antonio asks her to return his purse and is surprised and hurt when she disclaims all knowledge of the captain’s money. As Antonio is dragged away, he shouts invectives at “Sebastian” for not returning his purse, thereby alerting Viola to the fact that her brother is still alive.

Meanwhile, the real Sebastian is being followed by Sir Andrew, who never dreamed that this young man is not the same Cesario with whom he just dueled. Prodded by Sir Toby and Maria, Sir Andrew engages Sebastian in a new duel and is promptly wounded, along with Sir Toby. Olivia then interferes and has Sebastian taken to her home, thinking that he is Cesario. After sending for a priest, she marries the surprised—but not unwilling—Sebastian.

As the officers escort Antonio past Olivia’s house, Orsino—accompanied by Cesario—appears at her gates. Orsino recognizes Antonio instantly and demands to know why the sailor returned to Illyria—a city filled with his enemies. Antonio explains that he rescued and befriended the duke’s present companion, Sebastian, and because of his deep friendship for the lad accompanied him to Illyria despite the danger his visit involves. Pointing to Cesario, he sorrowfully accuses the person he supposes to be Sebastian of violating their friendship by not returning his purse.

The duke is protesting against Antonio’s accusation when Olivia appears and salutes Cesario as her husband. Now the duke also begins to think his page ungrateful, especially since he told Cesario to press his own suit with Olivia. Just then Sir Andrew and Sir Toby arrive, looking for a doctor because Sebastian wounded them. Seeing Cesario, Sir Andrew begins to rail at him for his violence until Olivia dismisses the two old men. The real Sebastian then appears and apologizes for having wounded the old men.

Spying Antonio, Sebastian joyfully greets his friend. Antonio and the rest of the amazed group, unable to believe what they see, stare from Cesario to Sebastian. After Viola reveals her true identity and explains how she and her brother became separated, she and Sebastian greet each other warmly. Seeing that the page of whom he grew so fond is a woman, Duke Orsino declares that he will marry her.

After Malvolio is summoned, the plot against him is revealed. As he storms off, vowing revenge, the others begin celebrating the impending marriages of Viola and Orsino and of Sir Toby and Maria. Only Malvolio, unhappy in the happiness of others, remains peevish and disgruntled.