Last Updated on September 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1237
The play’s final scene opens as Fabian begs Feste to let him see Malvolio’s letter to Olivia. Feste refuses, and the Duke, Viola, Curio, and other lords enter. The Duke and Feste converse about friends, foes, and truth, and the Duke pays Feste for his entertainment. Antonio arrives, still guarded by the officers. Viola recognizes him as the one who rescued her, and the Duke recognizes him as an enemy, a “pirate,” and a “salt-water thief.” Antonio still thinks that Viola is Sebastian and angrily denounces her for her disloyalty and betrayal of his love. The Duke asks Antonio when he came to Illyria, and the latter responds that they arrived only today after three months in each other’s company. The Duke knows, however, that Viola has been around for the past three months.
At this point, Olivia and her attendants appear. The Duke confronts her, calling her cruel and perverse for repeatedly denying his offers of love. He realizes now that Olivia is in love with Cesario, and he vows to tear his servant away from Olivia. As the Duke begins to leave, Viola follows him, declaring her love for Orsino. Olivia, who thinks she is betrothed to Cesario, calls “him” her husband and brings in the priest, who testifies that it is so. Viola is confused, but the Duke becomes angry.
Just then, Sir Andrew comes in, calling for a surgeon for himself and Sir Toby. He accuses Viola of breaking his head. Viola denies it. Sir Toby enters with Feste and also claims that Viola has hurt him. Olivia has just sent Sir Toby, still sputtering, off to bed when Sebastian appears and apologizes to her for hurting her kinsman. The Duke, Antonio, and Olivia are astonished to see Sebastian and Viola side by side. “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,” the Duke exclaims.
Sebastian then turns to Viola. “Do I stand there,” he asks. “I never had a brother.” He begins to question her about her origins and kin. Viola responds with her father’s name, Sebastian, and her brother’s name, also Sebastian. She wonders if the man standing before her is a ghost. Sebastian declares that if the “man” standing before him were dressed in women’s clothing, he would be sure “he” was his sister, Viola. The two continue to exchange family details until Viola proclaims her identity and explains that her woman’s clothing is with her friend, the sea captain.
Sebastian turns to Olivia and tells her that she has been deceived. The Duke agrees and remembers that Viola had told him that she would never love a woman. He now wants to see Viola in her women’s clothing, but the captain has been arrested and imprisoned by Malvolio.
Olivia sends for the steward just as Feste and Fabian enter with his letter. Feste assures Olivia that Malvolio is still insane and begins to read his letter in the tone of a madman. Olivia tells Fabian to read it instead. In the letter, Malvolio complains that Olivia has wronged him and asserts that he is in full control of his senses. He tells her that it was her own letter that made him act as he did. Olivia sends Fabian to retrieve Malvolio.
While they wait for the steward to arrive, Olivia suggests to the Duke that she would like to be his sister and that on the day he names, they can “crown th’ alliance” at her house and cost. The Duke accepts the offer and then proposes marriage to Viola.
Malvolio enters with Olivia’s falsified love letter, and he begins to issue excuses and accusations. Olivia recognizes Maria’s handwriting on the letter and assures him that he will be “both the plaintiff and the judge” when the whole matter comes to light. Fabian confesses to the prank—naming Sir Toby as well—and says that they were just joking and would appreciate laughter rather than revenge. Feste adds that he, too, was involved. Malvolio storms out, threatening vengeance. Olivia remarks that the steward has been “most notoriously abus’d,” and Orsino suggests they all go after him both to “entreat him to a peace” and to find out what has happened to Viola’s friend, the captain. Feste concludes with a song.
The last act of Twelfth Night resolves the action of the play, but the resolution is strange in many respects and leaves several unanswered questions. First, when Viola reveals her true identity, and Sebastian learns that his sister, whom he thought drowned, is alive and standing in front of him, he barely acknowledges her. He turns instead to Olivia and comments that she might have ended up married to a woman. He never embraces Viola or even speaks to her. Apparently, he is too busy being infatuated with Olivia. This is not what one would expect from a grieving brother who has just found out that his sister did not die after all.
The Duke, on the other hand, immediately accepts Viola as a woman and transfers his passionate love from Olivia to his former servant. For all his pleas to Olivia—and for all his claims of undying devotion—the Duke certainly forgets his love quickly, which makes one question whether that love was indeed true love or merely lust and obsession. One may also wonder how deep the Duke’s love for Viola goes. After all, just a few minutes before, he thought she was a man and his servant, but now he commits to marrying her. Again, this is arguably not an expression of genuine love.
Malvolio’s situation is only partly resolved in this final scene. Olivia frees him from the dark house, and the prank against him is exposed when Olivia recognizes Maria’s handwriting on the love letter. And Fabian finally confesses for himself and Sir Toby. Malvolio, understandably, is still furious and storms off, vowing revenge, but he leaves behind another unanswered question. No one knows why he has arrested Viola’s friend, the sea captain, or exactly what he has done with him. Since the captain has Viola’s female clothing, he must be found at once. One wonders why Viola cannot simply borrow a dress from Olivia. Perhaps she must still finally prove her identity by showing her own possessions, but no one mentions this, and the other characters all seem to accept her on her word. The nature of Malvolio’s revenge is also left open. Considering his personality, he is not likely to be easily pacified after such humiliation, and the audience is left to imagine what he might do.
Finally, while Sir Andrew and Sir Toby receive a proper punishment for their misdeeds—namely, a chastisement from Sebastian—the audience never discovers what happens to Fabian, Maria, and Feste for their part in the mischief. Fabian, of course, hopes that everyone will simply laugh and forget the matter, but Olivia has already promised Malvolio that he will have a say in avenging his cause. Feste, however, does not seem concerned, for as the others chase after Malvolio, he ends the play with a song: “our play is done / And we’ll strive to please you every day.” Perhaps Shakespeare is reminding his audience that such a comedy as this is meant for entertainment—they should not expect answers to all their questions.
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