What Happens in Twelfth Night?

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.

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Twelfth Night is a story of love and confused identity. At the beginning of the play, after having survived a shipwreck, Viola (the play's protagonist) finds herself stranded in Illyria. She disguises herself as Cesario, a young man, and enters into the service of Duke Orsino.

Orsino is in love with the countess Olivia, but she does not return his affections. In order to woo Olivia, Orsino sends Cesario (who is actually Viola) to serve as his representative, but Olivia falls in love with Cesario instead. Meanwhile, Viola, in her service to Orsino, is drawn into close friendship with him and finds herself falling in love. Thus, the story of Twelfth Night revolves around this love triangle fueled by mistaken identities, by which Viola is in love with Orsino, who is in love with Olivia, who is in love with Cesario (who is actually Viola).

Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, is also traveling to Illyria with his friend Antonio. When they reach their destination, they separate. There is an additional subplot within Olivia's own household involving her uncle, Sir Toby Belch; her servant, Maria; her steward, Malvolio; and another would-be suitor to Olivia, Andrew Aguecheek. Entertaining themselves at the steward's expense, Maria leaves letters forged in Olivia's handwriting that lead Malvolio to assume that Olivia is in fact in love with him. Maria also advises him to present himself in such a manner that Olivia would find offensive. Malvolio finds these letters and falls for the deception.

Meanwhile, Olivia continues to be in love with Cesario, and Andrew notices her favor for Orsino's servant. Toby tries to push Andrew into fighting Cesario as a way to win Olivia's affections. However, Antonio stumbles upon the scene. Mistaking Viola for her twin brother, he comes to her defense, only to be arrested. Antonio looks toward the man he believes to be Sebastian for support—only to find, of course, that he does not know Antonio or anything about him. Antonio curses his friend as a betrayer as he is dragged away. Finally, the real Sebastian stumbles upon Olivia, who marries him, mistaking him for Cesario.

As the play comes to a close, this comedy of mistaken identities is resolved, with the full truth brought to light. Brother and sister are reunited, Viola reveals her true identity, and Orsino proposes marriage to Viola.


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...

(The entire section is 2,166 words.)