Twelfth Night Summary
Twelfth Night Summary provides a quick review of the play's plot including every important action in the play.
Orsino, The Duke of Illyria reveals his great love for the rich Countess Olivia who we learn has decided to veil herself for seven years to honour her recently deceased brother's memory. Profoundly impressed by this, the Duke continues his pursuit of Olivia undeterred...
Viola is introduced to us as a survivor of a shipwreck. Her brother was lost at sea but may not be dead. Viola learns from the Sea Captain of their doomed ship that they are now in Illyria, which is ruled by Orsino. The Sea Captain explains to Viola that The Duke of Illyria is pursuing the fair Olivia, a woman who like Viola has lost a brother.
Identifying with Olivia's grief, Viola wishes to serve Olivia but when she learns this will be impossible, Viola instead has the Sea Captain disguise her as a boy so she can serve Orsino, The Duke of Illyria.
Sir Toby, Olivia's cousin is introduced. We quickly discover that he drinks a great deal, keeps late hours and is generally rowdy by nature. Maria, Lady Olivia's maid makes this clear to us in her unsuccessful attempts to quieten Sir Toby down. Maria also reveals Olivia's annoyance that Sir Toby has encouraged Sir Andrew Aguecheek to court her.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek is now introduced, quickly revealing himself to be rich but rather dim (unintelligent). Sir Toby has manipulated Sir Andrew into pursuing Olivia so Sir Toby can continue benefiting from Sir Andrew's great wealth.
Realizing Olivia will not be courted by him, Sir Andrew makes preparations to leave but Sir Toby convinces Sir Andrew to stay a month longer, no doubt so Sir Toby can use Sir Andrew and his great wealth further...
Viola has successfully disguised herself as a man named Cesario. Her success with Orsino has been so great that she is now a favorite with Orsino who believes Viola to be the man named Cesario. As such, Orsino entrusts Cesario (Viola) to express his love for Olivia. Cesario, (Viola) deeply divided by her own love for Orsino, nonetheless dutifully represents Orsino.
Olivia's maid is angry with Feste, Olivia's Clown. Feste redeems himself with Lady Olivia by telling her she should not mourn her brother since he is in a better place, namely heaven. Olivia is pleased, but Olivia's uptight steward, Malvolio is not, regarding Feste as old and lacking in wit.
Olivia gives us an insight into Malvolio's character by saying that he suffers from self-love or is arrogant and vain.
Cesario (Viola) petitions Lady Olivia, eventually gaining her audience. Olivia is quite taken by Cesario but tells him, she cannot return Orsino's affections for her.
Olivia would however like to see Cesario (Viola) again, asking him to come back to report to her how Orsino took the news.
Intrigued by Cesario, Olivia sends Malvolio after him to give back a ring Cesario left behind as an excuse to express her affection for him...
Sebastian, the twin brother Viola feared had died at sea, has also survived the shipwreck. Like Viola he mourns the loss of his sibling, believing his sister Viola to be dead.
Antonio, the man who saved Sebastian's life is touched by Sebastian's loss and decides to follow Sebastian to the Duke of Orsino's court even though he has many enemies there. Sebastian nobly tries to talk Antonio out of this, but Antonio is eventually accepted by Sebastian to travel with him to the Duke's court.
Malvolio catches up with Cesario (Viola), rudely returning Cesario's ring to him. Cesario is confused, he left no such ring at Lady Olivia's house. Malvolio also conveys Olivia's desire that Cesario return to confirm that Orsino has accepted the fact that she does not love him.
Cesario now realizes that the ring is a ploy by Olivia to express her affections for him. Realizing she has charmed Olivia, Cesario remarks that Olivia would do better chasing a dream than a man who really is a woman (Viola) in disguise. Cesario is distressed by this mess and hopes time will undo this tangled web.
Late at night, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and later Feste the Clown are enjoying some late night drinking and singing. This gets Maria's attention who warns all three men to quieten down lest Malvolio notices.
The three men ignore Maria. Malvolio arrives, warning the men that he will speak to Olivia about this noise. The three men ignore him as they did Maria and now Malvolio threatens to make Maria look disrespectful in Olivia's eyes if she does not quieten these three men down.
Maria, resenting Malvolio's heavy-handed arrogance hatches a plan to write a letter, which will convince Malvolio that Olivia loves him. This news quietens down all three men, who each dislikes Malvolio but now are all enthusiastic accomplices in his downfall. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste will hide near where Malvolio will discover the letter so they can all enjoy what in their eyes is Malvolio's rightly deserved humiliation...
Orsino notices that Cesario (Viola) is in love. Cesario describes this person in terms that precisely describe Orsino but Orsino does not realize this. Cesario warns the Duke that Lady Olivia may not love him but Orsino refuses to even accept such a possibility.
Cesario (Viola) remarks on the unreliability of men in relationships. Cesario starts to reveal "his" own past but quickly becomes vague when Orsino becomes too curious.
Orsino sends Cesario once more to Lady Olivia with a large jewel as a token of his love for her... Maria tells Fabian, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, all of whom hate Malvolio, that she has penned the letter that will convince Malvolio that Lady Olivia loves him.
Malvolio, meanwhile having not yet found the letter, starts entertaining the idea that Olivia could love him and that he could marry her.
Malvolio picks up Maria's counterfeit letter with its instructions that Malvolio be rude to kinsman like Sir Toby. It also suggests that he wear yellow stockings and be cross-gartered to win Olivia's love.
Maria explains to Sir Toby and company, that Lady Olivia hates yellow stockings and cross-gartered fashion and so Malvolio will be humiliated before Lady Olivia.
Cesario has another private meeting with Lady Olivia on Duke Orsino's behalf.
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew meet Cesario (Viola) and Sir Toby learns from Cesario that he will soon speak with Lady Olivia. In private, Lady Olivia admits to Cesario that she used the ring she sent after him to lure him back to her.
Cesario (Viola) tries to put Olivia off him but she is smitten, ignoring all Cesario's attempts to diminish her enthusiasm for "him"...
Knowing Lady Olivia will never love him, Sir Andrew prepares to head for home. The sight of Olivia showing more affection to a youth (Cesario) than him was the last straw.
Fabian and Sir Toby don't deny the affectionate display but argue Olivia did it to spur Sir Andrew to woo her and regain her respect. Sir Toby and Fabian manipulate Sir Andrew into writing a challenge to the youth (Cesario) even though they know a fight between two cowards (Cesario and Sir Andrew) is unlikely.
Maria enters, telling Sir Toby and Fabian to watch the spectacle that is Malvolio wearing yellow stockings and being cross-gartered.
Sebastian has now reluctantly accepted Antonio as his companion in the streets of Illyria.
Antonio explains that his offence in Illyria, which was theft, was one the rest of his city have repaid but he has not and so he is still wanted in Illyria. Sebastian decides to look around, but Antonio fearful of his enemies, decides to head for lodging at a place called "the Elephant." Antonio gives Sebastian his purse (wallet) and directions to this lodging and the two part their separate ways...
Olivia makes plans to once more woo Cesario (Viola). Olivia sees Malvolio with yellow stockings and cross-gartered and considers him mad since he continues to smile no matter what the situation and makes crude, lustful interpretations of Olivia's words.
Malvolio makes his famous "'Some are born great,'-" speech.
Learning that Cesario has returned, Lady Olivia has Malvolio put into the care of her servants since in her eyes, Malvolio's behavior is some "midsummer madness."
Sir Toby, Maria and Fabian plot to have Malvolio placed in a "dark room," so they can have some fun with him. Sir Andrew arrives with his completed letter challenging Cesario. Sir Toby decides to verbally scare Cesario and Sir Andrew about their opponents instead of sending the letter.
Alone with Cesario once more, Lady Olivia makes no progress with Cesario who will not requit (return) her love. Olivia is undaunted by this. Sir Toby scares both Sir Andrew and Cesario into drawing their weapons on each other.
Antonio arrives, pledging to fight Sir Andrew on Cesario's (Viola's) behalf who he thinks is Sebastian since Viola disguised as a man now looks like her twin brother Sebastian.
The fight is stopped but Officers recognizing Antonio, capture him. Antonio asks Cesario (Viola) for his purse back but Cesario not recognizing him does not oblige.
Antonio thinks Sebastian has betrayed him, not realizing he has asked Cesario (Viola) for his purse, not Sebastian.
Confusion reigns as Sebastian is now mistaken for Cesario when Feste insists Sebastian sent for him and Sebastian is certain he did not (Cesario obviously did).
Sir Andrew finds Sebastian and thinking it is Cesario from the earlier "fight" that did not happen, hits Sebastian. Sebastian unlike Cesario is not afraid to return the favor and a fight is only stopped by Sir Toby's intervention. Sir Andrew decides to have Sebastian punished by the law of Illyria despite the fact that he started the fight.
Sir Toby and Sebastian are just about to fight when Olivia screams for her uncle, Sir Toby to stop. Olivia now scolds Sir Toby, hoping Sebastian, whom she thinks is Cesario (Viola), will forgive her uncle and not be displeased with her.
Sebastian, amazed that this beautiful woman he does not know, loves him, replies to Olivia that he will be ruled by her and the two set off to marry immediately...
In Olivia's house, Malvolio in a darkened room is teased mercilessly by Feste who tries unsuccessfully to convince Malvolio that he is mad.
Sir Toby, fearing that his fight with Cesario (actually Sebastian) has put him on thin ice with Olivia, wants Feste's teasing of Malvolio to stop. Feste has other ideas but eventually lets Malvolio write a letter to Olivia proclaiming his sanity...
Sebastian can barely believe his luck, a beautiful woman (Olivia) loves him and has given him a pearl. Sebastian briefly wonders if he is dreaming before he marries Olivia in a private chapel. Olivia explains that their now secret marriage will be revealed later...
In the final scene, chaos ensues as the identical appearing Cesario (Viola) and Sebastian are each blamed for the other's actions. First Feste blames Sebastian for beckoning him, not realizing it was Cesario who called for him.
Cesario spots Antonio the man who saved him from fighting Sir Andrew but was taken prisoner by Orsino's officers in Act III. Antonio again asks Cesario for his wallet back thinking he is Sebastian. Cesario (Viola), who does not know Antonio, does not and so Antonio curses him for his betrayal, not realizing he is talking to Cesario not Sebastian whom he lent his wallet to.
We learn that Antonio is an enemy of Illyria and especially of Orsino for plundering his ships as a pirate in the past.
Now a prisoner, Antonio baffles Orsino by telling him that he and Cesario (Viola) have been together night and day for three weeks when who Antonio is really thinking of is Sebastian. Orsino cannot believe this; Cesario has been with him for three weeks.
Olivia arrives and we see that Orsino still loves her. The feeling is not mutual... Olivia scolds Cesario (Viola) for neglecting her, revealing that "he" is her husband.
Cesario (Viola) amazed by this, pleads "his" innocence to Orsino who "he" truly loves and Orsino thinking his servant betrayed him by taking Olivia for himself, prepares to punish Cesario.
Olivia meanwhile despairs that her husband Cesario who really is Sebastian, would leave willingly with Orsino to be punished rather than be with his wife and she too claims betrayal by Cesario (Viola).
Sebastian arrives, apologizing for attacking Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Orsino seeing both Cesario and Sebastian together is amazed that he sees two copies of the same man. Olivia too is amazed.
Sebastian and Cesario compare notes on how they arrived in Illyria each claiming that their sibling had drowned.
Eventually they realize that since they knew the same father they are indeed brother and sister, Cesario revealing "his" real identity as the woman named Viola.
Malvolio storms in and the cruel prank against him is revealed by Fabian who confesses.
Orsino calls Olivia his sister, and Orsino takes Cesario for his mistress and we presume later his wife with Feste ending the play in song.
ACT I SCENE i
The play opens in the Duke's palace.
As his musicians play, the Duke speaks of love and says if music is the food that sustains love he wants to hear enough to make him sick of it, so he will no longer want to hear any and no longer be in love. ( It appears he's not having much luck in the romance area.)
His servant, Curio, returns from visiting Lady Olivia's house (the Duke's love interest) and informs the Duke that she has sworn off men for the next 7 years in order to devote herself to grieving for her recently deceased brother.
The Duke, distraught with this information, comments that it is such a waste for her to place all her love on a dead man. But, he ads, if she can love a dead man that much - imagine how much she will love him when he wins her over!
Viola has landed after a shipwreck on the seacoast of a country called Illyria.
Viola is without her brother and believes he is dead.
Viola mourns over her brother Sebastian's death, but the Captain, who survived with her, tries to offer her some comfort by telling her that the last time he saw Sebastian he was alive and clinging to some driftwood on the angry sea.
Viola asks who governs the land they are in and the Captain tells her a Duke named Orsino.
Viola recognizes the Duke's name and mentions that when she heard her father speak of Orsino, long ago, he was a bachelor.
The captain confirms that Orsino still is, but that it is rumoured he has taken a love interest in Lady Olivia.
When Viola wants to know who this lady is, the Captain tells her that the lady has suffered much in the last year: She lost her father a year ago and her brother has just recently died.
Viola immediately feels compassion for Olivia's situation, as they have their suffering in common, and wishes to go work for her.
The Captain assures Viola that this would be impossible as Olivia has refused all strangers.
As a means to protect her virtue (a single woman in a foreign land is very unsafe), Viola decides that she will disguise herself as a man and seek employment with the Duke.
She asks for the Captain's help with the task and he agrees to help her and keep her identity hidden.
Summary: Act I, scene ii
Meanwhile, on the Illyrian sea coast, a young noblewoman named Viola speaks with the captain whose crew has just rescued her from a shipwreck. Although Viola was found and rescued, her brother, Sebastian, seems to have vanished in the storm. The captain tells Viola that Sebastian may still be alive. He says that he saw Sebastian trying to keep afloat by tying himself to a broken mast. But Viola does not know whether or not it is worth holding onto hope. In the meantime, however, she needs to find a way to support herself in this strange land.
The ship’s captain tells Viola all about Duke Orsino, who rules Illyria. Viola remarks that she has heard of this duke and mentions that he used to be a bachelor. The captain says that Orsino still is a bachelor, but then goes on to tell Viola about the Lady Olivia, whom the duke is courting. Again, we hear the tale of how Lady Olivia’s brother died, leading her to cut herself off from the world. Viola expresses a wish that she could become a servant in the house of Olivia and hide herself away from the world as well. The captain responds that it is unlikely that Viola will enter Olivia’s service because Olivia refuses to see any visitors, the duke included. Viola decides that, in that case, she will disguise herself as a young man and seek service with Duke Orsino instead. When she promises to pay him well, the captain agrees to help her, and they go off together in order to find a disguise for her.
Analysis: Act I, scenes i–ii
Viola’s plan for disguising herself in Act I, scene ii introduces one of the central motifs of the play: disguise and the identity confusion related to it. Similarly, Orsino’s mournful speech in Act I, scene i lets us know that the play will also concern matters of love: emotion, desire, and rejection. Put together, the two scenes suggest the extra twist that is the hallmark ofTwelfth Night: mistaken gender identity. Twelfth Night is one of the plays referred to as Shakespeare’s “transvestite comedies,” and Viola’s gender deception leads to all kinds of romantic complications.
The opening lines of Twelfth Night, in which a moping Orsino, attended by his servants and musicians, says, “If music be the food of love, play on,” establish how love has conquered Orsino (I.i.1). His speech on this subject is rather complicated, as he employs a metaphor to try to establish some control over love. He asks for the musicians to give him so much music—the “food of love”—that he will overdose (“surfeit” [I.i.2]) and not be hungry for love any longer. Orsino’s trick proves too simple, however; while it makes him tire of the music, it fails to stop him from thinking about love.
Orsino also makes a pertinent comment about the relationship between romance and imagination: “So full of shapes is fancy / That it alone is high fantastical” (I.i.14–15). This comment relates the idea of overpowering love (“fancy”) to that of imagination (that which is “fantastical”), a connection that is appropriate for both Orsino and Twelfth Night as a whole. Beginning in this scene, the play repeatedly raises the question of whether romantic love has more to do with the person who is loved or with the lover’s own imagination—whether love is real or merely something that the human mind creates for the sake of entertainment and delight. In the case of Orsino, the latter seems to be true, as he is less in love with Olivia herself than he is with the idea of being in love with Olivia. He claims to be devastated because she will not have him, but as the audience watches him wallow in his seeming misery, it is difficult to escape the impression that he is enjoying himself—flopping about on rose-covered beds, listening to music, and waxing eloquent about Olivia’s beauty to his servants. The genuineness of Orsino’s emotions comes into question even further when he later switches his affections from Olivia to Viola without a second thought; the audience then suspects that he does not care whom he is in love with, as long as he can be in love.
Act 1, Scene 1
Orsino, the Duke of Illyria (what is now Yugoslavia), is talking with his servants. He wants to hear music, because he believes it will cure him of his lovesickness. A moment later, however, he no longer wants to hear the music, and he is amazed at how changeable love makes him.
He is in love with the countess Olivia: "O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, methought she purg'd the air of pestilence...And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds, E'er since pursue me." His servant Valentine comes back from visiting Olivia, and Orsino eagerly asks him what Olivia said to him. Valentine says that Olivia would not see him, but she sent her servant to tell Valentine that she will mourn for her dead brother for seven years, and see no one. The Duke hopes that she will transfer her devotion and love from her brother to himself. In the meantime, his love for her seems even stronger.
Act 1, Scene 2
Viola comes to Illyria with a captain and a crew of sailors. She wonders why she should be here, when her brother, who drowned, is in heaven. She wonders if he might possibly still be alive, and the captain tells her that the last he saw of her brother during the storm where he was lost, the man was clinging to a piece of wood. It is possible, therefore, that her brother might have floated that way to shore. Viola talks about Illyria with the captain, who grew up near there.
The captain reports that the Orsino is in love with Olivia, who has refused to see any men since her brother and father both died. Viola wishes she could be Olivia's servant, so she could be in hiding for a while, until she was ready to be herself again. The captain protests that that would be difficult, since Olivia won't even see the Duke, let alone an average person. Viola asks the captain to disguise her as man, so that she can serve Orsino. She says she will be a great servant, and tells him to keep her identity a secret. "What else may hap, to time I will commit; only shape thou thy silence to my wit."