We are introduced to Orsino, Duke of Illyria, who has lost interest in everything (including hunting) because he is pining away for the local beauty, Countess Olivia.
He receives news from his servant, Valentine, that she will not entertain anyone for seven years out of love and respect for her recently deceased brother.
Far from discouraging Orsino, he is impressed by her devotion and speculates how correspondingly great her love for him will be when he finally wins her over.
Act 1, Scene 2:
The ship that Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are sailing in sinks. Viola manages to cling to a lifeboat and is saved. The Captain informs her that Sebastian was last seen tying himself to a big mast floating in the sea. They fear that he is drowned.
They are shipwrecked near Illyria. Luckily the Captain grew up in Illyria so he is able to tell Viola about Orsino and his love for Olivia. She learns that Olivia refuses to see anyone outside her family because she is mourning her brother, something that Viola relates to. Although disappointed that she will not be able to work for Olivia, she decides to disguise herself as a man and find employment as the Duke's servant instead.
She asks the Captain for an introduction and assures him that the Duke will be happy with her service because she can sing and make conversation. She makes the Captain swear that he will not reveal her true identity.
Act 1, Scene 3:
Olivia's maid, Maria, scolds Sir Toby for coming home late - and drunk - and for inviting his friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (whom she calls a natural-born idiot), to stay with them. When Sir Andrew enters, they all banter back and forth, and Maria insults Sir Andrew without him even realizing it.
Since Sir Andrew is not making any progress in his quest to woo Olivia (she won't even see him), he decides to go home. Sir Toby distracts him with talk of dancing and convinces him to stay another month.
Act 1, Scene 4:
Viola, now disguised as Cesario, is working for the Duke who is very impressed with 'him'. He tells Cesario all the secrets of his soul, including his feelings for Olivia.
He instructs Cesario to go to Olivia's household and tell her how passionately he loves her, although Cesario is not convinced that this will work. Orsino persists and instructs Cesario to do whatever is necessary to gain an audience. He promises Cesario a fortune if 'he' gets it right.
Cesario agrees but, in an aside, laments the tough task of matchmaking for the man she herself wants to marry!
Act 1, Scene 5:
Maria scolds Feste, a professional fool whom Lady Olivia pays to entertain her. He is in trouble for disappearing when Olivia wants him.
He "proves" that Olivia is a fool by pointing out the absurdity of mourning for a brother who she believes to be in heaven.
Malvolio, Olivia's stewart (head servant), is unimpressed by the fool's insolence but Olivia dismisses his objections by assuring him that a court jester doesn't really criticize people, even if he makes fun of them all day.
They are interrupted by news that a handsome young gentleman (Cesario) is calling on behalf of Orsino. Although she initially refuses his request, she finally agrees out of curiosity and dons a veil to meet him.
They banter back and forth as Cesario delivers 'his' message to Olivia. She seems quite taken by 'him' exclaiming: "Methinks I feel this youth's perfections".
She contrives a reason to see 'him' again, telling Cesario to return with news of how Orsino takes the rejection. Just in case that doesn't work, she has Malvolio run after Cesario to return a ring that 'he' supposedly gave to her (but didn't!) AND to tell Cesario to return the next morning so that she can explain why she's not right for Orsino.
She realizes that she's being irrational but abandons herself to fate anyway.
Act 2, Scene 1:
Sebastian survives the shipwreck and is rescued by Antonio, a former soldier who tends to him devotedly. Sebastian is not sure where to go, so sets his sights on Illyria. Antonio is desperate to accompany him even though he has many enemies there. He declares his affection for Sebastian and goes with.
Act 2, Scene 2:
Malvolio catches up with Cesario. He throws the ring back at 'him' and instructs 'him' to make it clear to Orsino that Olivia is not interested. He also instructs Cesario to return later to tell Olivia how Orsino reacts to the bad news.
Since Viola didn't give Olivia such any ring, she realises that Olivia has fallen in love with 'Cesario'. She feels bad about the whole situation because Orsino's love for Olivia is hopeless; Olivia's love for Cesario is hopeless; and Viola's love for Orsino is hopeless. She doesn't know what to do.
Act 2, Scene 3:
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew come home from a night on the town and sing songs with Feste. Maria enters to warn them to keep it down but too late. Malvolio enters and scolds them. He informs them that if they can’t behave, they will be expelled from the house.
After he leaves they begin to plot their revenge on him. Maria undertakes to make a fool of Malvolio because: “He isn’t really that pure and good. He’s just a conceited flatterer. He’s a pretentious guy who aspires to speak and act like nobility. He’s proud, and he thinks he’s so stuffed full of wonderful qualities that everyone loves him. That’s the weakness I’ll use to get revenge on him.”
What she proposes to do is: “Drop some mysterious love letters in his path. He’ll think they’re addressed to him, because they’ll describe the color of his beard, the shape of his legs, the way he walks, and the expression on his face. I can make my handwriting look just like Lady Olivia’s: she and I can’t tell the difference between each other’s handwriting.”
The idea is to make Malvolio think that Olivia is in love with him and then make him look like a complete idiot.
Act 2, Scene 4:
Orsino talks to Cesario about love. Cesario asks Orsino why he can’t just accept that Olivia doesn’t love him. After all, wouldn’t he expect the same of a woman if she loved him but he didn’t love her? Orsino brags that “no woman is strong enough to put up with the kind of intense passion I feel.” He says his love cannot be compared to that of a woman. His love is “all-consuming and insatiable as the sea.” In response, Cesario tells him about the daughter of her father (i.e. her) who loved a man but never told him. She describes to him what she is going through and then states that while men are better at making vows, they are not as sincere in their feelings as women.
Orsino sends Cesario once more to Olivia with the words: “Tell her my love won’t go away and won’t be denied.”
Act 2, Scene 5:
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria are ready to play their prank on Malvolio. They rope in Fabian, a servant in Olivia’s household. They all spy on Malvolio who is talking through his ambitions of marrying Olivia and becoming Count Malvolio. The conspirators are filled with outrage at the arrogance and insolence of Malvolio’s fantasies. They can hardly keep quiet.
Malvolio finds the fake letter and is convinced that it was written by Olivia. It reads: “To my dear beloved who doesn’t know I love him, I send you this letter with all my heart. God knows I love someone. But who? I can’t let my lips say his name; no man must know. I may order the one I love. But silence, like a knife, cuts open my heart with strokes that draw no blood. M.O.A.I. rules my life. If this letter falls into your hands, think carefully about what it says. By my birth I rank above you, but don’t be afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Your fate awaits you. Accept it in body and spirit. To get used to the life you’ll most likely be leading soon, get rid of your low-class trappings. Show some eagerness for the new upscale lifestyle that’s waiting for you. Argue with a relative like a nobleman, and be rude to servants. Talk about politics and affairs of state, and act free and independent. The woman who advises you to do this loves you. Remember the woman who complimented you on your yellow stockings, and said she always wanted to see you with crisscrossing laces going up your legs – remember her. Go ahead. A happy new life is there is you want it. If you don’t want it, just keep acting like a lowly servant who’s not brave enough to grab the happiness there before him. Goodbye. Signed, she who would be your servant, The Fortunate Unhappy. P.S. You must have figured out who I am. If you love me, let me know by smiling at me. You’re so attractive when you smile. Please smile whenever you’re near me, my dearest darling.”
Malvolio falls for the letter and undertakes to do whatever it asks of him, much to the delight of the conspirators because Olivia will hate everything he tries to do.
Sir Toby openly adores Maria.
Act 3, Scene 1:
Cesario is on her way to deliver Orsino’s message to Olivia when 'he' meets the fool. Cesario has this to say of him: “This guy’s wise enough to play the fool, and only clever people can do that. He pays attention to the mood and social rank of the person he’s joking with, and also to the time of day. And he doesn’t let go of his target when a distraction appears. His job requires as much effort and skill as any wise man’s occupation could. And he shows he’s very smart at playing the fool, while smart people look stupid when they play the fool."
After a brief encounter with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, Cesario is received by Olivia.
Olivia asks Cesario straight out how ‘he’ feels about her. Cesario confesses that ‘he’ feels sorry for her. Olivia can no more accept Cesario’s answer than Orsino can accept hers. She pleads: “Cesario, I swear by the spring roses, by virginity, honor, truth and everything, I swear I love you. I love you so much that I can’t hide my passion for you, as clever as I am. Don’t assume that because I’m pursuing you there’s no reason to pursue me. Put two and two together and realize that asking for love is good, but getting it without asking is much better.”
Cesario puts it to her straight: “And I swear by my youth and innocence that I’ve only got one heart and one love to give, and that I’ve never given them to a woman and never will.”
The scene ends with Olivia once again pleading that Cesario return so that ‘he’ might fall in love with her.
No matter how hard Viola - dressed as Cesario - tries to fob off Olivia, she just won't take the hint. Write Viola's diary entry for the day expressing her frustration at the situation and the things she wishes she could do or say.
Act 3, Scene 2:
Sir Andrew is angry over Olivia’s flirtations with Cesario, and he wants to leave. Fabian tries to convince him that Olivia was only flirting with the messenger boy to “exasperate you, fire up your passions, and make you angry and jealous.” He tells Sir Andrew that he should have run up to her, “unleashed a few excellent quips invented on the spot, and rendered the young man speechless.” He says that Olivia is disappointed that he didn’t do so, and the only way to remedy the situation is to perform some “impressive act of courage or complicated intrigue."
Sir Andrew thus decides to challenge Cesario to a duel, something which Sir Toby finds amusing. He mocks Sir Andrew: “If you dissected Andrew and found enough red blood in his liver for a flea to eat, then I’d eat the rest of his corpse. He’s a coward.” Fabian adds that “his opponent, the young messenger, doesn’t look like he’d be very aggressive in a fight."
Maria interrupts to inform them that Malvolio is doing everything that the letter required of him, to hilarious effect.
Act 3, Scene 3:
Sebastian arrives in Illyria with Antonio, who is still declaring his love. Antonio cannot accompany Sebastian on a tour of the city because he is a wanted man. Apparently he refused to return what he plundered from Illyria during a sea battle. He gives Sebastian his wallet.
Create a WANTED poster for Antonio. Your poster must include a symbolic crest for the House of Orsino, a description of Antonio and an emotive account of his crimes. It must also offer some sort of inducement for people to hand him over.
Act 3, Scene 4:
Maria informs Olivia that Malvolio is acting very strangely. She believes “he must be possessed by the devil.” Malvolio keeps quoting the letter as though it means something to Olivia. She is, understandably, confused. When Cesario arrives, Olivia entrusts Malvolio into the care of Sir Toby.
Sir Toby, Maria and Fabian continue to pretend that Malvolio has been possessed by the devil. Sir Toby suggests that they put him in a dark room and tie him up: “My niece already thinks he’s insane. We can go on like this, punishing him and having some fun, until we’re tired of it.”
They run into Sir Andrew who has just finished writing his challenge. It reads: “Young man, whatever you are, you’re a real scum bucket. Don’t even ask why I call you that, because I won’t give you any explanation. You come to see the lady Olivia, and she’s kind to you. But you’re a complete liar. That’s not why I’m challenging you to a duel. I’ll ambush you on your way home, and if you’re lucky enough to kill me – you’ll be killing me like a common criminal, a mugger. Good luck, and may God have mercy on one of our souls. He may have mercy upon mine. But I have a better chance of surviving, so watch out. Signed, your friend, if you treat him right, and your sworn enemy, Andrew Aguecheek.”
Sir Toby, who thinks the letter is “incredibly stupid and ignorant”, knows that it won’t have any effect on Cesario. Instead of delivering it, he decides to convince Cesario that Sir Andrew is a skilled fighter: “He’s riled up and blood-thirsty, and he’s waiting for you at the back of the orchard. Draw your sword and get on your toes, because your assailant is quick, skilful, and deadly."
He convinces Sir Andrew of the same thing: “Wow, he’s a real devil. I’ve never seen such a monster. I have a round with him, and his sword thrust is so deadly that you can’t even duck out of the way. And when he strikes back at you, he’ll hit you as sure as you’re standing there.”
Although both Cesario and Sir Andrew try to weasel out of the duel, Sir Toby insists. They are only spared the duel when Antonio arrives and, mistaking Cesario for Sebastian, offers to fight in his behalf. Just then some officers arrive and arrest Antonio. He asks (who he thinks is) Sebastian for his wallet back. Of course, Cesario doesn’t know what he is talking about but kindly offers to loan him some money. He is outraged. Even though Viola feels aggrieved by the verbal attack he unleashes, she feels a glimmer of hope that Sebastian is alive when he says: “I saved this young man’s life when he was half-dead, and nursed him back to health lovingly and tenderly. I devoted myself to him, since he looked noble and good.”
Antonio is not the only one who feels cheated by Cesario. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew do too. They decide to run after Cesario and beat him up.
Act 4, Scene 1:
Sir Andrew runs up to Sebastian and hits him. Sebastian returns the blow and swords are drawn. Olivia, called by the Fool, rushes in to stop the fight. Olivia is less than impressed with Sir Toby: “You’re an ungrateful slob who’s only fit to live in the mountains, in caves far from civilized people where you won’t ever need good manners! Get out of my sight!”
Sebastian is confused and wonders whether he’s insane or caught in a dream. He goes with Olivia to her house.
Act 4, Scene 2:
Feste, disguised as Sir Topas the priest, visits “Malvolio, the lunatic”. Malvolio begs ‘Sir Topas’ to inform Olivia of his treatment. ‘Sir Topas’ tries to convince him that he’s crazy by insisting that the room is light and airy with big windows, even though in reality it is pitch dark.
Sir Toby is too scared of Olivia to let the prank go on further. He wants to find a way of ending it.
Feste appears to Malvolio again, this time as himself. Malvolio convinces Feste to give him a piece of paper, pen and a candle so he can write to Olivia. Feste agrees to.
Act 4, Scene 3:
In this scene Sebastian realises that there must be some mistake that he’s being treated so well by Olivia but he sees it as a “sudden flood of good luck”. He is impressed by the smoothness in which Olivia “runs her house, commands her servants, listens to reports, makes decisions, and takes care of business” so when Olivia asks him to marry her, he agrees. He vows to be faithful to her.
Act 5, Scene 1:
Cesario points out Antonio to Orsino, who remembers him well. “The last time I saw him it was black from the smoke of war. He was the captain of a flimsy boat that was practically worthless because it was so small. But with that tiny boat he fought such a fierce battle against the largest warship in our fleet that we had to admire his courage and skill even though he caused us a lot of damage.”
Cesario tries to stick up for Antonio because of his willingness to help against Sir Andrew although Antonio again accuses Cesario of treachery.
Olivia arrives and encounters Orsino face to face for the first time in the play. She warns him not to say anything to her because “it’ll be as repulsive to my ears as wild screams after beautiful music.” Orsino is shocked and calls her mean, nasty, rude, ungrateful, cold-hearted and a beautiful woman with a heart of stone. He guesses at her love for Cesario and intends to take Cesario away from her, just to spite her.
Cesario follows him willingly declaring that “I love [him] more than my eyes or my life. More than I will ever love a wife”. Olivia calls Cesario “husband" and calls for the priest to testify to their marriage. Orsino is outraged and turns on Cesario.
At that moment Sir Andrew arrives calling for help. It seems that Sir Toby has been injured while fighting Sebastian, whom they mistake for Cesario. Great confusion follows because Cesario has been with Orsino the whole time.
Finally, Sebastian arrives. Everyone is stunned. As Orsino puts it: “One face, one voice, one way of dressing, but two people! It’s like an optical illusion. It is and isn’t the same person!” Sebastian and Viola are finally reuinited.
The fool delivers to Olivia the note from Malvolio which reads: “I swear to God, madam, you’ve wronged me, and I’ll tell the whole world. You’ve shut me up in a dark room and given your drunken cousin authority over me, but I’m as sane as you are. I’ve got a letter from you encouraging me to act the way I did. If I didn’t have it, I couldn’t prove that I’m right and you’re wrong. I don’t care what you think of me. I’m going to forget my duties to you a little bit and complain about the injuries you’ve caused me. Signed, The poorly treated Malvolio.”
Olivia instructs Fabian to set him free and bring him to her.
She then suggests to Orsino that she and Sebastian be joined by him and Viola for a double wedding at her house the next day. With that, Orsino proposes to Viola: “You’ve called me ‘master’ for so long. And now you’ll be your master’s mistress.”
Malvolio enters and the whole trick is exposed. He vows revenge on “every last one of you”.
Write a letter to the press from Malvolio detailing the pain he has suffered, the compensation he thinks he deserves, and the punishment he believes should be meted out. His letter should be bitter in tone.
The play ends with Orsino declaring: “I’ll keep calling you Cesario while you’re still a man, but when we see you in women’s clothes you’ll be the queen of my dreams, Orsino’s true love.”
[All quotes taken from the No Fear Shakespeare translation]
Using the text of the play and the summaries, answer these essay questions as comprehensively as you can:
Discuss the role of mistaken identity in Twelfth Night. Who is mistaken for whom, and what do these mix-ups signify?
Discuss the role of the explicitly comic characters—Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste, and Maria. What function do they serve? How is each one different from the others? How is Feste, in particular, different from Sir Toby and Sir Andrew?
What role does Malvolio serve in the play? Does his fate seem unjust? Is it out of place in a romantic comedy? If so, why might Shakespeare have included it?
Paying particular attention to the fate of Malvolio and Antonio, discuss how Shakespeare brings some ambiguous touches to the happy ending.
Compare Orsino and Olivia, and discuss how their attitudes about strong emotions are similar or different. What does Shakespeare suggest about the nature of love and other powerful feelings in his portrayal of these two characters?