When Viola first comes on stage, she is a saddened and tired woman. She believes she has lost her identical twin brother Sebastian in a shipwreck and feels immediate sympathy when she hears that another woman, Olivia, is also in mourning for her brother. Viola then decides on the plan that will cause the most important events of this play - she decides to disguise herself as a man, Cesario. And this brief scene is the only time we see Viola in woman's clothing - to the very end of the play, she is, for all appearances, a man.
As Cesario, Viola becomes the confidant of her new master, Orsino. In the process, she falls in love with him. Meanwhile, the woman Orsino is in love with, Olivia, falls in love with Cesario. At that point, Viola has a double task: to fend off Olivia's romantic advances while trying to hint at how she really feels about Orsino. When her brother, Sebastian, shows up and people begin mistaking him for Cesario, Viola's ruse collapses: Olivia marries Sebastian, and Sir Andrew attacks him - both thinking that Sebastian is Cesario. In the play's final scene, she meets her brother, who can't understand how Cesario can look exactly like him when he has no brother, only a twin sister. At that point, Viola reveals who she is and reunites with her brother. Olivia marries Sebastian, and Orsino, finding out who she is, asks to marry Viola. She has everything except for her women's clothes - which she left with the sea captain who helped her, and who is not found during the play. Until she dresses as a woman, Orsino says, he will call her Cesario.
Olivia, too, is miserable at the beginning of the play. She has lost her father and her brother in the span of the year, is in permanent mourning, and seems to have developed a dislike for men in general, and thus will accept no suitors. Orsino, the Duke, is in love with her, but she consistently rejects his advances. Further, her uncle's friend Sir Andrew is secretly in love with her, and Malvolio, her dull and peevish servant, has been tricked into believing she has been sending him love letters. Yet it is not a man who Olivia falls in love with, but instead a disguised woman - Viola (as Cesario). Despite Olivia's advances - she gives Viola a ring, a jewel, and endlessly professes her love - Cesario will, for reasons obvious to us but not to her, have nothing to do with her. Finally, when Sebastian, who looks and sounds identical to Cesario, shows up, he loves her at first sight. They marry: Olivia thinks she is marrying Cesario, and Sebastian doesn't know quite what has happened. When it is revealed who Cesario is, Olivia happily accepts her marriage to Sebastian and accepts Orsino, who is marrying Viola, as her brother-in-law.
Orsino is the Duke of Illyria, the city in which Twelfth Night takes place. He is handsome, smart, and powerful, but the subject of the play is what he cannot have, Olivia. The play begins with Orsino listening to music, saddened, unable to win the one woman he wants. Orsino never gets far in his pursuit, and when he accepts Cesario as his confidant and messenger, matters only become worse. He instructs Cesario to be charming and poetic, and "he" is - and Olivia falls in love with the messenger instead of the master. For most of the play Orsino doesn't realize this - in fact, for most of the play, he is offstage, the center of attention only at its beginning and its end. When he does, however, his anger is quickly stifled by a new revelation: Cesario is actually a woman, Viola. Viola has, in her disguise, become Orsino's closest friend and confidant, and quickly adjusting to the change of affairs, he chooses to marry her.
Much of the fun in Twelfth Night comes at Malvolio's expense. He is Olivia's dull and Puritanical servant, constantly trying to stop others - mostly Sir Toby and Feste - from having fun. When the others in Olivia's household tire of Malvolio, they decide to play a trick on him: Olivia's servant, Maria, writes love letters to him that look like they're from Olivia, and Malvolio takes the bait. Imagining that he will soon be Olivia's husband, Malvolio starts acting like a nobleman, as the letter instructs him to - he puts on yellow stockings, acts as if he's better than the other members of the household, and talks familiarly with Olivia. Olivia, not knowing what's happened, decides he's mad, and the other servants convince her to tie him up and lock him away in a dark room, where they constantly mock him. At this point, the treatment of Malvolio seems excessively cruel - the possible explanations for this are treated above (see "Historical Context"). In the end, Olivia uncovers the plot, but simply resolves that Malvolio has, indeed, been a fool. He departs, vowing revenge.
Feste, the fool, has no real role in the plot - other than as an occasional messenger or conspirator - but he is at the lively heart of Twelfth Night. His name suggests a party (as in "festive" or "festival") and it is as an agent of fun and mischief that he takes his roles in the play: helping with the prank against Malvolio (where he dresses up as a high-ranking priest, "Sir Topaz"), singing songs, and making fun of everyone. As fools often do in Shakespeare's plays, Feste is allowed by his profession to tell the truth to powerful people - as when he suggests that Olivia's mourning is excessive - without fear of punishment. More specifically, while fools often sing songs, Feste does so more than any other Shakespearean fool, wins accolades for his voice, and sings all of the songs in a play filled with music. And Feste is a relentless profiteer - he rarely tells a joke or sings a song without getting paid, often getting paid twice, by his entertained audience.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3
Scenes 1.4 and 1.5
Scenes 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3
Scenes 2.4 and 2.5
Scenes 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3