Twelfth Night opens to the sounds of music. The listener is Orsino, Duke of Illyria, who's hopelessly in love with the noblewoman Olivia, who has refused all of his advances. Olivia has been in mourning for almost a year for her brother and her father, and walks through her house veiled and weeping, refusing all suitors, even the Duke, the noblest man in Illyria. Orsino is soon cheered by a new arrival at his court: Cesario, a young and charming man who soon becomes the Duke's dearest servant and closest friend. But the Duke does not realize what the audience does - Cesario is actually Viola, a noblewoman who survived a shipwreck, one in which she thinks her brother drowned. Mourning her own brother, and not ready to go back to the world, Viola decides to spend her time in Illyria as a servant, and the captain who saved her from the wreck helps her again by disguising her as a man: Cesario. It is in this guise that she enters the Duke's household. Soon Viola, as Cesario, is the Duke's messenger to Olivia, and soon Viola falls in love with the Duke, a love she has to keep secret since Orsino believes she's a man.
Meanwhile, at Olivia's house, her relative Sir Toby and his friend Sir Andrew are constantly drunk and noisy. This worries Olivia's servant Maria, though she finds the men endearing, but it infuriates Olivia's Puritan steward, Malvolio. Malvolio is even more angered by the constant companion of Toby and Andrew: Feste, Olivia's fool, who has a quick wit and a beautiful voice. Feste jokes with Maria and Sir Toby, usually getting money for his jokes, while prudish Malvolio becomes the brunt of everyone's scorn. Soon a new figure comes into the household: Cesario, Orsino's new messenger. While Olivia has consistently refused the Duke's advances, she proves receptive to Cesario, and soon has a ring sent to him only as a trick to get "him" to come back and visit her. Soon Olivia admits to Cesario that it is "him," and not the Duke, whom she loves. Cesario, who is of course actually Viola, refuses Olivia's advances, but Olivia vows that it is "he" alone whom she loves.
On the shores of Illyria, unseen by everyone but the audience, Viola's twin brother Sebastian, who she thought died in the shipwreck, has arrived. He, however, is sure that his sister died in the wreck. Sebastian has arrived with his friend Antonio, who saved him from the shipwreck and insists on accompanying him in Illyria, though he has many enemies in the town, since once his crew attacked and pirated the Duke's ships.
Meanwhile, Maria has devised a plot for all the members of the household to get their revenge against Malvolio. She forges a love letter to him from Olivia, and when Malvolio finds and reads it, he begins preparing to marry Olivia and to become a nobleman himself, following the letter's instructions on how to act. When he begins speaking familiarly with Olivia, dropping hints from the letter he thinks she has written, Olivia can only conclude that he has gone mad. She has him locked up in a dark room, and hopes that he recovers his supposedly lost sanity. Maria, Sir Toby, and the others relentlessly mock Malvolio once he's inside, with Feste pretending to be a priest who has come to exorcise his supposed demons. A second prank gets underway when Sir Andrew, who's secretly in love with Olivia, sees her declare her love to Cesario. Prodded on by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew prepares to challenge Cesario to a duel.
Cesario and Sir Andrew meet and, both cowardly but encouraged to duel, draw their swords. Just then, Sebastian's friend Antonio enters, and draws his sword to protect Cesario. (Since Sebastian and Viola are twins, Cesario looks exactly like Sebastian, and Antonio has confused the two.) Officers then arrive and arrest Antonio for his piracy of the Duke's ships. As he is led away, he pleads with Cesario to explain why he pretends not to know him. Once Antonio is taken away, Viola guesses what might have happened, and runs after him. Sir Andrew, in turn, prodded as usual by Sir Toby, runs after Cesario to pursue the fight.
Instead of finding Cesario, they find Sebastian, who fights back when they attack him. Olivia then enters and, mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, tells the men to leave him alone. She takes him away with her, and Sebastian, though he doesn't quite know what is happening, falls in love with Olivia at once. Olivia finds a priest, and, privately, the two get married.
Clearly, going into the play's final scene, everything is in complete confusion. At the beginning of this last scene, Orsino arrives at Olivia's house with Cesario. Antonio is then brought in by officers; Cesario identifies him as the man who protected "him" from Sir Andrew, Orsino identifies him as the pirate, while Antonio claims that Cesario is the man who he arrived with from sea just the day before.
Olivia enters, and wants to speak with her "husband," indicating Cesario. Orsino is shocked, and Cesario denies they got married - though Olivia thinks Cesario is only scared to admit it in front of "his" master. She calls for the priest, who agrees that he did, indeed marry the two of them, only a couple of hours ago.
Sirs Toby and Andrew enter injured, by, they claim, Cesario. They're sent away, and Sebastian comes in, apologizing to Olivia for hurting her friends. Neither Olivia nor Antonio understands what has happened: they see two identical men. At last, Sebastian and Viola see each other and are no less shocked. Finally, by telling each other who they are and where they come from, they realize who the other one is, and Cesario must reveal to everyone "his" true identity: Viola. Orsino at once offers to marry his Viola, and Olivia accepts her marriage to Sebastian, and so Orsino as her brother-in-law.
Viola only needs her women's clothes, which she left with a captain who, she says, was imprisoned by Malvolio. Olivia sends for him, and when Malvolio enters and gives her the letter he thinks she has written, she demands to know what happened. Fabian, another friend of Sir Toby's, explains the details of the prank, adding that Sir Toby and Maria have gotten married. Malvolio storms off, vowing revenge. The two couples - Olivia and Sebastian, Orsino and Viola - leave the stage, as do the other characters, so that only Feste remains. He sings a ballad whose lyrics suggest that, despite the troubles of life, the actors will always provide entertainment.
Browse all book notes|
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