Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare

The comedy about identical twins Viola and Sebastian, who become separated after being shipwrecked in Illyria, and their subsequent adventures. The scenes in the play alternate between the Duke’s court, Olivia’s house, and the sea coast.


At the Illyrian court, Duke Orsino is pining for the love of Countess Olivia, who is deep in mourning following the death of her brother, and plans to be so for the next seven years. Orsino makes a joke to the effect of if she can love a dead brother that much, what would her loving a living man be like?

Viola washes up on a beach and , believing her twin brother Sebastian to be drowned, gets assistance from the Captain, dresses up in male clothing, and seeks employment at the Duke’s court. She takes the name Cesario.

The scene moves to Countess Olivia’s house, where unlike the bulk of the household, Olivia’s dissolute English uncle (English, in Illyria??) Sir Toby Belch and his friend Andrew Aguecheek are drinking and carousing. Maria, loyal servant to Olivia, reprimands them, but to no avail. We hear that the naïve Aguecheek is hoping to win Olivia, so Toby convinces him to stay and keep trying, as this means he can continue to leech off the household.

Back at the palace, Cesario (Viola) has become the favourite pageboy of the Duke, who soon begins to share his love for Olivia. He tasks Cesario to tell Olivia of his love, and convince her that, behind all the bluster and playboy appearances, he is a true and noble man, worthy of marriage. However, by this time, Cesario (Viola) has herself fallen in love with the Duke.

We come across Feste the clown at Olivia’s. He is a licensed Fool, entitled to say anything he wants to whomever he wants. He is insulting, especially to Olivia’s Puritan-like head servant Malvolio, who wants rid of him.

Cesario obtains an interview with Olivia, and delivers his (her!) message from the Duke. Olivia dismisses it, and then begins to fall in love with Cesario, thinking him a boy servant. Cesario leaves, but Olivia sends Malvolio to bring him back, on the pretext of returning a ring the “boy“ forgot. Cesario realises that (s)he has duped Olivia, and that through her “wicked disguise” Olivia has fallen in love with a “monster”.

Now things get interesting. Viola’s twin turns up alive. He has been saved from the sea by Antonio, but has now grown tired of his company. Antonio confesses he is a pirate, wanted by the Duke. Sebastian decides to head to the Duke’s court.

The two drunkards haven’t stopped the party at Olivia’s, so Malvolio the head-servant also tries to quieten and shame them, prompting Toby’s famous response: “Dost thou think, because thou are virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”. Malvolio also berates poor Maria. This leads to a sub-plot, where Maria, Toby and Andrew plan to fool Malvolio, by forging a letter from Olivia, to lead him to believe she is in love with him. The letter tells him to wear and do certain things to prove his love, which he does. Of course, Olivia hasn’t a clue what has caused the change in her uptight servant, deems he has gone mad, then sends him off to a dark chamber, where he is visited and mocked by Feste, going so far as to hold a mock-exorcism to rid him of his madness. Feste eventually allows him to write Olivia a letter.

Sebastian now arrives in Illryia, followed by Antonio, who is taking a great personal risk out of love for Sebastian. He advises Sebastian of a good place to stay, gives him some money to get around, and goes into hiding himself.

Cesario (Viola) returns to Olivia’s with a gift from Orsino, and Olivia confesses to Cesario that she loves “him”. Cesario refuses her, which causes Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel. Cesario points out to Olivia that he is a lot younger than her, and Olivia seems to agree to tone down her seduction attempts.

Cesario and Andrew face off in their duel, and draw their swords, but neither really has the desire to fight. “Pray God defend me! A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man.” – this is as close as Cesario comes to revealing herself, but no-one seems to pick up on it.

Antonio happens by, and mistakes Cesario for Sebastian. Antonio rounds on Andrew, threatening violence, but is quickly arrested and taken away. Antonio asks Cesario/Viola/Sebastian to return his money, but of course Viola doesn’t know what he is talking about. (S)he gives him some anyway, but Antonio leaves, thinking Sebastian has taken advantage of him.

Sebastian then happens upon Andrew and Toby. Andrew mistakes him for the weak Cesario, and slaps him. Wrong guy, bad move. Sebastian becomes extremely aggressive towards Andrew, who cowers away, but Olivia arrives to break up the fight. Olivia, confusing Sebastian for Cesario, immediately proposes marriage, and Sebastian accepts.

Meanwhile, Cesario and the Duke are in Olivia’s garden, when the arrested Antonio is paraded by. He sees “Sebastian”, and berates him for using him. Olivia then arrives, and berates Cesario for not paying her attention (thinking Cesario is her new husband Sebastian, who she mistook for Cesario in the first place!). Finally, Andrew and Toby enter, and accuse Cesario of having attacked them, and beaten them up!

Viola is under attack from all sides, and is only saved when Sebastian finally shows up, and everyone realise the mass confusion and mistakes that have been made. Sebastian admits to having married Olivia, and attacking the two lads, but is not really sorry about the latter, as he would do it again if necessary.

Viola then reveals herself, whereupon Orsino proposes to her. Malvolio appears and accuses Olivia of leading him on with her letter. She denies any knowledge of it, and Malvolio departs, swearing revenge on Maria. Orsino sends a servant after him to calm him down.

The play ends with news that Toby has married Maria, Viola and Orsino will get married. They all leave, bar Feste, to end the play with a song to the audience.

Main Characters:

Viola: Defiant, resourceful and brave, she is a young girl in a strange land, so takes measures to protect herself (cross-dressing). She is also constant and loyal, in that once her love is given, she cannot be swayed. Another one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines. Any remember the others? Answers below!

Olivia: Rich, beautiful, and inundated with suitors. Like Orsino (below), she is self-absorbed, and wallows in her grief. However, she rejects Orsino, as she is smart enough to see him as an idiot. Her salvation is giving her love to living people, and breaks the mould by actively chasing Cesario – the mould of obedient demure woman, and the mould of not crossing your social class to marry.

Orsino: A powerful person, he can be temperamental, and there are strong homoerotic signals coming from him (a huge deal in Elizabethan times), given his comments to Cesario throughout the play (“Diana’s lip”, etc.). He is all about himself, very narcissistic, and is really somewhat preposterous and, to an audience, a figure of fun.

Minor Characters:

Malvolio: He is “some kind of puritan”, meaning he opposes fun, the theatre, and most forms of entertainment. He is a social climber, with ludicrous ideas of marrying Countess Olivia. He is treated cruelly in the play, and is punished for his attitudes to people.

Maria: Possibly Olivia’s closest friend, she minds her while she is mourning, and is strong, feisty, and not scared of speaking her mind even to noblemen. She is no-one’s doormat, as she gets revenge on Malvolio for his treatment of her. She is funny, and full of personality.

Sebastian: The one everyone confuses. He is central to the play, in that he allows “the normal/acceptable order” of relationships to happen at the end of the play i.e. heterosexual marriages of himself and Olivia etc., but again there is a strong homoerotic element in his Antonio relationship.


Social climbing: Everyone seems to be on the make in this play. Malvolio wants Olivia so that he can become the Count, and become a gentleman. Aguecheek wants her for the same reasons, and Toby wants him to succeed as his own prospects will then improve. Maria seems to be chasing Toby, in order to improve her standing. This was a world where daughters were pawns in political alliances, and the play ridicules the notion of social order.

Gender: Gender is fluid in this play, with Viola becoming a boy. In Elizabethan theatre, this would have been a boy, acting a woman, becoming a boy. What informs gender ? Seemingly society is easily fooled if one wears different clothes, and uses a different voice to communicate. Also, the androgynous nature of the twins causes much confusion – only in the privacy of the boudoir would the full truth be revealed!


Cross-dressing ladies:

Rosalind – As You Like It-> Ganymede is her alternative role.

Portia – Merchant of Venice – becomes Balthazar

Imogen – Cymbeline – becomes Fidele

Julia – Two Gentlemen of Verona – dresses as Proteus.

Cross-dressing gents:

Falstaff – Merry Wives of Windsor – becomes the “Fat Woman of Brentford”

Bartholomew – Taming Of The Shrew – becomes “Madam”, wife to Christopher Sly.

Fun Facts:

The film “Shakespeare in Love” constantly references Twelfth Night, most notably with the Queen (Judi Dench) near the end.

A BBC adaptation on May 28th, 1923 was the first complete Shakespeare play ever broadcast on British radio.

Another first occurred on 14th May 1937, with a 30-minute excerpt being televised from the BBC Television Service. Unfortunately, only still photos survive, as there was then no technology to record live transmission programmes.

Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:

“If Music be the food of love, play on.”

“Improbable fiction”

“Laugh yourself into stitches”

“Out of the jaws of death”


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