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William Shakespeare
Twelfth Night; or, What You Will
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is a fairly funny play which I did not enjoy as much as some.

Per Bevington: Partly derived from Plautus' Menaechmi and Italian play Gl'Inganni by Gonzaga and Gl'Ingannati (anonymous)...  Emphasizes mirth, carnival atmosphere characteristic of the 12 nights following Christmas ending with the Feast of Epiphany on the 12th night, Jan. 6, the last day of the revels. It was a time to let off steam and to deflate pretentiousness. Derived from the Roman Saturnalia. Play contains many playful religious allusions. Observes the irrational nature of love. Savor one's pleasures while still young. Orsino is trapped in courtly artifice of love's rules. Lovesickness has robbed him of his manly pursuits. Olivia maintains an artificially somber household with Malvolio. Viola challenges the staid artifice of their lives. Theme of not wasting the gift of beauty and failing to have children is as in Sonnets. Sir Toby is similar to Falstaff. Malvolio resembles a Puritan and must be deflated as must all killjoys.

Act I

Act I Scene 1

Orsino's court in Illyria. Count (or Duke) Orsino loves Countess Olivia. But she spurns his love and the company of men, ostensibly because she still grieves for her brother (dead now for 1 year—her father has also died) and also because she simply does not love him. He speaks in Petrachan platitudes in expressing his love. Valentine and Curio are gentlemen attending on him, and Valentine informs him that Olivia will not see him.

Act I Scene 2

Seacoast of Illyria. Viola is a lady washed ashore after shipwrecking. She fears her brother is dead—he was last seen clutching a broken mast on the sea. She speaks to the captain, who says he was born nearby. He tells her of Orsino's fruitless quest for Olivia's hand. V. resolves to serve this duke disguised as a man Cesario and enlists the captain to help her.

Act I Scene 3

Olivia's house. To Maria, a gentlewoman, Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch laments his niece's continued air of mourning. Maria criticizes him for his excess drinking. He has brought in the foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek to court Olivia. The men have an earthy conversation alone.

Act I Scene 4

Orsino's court. Valentine speaks with Viola who is now dressed as a man, Cesario (V/C)—they have become good friends. Orsino arrives and commissions V/C to bear messages of his love to Olivia. V/C wishes she instead were to be his wife.

Act I Scene 5

Olivia's. Maria speaks with the Clown or jester Feste about Toby's drinking, Feste's absence, etc. Olivia enters with her steward Malvolio. She chides Feste for his foolishness, but he answers " I wear not motley in my brain" and his words plays on religious themes. Malvolio disparages the fool, calling him a barren rascal.

Maria announces the arrival of V/C. Toby arrives drunk ... Malvolio tries to turn V/C away, but V/C is persistent. V/C arrives and makes a speech on behalf of Orsino, saying [as in the sonnets] "Lady, you are the cruel'st she alive,/If you will lead these graces to the grave/And leave the world no copy." She chides Olivia's cruelty. But Olivia cannot love him, though she would like to hear from V/C again. At the last moment, Olivia gives Malvolio a ring to give to V/C, which she claims was left by him during this visit.

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Somewhere in Illyria. Sebastian, the twin brother of Viola, and Antonio, a sea captain and his friend, converse. Antonio wants him to stay and receive his hospitality longer. Sebastian gives his true name, previously having claimed to be "Roderigo". He is son of Sebastian of Messaline. He tells of his presumably drowned sister [Viola]. Antonio, learning S. is heading for Orsino's court, says he has many enemies there and should not go there.

Act II Scene 2

Outside Olivia's house. Malvolio gives Olivia's ring to V/C. Viola lies, covering up for Olivia, saying the ring was from V/C. Malvolio is contemptuous of V/C. Left alone, V/C ponders what the ring can mean, since she did not leave it with Olivia as Malvolio claimed. She realizes that Olivia has fallen in love with her.

Act II Scene 3

Olivia's house. Toby and Andrew converse about drinking. Feste arrives for more comic talk and singing. Malvolio enters, chides them for making his lady's house an alehouse, and suggests his mistress dislikes the disorder they cause and would like to see them leave. The men and Maria mock Malvolio with singing, and he leaves in a huff. Maria comments the effect V/C has had on Olivia. Maria wants to have revenge on the Puritanical and sycophantic Malvolio. She decides to write a letter to Malvolio as if from Olivia. It will suggest Olivia loves him and recommend he dress up in certain bright clothing. The men agree to participate in the practical joke—Toby refers to Maria affectionately as Penthesilea (queen of the Amazons). 

Act II Scene 4

Orsino's. Orsino speaks to V/C, asks her if she has ever loved a woman and laments the nature of women and the transience of their beauty. Feste sings a song to cheer him up. Orsino again instructs V/C to take a message of his love to Olivia, and V/C takes the opportunity to suggest to him that some lady exists who would reciprocate his love. V/C hints about her love and refers to a daughter of her father. Orsino gives her a jewel to take to Olivia.

Act II Scene 5

Toby, Andrew, and Fabian develop the plot against Malvolio. Maria enters with a letter she has written to Malvolio in Olivia's handwriting expressing her romantic interest in him. The men hide as Malvolio arrives. He speaks pompously and again criticizes Toby for his drunkenness. Malvolio reads the letter Maria left in his path: "To the unknown beloved..." and is convinced it is addressed to him. It urges him to "be not afraid of greatness" and to wear yellow stockings cross-gartered. He exits and the men emerge gleeful with anticipation.


Act III Scene 1

Olivia's garden. V/C jokes with Feste, whom she admires for his wit. Olivia comes to V/C and asks that he tell more about him, his name, etc. Olivia insists he not speak further of Orsino. She confesses her love to V/C, but V/C cannot reciprocate and leaves.

Act III Scene 2

Olivia's house. Andrew, Toby, and Fabian have noted Olivia's advances to V/C and Toby urges Andrew to challenge V/C to a fight. Maria enters and laughingly points out how Malvolio is now ridiculously dressed as the letter directed.

Act III Scene 3

A street in Orsino's domain. Sebastian and Antonio seek lodging, but S. wants to see the town first and Antonio prefers to stay out of sight since he is in disfavor here. A. gives S. his purse and asks they meet up at the Elephant [Inn].

Act III Scene 4

Olivia's garden. Olivia has sent for V/C. Maria tells Olivia that Malvolio has become tainted in his wits. He arrives and tries to woo her, but Olivia calls it "very midsummer madness". Malvolio is left alone to recite the contents of the letter again. Toby and Maria enter with Fabian seeking V/C and they are amazed to see Malvolio's new look. Andrew enters with a foolish letter of challenge he has written to V/C. Toby says he will deliver the letter, but decides instead to give the challenge orally to V/C. 

Olivia asks V/C to wear a jewel and picture of her, but V/C insists that she still focus on Orsino's suit. Olivia exits and Toby arrives, delivering the challenge bluntly to V/C. She is aghast and says she is no fighter. Later, Toby tells Andrew that V/C is a very devil of a fighter, and Andrew wants to get out of the fight, proposing he offer his horse to V/C as a bribe. But Toby keeps the proposed duel alive despite the unwillingness of the combatants.

Antonio arrives just in time to break up the duel (he thinks V/C is Sebastian). First Officer arrives and arrests Antonio at the suit of Orsino. A. speaks to V/C asking for some of his money back, but she does not comprehend and refuses to his great dismay, saying she does not know him. A. bitterly recounts how he saved Sebastian's life. V/C wonders if this means her brother is alive after all. Toby is disgusted that V/C would deny his friend Antonio so.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

Before Olivia's house. Sebastian encounters Feste, who thinks he knows him (as Cesario). Andrew arrives and tries to beat Sebastian, thinking he is V/C, but S. fights back unexpectedly hard and beats Andrew. Toby breaks up the fight, then he himself draws on Sebastian. Olivia arrives, stops the fighting, and casts Toby out of her sight, apologizing to Cesario for her coarse uncle's behavior. She speaks lovingly to Sebastian, and he wonders if he is in a dream. He agrees to be ruled by her.

Act IV Scene 2

Olivia's house. Maria comes in a beard and dressed as Sir Topas the curate. Feste announces the curate to the imprisoned Malvolio. He laments the injustice he has been dealt and pleads that he is not mad. Feste quizzes him on Pythagoras as a presumed test of his sanity and he and Maria continue to make sport with the pitiful Malvolio, who asks to write a letter of appeal to Olivia.

Act IV Scene 3

Olivia's garden. Sebastian marvels at the pearl Olivia gave him. He wonders where Antonio is. Olivia arrives with a priest and asks S. to plight the full assurance of his faith (pledge to marry her), which he does before the priest.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

Before Olivia's house. Orsino encounters Feste, who clowns and wants tips. He asks to see Olivia.

Antonio enters with officers. Orsino remembers Antonio when he was a pirate or thief, the captain of an attacking vessel which took Orsino's vessels Phoenix and Titus. But V/C defends the kindness and valor that Antonio showed in saving her from Andrew. Antonio claims he exposed himself to danger purely out of the love he bears Sebastian [whom he think Viola is] and laments again that S. refused to return his own purse to him. V/C asks for details, and A. tells that he has been in the company of S. for 3 months, during which they have been fast friends. But Orsino insists to Antonio that V/C has been in his domain for 3 months and cannot have been with Antonio.

Olivia arrives and chastises Cesario for not keeping his promise to her. Orsino berates Olivia for spurning his love. Orsino is jealous and angry about Olivia's interest in V/C and contemplates killing Olivia, then decides instead to kill V/C to spite Olivia. V/C willingly walks away with the man she loves though her life is threatened. Olivia is upset over Cesario's seeming unfaithfulness to her, asking her to stay as her husband. But Cesario denies any such pledge of marriage.

The priest enters and confirms the vow made by Cesario to marry Olivia. Orsino curses the seemingly unfaithful Cesario. Andrew arrives and laments the beating he had at Cesario's hand. Orsino is amazed that Cesario could have fought so bravely after all. But V/C denies ever hurting Andrew. Toby et al arrive drunk.

Sebastian enters and apologizes to Olivia for hurting her kinsman. Orsino and Olivia are amazed to see his striking resemblance to Cesario. Antonio is pleased to be reunited to Sebastian. Sebastian asks V/C what kin he is to him, and after a while Viola reveals herself as his sister and offers to prove it further by means of her captain. Sebastian tells Olivia she has been mistook and is betrothed both to a man and a maid. 

Orsino warms up to Viola and recounts her past veiled words of love. 

Orsino calls for Malvolio. Feste brings in the letter from Malvolio to Olivia. It pleads to be freed and says he Malvolio has his own letter from her to justify his actions. Olivia asks that he be brought in.

Olivia speaks kindly to Orsino as his future sister-in-law. Orsino releases Cesario from his service and pledges that in the future she shall be the master's mistress, i.e., wife.

Fabian brings in Malvolio, who shows the letter from Maria. Olivia recognizes it is in Maria's handwriting and recalls Maria was the first to describe Malvolio as mad. Fabian confesses the plot he, Toby and Maria hatched against Malvolio. Toby has married Maria in reward for the role she played. Olivia says to Malvolio "how have they baffled thee!" Feste quotes from Maria's letter about greatness, etc. Malvolio pledges to have revenge and exits, but Orsino asks that he be entreated to make peace with his tormentors. Orsino calls Cesario to fetch her maid's clothes, after which they will marry.

Feste sings a light-hearted closing song.