Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night

In a nutshell

Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy written by William Shakespeare around 1601. It tells the story of a love triangle between Olivia, Orsino and Viola, and the misadventures of other characters. In this summary, you will learn the plot, characters and themes of Twelfth Night.

Plot summary

Act I

The first act begins in the land of IllyriaDuke Orsino enters the scene accompanied by his lords. Orsino is desperately in love with Lady Olivia, a woman who is mourning for her brother, who recently died and refuses to marry anyone for another seven years. Olivia wears a dark veil and does not respond to any of Orsino's messages, however, Orsino believes his love can change Olivia's feelings.

Meanwhile, on the Illyrian sea coast, a woman named Viola is shipwrecked after losing her brother Sebastian. She disguises herself as a young man called Cesario. She is hired by Orsino to be his servant and help him with his most important task: to court Olivia. After some discussion, Cesario (Viola) agrees to carry Orsino's messages to Olivia, however, Cesario makes a quick aside comment where she tells the audience that Viola herself wishes to marry Orsino, as she has fallen in love with him.

In Olivia's house, three new characters are introduced: Sir Toby Belch (Olivia's uncle), Maria (Olivia's maid) and Sir Andrew, who is in love with Olivia. However, he doesn't think Olivia will reciprocate his love.  Sir Toby encourages him to not give up on Olivia and show off his dancing skills. 

Olivia arrives home with Malvolio (the steward of her household) and Maria tells her there is a young man who wants to see her. This young man is Viola disguised as Cesario, to deliver Orsino's message to Olivia. Cesario begins his speech by praising Olivia's beauty, however, Olivia feels fascinated by the messenger. As a result, Olivia sends back Cesario to Orsino to tell him she does not love him and never will; but she says Cesario (Viola) can come back if he wishes. After Cesario leaves, Olivia sends Malvolio after him with a ring as a symbol of her attraction to him, Olivia has fallen in love with Cesario (Viola).

Act II

Scene 2 shows the interaction between Malvolio and Viola disguised as Cesario. Malvolio gives the ring back to Cesario claiming he had left it, but she tells him Olivia should keep it. Malvolio throws the ring and exits the scene and Viola realises Olivia must be in love with Cesario. The central plot of the play is developed in this act, there is now a love triangle between Olivia, Cesario (Viola) and Orsino.

Meanwhile, Sir Toby, Maria and Sir Andrew plot to prank Malvolio to make him think Olivia is in love with him.


In the third act, Cesario (Viola) returns to Olivia's house to give her another message from Orsino. Once alone with Cesario, Olivia confesses her love, Cesario rejects her love politely but Olivia realises she cannot let him go so easily. So, she convinces him to continue visiting her. 

Meanwhile, Malvolio received a letter from Olivia, that was actually written by Maria to prank him, so he starts acting like a fool. Since Olivia does not know anything, she thinks Malvolio has gone mad, so he is locked in a dark room by Maria, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. In addition, Sir Andrew challenges Cesario (Viola) to a duel which she tries to refuse. But, Antonio (a pirate friend) appears offering to fight in Cesario's place. Antonio is confused and thinks Cesario is his friend Sebastian

Antonio is taken away by the police as Cesario claims he does not know who he is. Viola is left thinking that her brother, Sebastian, might be alive.

Act IV

Near Olivia's house, Sebastian encounters Sir Andrew, Fabian and Sir Toby. They think he is Cesario so they strike him. However, Olivia appears and sends them away. She invites Sebastian to her home thinking he is Cesario. Sebastian is impressed by Olivia's behaviour and kindness, she later brings a priest and Sebastian promises he will marry her.

Act V

Orsino goes to Olivia's house with Viola (still disguised as Cesario), Orsino recognises Antonio as an enemy and he responds by saying he saved Sebastian's life. Olivia enters and speaks to Cesario. Out of jealousy, Orsino threatens to kill Cesario, but Cesario (Viola) confesses her love for Orsino. Olivia confused, thinking her husband is betraying her, calls the priest. Then, Sebastian arrives and everybody is confused as they finally see both Cesario and Sebastian in the same place, at the same time.

The play ends with Viola admitting she is not Cesario and Orsino asking her to marry him. Maria's letter to Malvolio is also revealed, in which Olivia orders to get him out of the dark room.


duke orsino

Orsino is a wealthy Duke living in Illyria. He has a superficial idea of love that is exposed when he quickly forgets his love for Olivia and proposes to Viola. 


Olivia is a rich countess that is mourning the death of her brother. She is a bit indecisive as she promised she would be mourning for years but quickly changes her mind when she meets Cesario. At the same time, she has a strong character for a woman in Shakespeare's times because she takes the initiative to propose marriage to Cesario and follow her heart beyond the social conventions.


Viola disguises herself as Cesario to be able to work for Orsino. She is brave by disguising herself as a man to protect herself from being a lonely woman in a foreign land. Also, she is genuine and loyal, she delivered Orsino's love messages to Olivia even though she was in love with Orsino.


Malvolio is a puritan who is rude to the members of the household, however, he secretly wants to marry Olivia and become a nobleman. He is serious, controlling and does not approve of the behaviour of the other characters in Olivia's house.


Sebastian is Viola's twin brother. He prioritises his own motivations over the needs of others. His character contributes to giving the play closure after reuniting with his sister.


Antonio is a savvy sea captain who saves Sebastian. He is loyal, courageous and sensitive. For that reason, he feels very hurt when Sebastian (Viola disguised as Cesario) denies knowing him at all.


​​Viola \leftrightarrow​ Orsino \leftrightarrow Olivia​

Viola disguised as Cesario works for Orsino. They quickly trust each other and Orsino gives her the important task of delivering love messages to Olivia. However, the plot takes a twist when Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Viola) and Viola falls in love with Orsino, who is in love with Olivia. As a consequence, a love triangle is formed which isn't resolved until everybody's true identities are revealed.

Malvolio \leftrightarrow​ Olivia

Malvolio is secretly in love with Olivia. He desires to marry her in order to have power over the rest of the members of the household. 

Olivia \leftrightarrow​ Orsino

Olivia relates to Orsino because they have very similar personalities. Olivia feels sad about her brother's loss and Orsino feels sad for not having Olivia's love. In addition, they do not have a strong conception of real feelings; Olivia marries Sebastian despite being a different person (Originally, Viola disguised as Cesario) and Orsino marries Viola, who used to be his servant Cesario.



Twelfth night portrays different types of love:

  • Romantic love: the best representation of romantic love is depicted by Viola's character. She is in love with Orsino but suffers in silence because she cannot confess her feelings.
  • Family love: family love can be observed in Olivia's mourning for her brother's death, or when Sebastian and Viola fear that the other has drowned.
  • Convenience love: Malvolio's character embodies selfish and convenient love, he only wants to marry Olivia to increase his status.

Appearance and reality

The play contains several plot twists related to the appearance and what hides underneath. 


Viola disguises herself as a man, Cesario. Later on, Sebastian's presence together with Cesario makes things even more confusing. This works as a teaching that appearance is not always linked to reality.


Social ambition is portrayed by Malvolio. He wants to marry Olivia no matter what to be superior to the others. However, this ambition leads him to his downgrade after being pranked by Maria, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, so he is perceived as a fool and embarrassed in front of the people.

Key quotations




Act V, Scene I

"... Cesario, come,
For so you shall be, while you are a man,
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen."

Appearance and reality

At this point, Viola has revealed her identity to Orsino. He affirms once she has changed her appearance, she will be the queen of his love. But, Orsino still refers to her as 'Cesario' which suggests not only that appearances can be mentally tricking but also that perhaps Orsino is in love of the male version of Viola rather than Viola herself.

Act III, Scene I

"By maidhood, honour, truth and everything, I love thee so"


In this quote, Olivia declares her love for Cesario (Viola) without knowing he is not who she thinks he is and he is actually a woman. Viola (Cesario) feels sorry since she cannot tell the truth and she does not love Olivia.

Act II, Scene V

"She uses me with a more exalted respect than anyone else that follows her." 


Malvolio easily falls in the trap set up by Maria and Sir Toby. He is so arrogant he believes Olivia treats him better than the rest of the servants. This quote depicts his ambition and aims to get into a higher position of power.

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