Twelfth Night Summary and Analysis: William Shakespeare

Read our complete notes on the play “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare. Our notes cover Twelfth Night summary, themes, and a detailed analysis.

Twelfth Night Introduction:

The play “Twelfth Night” was composed by William Shakespeare in either 1600 or 1601. It was first performed on February 2nd, 1602. It is a romantic comedy based on five acts. The plot of this play revolves around resolving many hurdles to get true love. It has many elements: love, mistaken identity, illusion, disguises, madness and gender crossing. It also has a sub-plot.

This play is named as Twelfth Night because it was performed on the twelfth day of Christmas. It is also named as “What You Will”. The play features many characters including a female protagonist who disguises herself as a man. The entire play revolves around her.

Twelfth Night Summary:

The play opens with Orisino, the Duke of Illyria, expressing his love for Olivia, a rich countess who is mourning the death of her young brother.
Viola, a young and attractive girl, is introduced as a survivor of a shipwreck. The ship sinks because of a huge storm in the sea, in which a brother sister twins are separated. Viola survives and finds herself in the shores of Illyria where she meets a sea captain. He tells her about the Duke Orisino and Olivia.
Viola disguises herself as a man, names herself Cesario and starts working in the household of Young Duke, Orisino as his personal attendant.  She falls in love with him. The Duke is impressed by her good looks and polite speech. He sends her as a messenger to Olivia’s house to tell her about his deep love for her. Ironically, Olivia listens to the Duke’s letter very carefully not because of his emotions for her but because she falls in love with Cesario who is really Viola disguised.

In the middle of this love triangle, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch; his foolish friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia’s maid, Maria starts making the head servant, Malvolio, a fool. They start dropping love letters on his path and try to show that Olivia loves him.  On the other hand, Malvolio begins to believe that and makes a fool of him.

Furthermore, Olivia openly declares her love for Cesario when she again meets her to convey Orisino’s message. Sir Andrew also tries to win Olivia’s love and challenges Cesario for a fight to impress her.  But Cesario refuses to fight.

Moreover, Sebastian, who is still alive, comes to Illyria along with his friend, Captain Antonio. When the fight starts, Sebastian­- who resembles Cesario disguised Viola- comes and is attacked by Sir Andrew and Sir Toby thinking that he is Cesario. Olivia enters amidst the confusion- thinking that Sebastian is Cesario-offers him for marriage. He gets confused but goes along with her because she’s wealthy and beautiful.

Meanwhile, Antonio has been arrested by police for a crime committed by him in the past. He begs for Cesario’s help mistaking him for Sebastian but she refuses to recognize him. He cries out and thinks that Sebastian has betrayed him through which Viola learns that her brother is still alive.

On the other hand, Malvolio has been locked up in a dark room by Maria, Sir Toby and other servants because of his foolish acts. They declare him as insane despite of his explanations and mentally torture him.

Eventually, disguised Viola and Orisino go to Olivia’s house where all the confusion becomes clear to everyone when Sebastian appears. Both the siblings are joyously reunited. Viola reveals herself as a woman. Orisino realizes that he loves her and asks her to marry him.

Afterwards, it is discovered that Maria and Sir Toby Belch have been married secretly. All the couples celebrate at the end of the play except Malvolio, who is set free when one of the servants named Fabian, confesses about the cruel prank.

Twelfth Night Themes:

Love:

Love is the major theme of this play. We can see three types of love: True love, self-love and friendship. There are many characters jumbled in the love triangle in this story and most of them are unable to differentiate between true and untrue emotions.

True love can be seen in the play between many characters. A prominent example of true love is Viola’s love for Orisino. There is a deep friendship among them and Viola constantly tries to win his heart. Another example is the love between siblings: Viola and Sebastian. Both of them mourn their apparent deaths but still love each other.

Self love is expressed by the character of Malvolio. He sees himself as a noble person and desires to become the Count by marrying Olivia. On the other hand, Olivia also shows self-love. She takes care of everyone but considers herself as the most beautiful lady that no man deserves. Another example is Sir Toby Belch who is selfish and only cares about himself.

Moreover, we can see friendship between Cesario and Orisino. They are close to each other and Orisino shares all his secrets with Cesario who is really Viola in guise. Viola and sea captain are also good friends. They both survive the shipwreck together and Viola’s secret of disguising herself as a man is safe with him.

Uncertainty of Gender:

This is one of the most obvious and important theme of this play. Much confusion is created in the play because of the uncertainty of gender.

Viola disguises herself as Cesario after surviving the shipwreck. When she starts working as Duke Orisino’s personal attendant, he gets impressed by her and often praises her for her beauty. She also falls in love with him but cannot reveal it because of her disguise.

On the other hand, Olivia falls in love with Cesario thinking that he is a man. This creates trouble for Viola because she is a woman and she cannot respond to Olivia’s love with the same passion.

Antonio is seen to be in love with his friend, Sebastian. Although, he is a man and society does not accept it, Antonio is (perhaps sexually) attached with him.

In the end of the play, when all the secrets are revealed and Orisino realizes that he loves Viola, he still calls her with her male name, Cesario. It cannot be discovered that whether he is in love with Viola or the male version of her.

Love As a Cause of Pain:

In the play, love is seen as a cause of pain and suffering. Love is a deep emotion, to be in love requires great changes in one’s own self.  The one who is afraid of such changes can suffer a lot. The most notable example of this is Malvolio. Even though, he changes his getup when he thinks that he has received the letter from Olivia but he cannot change his inner self.  At the end he suffers a lot and does not get his love.

Additionally, Antonio’s love for Sebastian also causes him an intense pain when Cesario refuses to recognize him. It is painful for him that his love betrayed him but it was actually Viola in guise not Sebastian.

Class Struggle:

Class struggle and social standing is a prominent theme of this play. It is explored by the following characters: Malvolio, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sebastian and Maria.

Malvolio, a steward, desires to marry Olivia and become the Count. It shows his struggle to be a part of noble class. On the other hand, Sir Andrew also desires the same but his this desire cannot be fulfilled as he is gross.

Furthermore, Sebastian also accepts Olivia’s proposal in an instance because of her wealth and beauty. It shows his desire to become rich and be a part of higher class.

In the end of the play, it is revealed that Maria gets married to Sir Toby Belch despite knowing about his faults. It also shows Maria’s struggle for social standing and being wealthy.

Twelfth Night Characters:

Viola/Cesario:

Viola is the heroine of the play. She is greatly charming and attractive. She does not have any serious fault and has a strong decisive power. Among all the characters, Viola’s love seems to be the truest and purest one. She loves Orisino with all her heart and tries to win his love.

Till the end of the play, she faces the problem of identity because of her disguise. She plays a double role in the play, as a female character, Viola and as a male character, Cesario who is actually Viola disguised.

She, after surviving the shipwreck, disguises herself as Cesario and starts working in Duke Orisino’s household as a page-boy. She falls in love with the Duke but does not tell him because she is appeared as a man in front of him.

In the end of the play, she reveals her true identity as a woman named Viola, finds her twin brother, Sebastian and gets married to her love, Orisino.

Orisino:

Orisino is the wealthy Duke of Illyria. In the beginning of the play, he claims to be in love with Countess Olivia but later on we discover that he is in love with the idea of being in love.  When Cesario (Disguised Viola) starts working for him, he becomes fond of her day by day.

Moreover, after examining his character we also come to know that he is an egoistic person who uses Cesario to convey messages to his love.  At the end, when he discovers that Cesario is a woman, his love for Olivia fades away and he realizes that he loves Viola. It shows that he cannot recognize his true emotions.

Lady Olivia:

Olivia is a rich, beautiful Illyrian Countess who plans to mourn her young brother’s recent death. She says that she will not marry for next seven years. Duke Orisino and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are her suitors but she rejects both of them because of mourning. When she meets Cesario (Viola disguised as a boy), she immediately falls in love with her.

She is self-indulgent and thinks that no man is worthy of her beauty. In the end of the play, she gets married to Sebastian mistaking him for Cesario.

Sebastian:

Sebastian is Viola’s twin brother who also survives the shipwreck. He appears in the middle of the play and is mistaken for Cesario because of his resemblance with her.

When he meets Olivia, he immediately accepts her proposal because of her wealth and beauty. It shows him as a materialistic person.

Antonio:

Antonio is the protector and a friend of Sebastian. He helps him survive the shipwreck. He is seen to be deeply attached with Sebastian.

When he is arrested by police, he begs for Cesario’s help mistaking her for Sebastian but she ignores him. It causes him pain because he thinks his friend betrayed him.

Sir Toby Belch:

Sir Toby Belch is Olivia’s uncle and he lives in her house. He is a selfish person who only thinks about himself. He has many faults including alcohol addiction and he keeps playing tricks on others.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek:

He is a skinny knight and a friend to Sir Toby. He is an unintelligent person who is encouraged by Sir Toby to attempt to court lady Olivia.

Maria:

Maria is a maid in Olivia’s household. He is a clever woman and arranges a cruel prank for the head servant, Malvolio.

In the end of the play, we discover her marriage with Sir Toby not because they love each other but because Sir Toby is impressed by her cleverness.

Malvolio:

Malvolio is Olivia’s steward who is a self indulgent puritan. He thinks that he is a noble and handsome person and desires to become the Count by marrying Olivia.

Maria arranges a prank and drops love letters on his way from Olivia. He makes a fool of himself by believing that Olivia loves him. Afterwards, he is mentally tortured by other members of the house and is locked up in a dark room for his foolishness.

In the end of the play, Fabian confesses about this cruel prank and he is set free.

Feste:

Feste is a clown in Olivia’s household. He earns by making jokes and singing old songs. Despite the fact that he is a fool, he seems to be the wittiest character of the play.

Fabian:

Febian is another servant in Olivia’s household. He feels the pain of Malvolio and confesses about the cruel prank played on him.

The Sea Captain:

The sea captain appears only in one scene. He is Viola’s friend who helps her survive the shipwreck. He also helps her in disguising herself as a man and he’s the only person who knows about this secret.

Twelfth Night Analysis:

The play “Twelfth Night” is one of the most famous Shakespearian comedies. It is a brilliant play in which humor, pathos and happiness can be seen side by side. It has a female protagonist who disguises herself as a man till the end. Because of which the uncertainty of gender and the problem of identity can be seen throughout the play.

The play begins with the notions of love by a rich Duke named Orisino. He claims to be in love with a beautiful woman, Olivia. But later on we discover that he is not really in love with her but with the idea of being in love. He becomes fond of a girl day by day who has disguised herself as a man.

Another character, Olivia, is also introduced. She is an Illyrian countess who is mourning his brother’s death. She decides not to get married for next seven years but when she meets Cesario, she immediately falls in love with her and forgets about his brother’s death.

Viola, a survivor of a shipwreck, disguised as a man named Cesario for her protection. She represents one of the major themes of the play.  She is seen to be a likeable figure. She falls in love with Orisino, Orisino falls in love with Olivia and Olivia falls in love with Cesario who is really Viola disguised. It creates a love triangle.  Viola’s love is pure and true while Orisino and Olivia are involved in ideal love.

On the other hand, this play also has a sub-plot which revolves around the servants and other people of Olivia’s household. Malvolio is a self-important puritan, who is annoying for others. He has big dreams and considers himself as better than all. Because of this annoying nature, Maria and Sir Toby arrange a prank which at the end leaves Malvolio in pain. It shows the selfish nature of people as well.

Moreover, we can also discover attachment and detachment of characters in a very short period of time.  When Sebastian comes to the town, Olivia thinks that he is Cesario and offers him to marry her. He loses the attachment with Antonio and accepts the proposal.

Similarly, when Duke Orisino comes to know about Viola’s reality, he immediately detaches himself from Olivia and gets attached to Viola.

The Clown named Feste makes witty comments on Olivia and Orisino that appear to be funny but have a deep meaning. He seems to be a fool but probably the wittiest character of the play who always speaks truth but in funny ways.

The plot untangles when Cesario and Sebastian appear together in front of everyone. The couples celebrate their love. However; it was a sad ending for Antonio and Malvolio.