Twelfth Night
Summary and Synopsis

Twelfth Night Setting

The setting, Illyria, is ambiguous. Geographically set in the Balkans (around Croatia), Shakespeare’s Illyria is mostly a work of fiction. To the Elizabethan mind, Illyra was an exotic, faraway place with strange customs. Such a setting makes it possible for the cross-dressing, inter-class flirtations, and sexual fluidity to exist in the play. If set in England, censorship and propriety would have curbed Shakespeare’s creative liberty. Nonetheless, Illyria still mirrors England. Its customs like dueling, certain references (the “Elephant Inn”), contemporary dances and English songs all made Illyria more familiar to the Elizabethans.

Twelfth Night Plot Timeline

  1. At Orisino’s Court. Orsino, the duke of Illyria, pines for the Countess Olivia. She has rejected him, having sworn off the company of all men for seven years to mourn the loss of her father and brother.

  2. Off the Coast of Illyria. A shipwreck survivor, Viola believes her twin brother, Sebastian, to be dead at sea. To protect her virtue in this strange country, she disguises herself as a young page named Cesario and serves Orsino. Three months later, she has won Orsino’s trust and confidence and is sent to court Olivia on his behalf. Viola has secretly fallen in love with the duke.

  3. Olivia’s Household. Olivia lives with her uncle, Sir Toby, who drinks heartily. His drinking partner is the tactless Sir Andrew who hopes to court Olivia himself. Olivia’s lady-in-waiting Maria chides Sir Toby’s misbehavior. The self-righteous steward Malvolio grumbles at the revelers including Feste the Fool.

  4. Olivia Meets Cesario. At Orsino’s request, Cesario/Viola courts Olivia passionately and Olivia falls in love with her. She sends Malvolio to give Cesario/Viola a ring so that the youth has to come back to return it. Viola realizes that Olivia loves her. The disguise has landed her in the middle of a love triangle.

  5. Sebastian Arrives in Illyria. Antonio, a captain, has saved Sebastian from drowning and the two have since grown close. Loyal Antonio accompanies Sebastian through Illyria to protect him, but Antonio is Orsino’s enemy, and he fears discovery. The men separate, planning to meet again at an inn.

  6. A Plan Is Hatched. In the early hours of the morning, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste are up making a racket. Malvolio is furious and threatens Sir Toby with being kicked out of the household. Maria hatches a plan to get back at Malvolio. She writes a letter “from Olivia” confessing love for Malvolio. The letter instructs Malvolio to smile and wear cross-gartered, yellow stockings. Already dreaming of marrying his mistress, Malvolio is easily duped.

  7. Malvolio’s Madness. Olivia confesses love to Cesario/Viola, who outright rejects her. To calm her spirits, Olivia summons Malvolio and is stunned by his outrageous clothes, incessant smiling and suggestive comments. She assumes he is mad and puts him in the care of Sir Toby and Maria who lock him in a dark room. Feste pretends to be Sir Topas, a curate, to question and torment him more.

  8. The Duel. Sir Toby convinces Sir Andrew to duel with Cesario/Viola, his rival to Olivia’s heart. Both are reluctant to fight, and the absurd fight is interrupted by Antonio who thinks Viola is Sebastian. Antonio is arrested by Orsino’s officers and Cesario/Viola claims she doesn’t know him. Antonio thinks he’s been betrayed by his friend.

  9. Olivia Weds Sebastian. Mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, Sir Andrew strikes at Sebastian. Olivia breaks up the fight and invites Sebastian into her house. Confused, Sebastian goes in. Later, when Olivia asks to marry him, Sebastian agrees. Olivia is beautiful and wealthy after all.

  10. The Chaos Comes to a Head. Duke Orsino and Cesario/Viola visit Olivia to try woo her once more. Viola recognizes Antonio as her rescuer earlier that day. Antonio claims she is Sebastian, his companion of three months. Adding to the confusion, Olivia claims Cesario/Viola is her husband, which Viola denies and wounds Orsino. What’s more, Sir Andrew enter, accusing Cesario/Viola of injuring him.

  11. Resolution. Sebastian joins the crowd gathering at Olivia’s gate. Finally, he reunites with his sister Viola, and they reveal their true identities to the crowd. Orsino returns Viola’s love and vows to marry her; Olivia welcomes Viola as a sister; Malvolio is released and swears revenge on his conspirators. Feste rounds off the play with a song.

Twelfth Night Summary

Twelfth Night Act 1 Summary

Act 1, Scene 1

At his palace in Illyria, Duke Orsino pines for the Countess Olivia who does not return his love. He wallows in his heartbreak, and orders his musicians to play melancholy songs.

Valentine reports that Olivia is still wed to her grief for her recently deceased father and brother. She has sworn not to see any man for seven years and bars the persistent Orsino from her house. Nevertheless, Orsino is undeterred. Deluded, he thinks he can still win over her heart.

Act 1, Scene 2

Viola, a young woman from Messaline, has survived a shipwreck off the coast of Illyria. It appears that her twin brother, Sebastian, has not made it and Viola must fend for herself alone.

She quickly makes plans for surviving in Illyria. The Captain knows Illyria well and fills her in on Orsino and Olivia. In order to move freely in Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a man and takes a job with the Duke Orsino.

Act 1, Scene 3

At Olivia’s house, her uncle Sir Toby loafs around in his typical drunken stupor. Olivia’s chambermaid, Maria, chides Toby for his hedonistic behavior. He keeps company with a pathetic knight, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who has tried to woo Olivia.

Sir Andrew interrupts their banter. Indeed, Andrew is a dim-witted drunkard and coward. He can’t keep up with Maria’s wit, makes social blunders, and parrots everything Sir Toby coaches him to say.

The knight announces his plans to leave Illyria the next morning. But Sir Toby persuades Sir Andrew—and his money (which is funding Sir Toby’s drinking)—to reconsider. He assures him that Olivia is still available. Wrapped around Sir Toby’s finger, Andrew gives in and the companions dance off to drink the day away.

Act 1, Scene 4

By disguising herself as the page Cesario, Viola has become Sebastian’s doppelgänger. After three months’ service, Viola (as Cesario) has won the affection of the duke.

Orsino sends Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf—and not to take no for an answer! Surely Cesario’s woman-like softness will flatter Olivia. Though skeptical, Cesario accepts his orders. Privately Violoa admits that she has developed feelings for the duke and wishes she were his wife, not Olivia. Things are getting messy.

Act 1, Scene 5

Feste the fool has returned to Olivia’s house after a long absence. Maria warns him that Olivia will turn him out if he’s not careful. When Olivia arrives, Feste relies on his sharp wit to get him off the hook. He even goes so far as to poke fun at Olivia’s melodramatic grieving. Olivia is charmed by his wit – and perhaps admires his honesty. She overlooks his misconduct. Malvolio, on the other hand, has no sense of humor. The steward berates Feste’s misdemeanor—something the fool will not forget.

Obeying Orsino’s orders dutifully, Cesario demands to see Olivia. With tenacity, he wrestles past Sir Toby who tries to restrain him at the gate, then past Malvolio who insists that Olivia is away or asleep. Finally, Cesario holds audience with the veiled countess.

Cesario’s flattering manners and youthful charisma enamor Olivia. And it works—a little too well… Although she has long since tired of Orsino’s advances, Olivia falls in love with young “Cesario.” Desperate to see him again, Olivia sends Malvolio to run after the page. She gives Malvolio one of her own rings, claiming the youth has forgotten it.

Twelfth Night Act 2 Summary

Act 2, Scene 1

Good news—Sebastian has survived the shipwreck after all! Fortuitously, a ship captain named Antonio rescued him from drowning in the ocean. The two have since become close companions.

As they anchor on the coast of Illyria, Sebastian thanks Antonio for his generosity. Convinced she is dead, he despairs over Viola’s death. Antonio insists he will accompany and protect Sebastian throughout Illyria. Despite Sebastian’s protests, Antonio pledges his loyalty and Sebastian accepts. Privately though, Antonio fears that he will be discovered by Duke Orsino, who nurses a grudge against the sea captain.

Act 2, Scene 2

Begrudgingly, Malvolio chases after Cesario to return the ring. But Cesario refuses to accept a ring he has never seen in her life. Malvolio is infuriated by this menial task and flings the ring to the ground.

Baffled, Cesario tries to make sense of Olivia’s behavior. Then it clicks: Olivia must have fallen in love with Cesario! Viola’s disguise has been too convincing. Now it has led to a love triangle: Orsino loves Olivia, Olivia loves Cesario, and Viola/Cesario loves Orsino. Cesario pities the countess. They are now enmeshed in complicated “knot” that she is unable to undo.

Act 2, Scene 3

Sir Toby and Andrew are drinking raucously into the early hours of the morning. Feste the fool joins in with a catch (a song) for the trio to belt. Maria investigates the commotion that has disturbed Olivia and Malvolio.

Malvolio thunders into the room and yells, outraged. He threatens Sir Toby with being kicked out of Olivia’s house if this impropriety continues. In song, the trio mock Malvolio and Sir Toby digs him where it hurts: his pride. He calls Malvolio a lowly steward and a killjoy. Defensive, Malvolio lashes out at Maria too and storms away.

The party has had enough of Malvolio’s puritan dogma. They hatch a plan to get due revenge on the steward by exploiting his greatest vice—his vanity.

After all the fuss, it’s far too late to go to bed now. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew drink until morning (funded by Sir Andrew, of course).

Act 2, Scene 4

Not much has changed at the duke’s palace. He is still lovesick and still douses his misery in music. When Cesario reflects sadly on love, Orsino asks who the page loves. Cesario confesses to love somebody of Orsino’s age and complexion.

Feste, freelancing for the duke, performs for Orsino, then leaves him alone with Cesario. It takes Viola/Cesario the utmost self-restraint not to express her love directly. When Orsino condemns all women, Cesario tells him of a sister who loves a man so much it tortures her. He hints that if he were a woman, he would love Orsino as passionately as he loves Olivia.

Before Viola betrays herself, Orsino remembers the countess. Yet again, he sends his page off again to court Olivia.

Act 2, Scene 5

In Olivia’s garden, the conspiracy to prank Malvolio is afoot. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian hide behind a hedge to keep watch. Maria places the fake letter strategically in the path of Malvolio so he will find it as he walks through the garden.

Even before reading the letter, Malvolio daydreams aloud of marrying Olivia and punishing Sir Toby. The hideaways have to muffle their laughter.

When Malvolio finds the letter, he is positive that it’s from Olivia (Maria’s handwriting is very similar to her mistress’s). In a riddle, Maria’s letter confesses love to Malvolio. “Olivia” promises her beloved great wealth and status. The letter requests that Malvolio act haughtily, treat the servants with scorn, and wear yellow, cross-gartered stockings to prove his acceptance of her love. (These are fashions that Olivia actually can’t stand). She also asks Malvolio to smile as a secret code.

Malvolio falls for the prank, hook, line and sinker. He is deluded by his smug ambition.

Twelfth Night Act 3 Summary

Act 3, Scene 1

At Olivia’s gate, Feste and Cesario banter together. Olivia is so eager to see Cesario that she greets the page at the gate. Hurriedly, she bids the others off to leave her and Cesario alone.

When Cesario lobbies again on behalf of her master, Olivia shrugs him off. Instead, she declares her love for Cesario. Against her honor and dignity, the countess has fallen in love with a mere servant. So she is humiliated when Cesario rejects her love. Nevertheless, Olivia desperately hopes that Cesario’s heart will change.

Act 3, Scene 2

It’s so obvious that Olivia only has eyes for Cesario that even the dim-witted Sir Andrew has caught on. Realizing his defeat, he plans to leave Olivia’s house.

Sir Andrew’s loose wallet is slipping out of his fingers, so Sir Toby compels him to stay. In fact, Sir Toby sees another opportunity for some revelry. He persuades Sir Andrew that Olivia is deliberately making the knight jealous. Clearly what she really wants is for Sir Andrew to fight Cesario and earn her heart. Poor Sir Andrew is easily led. He sets off to write a letter challenging Cesario to a duel.

Just then, Maria brings great news: the prank has worked and Malvolio is parading around the house in yellow stockings. The pranksters scurry off to enjoy the show.

Act 3, Scene 3

Antonio has kept his word, loyally following Sebastian throughout Illyria. But when Sebastian goes sightseeing, Antonio withdraws instead to the Elephant Inn. He explains his beef with Duke Orsino. Some time ago, the sea captain fought against the duke’s fleet in battle. If Orsino were to recognize him, he would be sentenced to death. Before they part, Antonio lends Sebastian money for any souvenirs. They decide to reunite in the next hour.

Act 3, Scene 4

Olivia anxiously awaits Cesario’s return. Broken-hearted from his rejection, the countess summons Malvolio whose somber temperament suits her own.

The prank has worked swimmingly. Malvolio enters in absurd yellow, cross-gartered stockings and beams at her wildly. He rambles incoherently about the letter and flirts coarsely with his mistress. Olivia is bewildered. She thinks Malvolio must have gone insane from heat.

But Olivia is soon distracted by Cesario’s arrival at the gate. She leaves Malvolio in the capable hands of Sir Toby and Maria. The pair harass Malvolio as if he were possessed until he stomps off. They intend to tie him up in a dark room (a common cure for insanity).

Sir Andrew proudly presents his letter of challenge to Sir Toby. Though Sir Toby praises his protégé’s valiance, the letter is really cowardly and evasive. Instead, Sir Toby challenges Cesario to fight Sir Andrew himself. He makes Sir Andrew out to be a bloodthirsty, skilled adversary.

Viola is petrified. She has no experience fighting and tries desperately to get out of the duel. In an absurd “duel”, the coward Sir Andrew and Viola draw swords reluctantly. Luckily, Antonio happens to pass by. Mistaking Viola for Sebastian, he breaks the fight up.

Just then, Orsino’s police arrest Antonio for his past crimes. Antonio appeals to “Sebastian” to help him in this time of need, but Viola is befuddled. She gives him what measly cash she has on her and Antonio is disgusted to be abandoned by his friend. Hearing Sebastian’s name, Viola hopes that her twin is somehow still alive. She leaves the duel unfinished.

Twelfth Night Act 4 Summary

Act 4, Scene 1

It’s time for Sebastian to get embroiled in the confusion. On his stroll through Illyria, he passes Olivia’s house. Sir Andrew thinks Sebastian is Cesario and resumes their duel. Mystified, Sebastian fights back, and Andrew finds he’s bitten off more than he can chew: Cesario is now quite an expert fighter.

Olivia is mortified to see her beloved in danger. She chases Sir Andrew away to protect whom she thinks is Cesario and begs the youth to stay with her. Sebastian is dumbfounded but accepts the invitation. Olivia is delighted—if a little taken aback.

Act 4, Scene 2

Malvolio is locked in a dark room. He has been knocked down from his high horse and now pitifully begs for his release. But Maria and Sir Toby think he still hasn’t learnt his lesson.

Feste disguises himself as a curate, Sir Topas, to torment Malvolio. Malvolio professes to Sir Topas that he is sane. Still, Feste toys with Malvolio, questioning him and then abandoning the distressed Malvolio in darkness. Maria and Sir Toby are satisfied and leave (to get married, as we find out later).

Undisguised, Feste appears as himself to Malvolio. After an infuriating exchange (and admirable patience from Malvolio), Feste finally gives Malvolio pen and paper to write a letter to Olivia.

Act 4, Scene 3

Out in Olivia’s garden, Sebastian ponders the strange fortunes he’s found himself in. He worries about Antonio who is nowhere to be found at the Elephant. Sebastian wonders whether he’s gone mad.

Olivia wants to lock this fling down. Accompanied by a priest, she asks the youth to marry her in secret (they will have a public celebration at a later stage). Sebastian still isn’t quite sure whether he’s dreaming or not. But he resigns himself to whatever reality he has found and consents! 

Twelfth Night Act 5 Summary

Act 5, Scene 1

Orsino and his entourage arrive at Olivia’s house to woo her yet again. At this point, Orsino’s officers deliver Antonio to the duke’s hands. When Orsino interrogates the captain, Antonio accuses Cesario of treachery. He claims that he took care of Sebastian for three months at sea—only for Sebastian now to treat him like a stranger. Something isn’t adding up: Cesario has been in Orsino’s service for three months.

Reluctantly, Olivia meets Orsino, but Olivia rejects him instantly, more curious to know how Cesario has slipped past her. Confused, she reminds the young page of their recent nuptials and summons the priest to confirm it. Orsino is deeply jealous that Cesario has stolen Olivia from under his eyes, while Cesario denies it vehemently. Sir Andrew wails that Cesario has just injured him. The knot is well tangled!

Finally, Sebastian arrives. The group gawks to see two Cesarios. Finally, Viola and Sebastian see each other. By both sharing their past, the twins slowly realize that the twin they thought was dead is very much alive! Free of her disguise, Viola finally expresses her love to Orsino—who returns it. Olivia welcomes Viola as her future sister instead of wife, Orsino releases Cesario from service, and the love stories finally reach harmony.

When Olivia sends for Malvolio to retrieve Viola’s original clothes, Feste delivers the steward’s letter. Olivia is moved to hear of his suffering and releases him. Sore from imprisonment, Malvolio demands an explanation from Olivia. It dawns on Malvolio that he has been victim of a cruel trick. Fabian admits who devised the plan. A livid Malvolio vows to exact revenge on his tormentors.

Orsino looks forward to seeing Cesario become Viola, “Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen.”

Always getting the last word, Feste remains at the gate as the noblemen retire. He closes the curtain with a benediction for the festivities that have taken place.

Kathryn is a teacher and writer from Cape Town, South Africa. In her spare time, she likes to run far distances, consume cat videos, and pretend she’s on ‘The Great British Bake Off’.