Twelfth Night

By william shakespeare, twelfth night summary and analysis of act 1, act i summary:.

Count Orsino of Illyria is introduced; he laments that he is lovesick, and wishes that "if music be the food of love," he could kill his unrequited love through an overdose of music. His servant, Curio, asks Orsino if he will go and hunt; Orsino answers with another lovelorn reply, about how his love for the Lady Olivia has been tearing him apart. Orsino's servant Valentine, whom Orsino sent to give his affections to Olivia, returns; Valentine was not allowed to speak directly to Olivia, but Olivia sent a message, via her handmaiden, that Olivia will continue to mourn her dead brother, and will neither allow Orsino to see her or to woo her. Orsino laments that Olivia does not hold the same deeply felt love that he professes to have.

Viola lands in Illyria, after a terrible shipwreck in which she was separated from her twin brother, Sebastian . Viola hopes that her brother was saved, as she was; the Captain, who also managed to get ashore, tries to console her of the hopes of finding her brother alive. The Captain recalls seeing her brother in the water after the shipwreck, clinging onto a mast, and riding above the waves. As it happens, the Captain is from Illyria, and tells Viola of Count Orsino, and of his love for Lady Olivia; the Captain also mentions Olivia's recent loss of both her father and her brother, and Viola, having lost her brother as well, commiserates with Olivia's situation. Viola proposes that she serve Orsino, since he is a good and just man; she conspires with the Captain that she may be presented to Orsino as a eunuch, and that her true identity as a foreign woman be concealed. The Captain agrees to help her, and he leads her to Orsino.

Sir Toby , Olivia's drunken uncle, is approached by Olivia's handmaiden, Maria , about his late hours and disorderly habits. Maria also objects to one of Sir Toby's drinking buddies, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a rather foolish man who Sir Toby has brought as a potential suitor to Olivia. Sir Toby has great affection for Sir Andrew, but Maria does not; she believes that Sir Andrew is a drunkard and a fool, and not to be suffered. Sir Toby attempts to introduce Sir Andrew to Maria; wordplay ensues from a series of misunderstandings, puns, and differing usages of words. Maria exits, and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew continue to quibble, with some amusing results; at last, they decide to start drinking.

Viola has now disguised herself as a boy, Cesario, and has been taken into the service of Count Orsino. Valentine remarks that Orsino and Viola, as Cesario, have become close in the short time that Viola has been employed; indeed, Orsino has already told Viola of his great love for Olivia. Orsino asks Viola to go to Olivia and make Orsino's case to the lady; he believes that Viola/ Cesario, being younger and more eloquent than his other messengers, will succeed. Viola says she will obey, although she confesses in an aside that she already feels love for Orsino, and would rather be his wife than try to woo Olivia for him.

Feste 's first appearance in the play; unlike Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, who make wordplay by mincing each other's meanings, Feste is more perceptive and quick-witted, and gets into an entertaining argument with the equally quick-witted Maria. Olivia enters, with her attendants, and is somewhat displeased and short with Feste; Feste says she is a fool for mourning her brother, if she knows that her brother is in heaven. Viola/ Cesario arrives at Olivia's house, and is admitted after much waiting, and being examined by both Sir Toby and Malvolio . Viola is brought in to meet Olivia, who finds out Viola is a messenger on Orsino's behalf, and Olivia discourages Viola from wooing her for the Count. Viola tries to make Orsino's suit, though Olivia counters this with elusive and witty remarks; Olivia begins to show interest in Viola as Cesario in this scene, and still insists that she cannot love Orsino. Viola is sent away at last, and Olivia has Malvolio go after Viola, with a ring and an invitation to come back tomorrow.

Act I Analysis:

The play's action occurs in the mythical land of Illyria, the name taken from an ancient area on the Adriatic coast, opposite Italy. In Roman times, Illyria was the home of a great number of pirates who would pillage Roman ships; but, in Shakespeare's time, Illyria was a group of city-states under the control of Venice. The Illyria of the play, as Shakespeare portrays it, may be geographically related to Mediterranean regions through its name; but the people of Illyria, most notably Olivia, are very English in the way their households are arranged, and in their customs and behaviors. However, understanding of the play does not depend upon its relation to a particular geographic area, and the land of Illyria is quite a mish-mash of English culture, and things both romantic and magical.

The play is sometimes regarded as having an Italian or Mediterranean setting at least because of the Italianate names used for some of the characters. Orsino was the name of the prominent dukes of Bracciano, who presided over an area in Tuscany; names like Curio, Valentine , Viola, Maria, and Antonio are Italian in origin as well.

Orsino opens the play with a speech, beginning, "if music be the food of love, play on"; the "if," and the particular diction of the line, makes the statement sound like an allusion to a familiar proverb, though no corresponding proverb is known (I.i.1). The first part of his speech is a metaphorical relation of music and love; Orsino relates music to food, and overindulgence in music to overeating, wishing that listening to too much music would kill his desire for love.

The music that Orsino is listening to pleases him at first; he makes a simile, comparing the music to the "sweet sound" (denoting a breeze) that picks up the smell of flowers (I.i.5). Orsino then contrasts love, which steals away the value of things, and the sea, which transforms things. He continues his metaphorical relation of love with appetite; he states that love is "quick and fresh," meaning keen and hungry, and takes in more than it has capacity to swallow (I.i.9). "So full of shapes is fancy," Orsino continues, relating all the many things that love swallows up to love's power to be imaginative (l.14).

Orsino repeatedly leads his conversation back to the topic of love; when his attendant, Curio, asks him if he will go hunt a hart, Orsino answers by speaking of his heart, quite a clever pun. But then, he relates the topic of hunting to his lovelorn condition; he alludes to Ovid's account of Actaeon, who was punished for seeing the goddess Diana naked by being turned into a hart, and then attacked by his own dogs. Another allusion to Ovid is made, when Orsino refers to the "rich golden shaft" of Cupid's arrow that will strike Olivia and make her lovelorn‹for, according to Ovid, Cupid caused love with an arrow that was keen, sharp, and made of gold (l. 34).

The language that Orsino uses in this first scene may be full of artifice; but it also indicates a capacity for strong feeling and great vitality. Orsino may be pining for love, but his feelings are very urgent; the image of him being torn apart by hounds expresses the great impact his feelings have on him, and his perseverance in wooing Olivia means that he is not capricious in his fancy. Orsino is no Romeo; he is not drawn to hasty actions or rash decisions, and is not subject to the kind of instant infatuation that gripped Romeo. These qualities lead to Viola and Orsino coming together, and are shown in his proofs of love, and of friendship to Viola.

Olivia's reply to Orsino's entreaty contains the only known usage of the word "cloistress," according to the Oxford English dictionary (l. 27). The word can be roughly translated as equivalent to "nun," but is more mannered because of its formal tone and its rarity. In her reply is also the comparison of tears to brine; and as brine is used to "season," or preserve foods, her tears, by the metaphorical association, will preserve her brother's memory (l. 29).

Orsino recalls the moment when he fell in love with Olivia by saying that he thought she "purged the air of pestilence," making an allusion to the Elizabethan belief that illnesses were caused by bad air (l. 19). He also recalls Elizabethan folk beliefs when he speaks of Olivia's "liver, brain, and heart," which were thought to be the seats of passion, judgment, and sentiment, respectively, and the three centers of power within the body (l. 36).

In scene 2, Viola continues the string of mythological allusions begun in scene 1. In her grief, she says that her brother's "in Elysium," and she is in "Illyria": the assonance of the place names helps to highlight the contrast between the two places (I.ii.. 2-3). But, Viola does her best to hope that her brother is not dead; "perchance," she says to the Captain, "he is not drowned" (l. 4). The Captain plays off her use of "perchance," which Viola uses to mean "perhaps," by using the same word to mean "by accident." To cheer Viola, the Captain conjures up an image of her brother "like Arion on the dolphin's back"; Arion is another figure from Ovid's work, a musician who was saved from drowning when a dolphin carried him to shore (l. 14).

Viola and Olivia's parallel situation, of mourning a recently deceased brother, is significant because it creates a bond of sympathy, at least from Viola's point of view. Viola expresses her wish to serve Olivia after hearing of Olivia's loss; and Viola's sympathy colors her later interactions with Olivia, with Viola being especially sensitive and caring toward Olivia.

In this scene, Viola bears her optimistic and gentle nature; though she fears that she has lost her brother forever, yet she hopes that he is still alive, and tries her best not to succumb to her grief. Her tone is not as richly poetic or filled with extravagant imagery as Orsino's; her words are more plain and straightforward, denoting grief but also her sensibility. Although she does not know the Captain, she presumes that he has a "fair and outward character" from their limited interaction, and his offers to help her (l. 48); she assumes the best of him, rather than the worst, though she admits even while she makes her judgment, that appearances can be deceiving.

Viola chooses to be presented to Orsino as a eunuch so that her high-pitched voice does not seem odd, and so that she will seem less threatening to Orsino. Eunuchs were men who were castrated when they were young, usually to preserve their high singing voices; eunuchs were relatively common until the 18th century, at which time the procedure fell out of favor in Europe. The procedure was mostly performed in places like Italy and Turkey, and was less common in England and Nothern Europe.

Scene 3 is mostly involved with quibbles, wordplay, and literal misunderstandings. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew cannot seem to understand the real meanings of one another, or of Maria either; the confusion begins when Sir Toby attempts to introduce Sir Andrew to Maria. Sir Andrew tends to mince his words badly, as when he addresses Maria as "fair shrew," which is quite a paradox; he intends the statement to be a kindly one, but a shrew refers to an ill-tempered woman, one who would certainly not be addressed as "fair" (I.iii.43). Sir Toby tells Sir Andrew to "accost" Maria, meaning to proposition her; Sir Andrew asks what "accost" means, and Toby thinks that his friend is asking who Maria is. Sir Andrew then wrongly assumes that Maria's name is Miss Mary Accost, and then Toby is forced to explain the no-so-delicate meaning of "accost" before the party: "woo her, assail her," he explains the term to mean (I.iii.53). Although Sir Andrew is not the most perceptive of men, he does sense that Maria thinks both of them are fools: "do you think you have fools in hand," he asks her, meaning does she think she is in the company of fools (l. 61). Maria proceeds to take the question literally: she answers, "I have not you by th' hand," confessing her poor opinion of them both (l. 62). Sir Andrew takes this in a good-natured way, giving her his hand to shake.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew have a good number of such farcical exchanges; Sir Andrew does not quite get Maria's metaphor of her breasts to a butter-bar, and Maria must explain her statement as being "dry," which Sir Andrew again misunderstands. Sir Toby takes Sir Andrew's talk about "tongues" to be about "tongs," which leads to a discussion of Sir Andrew's hair. Then, their speech reflects the many meanings of "caper," being a dance, a kind of seasoning for mutton, and an adventure as well. Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are definitely the comic relief of the play, and their misadventures, which begin with this scene, prove very entertaining.

If there is one attribute that Sir Toby and his niece, Olivia, have in common, it is their great pride. Sir Toby owns up to his pride in an exchange with Maria; he does not want to appear any more grand than he actually is, and is against any kind of false shows. He says that Olivia, too, has this same pride in herself; and because of it, she refuses to marry above her station, or get involved with people of great rank, like Orsino. Unlike Malvolio, who tries to present an image of greater stature, Olivia and Toby want to be seen as exactly what they are, and are fiercely proud of their station.

Another uncertain issue in the play is the issue of time; at the beginning of Scene 4, Valentine states that Viola has been in the service of Orsino for only three days; yet, at the end of the play, three months are said to have transpired. The lengths of time mentioned are likely unreliable; the three days could very well be meant to emphasize the quick bond that has grown between Orsino and Viola, and the three months to highlight how things have changed in the time elapsed.

Orsino himself speaks of how he and Viola have become close; "I have unclasped to thee the book even of my secret soul," he says, using the metaphor of an unclasped book that is used elsewhere in Shakespeare to represent very personal communications (I.iv.13-4). From this, and the way in which Orsino speaks to his page, drawing Viola aside to speak to her in confidence, shows how close they have become, and how much trust Orsino already has in Viola.

Unwittingly, Orsino states the truth about Viola's disguise, without being aware of it. He says of Viola that "thy small pipe is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound, and all is semblative a woman's part" (I.iv.32-4); the statement is laden with dramatic irony, as Orsino has guessed the truth about Viola without knowing it, while the audience both knows about Viola's true identity, and Orsino's good guess.

The language of Scene 5 is less laden with literary elements than the language of the previous scenes, because of the temperaments of Olivia and the others involved, and also because of Olivia's focus on getting the plain truth out of people. Olivia has the ability to quickly match a witty statement with an equally witty answer; she plays off of Feste's faux-logic about "a drowned man, a fool, and a madman" with ease, and offers a quick rejoinder to Viola's quip about the realness of Olivia's beauty (I.v.125). She is not quite as involved in wordplay as Feste or Maria, preferring not to quibble about less significant facts; this is perfectly displayed in her conversation with Viola, in which Olivia prefers to address the more important aspects of the situation, and diffuse Viola's argument as best she can.

Feste, when he confronts Olivia, speaks in a mock-religious tone; he speaks in would-be proverbs, like "God give them wisdom that have it, and those that are fools, let them use their talents" (l. 13-4). He addresses Olivia simply as "madonna," says he will "catechize" her, and assumes a cleric-like logic in trying to prove Olivia a fool. This tendency of Feste to play a mock-priest foreshadows his later attempt to taunt Malvolio, in the guise of a cleric.

Even at such an early point in the play, Malvolio's character becomes clear through Olivia's perceptiveness. "You are sick of self-love, Malvolio," she tells him, after only a brief appearance by the steward; Olivia also notes his propensity to make "birdboltsŠ[into] cannon bullets," a charge which later proves true (l. 85-8). Although Malvolio's vanity, arrogance, and self-deceptive qualities are not on clear display in this act, Olivia pegs them down, and her judgment of him does prove correct.

Also, Olivia's favor for Viola is first shown in this scene; when questioning Viola, Olivia asks Viola/Cesario about parentage, perhaps to see if this young page is of a high enough rank to be considered for marriage. When Viola leaves, Olivia remarks on the young page's looks, and states her preference for Cesario over Orsino; yet, Olivia is not one to rush into the situation, asking herself if "even so quickly may one catch the plague" (I.v.285). For the last lines spoken in this scene, Olivia even reverts to rhyme, speaking two couplets about her new favor for Cesario. Previously in this act, rhyme and verse were primarily spoken by the lovelorn Orsino; perhaps this sudden shift from prose to rhyming verse is meant to show that poetry is born of love, and that eloquence in verse is a symptom of being in love.

One major theme of the play, first developed in this act, concerns how Olivia and Orsino are changed by their relationship with Viola, and how her simplicity and directness helps them to shed their mannerisms and also their mannered language. Before meeting Viola, Orsino speaks poetically but somewhat artificially about his love for Olivia; after he meets Viola, he gets right to the point, disclosing to her the extent of his affections, and his plans to woo her. In Olivia's first encounter with Viola, her somewhat self-righteous shows of mourning are dropped, as Olivia must use her wit and plain speech in order to deal directly with Viola. Viola is not the formal, affected aristocrat that both Olivia and Orsino are; and throughout their contact with her, they become more emotionally direct and more honest with themselves and with her, leaving aside their shows of formality.

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Twelfth Night Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Twelfth Night is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

Question In Twelfth Night, which event is part of the resolution? Responses Malvolio receives a love letter. Malvolio receives a love letter. Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked. Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked. Viola, disguised as Cesario, meets O

  • Sir Toby and Maria are married.

Discuss Viola's use of her disguise in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

After the shipwreck, Viola resolves to make the best of her situation and be taken into Orsino's service. As a young eunuch named Cesario, she will be safe from male attentions. Viola is quickly taken into Orsino's confidence, and he tells her all...

How do valentines entrance and message affects the plot?

Orsino's servant Valentine, whom Orsino sent to give his affections to Olivia, returns; Valentine was not allowed to speak directly to Olivia, but Olivia sent a message, via her handmaiden, that Olivia will continue to mourn her dead brother, and...

Study Guide for Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night study guide contains a biography of William Shakespeare, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About Twelfth Night
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Essays for Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night literature essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Twelfth Night.

  • The Role of the Fool: Feste's Significance
  • The Fool as a Playwright in Twelfth Night
  • It is Theater
  • To Believe, or Not To Believe
  • The Function of Plot Divisions in Twelfth Night and in Doctor Faustus

Lesson Plan for Twelfth Night

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E-Text of Twelfth Night

The Twelfth Night e-text contains the full text of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare.

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twelfth night summary of act 1

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Here is a more detailed look at what happens in each scene of Twelfth Night, to help you look at the structure of the play and interrogate it.

As you look at each act we’ve included some things to notice. These are important character developments, or key questions that an acting company might ask when they first go through the play together at the start of rehearsal. If you work through these as you go, they will help you to make sense of the play. It’s a good idea to have a copy of the text nearby.

Act 1 Scene 1

What do we learn.

  • Orsino is in love with Olivia, a Countess who lives nearby.
  • Olivia is not interested in Orsino’s attention, sending a message that she will spend the next seven years in mourning for her brother.

Act 1 Scene 2

  • The Captain grew up in Illyria and knows it well. He tells Viola about Orsino’s love for Olivia and her recent bereavements with the deaths of both her father and brother.
  • Viola has lost her brother in the shipwreck.
  • The Captain promises to help Viola dress as a boy and seek employment with Orsino.

Act 1 Scene 3

  • Sir Toby Belch is a relative of Olivia’s who drinks too much and has a foolish friend called Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
  • Olivia’s maid, Maria, is witty and protective of her mistress.
  • Sir Andrew Aguecheek hopes to marry Olivia.

Act 1 Scene 4

  • Viola has disguised herself as a young man called Cesario and has been serving in Orsino’s household for three days.
  • Orsino has told 'Cesario' all about his love for Olivia and believes Olivia will listen to his messenger.
  • Viola, while dressed as 'Cesario', has secretly fallen in love with Orsino.

Act 1 Scene 5

  • Olivia seems pleased that Feste has returned but Malvolio is not.
  • Olivia does not think very highly of Sir Toby.
  • Olivia lists all Orsino’s good qualities but insists she does not want to marry him because she does not love him. Instead she falls in love with ‘Cesario’.


In this act, we discover some facts about the ‘backstories’ of the main characters and what has happened to them before the action of the play begins. Make notes on what we discover about the backstories of Viola, Olivia and Orsino. Write a line which summarises each character’s relationship with each of the others in this act.

Love and music are two key themes in this play and Shakespeare introduces both in Orsino’s famous first line ‘If music be the food of love, play on’. When else are music or love mentioned in this act?

Act 1 is important because it introduces us to the characters and the two wealthy households of Duke Orsino and Countess Olivia. How would you describe each of these two households? What differences can you infer about the two households and which lines best suggest these differences?

Act 2 Scene 1

  • Antonio rescued Sebastian when he was washed ashore after the shipwreck.
  • Sebastian and Viola are twins. Their father, Sebastian of Messaline, is dead.

Act 2 Scene 2

  • Viola realises she is caught in a love triangle: she loves Orsino, he loves Olivia, and Olivia loves her (as ‘Cesario’).

Act 2 Scene 3

  • Malvolio is disliked by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste, and Maria.
  • Maria can imitate Olivia’s handwriting and plans to use this skill to fool Malvolio.
  • Sir Toby encourages Sir Andrew to spend his money out of hope that he will recoup his losses by marrying Olivia.

Act 2 Scene 4

  • Feste moves between the two households, entertaining both Olivia and Orsino.
  • Orsino seems to enjoy talking about love with his new servant 'Cesario'.
  • By pretending to talk of someone else, Viola reveals to the audience how much she loves Orsino.

Act 2 Scene 5

  • Even before reading the letter, Malvolio believes that Olivia sees him as more than just her steward.
  • After reading the letter, Malvolio is convinced that Olivia loves him.
  • Maria’s letter instructs Malvolio to wear ‘a colour she abhors’ and ‘a fashion she detests’.


In each scene, notice how much the audience knows that the characters do not. How do you think this knowledge affects how the audience enjoy watching the events of the play unfold?

Act 2 Scene 4, often known as ‘the gulling of Malvolio’ is a famous scene in Shakespeare. It uses a theatrical convention known as dramatic irony where the audience know what is happening but one or more characters on stage, in this case Malvolio, do not. Why do you think Shakespeare gives lines to the characters spying on Malvolio?

In Act 2, we see the development of a main plot and a subplot. In the main plot of the love triangle, we meet Sebastian and begin to wonder how he might be reunited with Viola. In the subplot with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, we see the planning and execution of Maria’s trick against Malvolio. Notice how scenes about the main plot and subplot alternate with each other in this act. Why do you think Shakespeare has structured the act in this way?

Act 3 Scene 1

  • Viola appreciates Feste’s skill as a fool.
  • Olivia, like Orsino, finds it hard to take no for an answer.
  • Sir Andrew is impressed by 'Cesario'.

Act 3 Scene 2

  • Sir Andrew is convinced to write a letter challenging Cesario to a duel.
  • Sir Toby has conned money from Sir Andrew.
  • Malvolio is following all the instructions set down in Maria’s forged letter. He is wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and is smiling.

Act 3 Scene 3

  • Sebastian seems pleased to see Antonio.
  • Antonio once fought against Orsino’s ships and will be in trouble if he is recognised.
  • Sebastian is now walking around in the same town as Viola.

Act 3 Scene 4

Olivia is planning for 'Cesario’ to visit again. She calls for Malvolio because ‘He is sad and civil’ but Maria warns her that Malvolio comes ‘in very strange manner’. Malvolio appears smiling and wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings. Olivia thinks he is unwell and says ‘Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?’ but Malvolio thinks she wants him to join her in bed.

When a servant brings news that 'Cesario' has arrived, Olivia tells Maria to fetch Sir Toby and others to take care of Malvolio. Malvolio believes everything is working out and that ‘nothing that can be can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes’.

Sir Toby and Fabian arrive and proceed to treat Malvolio as if he is possessed by devils. Malvolio thinks they are unworthy of his attention, and leaves calling them ‘idle, shallow things’. As Sir Toby, Maria and Fabian laugh and plan to lock Malvolio ‘in a dark room and bound’, Sir Andrew arrives with his challenge to 'Cesario'. Sir Toby reads it aloud and it is clear that the letter ‘being so excellently ignorant will breed no terror in the youth’. Sir Toby tells Fabian that instead he ‘will deliver his challenge by word of mouth’ and scare ‘the young gentleman’ with stories of Sir Andrew’s ‘rage, skill, fury, and impetuosity’. At that moment Olivia enters with 'Cesario' still trying to persuade ‘him’ to love her.

As soon as Olivia leaves, Sir Toby and Fabian tell 'Cesario' that Sir Andrew, ‘a devil in private brawl’ who has killed three men, is waiting to fight him. Fabian offers to go with 'Cesario' and help make peace. 'Cesario' is grateful saying ‘I am one that had rather go with sir priest than sir knight’.

Meanwhile, Sir Toby tells Sir Andrew of 'Cesario’s' fighting skills. Sir Andrew now wants to ‘let the matter slip’ and tells Sir Toby to offer his horse to 'Cesario' not to fight. Sir Toby instead tells 'Cesario' that Sir Andrew insists on fighting ‘for oath’s sake’ but ‘protests he will not hurt you’. Sir Toby then returns to Sir Andrew and tells him 'Cesario' insists on fighting ‘but he has promised me, as he is a gentleman and a soldier, he will not hurt you.’

Sir Andrew and 'Cesario' both reluctantly face each other to fight, but Antonio enters and stops them. He defends 'Cesario', who he thinks is Sebastian. Just then, officers of the law arrive and arrest Antonio ‘at the suit of Count Orsino’. Antonio asks the gentleman he thinks is Sebastian for the purse of money he gave him earlier. Confused, 'Cesario' offers half 'his' money ‘for the fair kindness’ Antonio has shown in defending 'him'. Antonio is shocked, believing Sebastian is pretending not to know him, ‘Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame’. As Antonio is taken away, Viola is left wondering if her brother is alive.

  • Olivia is still hoping 'Cesario' will change 'his' mind about loving her.
  • Olivia believes Malvolio is unwell and wants him looked after.
  • In disguising herself as ‘Cesario’, Viola has imitated her brother and dressed as Sebastian would dress which has confused Antonio.


Notice how the main plot and the subplot become more interwoven as 'Cesario' is drawn into the world of Sir Toby when he tricks Sir Andrew into challenging 'Cesario'. What other cross-overs are there between Sir Toby’s world and Olivia’s?

Notice the exchange between Antonio and 'Cesario' at the end of Scene 4. What do we learn about Viola and Sebastian from this exchange? Why do you think Viola doesn’t say anything about her brother at this moment? Except for the short exchange between Olivia and 'Cesario', the whole of Scene 4 is in prose until Antonio arrives. Why do you think the scene changes to verse at this point?

In Act 3, all the various deceptions in the play add up to a very confused situation. Viola’s deception in disguising herself as a boy has resulted in Olivia falling in love with 'Ceasrio', and in having to keep her own love for Orsino a secret. Alongside Sir Toby’s deception in making Sir Andrew think Olivia wants to marry him, Viola’s disguise has also led to conflict with Sir Andrew and the arrest of Antonio. Which lines suggest how all this confusion might be resolved?

Act 4 Scene 1

  • Sebastian is mistaken for Cesario by everyone he meets.
  • Olivia has very little respect for Sir Toby.
  • Sebastian enjoys Olivia’s attention.

Act 4 Scene 2

  • Malvolio has been locked away in a dark room.
  • Feste becomes involved in the prank, disguising himself as Sir Topas.
  • Sir Toby realises that Olivia thinks he has gone too far with his pranks.

Act 4 Scene 3

  • Sebastian went to the Elephant and found a note from Antonio to say he had gone out to find Sebastian.
  • Olivia wants Sebastian, who she believes is Cesario, to secretly swear he will marry her before a priest.


Notice that Viola does not appear in this act. Instead Sebastian meets Olivia, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste, who all speak to him as if he is 'Cesario'. How do Sebastian’s responses suggest a resolution to the confusion Viola’s disguise as 'Cesario' has created?

Notice the information we are given about how Malvolio has been treated in Scene 2, and how Feste talks to him. Which lines in the text suggest this prank has gone too far?

In Act 4, after all the confusion of Act 3, we see Sebastian fall in love with Olivia and Malvolio refuse to accept how he has been treated. Based on what happens in this act, what might an audience expect to happen next for Viola and for Sir Toby?

Act 5 Scene 1

  • Three months have passed since the shipwreck.
  • Sir Andrew and Sir Toby have again provoked Sebastian to fight, mistaking him for 'Cesario'.
  • The confusions caused by Viola’s disguise are resolved when Sebastian and 'Ceasrio' are seen together.
  • The captain has Viola’s clothes but has been arrested under Malvolio’s orders so the play ends with Viola still dressed as a young man.


Notice each character’s response to the moment when Sebastian and Viola finally come face to face. How do you think each character might be feeling at this moment?

Notice that when Sebastian says his sister is called Viola, it is the first time we have heard her real name. What might be the effect of this on an audience?

Notice what Olivia, Orsino, Fabian and Feste say to and about Malvolio when he appears. How much sympathy do you think each of them has for Malvolio? How do you think their responses might affect how the audience feel about Malvolio?

Act 5 is important because it resolves the confusions set up through the disguises and deceptions of the play. Cesario is revealed to be Viola disguised as a young man, who has a twin brother Sebastian. As always with Shakespeare’s comedies the audience are left to wonder what might happen next for the love matches: Viola and Orsino; Olivia and Sebastian; Sir Toby and Maria. How happily ever after do you think each pair will be? How much sympathy do you have for those characters who are left out: Malvolio, Sir Andrew, Antonio?

twelfth night summary of act 1

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twelfth night summary of act 1

  • My Preferences
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  • Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare

  • Literature Notes
  • Play Summary
  • Character List
  • Summary and Analysis
  • Act I: Scene 1
  • Act I: Scene 2
  • Act I: Scene 3
  • Act I: Scene 4
  • Act I: Scene 5
  • Act II: Scene 1
  • Act II: Scene 2
  • Act II: Scene 3
  • Act II: Scene 4
  • Act II: Scene 5
  • Act III: Scene 1
  • Act III: Scene 2
  • Act III: Scene 3
  • Act III: Scene 4
  • Act IV: Scene 1
  • Act IV: Scene 2
  • Act IV: Scene 3
  • Act V: Scene 1
  • Character Analysis
  • Duke Orsino
  • Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria
  • Critical Essays
  • Major Themes
  • Major Symbols and Motifs
  • William Shakespeare Biography
  • Famous Quotes
  • Film Versions
  • Essay Questions
  • Cite this Literature Note

Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 1

Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, is sitting in his palace and enjoying himself by listening to music. He is in love and is in a whimsical, romantic mood, luxuriating in the various emotions which the music evokes. But he impulsively decides that he has heard enough, and after sending the musicians away, he expounds on the subject of love. Curio, one of his pages, asks his master if he wouldn't like to hunt; perhaps exercise will cure his master's soulful, philosophical moodiness. Orsino replies that he would like to hunt — but he would like to hunt the lovely Olivia, to whom he has sent another of his pages, Valentine, as an emissary. At that moment, Valentine enters. But he brings such bad news that he begs "not [to] be admitted": Olivia's brother has died, and she has vowed to mourn her brother's death for seven years. Surprisingly, the news does not dampen Orsino's spirit. He rhapsodizes on how a girl with such sensitivity can express her emotions; if she "hath a heart of that fine frame," he says, then she would be even more devoted and loyal to a lover.

Twelfth Night has always been one of Shakespeare's most popular plays on the stage. On a first reading of the play, some students find the play difficult to come to grips with. This is because so much of the delight of the play comes from viewing the play. One must imagine the opening of the play with musicians entering and playing lovely music of a languid and melancholy nature to match the mood and personality of Duke Orsino's mood.

The general setting of the play is also significant. Shakespeare always set his comedies in faraway places so as to emphasize the ethereal quality of the romance. The name "Illyria" would be as little known to his audience as it is to today's average person; the fact that such a place did in fact exist on the Adriatic coast is of no importance to the play, for the name itself evokes images of faraway places filled with intrigues and love, and this is the concept that is emphasized throughout the play by the extensive use of music. In some productions, in addition to the songs played and sung on the stage, languid background music is played throughout the comedy.

The duke is in love, and his famous first lines announce this feeling:

If music be the food of love, play on! Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die. (1-3)

But the duke is not in love with any one particular person (even though it would be foolish not to acknowledge, of course, the Lady Olivia); but most of all, the duke is in love with love itself; after all, the Lady Olivia has rejected his protestations of love, and yet he continues to insist that she marry him. The duke thoroughly delights in giving himself up to the exquisite delights of his own passions, but actually he does little to try to possess the object of his affections. In fact, this is the reason why he will later use Viola (Cesario) to do his courting for him.

The duke's character is set in his first speech. At the same time that he indulges in the sentimental music, he impetuously grows tired of it and dismisses the musicians. The duke then evokes the metaphor of the sea, which he likens to love. The sea is vast, as is the duke's capacity for love, but the sea is also changeable, unstable, and constantly shifting its mien. At the end of the comedy, the duke, significantly, will shift his love from the Lady Olivia to Viola within a moment; thus we should not be disturbed by this quick change. Feste later compares the duke's love to an opal, a gem which constantly changes its color according to the nature of the light.

When we hear that the Lady Olivia is going to mourn her brother for seven years, her desire to remain "cloistered like a nun" for seven years identifies her as a person of extreme romantic sentimentality, one who is not in touch with the real world; thus, she is a romantic counterpart to Duke Orsino. When the duke hears the news, he is pleased: if she can remain devoted to her brother for so long, it means that she has a constant heart; therefore, she will be constant to a lover forever, when the time comes. The duke then lies down; he goes to his "sweet beds of flowers" (usually an ottoman or lounge) in order to sleep and dream, believing that "love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers." In this short opening scene, we have seen the duke restless and enamored of love, tired of love, and finally ready to sleep and dream of love.

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twelfth night summary of act 1

Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night

Synopsis and plot overview of shakespeare's twelfth night.

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TL;DR (may contain spoilers): Viola thinks her brother is dead. He thinks that she is dead. Everyone thinks that she is her brother. Everyone thinks that her brother is her. Shenanigans ensue.

Twelfth Night Summary

Viola, separated from her twin Sebastian, dresses as a boy and works for the Duke Orsino, whom she falls in love with. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia, and sends Viola to court her for him, but Olivia falls for Viola instead. Sebastian arrives, causing a flood of mistaken identity, and marries Olivia. Viola then reveals she is a girl and marries Orsino. 

More detail: 2.5 minute read

Orsino, Duke of lllyria, is despairing that he is spurned by the Countess Olivia. She has forsworn men's company for seven years while she mourns the death of her brother and rebuffs all his advances. Nearby, a group of sailors arrive on shore with a young girl, Viola, whom they have rescued from a storm at sea. Viola laments the loss of her twin brother, Sebastian, in the shipwreck. She resolves to fend for herself by dressing as a boy to get work as a page to Duke Orsino.

If music be the food of love, play on — Twelfth Night, Act 1 Scene 1

The "board" has a shape curved out top and bottom, curved in at the sides, with an even ellipse within it  Numbered circles from 1 to 44 run round the outside and the ellipse,  some being replaced by images. In the centre is a square-framed image.

Despite his former rejection, Orsino sends his new page Cesario (Viola in disguise) to court Olivia for him. Cesario/Viola fell in love at first sight with her master Orsino, so she goes to court Olivia unwillingly. To make matters more complicated, Olivia continues to reject Orsino but is attracted to Cesario. She sends her proud steward, Malvolio, after him with a ring. Thus, a genuine love triangle arises between Olivia, Viola/Cesario, and Orsino.

Meanwhile, members of Olivia's household plot to expose the self-love and aspirations of the steward, Malvolio. These include Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch, her servant, Maria, and Sir Toby's friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Sir Andrew also happens to be seeking the hand of Olivia. Together, they use a letter to trick Malvolio into believing Olivia loves him. The letter demands that Malvolio appear in yellow stockings, cross-gartered, and smiling to show his love for Olivia. After he does so, the Countess is horrified and has Malvolio shut up in the dark as a madman. Meanwhile, Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, has also survived the shipwreck. He comes to Illyria with his sea-captain friend, Antonio, who is a wanted man for former piracy against Orsino.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em — Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 5

Sir Andrew's affections for Olivia lead him to be jealous of Cesario, and he decides to declare a duel between them. Thanks to a prank by Sir Toby, both Andrew and Cesario believe that their opponents intend to fight to the death. They both shirk the fight. However, the sea-captain Antonio passes by and mistakes Cesario for Sebastian, and intervenes to defend his friend. He is recognised by Orsino's men and arrested.  Later, Sebastian comes along and is challenged by Sir Andrew, who thinks he is Cesario. Sebastian, trained in combat, wins the fight. But Olivia intervenes and invites Sebastian into the house, also thinking him to be Cesario (this is clearly a common mistake). Olivia and Sebastian are married that night. 

Aguecheek and "Sebastian" (Viola) point swords at each other, far enough apart that even the fully extended swords do not touch. Viola is being encouraged by someone standing behind her, while in the rear stands a man with a drawn sword held pointing at the ground.

Malvolio, held in the dungeon for being a madman, is psychologically tortured by Maria, Sir Toby, and Feste, the court fool. Feste dresses up as a priest to convince Malvolio that he is, in fact, mad. After realising that they might get into trouble for treating Malvolio this way, they allow him a pen and paper to be able to write a letter to Olivia. 

Antonio is brought to talk with Orsino, and upon seeing Cesario, he accuses him of betrayal. Just then, the real Sebastian arrives to apologise for fighting Sir Toby. The twins see each other and discover that they are both alive. Orsino's fool, Feste, brings a letter from Malvolio, and on his release, Maria's letter is revealed to be fraudulent. Malvolio departs promising revenge. Maria and Sir Toby have already married in celebration of the success of their plot against the steward.

The play ends as Orsino approves the union between Olivia and Sebastian.  Realising his own attraction to 'Cesario', Orsino promises that once Viola is dressed as a woman again, they will be married as well.

Journey's end in lovers meeting — Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 3

The set is a dark-panelled room, with framed doorways each side, and a panelled ceiling. At the back is a largely obscure mural with a bright fairy-like figure in the centre.

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English Summary

Back to: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Table of Contents

In his own palace, Duke Orsino is giving a philosophy of love. He says that if music is the food of love then play on. He expresses his love at first sight for Olivia.

Valentine brings the news that Olivia won’t entertain herself for the next seven years because she is mourning her brother’s death and will keep mourning it. Orsino expresses his surprise that how can she give up all this for only her brother.

On the seacoast, Viola is with a caption and sailors. Viola believes that her brother is dead after the shipwreck but the captain consoles her that he saw him as far as he could sticking to a mast floating upon the sea.

The captain tells her about this new place Illyria and its Duke Orsino who is in love with Olivia. Olivia lost her father and later on her only brother so she is still in mourning. Viola decides to disguise herself and serve the Duke.

Sir Toby Belch is talking to Maria who is a servant in Olivia’s house. Maria tells him about Sir Andrew who is trying to court Olivia too. In a comic manner, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew start countering each other. They start having fun around and Sir Toby says that they are born under Taurus so they are like this.

In Duke Orsino’s palace, Valentine and Viola are in the disguise of man’s attire. Viola dressed as Cesario has come closer to the Duke. The Duke asks her to communicate his passion for Olivia and Viola agrees while thinking of it as a hard task.

In Olivia’s house, Maria is talking to Feste a clown. Olivia enters with Malvolio her steward. Olivia accuses Feste of dishonesty. Feste in his humor talks without restraint.

Feste says that it is foolish of Olivia to mourn for her brother’s death if she is so sure that his soul is in heaven. Malvolio expresses his surprise that how can Olivia delights in such a rascal.

Olivia says that Feste is a licensed clown whose only job is to scold. Someone comes to meet Olivia and is stopped at the door by Sir Toby. Malvolio reports that the visitor is stubborn enough to meet her.

Olivia asks about him and finally orders to allow him to come in. It is Viola dressed as Cesario. Olivia attends behind a veil. Viola addresses her in a courtly language and asks her to be alone so that the message she has brought will be delivered to her alone.

Viola talks to her about Orsino and his love for her and describes Olivia’s beauty in a poetic manner. Olivia sends Malvolio to carry the ring left behind by Viola (as Cesario) because she is not up for him.

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Twelfth Night - Act 1, scene 1

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Act 1, scene 1.

At his court, Orsino, sick with love for the Lady Olivia, learns from his messenger that she is grieving for her dead brother and refuses to be seen for seven years.

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