Two characters from Twelfth Night, Duke Orsino and Viola disguised as the young man Cesario, are depicted in this painting by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (1820-1900).

Twelfth Night; or What You Will is a play by William Shakespeare. It was written in either 1601 or 1602 and was probably first performed on January 6, 1602, the twelfth day after Christmas. The first recorded performance was on February 2, 1602. The text of the play was not published during Shakespeare's lifetime. The first printed edition appeared in the First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare's complete works, published seven years after the writer's death. The subtitle or What You Will suggests that the play's title is not really important and that if people do not like the title they can call it something else. In the past, some theater companies chose to do just that and performed the play as Malvolio.

The play is classified as a comedy because it ends with one pair of characters having recently been married and another pair of characters about to get married. However, the story does not end happily for all of the characters involved. Some productions of Twelfth Night have played-up its comical aspects while others have placed greater emphasis on the play's more serious aspects.

In common with many of Shakespeare's comedies, mistaken identity is central to the plot. Following a shipwreck, Viola finds herself in a country called Illyria, the old Roman name for lands across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, and separated from her twin brother Sebastian. Viola disguises herself as a young man, adopts the name Cesario and enters the service of Duke Orsino. The Duke sends Viola to the house of Lady Olivia to pass on messages of his love. Olivia has no interest in Orsino but instantly falls in love with the handsome Cesario, being unaware that Cesario is really a woman named Viola. A sub-plot concerns Olivia's older relative Sir Toby Belch, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek and some servants in Olivia's household; Maria, Fabian and Feste the jester. The five characters take a strong dislike to Malvolio, Olivia's stern and puritanical steward, and get their revenge on him by convincing Olivia that he is mad.

The main sources of the play are an Italian comedy called Gli' Ingannati ("The Deceived Ones") and a short story by Barnabe Rich called "Of Apollonius and Silla" which is based on an earlier Italian tale. The Malvolio sub-plot appears to be entirely Shakespeare's own invention.


Act I

The play opens in Duke Orsino's palace. Orsino makes a great show of being lovesick for Countess Olivia. A messenger returns and tells Orsino that Olivia will not receive any suitors for the next seven years because she is in mourning for her recently deceased brother. Surprisingly, Orsino is encouraged by this news. He is impressed that Olivia demonstrates so much love for a brother and is certain that one day she will love him even more.

Denbaum in "Twelfth Night," 1968

Feste the jester, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch in a scene from a 1968 student production of Twelfth Night at Yale University.

The scene then changes to the sea coast. Following a shipwreck, Viola has become separated from her twin brother Sebastian and does not know if her brother is dead or alive. The sea captain who is with her tells Viola that she is in Illyria and that the country is governed by Duke Orsino. Viola decides to disguise herself as a young man and persuades the captain to present her to the duke as a servant.

The next scene introduces some other characters who live in Olivia's house: the maidservant Maria, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Sir Toby Belch is an older relative of Olivia but their exact relationship is not clear. [1] As his name suggests, Sir Toby Belch is a glutton and a drunkard. There is a hint of a romantic relationship between Maria and Sir Toby. Sir Andrew Aguecheek has come to visit Sir Toby. He believes himself to be Sir Toby's friend. Sir Toby constantly makes fun of him behind his back but is eager for him to marry Olivia. By his own admission, Sir Andrew is not very intelligent and looks sickly.[2]

Viola and the Countess - Frederick Richard Pickersgill

This painting by Frederick Richard Pickersgill shows the Twelfth Night characters Viola (disguised as the young man Cesario) and the Countess Olivia.

The following scene takes place several weeks after the shipwreck. Viola has disguised herself as a young man and is using the name Cesario. Viola has won the confidence of Duke Orsino and is sent to Olivia's house to pass on a message of love.

The final scene introduces more servants in Olivia's household: Feste the jester and the steward Malvolio. Feste tells Olivia that she is a greater fool than he is because she is sad even though her brother is in Heaven. Olivia is impressed with Feste's wit but Malvolio does not hide his dislike for Feste and jesters in general.

Sir Toby tells Olivia that a messenger from Orsino has come to see her. Olivia agrees to see the messenger, at first she and Maria, both wearing veils, speak to Viola who does not know which one is the real Olivia. However, Olivia is instantly smitten with the handsome "Cesario". After Viola leaves, Olivia tells Malvolio that the messenger left a ring behind and tells him to return it.

Act II

The beginning of Act II reveals that Sebastian is still alive. He has been living for several months with another sea captain called Antonio who is wanted for piracy by Duke Orsino.

In the following scene, Malvolio catches up with Viola and tries to return the ring. Viola will not take the ring because she did not leave it behind. Malvolio throws it to the ground and declares that whoever wants it can take it. Viola realises that Olivia has fallen in love with her and says, "Poor lady, she were better love a dream."

Malvolio confronting the revelers (Hall, 1855)

Malvolio Confronting the Revelers, 1855 oil painting by the American artist George Henry Hall.

The next scene shows Sir Toby and Sir Andrew returning to Olivias house drunk very late at night. They continue their drunken party in the house and are joined by Feste and Maria. The party ends abruptly when Malvolio appears and scolds them all. Maria begins to hatch a plot to take revenge on Malvolio. She says that her handwriting is very similar to Olivia's and she will write a letter that will make Malvolio believe the countess is in love with him.

The scene which follows takes place in Orsino's palace. Feste is brought over to sing a sad love song for the duke. Viola tells Orsino that she is in love with someone who looks similar to him and is about his age. Orsino does not understand the true meaning of this and advises "Cesario" to court a younger woman.

The final scene of Act II begins with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and a male servant of Olivia's named Fabian secretly watching Malvolio find the letter they have left for him. Malvolio finds the letter which he believes is from Olivia. He reads that Olivia would like to see him wearing yellow stockings and cross-garters (a style that was already old-fashioned in Shakespeare's time). After he leaves, Maria arrives. She is told that Malvolio has fallen for their trick and she reveals that Olivia hates cross-garters and the color yellow.


Viola is sent again to Olivia's house. She attempts to pass on Orsino's message of love and to discourage the countess from taking a romantic interest in her.

In the next scene, Sir Andrew Aguecheek declares that he is leaving because Olivia is more interested in "Cesario" than in him. Sir Toby and Fabian tell him to challenge "Cesario" to a duel.

Johann Heinrich Ramberg - Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from "Twelfth Night," Act III, Scene iv - Google Art Project

Olivia, Maria. and Malvolio from "Tewelft Night", Act III, Scene iv, 1789 painting by the German artist Johann Heinrich Ramberg.

The following scene shows Sebastian and Antonio. Antonio lends Sebastian some money and they agree to meet up at an inn later.

The final scene of Act III begins with Maria warning Olivia that Malvolio has gone mad. He enters wearing yellow stockings and cross-garters and quotes the love letter which he believes Olivia sent to him. Olivia believes that Malvolio has become a dangerous madman.

Viola is challenged to a duel by Sir Andrew but their fight is interrupted by Antonio who mistakes Viola for her twin brother Sebastian. Some officers arrive and arrest Antonio for piracy. Antonio asks Viola for the money that he lent to Sebastian. When Viola is unable to return the money, he accuses "Sebastian" of being an ungrateful false friend.

Scene from Twelfth Night - Francis Wheatley

This 1771 illustration by Francis Wheatley shows Viola, on the left with Fabian, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, on the right with Sir Toby Belch, preparing for their duel.

After Antonio is taken away, Viola realises that he called her "Sebastian" and that her brother may still be alive.

The act ends with Fabian, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew complaining about "Cesario's" cowardice and vowing to beat him later.

Act IV

Sir Andrew and Sir Toby see Sebastian, mistake him for "Cesario" and begin to beat him. Sebastian is better at fighting than his attackers but the fight is stopped by Olivia. Sebastian, uncertain if he is awake or dreaming, agrees to be Olivia's lover.


Malvolio in the dungeon, 1891 illustration by the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey.

The following scene shows Feste putting on a robe and a false beard to disguise himself as a priest called Sir Topas[3] and preparing to visit Malvolio to further taunt him. Malvolio has been locked in a dark room. As Sir Topas, Feste mocks Malvolio by telling him that the room has large wndows and is full of light.

Feste then reappears as himself and asks Malvolio if he is mad. Malvolio replies that he is just as sane as Feste. The jester taunts him for saying that he is as sane as a fool but agrees to fetch him a light, paper and ink so that he can write an explanatory letter to Olivia.

The act ends with a priest arriving to marry Sebastian and Olivia.

Act V

Antonio is brought before Orsino and Viola. Orsino tells Antonio that he is wrong to say that he lived with "Cesario" for many months because during that time "Cesario" was a servant in the duke's house.

William Hamilton, A Scene from Twelfth Night

The priest tells Orsino that he has married Olivia to "Cesario" in this painting by William Hamilton (1751-1801).

Olivia arrives and calls Viola "husband". Viola denies having married Olivia but the priest is called for and says that he married them just two hours earlier. An angry Orsino is about to leave, saying that he never wants to see the deceptive "Cesario" again.

Sir Andrew and Sir Toby arrive and complain about how "Cesario" has beaten them. They are sent away and Sir Toby finally reveals to Sir Andrew what he really thinks about him, calling him a fool and a "thin faced knave".

Sebastian arrives, causing Orsino to say, "One face, one voice, one habit and two persons". Sebastian and Viola slowly recognize each other as being the twin that they each thought had been dead for several months and Viola reveals that she is really a woman. Orsino suddenly becomes aware of Viola's true feelings for him and wants to see her in woman's clothing. Viola says that her woman's clothes are in the possession of the sea captain who rescued her but Malvolio has had the captain arrested.

The letter which Malvolio has written is read. Orsino comments that it does not sound like the letter of a madman. Malvolio is released from the dark room and the plot against him is revealed. Malvolio cries, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!" before leaving.

Orsino sends some servants after Malvolio to find out about the sea captain and says,

"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."

See also


  1. Sir Toby calls Olivia both his niece and his cousin but the meanings of the words "cousin", "niece" and "uncle" were not as precise in 17th century English as they are now.
  2. The word "ague" means "fever".
  3. The name taken is taken from "The Tale of Sir Thopas", one of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

External links