Twelfth Night Play Summary

Twelfth Night Summary, What You Will is a romantic comedy by William Shakespeare that is believed to have been written around 1601–1602 as a Twelfth Night entertainment for the close of the Christmas season. The play centres on the twins Viola and Sebastian, who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola (who is disguised as Cesario) falls in love with the Duke Orsino, who in turn is in love with Countess Olivia. Upon meeting Viola, Countess Olivia falls in love with her thinking she is a man.

The play expanded on the musical interludes and riotous disorder expected of the occasion, with plot elements drawn from the short story "Of Apollonius and Silla" by Barnabe Rich, based on a story by Matteo Bandello. The first documented public performance was on 2 February 1602, at Candlemas, the formal end of Christmastide in the year's calendar. The play was not published until its inclusion in the 1623 First Folio.

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Twelfth Night Play Summary

Twelfth Night Play Summary

Act I: 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.

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.

Act II: 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.

Act III: 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. 

Act IV: 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. 

Act V: 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.

You may also like to read: Hamlet Play Summary

Questions about Twelfth Night Story

What is the short summary of Twelfth Night? Orsino is in love with Olivia, but she's mourning for her dead brother, so has rejected all his advances so far. He sends Cesario (who is really Viola) with love letters to woo Olivia on his behalf. Unfortunately for the Duke, Olivia is taken in by Cesario's disguise and falls in love with him.

What is the main idea of the Twelfth Night? Love is the central theme of Twelfth Night and many different aspects of love are explored throughout the play. Look at the key scenes section to explore different aspects of love in some of those moments in the play, and how it is spoken about.

Is Twelfth Night a comedy or tragedy? Twelfth Night can be considered a model Shakespearean comedy in that it employs nearly every feature of the genre: a wedding, mistaken identities, misunderstandings, physical comedy, and a happy ending.

Is Twelfth Night LGBTQ? Acontemporary reading ofWilliam Shakespeare's Twelfth Night suggests that the play is centered on bisexuality, as characters fall in love with one another, of both genders. This is demonstrated through dialogue, behavior and cross-dressing in the play, as would be seen in a late twentieth century scope.

What type of play is Twelfth Night? Read the story of Twelfth Night, also known as What You Will - a comedy which centres on mistaken identity.

What is the climax of Twelfth Night? The climax of Twelfth Night occurs when Viola and Sebastian reunite and their true identities become known to everyone. Their reunion sets up the conclusion (or denouement), in which preparations are made for the marriage of Viola to Orsino and Sebastian to Olivia.

What is the theme of the twelfth night about gender? Shakespeare uses the theme of deception in his critique of gender roles in Twelfth Night. “Shakespeare also seems to suggest that the theme of gender is something based on how you act, rather than something based on what you were born with”.

What is the main plot and subplot in the twelfth night? The main plot follows the love triangle of Olivia, Orsino, and Viola, while the subplot follows the hilarious Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria in addition to their misadventures with Malvolio, Sebastian, and eventually the love triangle of the main plot.

Why does Viola dress as a man? In Twelfth Night, Viola dresses as the male Cesario in order to gain entry into Orsino's court. In Elizabethan England, women were not allowed to act professionally, and female parts were all performed by men, so Viola would have actually been played by a male actor, dressing as a woman dressing as a man.

Why is it called Twelfth Night? "Twelfth Night" is a reference to the twelfth night after Christmas Day, also called the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany. It was originally a Catholic holiday, and these were sometimes occasions for revelry, like other Christian feast days. Servants often dressed up as their masters, men as women, and so forth.

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