Twelfth Night Summary provides a quick overview of the plot describing every major event in this play
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Twelfth Night Summary

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Twelfth Night Summary provides a quick review of the play's plot including every important action in the play. Twelfth Night Summary is divided by the five acts of the play and is an ideal introduction before reading the original text.

Act I.

Orsino, The Duke of Illyria reveals his great love for the rich Countess Olivia who we learn has decided to veil herself for seven years to honor her recently deceased brother's memory. Profoundly impressed by this, the Duke continues his pursuit of Olivia undeterred...

Viola is introduced to us as a survivor of a shipwreck. Her brother was lost at sea but may not be dead. Viola learns from the Sea Captain of their doomed ship that they are now in Illyria, which is ruled by Orsino. The Sea Captain explains to Viola that The Duke of Illyria is pursuing the fair Olivia, a woman who like Viola has lost a brother.

Identifying with Olivia's grief, Viola wishes to serve Olivia but when she learns this will be impossible, Viola instead has the Sea Captain disguise her as a boy so she can serve Orsino, The Duke of Illyria.

Sir Toby, Olivia's cousin is introduced. We quickly discover that he drinks a great deal, keeps late hours and is generally rowdy by nature. Maria, Lady Olivia's maid makes this clear to us in her unsuccessful attempts to quieten Sir Toby down. Maria also reveals Olivia's annoyance that Sir Toby has encouraged Sir Andrew Aguecheek to court her.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek is now introduced, quickly revealing himself to be rich but rather dim (unintelligent). Sir Toby has manipulated Sir Andrew into pursuing Olivia so Sir Toby can continue benefiting from Sir Andrew's great wealth.

Realizing Olivia will not be courted by him, Sir Andrew makes preparations to leave but Sir Toby convinces Sir Andrew to stay a month longer, no doubt so Sir Toby can use Sir Andrew and his great wealth further...

Viola has successfully disguised herself as a man named Cesario. Her success with Orsino has been so great that she is now a favorite with Orsino who believes Viola to be the man named Cesario. As such, Orsino entrusts Cesario (Viola) to express his love for Olivia. Cesario, (Viola) deeply divided by her own love for Orsino, nonetheless dutifully represents Orsino.

Olivia's maid is angry with Feste, Olivia's Clown. Feste redeems himself with Lady Olivia by telling her she should not mourn her brother since he is in a better place, namely heaven. Olivia is pleased, but Olivia's uptight steward, Malvolio is not, regarding Feste as old and lacking in wit.

Olivia gives us an insight into Malvolio's character by saying that he suffers from self-love or is arrogant and vain.

Cesario (Viola) petitions Lady Olivia, eventually gaining her audience. Olivia is quite taken by Cesario but tells him, she cannot return Orsino's affections for her.

Olivia would however like to see Cesario (Viola) again, asking him to come back to report to her how Orsino took the news.

Intrigued by Cesario, Olivia sends Malvolio after him to give back a ring Cesario left behind as an excuse to express her affection for him...

Act II.

Sebastian, the twin brother Viola feared had died at sea, has also survived the shipwreck. Like Viola he mourns the loss of his sibling, believing his sister Viola to be dead.

Antonio, the man who saved Sebastian's life is touched by Sebastian's loss and decides to follow Sebastian to the Duke of Orsino's court even though he has many enemies there. Sebastian nobly tries to talk Antonio out of this, but Antonio is eventually accepted by Sebastian to travel with him to the Duke's court.

Malvolio catches up with Cesario (Viola), rudely returning Cesario's ring to him. Cesario is confused, he left no such ring at Lady Olivia's house. Malvolio also conveys Olivia's desire that Cesario return to confirm that Orsino has accepted the fact that she does not love him.

Cesario now realizes that the ring is a ploy by Olivia to express her affections for him. Realizing she has charmed Olivia, Cesario remarks that Olivia would do better chasing a dream than a man who really is a woman (Viola) in disguise. Cesario is distressed by this mess and hopes time will undo this tangled web.

Late at night, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and later Feste the Clown are enjoying some late night drinking and singing. This gets Maria's attention who warns all three men to quieten down lest Malvolio notices.

The three men ignore Maria. Malvolio arrives, warning the men that he will speak to Olivia about this noise. The three men ignore him as they did Maria and now Malvolio threatens to make Maria look disrespectful in Olivia's eyes if she does not quieten these three men down.

Maria, resenting Malvolio's heavy-handed arrogance hatches a plan to write a letter, which will convince Malvolio that Olivia loves him. This news quietens down all three men, who each dislikes Malvolio but now are all enthusiastic accomplices in his downfall. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste will hide near where Malvolio will discover the letter so they can all enjoy what in their eyes is Malvolio's rightly deserved humiliation...

Orsino notices that Cesario (Viola) is in love. Cesario describes this person in terms that precisely describe Orsino but Orsino does not realize this. Cesario warns the Duke that Lady Olivia may not love him but Orsino refuses to even accept such a possibility.

Cesario (Viola) remarks on the unreliability of men in relationships. Cesario starts to reveal "his" own past but quickly becomes vague when Orsino becomes too curious.

Orsino sends Cesario once more to Lady Olivia with a large jewel as a token of his love for her... Maria tells Fabian, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, all of whom hate Malvolio, that she has penned the letter that will convince Malvolio that Lady Olivia loves him.

Malvolio, meanwhile having not yet found the letter, starts entertaining the idea that Olivia could love him and that he could marry her.

Malvolio picks up Maria's counterfeit letter with its instructions that Malvolio be rude to kinsman like Sir Toby. It also suggests that he wear yellow stockings and be cross-gartered to win Olivia's love.

Maria explains to Sir Toby and company, that Lady Olivia hates yellow stockings and cross-gartered fashion and so Malvolio will be humiliated before Lady Olivia.

Act III.

Cesario has another private meeting with Lady Olivia on Duke Orsino's behalf.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew meet Cesario (Viola) and Sir Toby learns from Cesario that he will soon speak with Lady Olivia. In private, Lady Olivia admits to Cesario that she used the ring she sent after him to lure him back to her.

Cesario (Viola) tries to put Olivia off him but she is smitten, ignoring all Cesario's attempts to diminish her enthusiasm for "him"...

Knowing Lady Olivia will never love him, Sir Andrew prepares to head for home. The sight of Olivia showing more affection to a youth (Cesario) than him was the last straw.

Fabian and Sir Toby don't deny the affectionate display but argue Olivia did it to spur Sir Andrew to woo her and regain her respect. Sir Toby and Fabian manipulate Sir Andrew into writing a challenge to the youth (Cesario) even though they know a fight between two cowards (Cesario and Sir Andrew) is unlikely.

Maria enters, telling Sir Toby and Fabian to watch the spectacle that is Malvolio wearing yellow stockings and being cross-gartered.

Sebastian has now reluctantly accepted Antonio as his companion in the streets of Illyria.

Antonio explains that his offence in Illyria, which was theft, was one the rest of his city have repaid but he has not and so he is still wanted in Illyria. Sebastian decides to look around, but Antonio fearful of his enemies, decides to head for lodging at a place called "the Elephant." Antonio gives Sebastian his purse (wallet) and directions to this lodging and the two part their separate ways...

Olivia makes plans to once more woo Cesario (Viola). Olivia sees Malvolio with yellow stockings and cross-gartered and considers him mad since he continues to smile no matter what the situation and makes crude, lustful interpretations of Olivia's words.

Malvolio makes his famous "'Some are born great,'-" speech.

Learning that Cesario has returned, Lady Olivia has Malvolio put into the care of her servants since in her eyes, Malvolio's behavior is some "midsummer madness."

Sir Toby, Maria and Fabian plot to have Malvolio placed in a "dark room," so they can have some fun with him. Sir Andrew arrives with his completed letter challenging Cesario. Sir Toby decides to verbally scare Cesario and Sir Andrew about their opponents instead of sending the letter.

Alone with Cesario once more, Lady Olivia makes no progress with Cesario who will not requit (return) her love. Olivia is undaunted by this. Sir Toby scares both Sir Andrew and Cesario into drawing their weapons on each other.

Antonio arrives, pledging to fight Sir Andrew on Cesario's (Viola's) behalf who he thinks is Sebastian since Viola disguised as a man now looks like her twin brother Sebastian.

The fight is stopped but Officers recognizing Antonio, capture him. Antonio asks Cesario (Viola) for his purse back but Cesario not recognizing him does not oblige.

Antonio thinks Sebastian has betrayed him, not realizing he has asked Cesario (Viola) for his purse, not Sebastian.

Act IV.

Confusion reigns as Sebastian is now mistaken for Cesario when Feste insists Sebastian sent for him and Sebastian is certain he did not (Cesario obviously did).

Sir Andrew finds Sebastian and thinking it is Cesario from the earlier "fight" that did not happen, hits Sebastian. Sebastian unlike Cesario is not afraid to return the favor and a fight is only stopped by Sir Toby's intervention. Sir Andrew decides to have Sebastian punished by the law of Illyria despite the fact that he started the fight.

Sir Toby and Sebastian are just about to fight when Olivia screams for her uncle, Sir Toby to stop. Olivia now scolds Sir Toby, hoping Sebastian, whom she thinks is Cesario (Viola), will forgive her uncle and not be displeased with her.

Sebastian, amazed that this beautiful woman he does not know, loves him, replies to Olivia that he will be ruled by her and the two set off to marry immediately...

In Olivia's house, Malvolio in a darkened room is teased mercilessly by Feste who tries unsuccessfully to convince Malvolio that he is mad.

Sir Toby, fearing that his fight with Cesario (actually Sebastian) has put him on thin ice with Olivia, wants Feste's teasing of Malvolio to stop. Feste has other ideas but eventually lets Malvolio write a letter to Olivia proclaiming his sanity...

Sebastian can barely believe his luck, a beautiful woman (Olivia) loves him and has given him a pearl. Sebastian briefly wonders if he is dreaming before he marries Olivia in a private chapel. Olivia explains that their now secret marriage will be revealed later...

Act V.

In the final scene, chaos ensues as the identical appearing Cesario (Viola) and Sebastian are each blamed for the other's actions. First Feste blames Sebastian for beckoning him, not realizing it was Cesario who called for him.

Cesario spots Antonio the man who saved him from fighting Sir Andrew but was taken prisoner by Orsino's officers in Act III. Antonio again asks Cesario for his wallet back thinking he is Sebastian. Cesario (Viola), who does not know Antonio, does not and so Antonio curses him for his betrayal, not realizing he is talking to Cesario not Sebastian whom he lent his wallet to.

We learn that Antonio is an enemy of Illyria and especially of Orsino for plundering his ships as a pirate in the past.

Now a prisoner, Antonio baffles Orsino by telling him that he and Cesario (Viola) have been together night and day for three weeks when who Antonio is really thinking of is Sebastian. Orsino cannot believe this; Cesario has been with him for three weeks.

Olivia arrives and we see that Orsino still loves her. The feeling is not mutual... Olivia scolds Cesario (Viola) for neglecting her, revealing that "he" is her husband.

Cesario (Viola) amazed by this, pleads "his" innocence to Orsino who "he" truly loves and Orsino thinking his servant betrayed him by taking Olivia for himself, prepares to punish Cesario.

Olivia meanwhile despairs that her husband Cesario who really is Sebastian, would leave willingly with Orsino to be punished rather than be with his wife and she too claims betrayal by Cesario (Viola).

Sebastian arrives, apologizing for attacking Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Orsino seeing both Cesario and Sebastian together is amazed that he sees two copies of the same man. Olivia too is amazed.

Sebastian and Cesario compare notes on how they arrived in Illyria each claiming that their sibling had drowned.

Eventually they realize that since they knew the same father they are indeed brother and sister, Cesario revealing "his" real identity as the woman named Viola.

Malvolio storms in and the cruel prank against him is revealed by Fabian who confesses.

Orsino calls Olivia his sister, and Orsino takes Cesario for his mistress and we presume later his wife with Feste ending the play in song.

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