Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary



Viola, a young lady, has survived a shipwreck, but her brother, Sebastian, was last seen clinging to a bit of wreckage. Viola believes he is dead. The captain who saved her talks with her about Illyria, where they have landed. She longs to work for the countess Olivia, who is also mourning a brother, but the captain tells her that Olivia won't see anyone. Instead Viola decides to disguise herself as a boy, Cesario, and get a job as a page to Orsino. She asks the captain for help: "Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become / The form of my intent."


Like a character in a fairy tale, Viola finds herself alone in the world. Her brother is apparently lost at sea, though the captain tells her Sebastian might have survived: "I saw your brother, / Most provident in peril, bind himself / ... To a strong mast that lived upon the sea." In spite of that, Viola grieves as if he were dead.

Viola's conversation with the captain provides additional details. Apparently Olivia has lost both her father and her brother within the last year, which makes her deep mourning a little easier to understand, although seven years is still excessive. When the captain mentions Orsino, Viola says she heard her father speak of him, remembering "He was a bachelor then." It is possible Viola's father had mentioned Orsino to her as a potential suitor. On the other hand, Viola may have hoped that if Orsino were married, she could obtain a place working for his wife.

Viola decides to pretend to be a boy. This is a common device in Shakespearean comedies. Women were barred from performing on stage in Shakespeare's era, so plays were performed solely by male actors, with young boys typically taking the roles of females. So the actor playing Viola would have been a boy pretending to be a girl who is pretending to be a boy. That in itself would be good for some laughs from the audience. Within the story, however, Viola's decision makes sense for two reasons. On a practical level, it allows her to get a job as a page and support herself; a woman would have very limited options in an all-male court such as Orsino's. On an emotional level, Viola's turning herself into Cesario, a counterpart of Sebastian (who, as we learn later, is her twin), allows her to keep his memory alive and grieve for him while still protecting herself.

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