Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Act 3, Scene 4 | Summary



Olivia has sent a servant to bring Cesario back to her. Nervous, she calls for Malvolio, saying, "He is sad and civil, / And suits well for a servant with my fortunes." Following the instructions in the letter he found, Malvolio enters in yellow stockings, cross-gartered, and grinning madly. He verbally flirts with Olivia and refers to the letter, which she, of course, knows nothing about. She decides he must be crazy and tells Maria to have Sir Toby take care of him, saying, "Let some of my people have a special care of him. I would not have him miscarry for the half of my dowry." Malvolio believes this order proves Olivia does care for him. When Sir Toby and the others approach him, he is even crueler to them than usual. Sir Toby decides they should bind and lock Malvolio up in a dark room as if he were insane.

Sir Andrew enters with his letter challenging Cesario to a duel. It is badly written, but Sir Andrew is proud of it. After he leaves, Sir Toby says he will not deliver the challenge as written because it wouldn't frighten anyone. Instead Sir Toby will challenge Cesario verbally, so he can personally portray Sir Andrew as a fierce fighter.

Olivia reenters with Cesario. She is trying to win him over, but Viola will not be swayed. When Olivia leaves, Sir Toby confronts Cesario with Sir Andrew's challenge. Viola does not want to fight, and neither does Sir Andrew, but they are egged on by Sir Toby and Fabian. Antonio stops the fight before it starts. Thinking Viola is Sebastian, Antonio readily leaps into the fight to defend his young friend. As a result he is arrested. Antonio asks Viola to return his money purse, which she, of course, does not have. Antonio feels betrayed and he shouts at Viola, calling her Sebastian. In that moment, Viola realizes her brother is alive and she runs off to look for him. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew chase after her, determined to finish the duel.


Olivia reveals, in part, why she prefers Cesario over other possible romantic candidates: he is young and, she thinks, easy to control. She nervously contemplates ways to win Cesario's heart, including feasts and gifts. This sounds more like appeasing a spoiled child than wooing a lover. If Olivia accepted Orsino, he would be in charge; by pursuing Cesario, Olivia maintains control of the situation.

Malvolio is another person who wants to maintain control, but with disastrous consequences. The letter he found suggested Olivia's fondness for smiles and silly, gaudy stockings. But when the transformed Malvolio greets Olivia, he makes it so much worse. He calls Olivia "sweet lady" and "sweetheart." Olivia thinks he is not well and suggests he go to bed, but he interprets her remark as an amorous invitation. No wonder she concludes he is crazy. Malvolio's own presumptuous behavior toward Olivia causes far more problems for him than the trick played on him ever could.

The duel between Sir Andrew and Cesario allows Shakespeare to gently poke fun at chivalrous behavior. Sir Andrew is a knight, after all. He presumably knows how to conduct a duel. But his challenge as it is formulated in the letter sounds muddled because he suggests Cesario might be able to kill him and because he calls himself both Cesario's friend and enemy in the space of a few lines. No wonder Sir Toby takes matters into his own hands and opts for delivering a verbal challenge instead.

While the duel is amusing to the audience, it is deadly serious to Viola. Most upper-class men in the Elizabethan era would have at least some basic knowledge of swordplay, but it was not commonly taught to women of any class. Viola could easily be killed in a duel, and if she were wounded, a doctor would discover her secret. Therefore Viola has very good reasons for trying to avoid the duel.

Shakespeare's language makes his opinion about the lack of nobility of the people involved in the duel clear because Sir Toby and Sir Andrew almost always speak in prose rather than verse. Verse does appear late in the scene, when Antonio mentions Sebastian's name and immediately shifts into rhymed couplets: "None can be called deformed but the unkind. / Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil / Are empty trunks o'erflourished by the devil." Viola responds in couplets as well. While this is not a romantic scene, it is certainly an expression of love and strong emotion. It makes perfect sense the transition from prose to verse occurs when Viola learns her brother is still alive.

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