Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary



In the last act of the play, Orsino finally goes to see Olivia himself, bringing his favorite servant, Cesario, with him. He meets the Fool, who has come to deliver Malvolio's letter of explanation to Olivia, and asks him to tell Olivia he is here. While they wait, the officers bring Antonio to Orsino. Although Antonio helped Viola (as Cesario) end the duel with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, Orsino remembers him with enmity from a past conflict. He also thinks Antonio is crazy because Antonio insists Cesario has been with him for the past three months. Of course the audience knows Antonio is thinking of Sebastian.

When Olivia arrives, she criticizes Cesario for failing to keep her promise to keep Orsino away from her. Viola (as Cesario) tries to demonstrate her loyalty to Orsino, but Orsino can see Olivia has fallen for Cesario. Orsino is furious, suggesting he might even kill Cesario. Viola says she will go with Orsino, even if it means her own death, because she loves him. At that point, Olivia cries out "Cesario, husband, stay." She summons the priest, who verifies her marriage to Cesario (although she actually married Sebastian). Before Orsino can say much, Sir Andrew stumbles in, followed by Sir Toby, both of them injured in a fight with Cesario (actually Sebastian).

Everyone is thoroughly confused when Sebastian appears. Sebastian immediately apologizes to Olivia for hurting her relative, Sir Toby, and then greets Antonio warmly. When he notices Viola, he stares at her as she stares at him. They talk, slowly trading facts about each other and their father until they can accept the truth they are both alive. Even then, Viola asks Sebastian not to hug her until she has changed back into women's clothing.

Sebastian comforts Olivia, saying she was meant to marry a man, not his sister. Orsino confirms Sebastian and Viola's family is of noble blood. Then he turns to Viola and takes her hand, proposing marriage to her. She hesitates, wanting to be dressed as a woman before she embraces him. She says the captain, who has her clothes, has been arrested on a charge from Malvolio. Olivia asks about Malvolio and orders Fabian to let him out of his dark room so she can speak with him.

Malvolio blames Olivia for tricking him, but when Olivia looks at the letter, she recognizes Maria's handwriting. Fabian explains the trick played on Malvolio. Malvolio storms out, demanding revenge on everyone involved in the trick. Orsino, dismayed, calls after him about the captain and Viola's clothes. Orsino promises Viola he will call her Cesario until she is properly dressed, "But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen." Everyone exits except the Fool, who serenades the audience with a song as the play comes to an end.


Orsino has been moaning about his passion for Olivia since the first line of the play, and finally, in the last act, he comes to see her. Why has it taken so long? Orsino may have been more interested in the idea of Olivia—the image of a perfect woman—than in meeting the real Olivia. Now that he has come to see her, he gets caught up in wordplay with the Fool and almost forgets his original purpose.

Orsino's conversation with the Fool is illuminating. The Fool says Orsino suffers because of his friends, who will not tell him when he is making a mistake. He claims the duke's enemies serve him better because they will tell him when he is in error. Orsino's friends—those who work for him—have not convinced him to let go of Olivia. They have made tentative suggestions, but no one really challenged him on his supposedly deep love for a woman he barely knows. Olivia rebuffs Orsino, but she is right: she is not the woman for him. In addition, Orsino's enemy, Antonio, saved Sebastian after the shipwreck. Although Orsino doesn't know it yet, if his enemy had not saved Sebastian, a positive resolution to the love triangle would not have been possible. When Orsino first sees Antonio, he seems to have a certain respect for him, saying Antonio fought well in a previous battle. But the officers point out the genuine damage Antonio did (Orsino's nephew lost a leg, and some ships' cargoes were lost). Orsino might be moved to forgive Antonio because Antonio saved Viola from the duel with Sir Andrew, but Antonio claims Viola (he means Sebastian) has been with him for three months, which Orsino knows to be impossible.

Olivia's entrance only increases the tension. Newly married, she is even more indifferent to Orsino, but she is both puzzled and hurt by the behavior of her new husband. Orsino very quickly figures out who Olivia really cares for, and his rage is out of all proportion. Why is he so angry? Olivia never showed any interest in him. Orsino's reaction may have more to do with feeling betrayed by Viola, whom he loves: "My thoughts are ripe in mischief. / I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love / To spite a raven's heart within a dove."

In effect Orsino has just declared his love for Viola, and she reciprocates: "After him I love / More than I love these eyes, more than my life, / More by all mores than e'er I shall love wife." When Viola is finally revealed as a woman, there is no need for a dramatic exchange of vows between her and Orsino: it has already happened. Orsino didn't need Olivia. Viola is the right woman for him.

When Sebastian and Viola finally come face-to-face, the audience may be surprised. The audience has known both of them are alive, and they may expect the brother and sister to leap into each other's arms. Instead Viola and Sebastian are wary, almost testing each other. Each of them was so convinced of the other's death that he/she is afraid to accept the happy truth. Viola's disguise must have been fairly effective, because even Sebastian doesn't immediately recognize her.

Before the play's happy ending, there is one more plot strand to wrap up: Malvolio. When Olivia has Malvolio freed, he spends most of his time blaming her for what happened. Even after Fabian reveals the details of the plot to trick Malvolio, Malvolio wants to blame all of them for his humiliation. Apparently Shakespeare thinks Malvolio got what he deserved, which the Fool makes clear. The Fool reminds Olivia and Malvolio of Malvolio's harsh words earlier in the play and concludes by saying, "And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." This is the Shakespearean version of "What goes around comes around." Malvolio's punishment was one component of this topsy-turvy world righting itself. Orsino promises Viola, once she is in her feminine clothing, that she will be his "queen." Olivia has married a Cesario look-alike, Sebastian, who actually wants her. All is right with the world.

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