Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Setting the Stage

Helped by the captain, Viola has survived a shipwreck in which she became separated from her brother, Sebastian. She presumes him to be dead. (He, too, has survived the shipwreck, however. Neither twin knows the other is still alive.) She has been washed ashore in Illyria, the kingdom of Orsino, Duke of Illyria. She decides to go to Orsino's court disguised as a boy, Cesario, and to seek employment. Orsino is melancholy because he is in love with Olivia and would like to propose marriage to her, but he can't make any progress. Olivia is in mourning for her dead brother and refuses to see any of Orsino's messengers. She has made a vow not to receive any visitors for seven years. She respects Orsino, but she is not attracted to him.

Cesario, now in the service of Orsino, has become the duke's favorite page. Orsino asks Cesario to plead his case to Olivia, but Cesario realizes she—Viola—has fallen in love with Orsino. When Cesario goes to Olivia and gives an eloquent speech relating Orsino's love for the lady, Olivia immediately falls passionately in love with Cesario. After Cesario leaves, Olivia sends her steward, Malvolio, after him with a ring and a request for Cesario to return on another occasion.

Amorous Complications

With Olivia retired for the night, her uncle, Sir Toby; his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Olivia's maid, Maria; and Olivia's jester, Feste (called the Fool), drink and make merry. The dour Malvolio scolds them for inappropriately partying in a house of mourning, and they decide to get revenge on him. They later arrange for Malvolio to find a fake letter, apparently written by Olivia. The letter expresses Olivia's love for Malvolio, encouraging him to pursue her and bidding him to come and see her in ridiculous, bright yellow, cross-gartered stockings. When Malvolio tries to act on the suggestions in the letter, he makes a fool of himself, leading Olivia to think he has gone crazy. Based on this assessment, he is ultimately bound and confined in a dark room.

In the meantime Viola, in love with Orsino, tries to convince the duke to give up on Olivia, but he will not. As Cesario, she once again visits Olivia on Orsino's behalf. Olivia dismisses Orsino's suit yet again but now expresses her love for Cesario. Outraged to see Olivia bestow such favor on a mere servant, Sir Toby encourages Sir Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel.

Twists of Fate

Saved by Antonio, Sebastian—Viola's brother—has also landed in Illyria. Antonio, however, turns out to be an old enemy of Orsino's. When Sebastian tells him he is going to Orsino's court, they separate, with Antonio giving him a purse of money in case he needs to buy something and wishing him good luck. Later, Antonio sees Sir Toby watching as Sir Andrew and someone he thinks to be Sebastian are drawing swords to duel, and he intervenes. Recognized as an enemy of the state, Antonio ends up getting arrested for saving Cesario (who he believes is Sebastian). When Antonio asks Cesario for his money purse back, Cesario refuses, saying he does not even know him.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew continue to chase Cesario, but they eventually come upon the wandering Sebastian (who they believe is Cesario). Sebastian defends himself, wounding both men. Assuming Sebastian is Cesario, Olivia prevents them from further fighting and then asks Cesario to marry her. Sebastian is utterly confused, but he accepts. After they are hastily married by a priest who happens to be on hand at Olivia's house, Sebastian heads out to find Antonio to return his money purse.

All Is Explained

Orsino, accompanied by Viola (as Cesario), decides to visit Olivia. He is infuriated when Olivia introduces Cesario as her husband. Then Sebastian appears, and everything becomes clear. Viola and Sebastian are twins. Cesario is revealed to be Viola, and Orsino asks her to marry him. Olivia and Sebastian will live happily ever after. Sir Toby will marry Maria. Malvolio remains humiliated and unhappy. Finally released from the dark room, he storms out, scowling and vowing revenge as the others celebrate the new couples' happiness.

Twelfth Night Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Orsino loves Olivia, who won't see him.

Rising Action

2 Viola goes to work for Orsino dressed as a boy (Cesario).

3 Orsino sends Cesario to woo Olivia, but Viola loves Orsino.

4 Viola (as Cesario) woos Olivia, who falls in love with her.

5 Sebastian appears in Illyria, having been saved by Antonio.

6 Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria play a trick on Malvolio.

7 Antonio saves Cesario from a duel, thinking he is Sebastian.

8 Olivia asks Sebastian to marry her, thinking he is Cesario.


9 Viola and Sebastian finally meet face-to-face.

Falling Action

10 Orsino vows to marry Viola.

11 Olivia learns how Malvolio was tricked and frees him.


12 Orsino and Viola will stay with Olivia until they marry.

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