Synopsis of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"

by Nathaniel Williams

"Twelfth Night" is one of the latest of William Shakespeare's comedies, following a period in which he wrote "Love's Labour's Lost," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "As You Like It." The title refers to the post-Christmas days of celebration which at the time often involved pranks and disguises. "Twelfth Night" remains one of Shakespeare's most beloved and frequently performed plays.


Twin siblings Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked in Illyria and separated. Viola fears Sebastian's death and for self-protection adopts the disguise of a male page named Cesario. She joins the service of a local nobleman, Duke Orsino, who is in the process of wooing Lady Olivia. The lady rebuffs his attempts in her sadness over her recent loss of her brother. Orsino takes Cesario/Viola into his confidence and employs the page as an emissary to Olivia.


Olivia insists she respects the duke but cannot find it in herself to love him. Cesario/Viola tries earnestly to seduce the Lady for her master but inadvertently causes Olivia to fall in love with the page. Viola, however, has fallen in love with Orsino, leading to a romantic triangle in which Cesario/Viola's adopted gender identity makes it impossible to resolve.


As in many of Shakespeare's plays, he counterpoints the main story with subplots and jokes, often involving lower-class or broadly comic characters. The subplots in "Twelfth Night" involve the carousing and buffoonery of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the jester Feste, as well as a trick by which Olivia's steward, the self-important Malvolio, is convinced into believing that his lady is in love with him.


The romantic triangle's tensions are resolved by the arrival of Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, who has not drowned but was rescued by a sea captain. Sebastian is the spitting image of Viola in drag and makes a fitting match for Lady Olivia. Viola reveals to Duke Orsino that she is in fact a woman and he realizes he has been in love with her after all. The play ends with the couples together and a whimsical but sad song by the jester Feste.

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