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Malvolio, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1996

Twelfth Night

Summary of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: Viola thinks her brother is dead. He thinks that she is dead. Everyone thinks that she is her brother. Everyone thinks that her brother is her. Shenanigans ensue.

Act I

Orsino, Duke of lllyria, is despairing that he is spurned by the Countess Olivia. She has forsworn men's company for seven years while she mourns the death of her brother, and is rebuffing all of his advances. Nearby, a group of sailors arrive on shore with a young girl, Viola, whom they have rescued from a storm at sea. Viola laments the loss of her twin brother in the shipwreck, but resolves to fend for herself by dressing as a boy to get work as a page to Duke Orsino.

If music be the food of love, play on

— Twelfth Night, Act 1 Scene 1
Twelfth Night Board Game, 1820
Twelfth Night Board Game, 1820

Despite his former rejection, Orsino sends his new page Cesario (Viola in disguise) to court Olivia for him. Cesario/Viola goes unwillingly as she has already fallen in love at first sight with her master Orsino. To make matters all the more complicated, Olivia once again rejects Orsino, but is attracted to Cesario and sends her proud steward, Malvolio, after him with a ring. Thus, a genuine love triangle arises between Orsino, Viola/Cesario, and Olivia. 

Act II

Meanwhile, members of Olivia's household plot to expose the self-love and aspirations of Malvolio. These include Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch, her servant, Maria, and Sir Toby's friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Sir Andrew also happens to be seeking the hand of Olivia. Together, they write a letter to Malvolio as if from Olivia, tricking him into thinking that Olivia loves him. The letter demands that Malvolio appear in yellow stockings, cross-gartered, and smiling to show that he truly loves Olivia. After he does so, the Countess is horrified and has Malvolio shut up in the dark as a madman. Meanwhile, Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, who has also survived the shipwreck, comes to Illyria even though his sea-captain friend, Antonio, is a wanted man for former piracy against Orsino.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em

— Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 5


Sir Andrew's affections for Olivia lead him to be jealous of Cesario, and he decides to declare a duel between them. Thanks to a prank by Sir Toby, both Andrew and Cesario believe that their opponents intend to fight to the death. They both shirk the fight. However, Antonio mistakes Cesario for Sebastian, intervenes to defend his friend, and is arrested by Orsino's men. Later, Sebastian comes along and is challenged by Sir Andrew, thinking him to be Cesario. Sebastian, trained in combat, wins the fight but Olivia intervenes and invites Sebastian into the house, thinking him to be Cesario (this is clearly a common mistake). Olivia and Sebastian are married that night. 

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1974 Twelfth Night
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1974

Act IV

Malvolio, held in the dungeon for being a madman, is psychologically tortured by Maria, Sir Toby, and Feste, the court fool, who dresses up as a priest to convince Malvolio that he is, in fact, mad. After realising that they might get into trouble for treating him this way, they allow him a pen and paper to be able to write a letter to Olivia. 

Act V

Antonio is brought to talk with Orsino, and upon seeing Cesario, he accuses him of betrayal. Just then, the real Sebastian arrives to apologise for fighting Sir Toby. The twins see each other and discover that they are both alive. Orsino's fool, Feste, brings a letter from Malvolio, and on his release, Maria's letter is found to be fraudulent. Malvolio departs promising revenge, although Maria and Sir Toby have already married in celebration of the success of their device against the steward.

The play ends as Orsino approves the union between Olivia and Sebastian and, realising his own attraction to 'Cesario', he promises that once she is dressed as a woman again, they will be married as well.

Journey's end in lovers meeting

— Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 3
Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1958
Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1958

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