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Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night.


(from Norton)

Twelfth Night: The title refers to the Feast of Epiphany, January 6, the culminating night of the traditional Christmas revels. The Epiphany marks the visit of the Three Kings to Bethlehem to worship the Christ child. Its celebration temporarily overturns the rigidly hierarchical social order and gives way to rituals of inversion in which young boys are crowned for a day as bishops and carried through the streets in mock religious processions. The day is devoted to heaving drinking and feasting.

Comedy: Twelfth Night is considered Shakespeare's last great festive comedy. All of his later comedies are marked with overtones of bitterness, loss, and grief. There are dark notes in this comedy as well: Olivia is in mourning for her brother, Viola thinks her brother Sebastian dead and vice versa, Antonio believes he is betrayed by Sebastian, and Orsino threatens to kill Cesario. These shadowy aspects are nevertheless swept up in a carnival of disguise, folly, and clowning.

Cross-dressing: Women did not perform on the stage during Shakespeare's lifetime, women's roles were acted by trained adolescent boys. The audience was sufficiently immersed in this convention to accept gesture, make-up, and dress as a convincing representation of femininity. Twelfth Night depends on an actor's ability to transform himself, through costume, voice, and gesture, into the young noblewoman Viola, who transforms herself by the same means into the young servant Cesario. The plot of the play is based on the complications following from the emotional tangles that these transformations engender and unsettles fixed categories of sexual identity and social class.

Characters: Puritans attacked the Twelfth Night festivities for the same reasons for which they disapproved of the theatre: they associated it with paganism, idleness, and sexual licence. The character of Malvolio (in Italian, 'ill will') is described as having puritan tendencies, manifested e.g. in his criticizing the drunken Sir Toby. Malvolio is 'most notoriously abused' both for his puritanism and for his fantasies of upward mobility by marrying his mistress Olivia.

The central character of the play is Viola, who manifests great improvisational boldness, eloquent tongue, and keen wit. These qualities link her to the fool Feste, who does not have any major in the plot, but together with Viola occupies a place at the imaginative centre. Though playing the part of a clown, Feste shows both intelligence and wit, which often takes the form of a perverse literalism that calls attention to the play's confusion of such simple binaries as male and female, outside and inside, role and reality.

Marriages: Olivia is courted both for her beauty and for her wealth. She chooses neither the elegant Duke Orsino, nor the foolish Sir Andrew, nor the social-climbing Malvolio, but Orsino's graceful messenger Cesario. Her choice seems to overturn the social order, but as in a carnival when the disguises are removed and the revellers resume their proper positions, Olivia finds out to have married an equal in status, the nobleman Sebastian. The play's only unequal marriage is that of Sir Toby and the maid Maria, which is not performed but only reported to have taken place off stage.


Act I

1.1: Orsino, the venerable duke of Illyria, is lovesick with the beautiful countess Olivia. He comforts himself with music. Olivia refuses him because she mourns her dead brother and avoids the company of men.

1.2: Viola, a lady foreign to the country, is nearly shipwrecked but is saved by an unnamed Captain. Her twin brother Sebastian is lost and she holds him for drowned. From the Captain Viola learns about the master of Illyria, Orsino, and decides to come to his house in disguise as an eunuch.

1.3: Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the simple-minded companion of Olivia's more clever kinsman Sir Toby Belch, seeks to court Olivia, but is equally eager to jest with Olivia's foxy maid Maria. Sirs Toby and Andrew, both known as heavy drinkers, gamblers, and lady-killers, exchange dirty jokes and puns on prostitutes, sexual enjoyments, and drink.

1.4: Viola disguises as the young boy Cesario and enters the service of Orsino. She immediately wins Orsino's favour and Orsino entrusts her with courting Olivia on his behalf. Viola obeys her master, but is intent on marrying Orsino herself.

1.5: Olivia is enchanted by Cesario for his cleverness and wit. She rejects the love of Cesario's master nevertheless.

Act II

2.1: Similarly as Viola in 1.2, Viola's twin brother Sebastian is saved from drowning by another captain, Antonio. Sebastian holds his much loved sister Viola for dead.

2.2: Olivia sends a servant with a ring to catch up with Cesario. Olivia pretends that the ring was left by Cesario as a gift from his master Orsino and that she wishes to return it. Viola acts her role and accepts the ring. Viola realizes that Olivia is in love with Cesario, but decides on continuing with her disguise and leaves it up to the time to resolve the situation.

2.3: Olivia's maid Maria invents a device by which she intents to make the disliked Malvolio, Olivia's steward, look like a fool. She carries out the trick together with Sirs Toby and Andrew, who are immediately ready to assist the joke. Maria imitates the handwriting of her mistress and produces a love epistle which she drops so as to be found by Malvolio.

2.4: As in 1.1, Orsino bids for music to help him forget his love pangs. Viola suggests to Orsino that women may love as constantly as men do, but Orsino doubts her claim. Orsino sends Viola once again to Olivia, refusing to accept Olivia's unfavourable answer.

2.5: Maria and Sirs Toby and Andrew prepare the love epistle to Malvolio, drop it in Olivia's garden and hide in a bush to laugh at their victim. Malvolio enters the garden, dreaming about marrying Olivia and becoming a count. Malvolio discovers the letter, addressed to M.O.A.I., which Malvolio interprets as the scrambled letters of his own name. The letter expresses passionate love and recommends to Malvolio certain actions and behaviour which, as it later turns out, are exactly what Olivia hates. Malvolio is encouraged to wear yellow stockings and to adjust his garter in an old-fashioned way, to keep on smiling in Olivia's presence, to be rude to fellow servants and argue with masters.


3.1: Viola revisits Olivia on behalf of Orsino. Olivia professes her love to Cesario. Viola does not disclose that Cesario is a woman but tries to convince Olivia that Cesario's love is not available to any woman.

3.2: Sirs Andrew and Toby happen to overhear Olivia's confession. Sir Toby talks Sir Andrew into challenging Cesario for a duel on account of their supposed rivalry for Olivia's love.

3.3: Sebastian is on his way to Olivia's house. Antonio offers to accompany him as a guide even though he is Orsino's enemy and so exposes himself to potential danger.

3.4: Malvolio follows the instructions from the letter. Maria suggests to Olivia that Malvolio went mad and Olivia bids Sir Toby to take care for him. Sir Toby locks Malvolio in a dark room and binds him. Sir Toby negotiates the duel between Viola and Sir Andrew. Suddenly Antonio appears and stands by Viola's side, holding her for Sebastian. On this Sir Toby stands by Sir Andrew. The duel is finished before it begins by the appearance of officers who arrest Antonio on behalf of Orsino. Antonio seeks help by Viola, still taking her for Sebastian, but Viola says she does not know him.

Act IV

4.1: Sebastian encounters Sirs Toby and Andrew, who take him for Viola. There is quarrelling and fighting, but Sebastian is saved by Olivia who invites him to her house, taking him for Cesario. Sebastian accepts the invitation.

4.2: Malvolio, shut in the dark room, is tortured by Maria, Sir Toby, and Olivia's witty clown Feste. Feste teases Malvolio with his clever puns, playing on homonyms, homographs, and literal meanings of proverbial sayings.

4.3: Olivia delivers a priest and demands that Sebastian, whom she still holds for Cesario, marry her. Sebastian, though he does not understand and feels as if in a dream, consents and the couple is married.

Act V

5.1: All the characters are brought together in Olivia's house and after a series of misunderstandings, all is explained. Sebastian encounters Viola and the lost siblings rejoice and embrace. Orsino announces his decision to marry Viola as soon as she changes into women's clothes. Olivia realizes she has married Sebastian and not Cesario, but she welcomes Viola as her sister. Malvolio is released from his imprisonment. Sir Toby is reported to have married Maria as a reward for her trick on Malvolio. Feste concludes with a little merry song announcing the end of the play.


  • Author

    William Shakespeare. (1564 - 1616).
  • Full Title

    Twelfth Night, or What You Will.
  • Composed

    C. 1601.
  • Form

    Play. Romantic comedy. 

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. (c. 1601). Complete Works. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1994.


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