Twelfth Night abbreviated

The play is set in an unnamed city in Illyria, and present day Illyria seems to us to be Croatia.  Illyria was historically a region of the world that ran along the rocky eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. What we do know is that the setting for the play is an historic southern seaport on the Adriatic Sea, which to us sounds a lot like Dubrovnik, a city that in the sixteenth century rivaled Venice as a center for international trade. We don’t know how the play came to be named Twelfth Night, but we do know it’s been said the play was first presented on a January sixth, the last night of celebration of the Christmas season.  The play has also been known by the title What You Will. 

Early in the play we learn that Viola, a young lady from Messaline (wherever that might be) has found herself in Illyria, having been washed ashore along with others as a result of a shipwreck.  She fears for the life of her twin brother, Sebastian, who can’t be located but was with her when the ship crashed on the rocky shore.  Viola is an attractive, confident, quick-thinking young lady, the heroine of the play. 

We hear very quickly, right at the opening of the play, from a man named Orsino, the duke of Illyria. Orsino waxes mournfully over his unrequited love for Olivia, a beautiful and wealthy Illyrian countess, a young lady whose father and brother have just died.  With soft, romantic music playing in the background, he famously says “If music be the food of love, play on.” (Infatuation, Act 1, Scene 1) How this duke could have fallen so suddenly and so seriously for Lady Olivia, a young woman who for some time should have been known by him and everybody else in Dubrovnik remains a mystery, but there you go.  A key element here, as we say, is that to honor the memory of her father and brother, Olivia has made a personal commitment to forsake the company of men for seven years, a commitment she soon breaks, kind of. 

Having settled in and recovered from the trauma of the shipwreck, Viola asks the sea captain who washed ashore with her “who governs here?”  The captain knows the answer. He’s Orsino, the duke of Illyria.  Viola calmly says to the sea captain “Conceal me what I am.  I’ll serve this duke.  Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him.”  The sea captain obeys.  With the sea captain as her reference, Orsino employs Viola as a page, she having taken the name of Cesario.  With little on his mind other than Olivia, Orsino promptly puts Cesario to work, assigning him (her) to woo Olivia on his behalf.  By this time Olivia has let us know that she has absolutely no interest in Orsino --- or at this point any other man. 

We learn that Olivia has an interesting and eclectic set of employees; a group that includes Sir Toby Belch, her hard-drinking kinsman; Maria, her trick-playing gentlewoman; Malvolio, her pretentious steward; Fabian, a seemingly regular guy; and Feste, the Fool, a wise and clever entertainer, who we’re told was a favorite of her father in his court.  To add to this mix, Toby has brought into the household his friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, encouraging him to see if he can win Olivia’s heart, a long shot at best.  We learn that Malvolio has a one-sided unrealistic romantic interest in Olivia.  We also learn that Maria has suggested to Sir Toby that his buddy, Andrew Aguecheek, would have a better chance of winning Olivia’s heart if the two of them would spend less time out late at night, drinking and reveling. 

Orsino holds an advice session with Cesario, instructing him to be aggressive in his attempts to persuade Olivia to pay more attention to him.  He is after all the duke.  At about this same time the Fool is letting Olivia know that he thinks she’s the fool for pledging to forsake the company of men as a way to honor her deceased brother. (Counsel, Act 1, Scene 5.1)

Following Orsino’s instructions, Viola visits Olivia masquerading as Cesario and is so persuasive and convincing in her presentation that Olivia, so taken by Cesario’s charm, falls for him, which of course confounds and dismays Viola.  At this point Cesario steps up his sales pitch on behalf of Orsino, but Olivia responds simply “I cannot love him.” (Counsel, Act 1, Scene 5.2)

At about this place in the story, Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, the brother she feared had been lost at sea, arrives in Dubrovnik with the sailor who had saved his life during the shipwreck, Sebastian’s very good friend, Antonio.  Antonio has a checkered history in Illyria, having been in serious trouble with the law, a result of a fight with Orsino’s nephew, the nephew having lost his leg as a result of the fight.  Prudently, Antonia tries his best to remain inconspicuous.  He slips off quietly and anonymously to their hotel, having asked Sebastian to hold his wallet for him. 

A discouraged Viola bids Olivia “Farewell” and leaves Olivia’s home, having failed in her attempt as Cesario to convince Olivia to take another look at Orsino.  But, as we say, Olivia has fallen hard for Cesario and instructs Malvolio to chase him down and give him a ring; a ring, she tells Malvolio, that Cesario had inadvertently left behind.  Malvolio follows his mistress’ instructions.  Viola gets the message. (Introspection, Act 2, Scene 2)

Toby, Andrew and the Fool, having spent the evening out on the town carousing, arrive back at Olivia’s estate, disturbing a number of those in the household who had been asleep.  One of those disturbed is the self-righteous and prude Malvolio who offers the three guys an unwanted and poorly received lecture.  The three men complain to Maria of Malvolio and his holier-than-thou unwanted counsel.  Maria suggests a way for them to get restitution.  Her suggestion is that she write a letter to Malvolio; a letter purporting to be from Olivia, she having a handwriting very similar to Olivia’s; a letter that will encourage him when he next greets Olivia to dress strangely and smile broadly (both of which Olivia really dislikes). This is really a dastardly trick.  Maria will let him know through the letter that he has a good chance of winning Olivia’s heart if he just follows the letter’s instructions.  The men quickly agree to the ruse.  The letter is delivered.  Malvolio receives it and naively and to his misfortune buys into the suggestions offered through the letter. 

By this time we learn that Viola has fallen for her employer, Orsino. When she returns to the duke’s grand home, Orsino offers her some advice on love, focused as he is on how he thinks women should respond when men show interest in them, a subject that has recently been in the forefront of his mind. (Love, Act 2, Scene 4) Viola listens patiently.  Oblivious to Viola’s interest in him, Orsino continues his obsessed and most interesting view of the nature of women. (Chauvinism, Act 2, Scene 4) Viola gets the message, asking “Sir, shall I to this lady?”  Orsino answers “Ay, that’s the theme.” 

During this second meeting between Olivia and Cesario, Olivia lets Cesario know how much she cares for him.  Olivia boldly asks “Stay. I prithee, tell me what thou think’st of me.”  Viola replies “That you do think you are not what you are.”  Olivia responds “If I think so, I think the same of you.”  Viola quickly answers “Then think you right.  I am not what I am.”  Cesario tries his best to let her know that a relationship between them will never work, and that besides he is loyal to his employer. 

At about this point, we learn that Sir Andrew has begun to accept the reality that he is most unlikely to win Olivia’s hand.  But Toby convinces him that he still has a chance.  Toby encourages him to be more gallant and valiant, suggesting that he challenge Cesario to a duel.  Toby buys into the suggestion.

It’s about here where Malvolio, carefully following the suggestions offered in Maria’s forged letter, greets Olivia, dressed outlandishly as he is in “yellow stockings and cross-gartered” and doing “nothing but smile.” (Tease, Act 2, Scene 5)  Olivia can’t quite believe what she sees.  She considers Malvolio mad.  She has him imprisoned. 

By this time, Sir Toby has arranged an appropriate time and place for Sir Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel.  Sir Andrew does challenge a disguised-as-Cesario Viola, who does her best to work her way out of the challenge, but runs out of options and is forced to draw her sword.  By happenstance, just as she draws her sword, Antonio, out for an innocent and anonymous walk, sees a vulnerable Viola-as-Cesario, and of course believes she is Sebastian.  Antonio immediately comes to his defense.  Promptly officers enter the scene and quickly recognize Antonio as one being on their most wanted list and arrest him. Recognizing that he’s in trouble and will need bail, Antonio turns to Cesario, thinking of course, as we say, that he is Sebastian, and asks him to return his wallet.  Totally unaware that Antonio is her brother’s very good friend, Viola pleads innocent to having his wallet, but offers to lend him some money, sweetheart that she is.  She tells him that that is the best she can do.  A bewildered and frustrated Antonio shouts at her “Will you deny me now?  Is ‘t possible with those kindnesses that I have done for you?”  Viola calmly replies “I know of none.  I hate ingratitude more in a man than lying, vainness or babbling drunkenness.”  As more police converge on him, Antonio says “Let me speak a little.  This youth that you see here I snatched one half out of the jaws of death.”  An officer says “What’s that to us?”  Antonio is promptly taken away.  Viola starts to tie the pieces and events together.  Viola and Sebastian have yet to reconnect since the shipwreck. 

A little later Andrew sees Sebastian, who, like Antonio earlier, just happens to be out for a stroll, enjoying the sights of downtown Dubrovnik.  Sir Andrew, continuing his effort to show how gallant and valiant he is, attacks him, thinking he is, of course, Cesario.  Sebastian cries “Are all the people mad?”  Sebastian draws his sword, as does Sir Toby, who happens to be there at Andrew’s side.  Olivia happens by and cries “Hold, Toby!  On my life I charge thee, hold!”  Toby and Andrew beat a hasty retreat.  Olivia’s presence calms things.  Thinking Sebastian is Cesario, as the others did (would Shakespeare have it any other way?) Lady Olivia persuasively suggests he come home with her.  He accepts her offer, she having a number of attractive characteristics.  They make plans to marry, Sebastian not quite believing his good fortune, planning to tie up as he is with the beautiful and wealthy Lady Olivia. (Acceptance, Act 4, Scene 3)

The Fool has now disguised himself as a priest and visits Malvolio in prison.  At first the Fool teases him with little mercy, but he soon opens up and helps Malvolio as a loyal friend. 

Meanwhile, by happenstance, as Orsino and Cesario are together discussing recent events, Antonio is led onto the stage by officers.  This is the moment when Orsino recognizes Antonio as the man who had permanently crippled his nephew some years earlier. (Contrition, Act 5, Scene 1) Olivia enters.  Orsino lets her know how angry he is with her, now that she has fallen for his aide, Cesario. Viola uses the occasion, with Orsino and Olivia at her side, to let all know that she is a she and that she loves the duke.  A confused Olivia has of course until this moment believed that Cesario is the man she plans to marry. A frazzled and disheveled Sir Andrew then enters, telling all of the collected that Cesario has just beaten him up.  Viola lets them all know that something is still amiss. To make the story, Shakespeare has Sebastian make a timely entrance.  Viola and Sebastian joyously and warmly and enthusiastically greet each other, each not knowing until this moment that the other had survived the shipwreck. Olivia learns that Maria, who has now run off and married Sir Toby, was the one who through the forged letter had led the dirty-trick played on her steward Malvolio.  By this time the Fool has secured Malvolio’s release from prison. Earlier Malvolio had stated to the Fool his need for revenge, but now lets his anger cool; learning as he does that the principal cause of his imprisonment and embarrassment was Maria. (Resentment, Act 5, Scene 1)

Orsino ends the play when he announces that he and Viola will marry on the same day Olivia and Sebastian marry, and that Viola will become his queen. 


Copyright © 2010 Abbreviated Shakespeare

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