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Exploring themes of love, gender, and identity, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will was first performed in England in 1602 and first published in 1623 after Shakespeare’s death. Twelfth Night takes its title from the twelfth night of Christmas, a raucous holiday marked with feasting and entertainment. The subtitle What You Will refers to freedom or a lack of restriction. This guide refers to the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of the text.
The story begins in the court of Count Orsino, Duke of Illyria, as he describes his love for the Lady Olivia to his courtiers. Olivia, however, is refusing his advances; she is mourning her dead brother and won’t leave her estate. Meanwhile, Viola has washed up on the island of Illyria after a shipwreck. She believes her twin brother Sebastian has drowned. Viola decides to disguise herself as a man and present herself as a servant to Orsino.
Over at Olivia’s estate, Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch talks with Olivia’s chambermaid, Maria, and his wealthy yet foolish friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is vainly vying for Olivia’s hand in marriage. In Orsino’s court, the disguised Viola has presented herself as Cesario and gained Orsino’s confidence in only a few days. He sends Cesario to court Olivia for him, but Viola has secretly fallen in love with Orsino.
Cesario arrives at Olivia’s estate and refuses to leave without seeing Olivia. Olivia meets him disguised in a veil. Cesario woos her for Orsino—but Olivia falls in love with Cesario instead. When Cesario leaves, Olivia tells her servant Malvolio to ask him to see her again.
It turns out that Sebastian isn’t dead—he washed up on a different part of Illyria with the sailor Antonio. Antonio saved Sebastian’s life and vows to stay with him despite being in trouble with Count Orsino.
Sir Toby, Andrew, Maria, and Feste, a fool, have a party. Malvolio comes in and warns them to be quiet. The group vows revenge; and Maria says she’ll write a letter pretending to be Olivia that will make Malvolio think Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio finds Maria’s letter, which tells him to behave strangely and dress outlandishly to show his love (but Maria’s instructions are purposefully meant to aggravate Olivia).
Cesario returns and Olivia admits that she’s in love with him. He rejects her. Andrew realizes that he doesn’t have a shot with Olivia and vows to leave, but Toby insists that he can win Olivia over by beating Cesario in a duel.
Sebastian and Antonio make plans to part and meet again later at an inn. Antonio gives Sebastian money in case he needs anything. Olivia sends for Malvolio, who has followed the directions of Maria’s letter. Seeing Malvolio’s behavior and dress, Olivia believes he is crazy, and she tells Toby to look after him. Toby locks him in a dark room.
Toby manipulates Andrew and Cesario into fighting even though neither of them wants to. Seeing the duel and believing that Cesario is Sebastian, Antonio breaks up the fight, but he is then arrested. He asks Cesario for his money back and feels betrayed when Cesario doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Feste then encounters Sebastian, whom he mistakes for Cesario. Andrew and Toby also think Sebastian is Cesario and attack him, but Sebastian fights back. Olivia enters, thinks Sebastian is Cesario, and tells him to come with her. He agrees.
Sir Toby and his friends go to see Malvolio in the dark room; the Fool disguises himself as Toby before returning as himself and telling Malvolio he’ll bring him ink and paper to write a letter to Olivia. Elsewhere, Sebastian agrees to marry Olivia.
At Orsino’s court, Antonio is brought in, and Cesario tells Orsino how he saved him in a fight. Antonio, still mistaking Cesario for Sebastian, explains his story. Olivia enters and says that she and Cesario (who is actually Sebastian) are married, angering Orsino. Andrew and Toby arrive and claim Cesario has hurt them in a fight.
Sebastian finally enters, and the group marvels at the identical appearance of Sebastian and Cesario. Viola reveals her identity and confesses her love for Orsino. Feste then enters with Malvolio’s letter to Olivia. Orsino proposes to Viola and asks for Malvolio to be sent in. Malvolio arrives. When Maria, Toby, and the others confess their prank, he vows revenge and leaves. The play closes with the love triangle resolved into two pairs, and Feste sings a song.