What happens in Twelfth Night

The Twelve Days of Christmas (I had to look it up) are the days between December 25 and January 6, the day the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to greet the newborn Jesus according to Christian tradition. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was written as a Twelfth Night’s entertainment. A fine choice for this month’s edition of What Happens in Shakespeare.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Shipwreck. Cross-dressing. Character A loves Character B who loves Character C.

What happens in Twelfth Night

Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria. Viola believes Sebastian is dead. To increase her chances of survival in the strange country she has landed in, she disguises herself as a boy and calls herself Cesario.

Viola finds a job as a page in the service of Orsino, the Duke. She immediately develops a crush on him.

Orsino is in love with a noble lady, Olivia. He sends Viola to Olivia with love letters. Olivia has never been interested in Orsino but immediately develops a crush on “Cesario.”

Subplot alert: meanwhile, in Olivia’s household, there is a running feud between her servant Malvolio and various other side characters. It evolves into a very barbed commentary on class in Shakespeare’s Britain. We don’t have time for such things on What Happens in Shakespeare, but when you read the play or watch the movie, you’ll see why this particular subplot is pure satirical genius.

Viola, with increasingly conflicted feelings, continues to try to get Olivia to fall in love with Orsino. Olivia continues in her genteel way to try to get “Cesario” into bed.

Sebastian reappears in a flurry of subplot and loses a fight. Olivia rescues him, thinks he is Cesario (the twins look alike, especially since Viola is dressed as a boy), and convinces him to marry her.

Viola comes on the scene and there is a shock as people realize she and Sebastian are not the same person. The brother and sister are reunited. You will tear up at this time. Don’t try to be tough. Shakespeare has powers when it comes to relatives thought to be dead.

Orsino (remember him?) falls in love with Viola-as-a-girl. They get engaged. Olivia and Sebastian have by now gotten married and plan to have lots of little Illyrians.


For more background and detail than even I can handle, try PlayShakespeare.com. And movies! I like Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film version of Twelfth Night, which has splendid costumes and scenery and Helena Bonham Carter. Helen Hunt also did a sizzling portayal of Viola in this 1998 production.