Book Review: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

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To celebrate the end of the Christmas season, Twelfth Night is a play about love and power. Duke Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia, who runs her own household. Other men vying for her affection are her snobby servant, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Enter twins Viola and Sebastian, who were separated in a shipwreck and each believes the other is dead. Viola disguises herself as a male page and works for Orsino.

He sends her to Olivia, but Olivia falls in love with the messenger (who is actually Viola in disguise). These relationships are complex but ultimately resolved in a satisfying way in the play.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this Twelfth Night book review, I’m going to cover the following topics:

Plot Summary

A twin brother and sister who have been shipwrecked and separated are finally reunited after a series of mistaken identities and romances.

ACT 1 

Orsino, Duke of Illyria, is in love with Lady Olivia, the daughter of a count, and has sent his page, Valentine, to inform her of his feelings. Comparing his love to an appetite that can be satisfied only by an excess of even more love, Orsino tells the palace musicians to indulge his passion: “If music be the food of love, play on.” 

Valentine returns with the news that Olivia does not wish to see him: since her father died a year ago and her brother has died recently, she has begun a seven-year mourning period during which she will refuse the love of men. 

At a sea coast, the beautiful Viola struggles ashore with a Sea Captain after a storm has shipwrecked them at sea. Viola fears that her twin brother, Sebastian, has drowned and that she must now, as a single woman, fend for herself in a new country. 

The captain gives her information about this country, called Illyria, and Viola decides to disguise herself as a man and go to work for Duke Orsino, thus passing time until more can be learned about her brother. Olivia’s uncle, the fun-loving Sir Toby Belch, complains to his niece’s gentlewoman, Maria, about the tediousness of mourning. 

Maria retorts that Toby is a drunkard and has no business making noise at such late hours. He has brought a knight, the foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek, as the perfect suitor for Olivia, but she refuses to see him.

When Andrew enters, Toby pokes fun at his foolish appearance, and Maria scoffs that Andrew is a well-known coward. But Andrew says he excels at dancing, fencing, drinking, and playing tricks on people. 

Back at Orsino’s court, Viola has disguised herself as a young man named Cesario and has become one of the duke’s favorite pages. Since Orsino finds the “young man” so pleasing, he sends “him” to woo Olivia for him. In an aside, Viola indicates that she wishes she were his wife instead of trying to woo another woman for him. 

Maria scolds Olivia’s clown, Feste, for having been absent so long. As a fool, he can say things that no one else can, and when Olivia appears, he mocks her for closing out the world and mourning her brother.

Malvolio, Olivia’s arrogant steward, displeases Olivia when he criticizes Feste. She says Malvolio is sick with “self-love” (conceit) and that this prevents Malvolio from seeing beyond himself. 

Olivia is also displeased with the drunken Toby, who arrives to inform her that a young man is at the gate. Olivia veils herself and allows Cesario to appear. She finds Cesario handsome, but tells him that she cannot love Orsino, despite his merits. 

After Cesario leaves, Olivia realizes that she has fallen in love with “him” (i.e., Viola disguised as Cesario). As a ploy to capture Cesario’s attention, she sends Malvolio after him with a ring that she pretends was left by Cesario as a gift from the duke.

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ACT 2 

Sebastian appears on the shores of Illyria with the sea captain Antonio, who has saved his life. Fearing that Viola has drowned, Sebastian says he needs to be alone for a while. He heads for Orsino’s court, and though Antonio has enemies at court, he follows Sebastian. 

Malvolio catches up with Cesario and tries to “return” the ring to him. Viola knows that she did not leave a ring, and she suspects that Olivia has fallen in love with “Cesario.” For that reason, she refuses the ring. In anger, Malvolio throws it to the ground and exits in a huff. 

In a soliloquy (a speech made alone on the stage), Viola muses that everyone is in love with the wrong person: Orsino loves Olivia, but Olivia loves Cesario; since Viola is disguised as Cesario, she must hide her love for Orsino. Although it is late, Sir Toby encourages Andrew and Feste to make merry with him. 

Feste sings a song about the fleeting nature of love and youth, and they carry on boisterously, despite Maria’s warnings that they be quiet. The puritanical Malvolio informs them that Olivia is angered by their noise, and when they mock him, Malvolio vows to report Maria’s behavior to Olivia. 

When he leaves, Maria suggests a way of getting even with him: she will forge a love letter to Malvolio, written in the style of Olivia’s handwriting, and will lead the steward to believe that Olivia loves him passionately. Thrilled with the plan, Toby tells Andrew to send for more money so that they can continue to spend their nights drinking. 

Duke Orsino is still sad, and discusses his love with Cesario, whose words are filled with double meaning so as to disguise his/her love for the Duke. Cesario says that his father once had a daughter (he means Viola) who loved a man (Orsino), but who never confessed her love to him. 

Feste enters and sings a sad song about the death of a lover, and again the duke sends Cesario to Olivia to plead his love. Maria plants the letter, and Toby, Andrew, and Fabian (Olivia’s servant) hide behind some bushes to see Malvolio’s reaction. The steward strolls by, talking aloud about his desire for wealth and status. 

He notices the letter, picks it up, and believes that it was written by Olivia. He excitedly concludes that Olivia must love him and that she wants him to rise above his position as a servant, to smile in her presence (which will be out of tune with Olivia’s melancholy), to behave in a lordly manner toward Toby and the others, and to dress in his yellow stockings and crossgarters (Olivia hates yellow, and the garters will make Malvolio look foolish).

ACT 3 

When Cesario returns to Olivia’s house, he meets Feste, Andrew, and Toby. The jovial Toby makes jokes at his expense. Olivia sends everyone away, except for Cesario, to whom she confesses her love. 

When Olivia tries to discover his station in life, Cesario says, “I am not what I am.” Olivia wants to marry him, but she is too embarrassed to pursue him. When Cesario leaves, Olivia asks him to return for another visit. Seeing that Andrew is jealous of Cesario, Toby encourages Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel. 

While still planning this joke, Toby is interrupted by Maria, who tells them to come to see Malvolio in his yellow stockings and cross- garters. In the meantime, Antonio has followed Sebastian to the court. Sebastian, like Viola, is a sympathetic, attractive person. Antonio offers Sebastian his protection—along with his wallet—and they arrange to meet later at the Elephant Inn. 

The action shifts to the tricking of Malvolio. When Olivia appears, she calls for Malvolio but is told that he has gone mad. He arrives, dressed ridiculously, and smiles continuously at Olivia. It appears that he has indeed lost his mind, and when he quotes from “Olivia’s” love letter, Olivia dismisses his conduct as “midsummer madness”; she asks her servants to look after him. 

Toby, Feste, and Fabian, pretending that Malvolio is truly mad, take him to a dark room and tie him up—a standard method at that time for handling potentially violent people. Andrew appears with his written challenge for Cesario. It is a foolish, cowardly letter, and Toby tells Fabian he will not deliver it to Cesario. Instead, he will make a verbal challenge to Cesario. 

Olivia appears with Cesario; she forces a miniature portrait of herself on Cesario and asks him to return the next day. After Olivia’s exit, the others surround Cesario and insist that he fight with Andrew. Cesario is frightened and nearly reveals himself as a woman. Although neither Andrew nor Cesario/Viola want to duel, they draw their swords, and in a cowardly way begin to fight. 

Antonio appears and believes Cesario to be Sebastian (Viola’s twin); the mock duel suddenly turns into a real fight, but is stopped by officers who arrive on the scene.

When Cesario denies knowing Antonio and does not understand his plea that he return Antonio’s wallet (since Sebastian has the wallet), Antonio rages at him. From Antonio’s remarks, Viola begins to think he has saved her brother’s life and that Sebastian is nearby.

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ACT 4 

Sebastian appears on another part of Olivia’s grounds, followed by Feste, who calls him Master Cesario. Sebastian thinks Feste is mad, and he thinks likewise of Andrew and Toby when Andrew walks up and hits him. Striking back, Sebastian frightens away the cowardly Andrew, but Toby draws his sword and starts to fight with him. 

Olivia enters, furious at Toby, and concerned for Cesario (who is really Sebastian). When she shows her love and he responds, it delights her and the two of them enter her house. Malvolio’s punishment is not yet complete. 

Feste disguises himself as the preacher Sir Topas and tells Malvolio in nonsensical language that he is an ignorant lunatic who shall remain in darkness.

Out in the garden again, Sebastian wonders at the strange events: as if it weren’t enough that Antonio is missing, Olivia claims to know Sebastian and love him, and she arrives with a priest to marry them. As Sebastian goes off to marry Olivia, he concludes that there is something important that he does not understand.

ACT 5 

Cesario returns with Duke Orsino, seeking to discover why Antonio claimed to know Cesario. All the parties appear, and for a time there is confusion: Olivia thinks Cesario is her husband, but when Sebastian enters, there appear to be two Cesarios. 

The Duke believes the priest, who thinks Cesario is Sebastian and who insists that Cesario is married to Olivia. Sebastian is still confused: he knows he had a sister, but now he only seems to have a brother. Cesario admits to being a woman in disguise and the riddle is solved. Sebastian and Olivia see that they married under a mistaken identity, but both are happy. 

Orsino now realizes that Viola loves him, and he returns her love. Feste arrives with a letter from Malvolio, who accuses Olivia of wronging him by writing the love letter that led him to behave like a fool. She suspects that the handwriting was Maria’s, and makes Fabian explain the prank—but it doesn’t matter since Maria has married Sir Toby. 

Everyone is happy except Malvolio. Filled with conceit, he cannot share in the happiness of others, and exits saying, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” Olivia still hopes to reconcile him, and all exit happily to celebrate their joy. 

But the merriment and romance are undercut by the song that Feste sings alone: despite youth, love, and amusement, “the rain it raineth every day.”

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Key Characters

Duke Orsino: The Duke of Illyria. He is noble, wealthy, young, learned, courageous, handsome, and well-mannered. Despite his melancholy, he pines like a wounded lover and sentimentally searches for the ideal woman, using words such as “appetite” and “excess.” He imagines he is in love with Olivia, who rejects him, but later falls in love with Viola.

Viola (“Cesario”): Viola is intelligent, beautiful, and a witty young woman with practicality and honor. She is the twin sister of Sebastian and puzzled by her circumstances, and unhappy because she thinks her twin has drowned.

Sebastian: Sebastian is the twin brother of Viola. He is handsome, brave, courteous, but ready to fight when attacked. He appears only briefly towards the end of the play.

Olivia: Olivia is the daughter of a count. She is wealthy, beautiful, virtuous, and intelligent. She admires Orsino but claims she cannot love him because she is in mourning. However, she immediately flirts with Cesario as soon as she sees him and promptly falls in love with him.

Malvolio: Malvolio is Olivia’s steward. He is vain, pompous, sneering, prudish, self-important, and dreams that Olivia may one day marry him. His name suggests “bad will.” He is a puritan who wants power to stop Toby and others from having fun, but he is incapable of romance or fun.

Sir Toby Belch: Sir Toby Belch is the uncle to Olivia. He is roly-poly, earthy, fun-loving, and a drunken knight who enjoys playing tricks on people. He appears to be a fool but has wit and a gift for language. He loves the sharp-tongued Maria, cons money from Sir Andrew to pay for his drinking, and has courage: when Antonio draws his sword, Toby is not afraid to fight. He is a comic figure who resembles Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a cowardly knight and gullible comic figure. He thinks he is a fine dancer and fencer, but he is really an awkward, witless fool with straggly hair. His name is a play on words with ague, a fit of shivering and fever. He and Sir Toby are drinking companions.

Feste: Feste is a professional “clown” or “jester” (fool) employed by Olivia. He is witty and clever, seems merry, but his songs are often sad.

Main Themes and Ideas

1. Love

In the play, love is a major source of dramatic tension. Shakespeare portrays five different types of love.

(a) Sentimental love: Orsino loves Olivia in an affected and self-conscious way, expressing his love with adorations, tears, groans, and sighs. However, until he marries Viola, his love is more about solitude and fantasy than sharing or fulfillment.

(b) Love of family: Viola and Sebastian love each other in a pure and selfless manner. Olivia’s love for her late brother may be genuine, but it also has an artificial and theatrical tone to it. She abruptly abandons her mourning period when she falls in love with Cesario.

(c) Love of friends: Toby claims to love Andrew, but in reality, he loves Andrew’s money. When Antonio mistakes Cesario for Sebastian, he gets angry with his “friend” when Cesario denies having his wallet.

(d) Self-love: Malvolio thinks he loves Olivia, but he is actually a victim of self-love. His conflict remains unresolved because he wants status and money rather than love.

(e) Romantic love: The marriages at the end of the play are all based on true love.

2. Appearance vs. reality

The interplay of illusion and reality is expressed through the use of mistaken identities, disguises, and deception. The characters create a false “reality” by disguising the truth about themselves.

For example, Feste disguises himself as Sir Topas, while Malvolio pretends to be a man obsessed with the illusion of power. Maria pretends to be the author of “Olivia’s” love letter to Malvolio, and Sir Andrew appears to be someone who “[delights] in masques and revels.”

Olivia pretends to be a mourning “cloistress” who cannot love because of her grief, while Orsino appears to be a lovesick nobleman who lives in a fantasy world of music and solitude. Although Viola sets things in motion by disguising herself as Cesario, she is a voice of realism (as is Feste), who realizes that people respond to her appearance, not to her true self.

Shakespeare makes the point that illusions, while perhaps amusing, can also be dangerous, as seen when Sir Toby threatens to kill Sebastian and when modern audiences find Malvolio’s punishment inhuman and cruel.

3. Order

Shakespeare shows that disorder is a threat to society and that a happy and peaceful existence depends on social order. When the play opens, Orsino’s life is in disorder, with his insatiable appetite for excess. Toby and Andrew, with their drunken revelries, threaten the social order.

Olivia tries to impose order on her life by going into mourning but feels a disorderly stirring in the form of love for Cesario. She is happy only once she restores order by marrying Sebastian. Malvolio is constantly on patrol against disorder, but his severity leads to its own form of disorder, as he descends into madness.

4. The dark side of life

Although it is a comedy, the play possesses a serious and haunting tone that penetrates the merrymaking. Shakespeare contrasts lighthearted vitality and the changeability of youth with the dark certainty of life’s harshness and death. The characters live in a leisured society, pursuing love and setting up elaborate jokes.

However, there is an ever-present reminder of the temporary nature of their festivities, and death is present from the beginning. Early in the play, Shakespeare establishes Malvolio as a dark figure, an “intruder” who interrupts the singing and fun and who sneers at the fool’s jokes.

Shakespeare does not reform or improve his intruder, but instead, causes Malvolio to leave the society that he can neither understand nor enjoy. While his characters presently inhabit an amusing, carefree, and sensual world, Shakespeare leaves no doubt that life is harsh and that the characters cannot hide from it forever.

5. Elizabethan world order

Elizabethans viewed society as a “Great Chain of Being” or hierarchy, in which every creature occupied their own place. Servants were servants, kings were kings, and so on. Within this Elizabethan world order, there was a system of laws – Natural, Celestial, Rational, Divine, and Human – that ensured order in the universe.

When one of these laws was broken, it resulted in a disturbance in the other laws. In Illyria, the characters violate the Human and Natural Laws by, for example, Viola dressing as a man, and Malvolio aspiring to a social position beyond his reach.

These violations indirectly bring about chaos, confusion, and “unnatural” relationships. One function of the comedy is to restore order in Illyria, showing the importance of maintaining societal order.

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Rings: Rings are symbols of love, with their exchange symbolizing marriage. However, when confusion of identities leads to misunderstandings about rings, they become symbols of betrayal.

Twelfth Night: The night of the twelfth day after Christmas, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrates the Wise Men’s visit to Jesus Christ in the manger. In the court of Queen Elizabeth I, it was often the climax of Christmas celebrations and known as the “Feast of Fools.” The play’s title symbolizes the jokes, gift-giving, carousing, disguising, and general merriment typical of this holiday.

Malvolio’s chain: Malvolio’s chain symbolizes his position in Olivia’s household. While his rank as a servant may be high on the servants’ hierarchy, he has a low position compared to noblemen. When he fantasizes about marrying Olivia, he sees himself playing with his chain but then remembers he would no longer be a steward and substitutes it for “some rich jewel.”

Music: For Orsino, music symbolizes love, while for Feste, it is the symbolic means through which he expresses truth.


1. The Memorable Characters

The characters in Twelfth Night are brilliantly drawn and well-rounded. They are not simply stock characters but have depth and complexity that make them relatable and interesting. The three main suitors for the heiress Olivia are distinct personalities that add to the play’s humor and complexity.

Malvolio, Duke Orsino, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are all flawed in their own ways and provide a range of comedic moments throughout the play. The fool, Feste, is also a standout character whose shrewdness and wit are apparent even in his superficial words. The play’s characters are a testament to Shakespeare’s ability to create fully-realized individuals that add depth to his stories.

2. The Skillful Plot

The plot of Twelfth Night is a masterpiece of comedic storytelling. The mistaken identities, shipwrecks, and love triangles that are standard in Shakespearean comedies are all present in this play, but they are executed with such skill and wit that they feel fresh and engaging.

The love story between Viola and Orsino, complicated by Viola’s disguise as Cesario, is particularly well-done and provides a satisfying resolution to the play’s various subplots.

3. The Fool

Feste, the fool, is one of the most memorable characters in the play. His role in court is to speak the truth without repercussions, and he does so with a mix of humor and shrewdness that belies his ridiculous appearance.

Feste is a character who is tolerated by the good characters and reviled by the villains, but Shakespeare does not allow him to be a stock character. Feste’s poignant words at the end of the play reveal a mature and measured view of life that encourages the audience to live life fully and enjoy it.


1. The Plot’s Execution

While the plot of “Twelfth Night” is intriguing and engaging, its execution leaves something to be desired. The various subplots feel somewhat disconnected and do not flow together as seamlessly as in other Shakespearean plays. Additionally, the resolution of the cases of mistaken identity feels contrived and lacking in tension, making it less satisfying than in other works.

2. The Unrealistic Mistaken Identity

While I understand that “Twelfth Night” was written in a time when women were not allowed to act on stage and all roles were played by men, it strains credulity that Viola’s disguise as a man would be so effective as to fool everyone she encounters. While the comedic moments that arise from this disguise are certainly entertaining, they also detract from the play’s realism and make it more difficult to take the story seriously.

3. Not Shakespeare’s Best

While “Twelfth Night” is certainly a good play, it is not one of Shakespeare’s best works. The characters are not as fully realized as in some of his other plays, and the language is not as poetic or memorable. While the play certainly has its comedic moments, it does not have the depth or complexity of some of Shakespeare’s tragedies or even some of his other comedies.


Twelfth Night is a classic Shakespearean comedy that has entertained audiences for centuries. It is a play that contains all the standard Shakespearean conceits and resolves them harmoniously in the final scene. The play’s characters, plot, and themes are expertly crafted and provide a rich and rewarding experience for readers and audiences alike. It is no wonder that the play has stood the test of time and remains a beloved classic of English literature.

About The Author

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He arrived in London about 1586. His career as a playwright, poet, actor and theatre shareholder in London lasted from the early 1590s until 1612.

Shakespeare wrote all types of plays—tragedies, comedies, romances, and historical dramas—for popular theatre. His early plays reflect the optimism and exuberant spirit of an England just coming into its own as a world power. 

The later plays, the great tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth—are pessimistic, cynical, and reflect the decadence and political corruption of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court. 

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