Twelfth Night

Identical twins are separated during a shipwreck and arrive on the shores of Illyria. Hilarity ensues as they attempt to find their way amidst the puritanical, the inhospitable and the love-obsessed.

Twelfth Night hub header 1800x1220

Orsino, Act 1, Scene 1

Identical twins Viola and Sebastian, separated during a shipwreck, arrive in the city of Illyria.

Viola, disguised as a man, goes to work for Duke Orsino and falls in love with him. Orsino is in love with a countess named Olivia, but Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola. Malvolio, Olivia’s servant, is tricked into believing she loves him.

A romantic comedy exploring obsession, longing, disguise and cruelty, Twelfth Night is, above all, a play about love – requited and unrequited. It’s a play that allows its audiences to reflect on the many diverse kinds of love and how love affects us. Written around 1601–1602, it is one of Shakespeare’s most notably musical plays.

Twelfth night 17 2880x1500

Andrea Demetriades and Adam Booth, Twelfth Night 2010

Twelfth Night2010 5

Max Cullen, Ben Wood, Adam Booth and Brent Hill, Twelfth Night 2010


Read synopsis in fullRead synopsis in full

What country, friends, is this?

Viola, Act 1, Scene 2

The play opens with Orsino, Duke of Illyria, who is listening to music and ruminating on love. Orsino is a romantic, and is awaiting a response from Countess Olivia, the woman he desperately loves. Olivia does not return the sentiment. She is in mourning for her recently deceased brother and has committed to remaining unseen for seven years.

Meanwhile, on the shores of Illyria, a young woman, Viola, a Captain and sailors emerge miraculously unscathed from a shipwreck. Viola laments her separation from, and likely death of, her twin brother, Sebastian. She is wary of this new country the Captain names ‘Illyria’ and asks him to take her to Duke Orsino so she can find safe employment until she figures out her next move. Unsure whether Illyria will be a place kind to a young woman, she decides to disguise herself as a man named Cesario.

Next we meet Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch, who is drunk and being chastised by her gentlewoman, Maria. His friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, joins the conversation, bemoaning the fact that Olivia, who he’s also been attempting to woo, is not interested in him.

Viola, disguised as Cesario,, is swiftly welcomed into the role of Orsino’s servant and confidante. She becomes the go-between in his romantic pursuit of Olivia. Viola very quickly realises that she has romantic feelings for Orsino, complicating her employment. Despite Olivia’s decision to remain in mourning, she is intrigued by Viola-disguised-as-Cesario’s behaviour. Olivia quickly falls in love with Cesario and tries to trick ‘him’ into returning to see her.

Twelfth night 9 2880x1500

Kit Brookman and Elan Zavelsky, Twelfth Night 2010

Famous lines

... be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.

Malvolio, Act 2, Scene 5

Twelfth night 7 2880x1500

Brent Hill and Adam Booth, Twelfth Night 2010

Historical background

Twelfth Night was written around 1601–1602 and had its first public performance in 1602 in London, during the celebration of Candlemas.

Twelfth night 12 2880x1500

Andrea Demetriades and Brent Hill, Twelfth Night 2010

Fast facts

‘Twelfth Night’ refers to the twelfth night after Christmas, a celebration also known as ‘Epiphany Eve.’

Falling on the 5th of January, the holiday is associated with disguise, misrule, and the idea of turning the world and societal order on its head for one night.

Read fast factsRead fast facts

Twelfth night 19 2880x1500

Adam Booth and Ben Wood, Twelfth Night 2010

Debatable points

Does Malvolio deserve his treatment?

While making fun of the strict puritanical character, a figure Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have been all-too familiar with, Shakespeare does appear to push the baiting beyond the realms of ‘fair play.’

Read debatable pointsRead debatable points