Twelfth Night Plot Summary: Act Five–It’s All Happening (including threats of revenge)

As we conclude our Twelfth Night plot summary, the fifth and final act of the play begins at Olivia’s estate with Fabian asking Feste to see the letter from Malvolio. Duke Orsino and his entourage, including Cesario, arrive to speak with Olivia. After a little witty banter between Orsino and Feste, the officers come to the duke with their prisoner, Antonio.

Orsino recognizes him immediately, and magnanimously remembers that “very envy and the tongue of loss // Cried fame and honor upon him” (V.i.55-6). Cesario commends Antonio to Orsino, recounting how Antonio had drawn on his behalf. After Orsino asks the pirate and thief why he has come to Illyria, Antonio refuses those monikers, accepts that of Antonio’s enemy, says that it was “witchcraft” (V.i.73) in the form of “that most ingrateful boy” (V.i.74). He then goes over how he had given over his purse, but then was refused when he asked for it back for his bail.

It’s at this point that Orsino asks one of the first intelligent questions of the play: When did you come to town? Antonio tells the truth,

Today, my lord; and for three months before,
No int’rim, not a minute’s vacancy,
Both day and night did we keep company.
  • V.i.91-3

Orsino says that Antonio’s “words are madness” (V.i.95), since Cesario has been with Orsino these past three months. And this should begin to solve all the problems except that in one of the greatest examples of distraction in theatrical history, Olivia arrives, and any train of thought Orsino had going is derailed.

Olivia immediately wants to know why Cesario isn’t with her.When it becomes obvious that Olivia only wants Cesario, Orsino’s mood turns:

But this your minion, whom I know you love,
And whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly,
Him will I tear out of that cruel eye
Where he sits crownèd in his master’s spite.—
Come, boy, with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief.
  • V.i.122-6

There’s some twisted stalker logic for you: If I can’t have you, you can’t have him (even though I love him, too). The scary part is that Viola is “apt and willingly” (V.i.129) to die. Viola then reveals how s/he loves Orsino “more than (she) loves these eyes, more than (her) life” (V.i.132). Betrayed, Olivia calls out, “Cesario, husband, stay!” (V.i.140).


Olivia calls forth the priest and he tells the assembled how he married Olivia and this young man just “two hours” (V.i.160) ago.

Orsino doesn’t want to kill Cesario anymore, but he doesn’t want to see him again, either:

O thou dissembling cub! What wilt thou be
When time hath sowed a grizzle on thy case?
Or will not else thy craft so quickly grow
That thine own trip shall be thine overthrow?
Farewell, and take her, but direct thy feet
Where thou and I henceforth may never meet.
  • V.i.161-6

Enter Sir Andrew, claiming that he has had his head broken across by Cesario, and that the young man “has given Sir Toby a bloody coxcomb, too” (V.i.172-3). Viola, of course, denies this even when Sir Toby comes and goes.

Then Sebastian enters, apologizing to Olivia for hurting her kinsman. The duke looks at Sebastian and says, “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons” (V.i.211). Sebastian sees Antonio and greets him happily. When Antonio asks Sebastian if he is Sebastian, the no-longer-long-lost brother says, “Fear’st thou that, Antonio?” (V.i.216). Antonio is confused. Olivia is full of wonder (“Most wonderful” [V.i.220]).

And we get the reunion we’ve been hoping for since Act One, Scene Two. Questions are posed and answered. Proof asked for and received. And identities are revealed.

Sebastian jokes to Olivia that she “would have been contracted to a maid” (V.i.256). Orsino remembers that as Cesario, Viola swore that she would never love a woman like to the duke; Viola says that she will “those swearing as true in soul” (V.i.265). Orsino then says that he cannot wait to see Viola in her woman’s clothes.

And they lived happily ever after. Laughter. Swell music. Drop curtain.

You could, I guess, end the play there, like they butchered King Lear by ending that play at the reunion of Lear and Cordelia. But that sort of shortchange would feel wrong here as well. Instead, Viola brings us an the play back to reality. Her garments are with the sea captain, who is now in custody due to a legal proceeding by Malvolio.

Ah, yes. Malvolio.

Olivia remembers his distraction and confinement, and she calls for him to be “enlarge(d)” (V.i.273), or freed. While they get the not-mad mad-man, Feste reveals the letter he wrote for Malvolio to Olivia, one that recounts the steward’s side of the story and how he’s been “madly used” (V.i.305).

As they go to get Malvolio, Olivia tells Orsino that though she may not be his wife, she will be his sister. She also announces that she’ll pay for the wedding costs herself. Orsino then tells Viola that he releases her from being her master’s servant to, if she should choose, to become her master’s mistress.

Malvolio is brought in, railing on how Olivia has wronged him. He shows her the letter he thinks is from her and asks,

Why have you suffered me to be imprisoned,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e’er invention played on? Tell me why.
  • V.i.335-8

Olivia breaks the news as gently as possible, but the truth is the truth: “this is not (Olivia’s) writing” (V.i.339). She tells hims that when they know who the authors are, Malvolio “shalt be both the plaintiff and the judge” (V.i.248). The authors are revealed by Fabian, who tells of Sir Toby’s marriage to the Maria, in “recompense” (V.i.358) of the jest. And he also calls the whole endeavor a “sportful malice… (which) may pluck on laughter than revenge” (V.i.359-60). Laughter, however, in not in the cards, as Malvolio says as he exits, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” (V.i.371).

Orsino calls for someone to bring Malvolio back so that they can get Viola’s clothes from the sea captain. Until then, Viola will remain Cesario, “But when in other habits (Viola is) seen, // (she will be) Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen” (V.i.380-1).

They all leave the stage leaving only Feste for one last song, on that tells “our play is done” (V.i.400).

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