Twelfth Night Plot Summary: Act Two, Scenes One through Three–Brother Lost No More, a Realization, and a Crackdown on Uncivil Rule Leads to a Scheme

As we continue our Twelfth Night plot summary, entering Act Two, we’re now taken to an Illyrian lodging where we find Antonio and Sebastian, with the former pleading with the latter not to leave. Just as Olivia just a scene earlier said that “Fate (had) show(n) (its) force” (I.v.299), Sebastian fears that staying with Antonio would adversely affect him because of the “malignancy of (Sebastian’s) fate” (II.i.4).

And what’s so bad about what’s happened to Sebastian? He tries to explain:

Antonio, my name is Sebastian, which I called Roderigo. My father was that Sebastian of Messaline whom I know you have heard of. He left behind him myself and a sister, both born in an hour. If the heavens had been pleased, would we had so ended! But you, sir, altered that, for some hour before you took me from the breach of the sea was my sister drowned.
  • II.i.15-21

Sebastian had a twin sister, and while Antonio’s ship saved Sebastian from the ocean, Sebastian’s sister drowned. Interesting. Wait. You don’t think– This couldn’t be– Maybe– Nah, too coincidental.

Of course, his sister is Viola. But what I want to know is why did Sebastian take on the fake name of Roderigo. Especially as it doesn’t play a role later.  Like Cesario being a eunuch.

Anyway, Sebastian bemoans his fate, telling Antonio that although his sister was “accounted beautiful” (II.i.24), it was also said that “she much resembled” (II.i.23) Sebastian. Even that memory is too much, as Sebastian “drown(s) her remembrance again with more” (II.i.29) salt water or tears, so much so that he admits that he is “so near the manners of (his) mother” (II.i.37). Not exactly cutting a macho image here, is he?

Antonio is willing to become Sebastian’s servant to be with him, but Sebastian begs his leave, heading out to Count Orsino’s court. Why? He doesn’t say. But let’s face facts, he has to… so that confusion and (hopefully) much wackiness will ensue.

As Sebastian leaves, Antonio lets us know that even if he has “many enemies in Orsino’s court” (II.i.41), Antonio so “adore(s)” (II.i.43) Sebastian that he will follow him. This feels like more than a mere bromance.

Meanwhile, in Act Two, Scene Two, we’re back to Olivia’s estate where Malvolio catches up to Cesario/Viola, and returns to the youth the ring Olivia had given Malvolio, which she claimed Cesario had given her as a token of love from Duke Orsino.

Viola refuses the ring since she didn’t leave one, but Malvolio ends up leaving the ring on the ground for Cesario to either leave or take up. Alone, Viola ponders the meaning of the exchange and comes to a realization:

She made good view of me, indeed so much
That methought her eyes had lost her tongue,
For she did speak in starts distractedly.
She loves me, sure!
  • II.ii.19-22

It sounds like delusion, but since we’ve heard Olivia’s response with our own ears, Viola’s right. Of course, now we’ve got a weird situation:

My master loves her dearly,
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master’s love.
As I am woman (now, alas the day!),
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie.
  • II.ii.33-41

Yes, it’s quite the quandary. But like Olivia and Sebastian before her, Viola leaves it all up to Time and Fate.

The third scene of Act Two takes us back to Olivia’s house where Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are up late drinking. Or is it early? Discuss. (they do.)

They’re quickly joined by Feste the clown and within lines music and singing fill the room. The song’s second verse, by the way, is wonderfully indicative of tone and themes of the play:

What is love? ’Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter.
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
  • II.iii.45-50

Love is for the here and now… we don’t know what will happen (Fate again!), so let’s have love now. The song is not enough for these drunks, though, and a round is sung and a catch is danced. Maria enters, complaining of their “caterwauling” (II.iii.67) and warning that Olivia has “called up her steward Malvolio and bid him turn (them) out of doors” (II.iii.68-9). Her warnings have no effect and they continue to sing.

Malvolio enters and, not surprisingly, reprimands the drunkards, first attempting to shame them, then speaking for Olivia:

My lady bade me tell you that, though she harbors you as her kinsman, she’s nothing allied to your disorders. If you can separate yourself and your misdemeanors, you are welcome to the house; if not, an it would please you to take leave of her, she is very willing to bid you farewell.
  • II.iii.88-93

This, like Maria’s warnings before, has no effect, and despite Maria trying to dissuade Sir Toby, he, Sir Andrew, and Feste continue their improvised song, deriding Malvolio. Sir Toby then attacks Malvolio’s position of steward, and asks, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (II.iii.107-8), then calls for Maria to give him more wine.

Malvolio then turns his attack on Maria:

Mistress Mary, if you prized my lady’s favor at anything more than contempt, you would not give means for this uncivil rule. She shall know of it, by this hand.
  • II.iii.112-5

The language here and in the previous speech is interesting. With terms like “disorders,” “misdemeanors,” and “uncivil rule,” there is both pseudo-legalese at work here as well as subtle calling to mind of the Lord of Misrule, a leader in the Feast of Fools and other rites of drunkenness associated with Saturnalia.

Which happens around Christmastime.

As in Sir Toby’s song snippet, “O the twelfth day of December” (II.iii.79).

Which calls to mind the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Which lead up to the Epiphany.

Also known as Twelfth Night… the title of the play.

But I digress.

Malvolio leaves, and Maria turns from exasperation toward the drunkards to anger at the steward, saying of the departing Malvolio, “Go shake your ears” (II.iii.116), effectively calling him an ass. She decides that it’s better not to look for any help from Olivia, as “since the youth of the count’s was today with my lady is much out of quiet” (II.iii.122-4). Rather, she wants to go after Malvolio, whom she describes as

The devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass that cons state without book and utters it by great swaths; the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him. And on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.
  • II.iii.136-42

Maria reveals her plan for revenge will be to write love notes that refer to Malvolio not by name, but by his characteristics; and since her handwriting looks exactly like Olivia’s, Malvolio will believe that Olivia is “in love with him” (II.iii.154-5).

Like Much Ado a few months ago, Twelfth Night’s subplot will hinge upon a “gull(ing)” (II.iii.125) scene, but here the intention is outright cruelty rather than teasing matchmaking.

But that will have to wait until tomorrow.

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