Twelfth Night Act 1: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Twelfth Night is one of William Shakespeare's Comedies. Like the others, this one relies on mistaken identity and love mishaps to get laughs. But Twelfth Night goes beyond that to challenge some assumptions in society.

Twelfth Night Act 1 Characters

Act 1 of William Shakespeare's Comedy Twelfth Night serves to set up both the action and the characters of the play. This lesson will focus on the summary and analysis of Act 1, but before we begin, let's take a look at the major characters in this act:

Orsino, Duke of Illyria

Olivia, the noblewoman he loves, who recently lost her brother

Viola, a young aristocratic woman who has been shipwrecked

Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's drunken uncle

Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby's equally drunken friend

Cesario, who is actually Viola in disguise

Feste, a clown in Olivia's service

Maria, Olivia's fun-loving waiting woman

Malvolio, Olivia's steward who disapproves of frivolity and fun

The Duke and his Lover

In Act I, we learn of Duke Orsino's great love for the beautiful but uninterested Olivia. She's in mourning for her dead brother and won't consider romance at this time. In fact, she has vowed to stay in mourning for seven years. Orsino is devastated. He refuses to hunt or do much of anything besides listen to music. So Orsino mopes around the house and thinks about ways that he can get Olivia to notice him.

The Shipwreck and the Deception

Meanwhile, near the coast, Viola ponders her fate. She's just survived a shipwreck that killed most people on board, and she assumes her twin brother, Sebastian, has died. The captain cautions her about writing him off just yet; he says he saw Sebastian lash himself to the mast, so there is a possibility he survived. Viola shrugs, not wanting to get her hopes up.

Of course, she needs to figure out what to do now. She's stranded miles from home with no brother to look after her. The captain tells her about both Olivia and Orsino. Viola wants to go work for Olivia. After all, she's mourning a brother, too.

But the captain again mentions the seven years of mourning and tells Viola it is unlikely Olivia will give her a place in her household. Instead, the captain believes that she could find work in the house of Duke Orsino. But, since Orsino is a bachelor and Viola's protective of her virtue, she decides to try to work for him disguised as a teenaged boy.

In Olivia's House

We are introduced to Sir Toby, Olivia's drunken uncle, who lives with Olivia. He has his friend, the equally drunken Sir Andrew, with him. Sir Toby puts forward Sir Andrew, who hopes to win Olivia's heart. She shuts him down.

Viola, who has disguised herself and is going by the name Cesario, obtains a place in Orsino's household and quickly becomes his favorite. Orsino tasks Cesario with delivering his love letters to Olivia. He commands Cesario to act as if he (she) loves Olivia. Cesario goes off to bring the letter to Olivia, miserable because she (he) has fallen in love with Orsino.

We're introduced to the servants in Olivia's household: the clown Feste, the witty Maria, and the dour Malvolio. Maria predicts Feste will be banished for spending so long away, but since he is the only one who can make Olivia happy, he is allowed to stay. Malvolio reports to his mistress that there is a good looking boy there to see her. Cesario enters and Olivia falls in love with her (him).

So at the end of Act I, we're left with this messy love triangle. Orsino loves Olivia, who loves Cesario, who is actually a girl and loves Orsino. Everyone is miserable, and everything is in a mess.


Act I sets up the big mix-up that will occur later in the play. Her disguise, her missing brother, the love triangleā€¦all are important pieces of the comedy that Shakespeare in pulling together. Like all of the Bard's plays, this one deals with love and loss.

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