Twelfth Night Act 3: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson provides an overview of Act III of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. In this act, mistaken identities and unrequited love lead to trouble for everyone.

Twelfth Night, Act III: In Which A Crisis Is Reached

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's most bittersweet comedies. In Act III, the dark undercurrents of the play -- its potential to turn into a tragedy -- are particularly apparent. This is typical for the five-act structure that Shakespeare commonly used: it is the third and central act in which events reach their climax, or their greatest dramatic turning point.

Shakespeare portrait

Act III Synopsis

At the conclusion of Act II, Shakespeare sets up two parallel plots. Count Orsino has packed his confidant Cesario (who is really the young woman Viola) off to renew Orsino's vows of love to the Countess Olivia. Meanwhile, in the Countess' household, her servants and relatives have made the conceited steward Malvolio believe that Olivia is in love with him, and they eagerly await his downfall. Act III opens with Viola dutifully on her mission. Significantly, the first scene is a dialogue between her and the fool, Feste, in which double meanings abound. This confusion anticipates the barely-controlled chaos of the rest of the act.

Viola/Cesario greets Olivia with 'Most excellent sweet lady, the heavens rain odors on you!' (III,i,86-87). As a courtly messenger of love, Viola is very good at her job. Overcome, Olivia plucks up the courage to tell 'Cesario' of her own unrequited love for him. This is predictably painful and awkward; Viola tries to be as open with Olivia as her incognito will allow, telling the Countess 'I am not what I am' (III,i,148). Olivia is left still hoping that her own love might move Cesario to a change of heart.

This passionate exchange has been witnessed by yet another suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Even the foolish Sir Andrew can perceive that Olivia has more 'favors' for this mere servant than for him (III,ii,4-6). He's persuaded by the servant Fabian and the drunkard Sir Toby Belch that Olivia is just trying to make him jealous, and that he should challenge Viola/Cesario to a duel. 'Hurt him in eleven places,' advises Sir Toby (III,ii,35). Hard on the heels of this pep talk comes Olivia's maid, Maria, with the news that Malvolio has taken their bait, and is going to parade himself before the Countess.

Scene 3 offers a brief break from the complicated affairs of Olivia's household, but not from the building tension. Sebastian (Viola's brother, who is not in fact dead, yay!) has entered the town and is looking forward to doing some sight-seeing. He's been followed by his friend Antonio, because Antonio is worried that Sebastian might get into trouble; he's also hopelessly in love with him. Since Antonio has fought against this country's navy, he risks his life by following Sebastian... but he does it anyway. As Antonio says, 'I could not stay behind you: my desire, / More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth' (III,iii,4-5).

Meanwhile, in Olivia's household, trouble is brewing. Olivia, still brooding, is disconcerted by the entrance of Malvolio, who is ridiculously dressed in yellow stockings and simpering at her (III,iv,15-61). Olivia concludes that for her Puritanical steward to be suddenly dressed in bright colors and not-too-subtly seeking sex, something must be seriously wrong. She escapes, leaving him to the care of her household, Maria, Fabian, and Toby, who have masterminded this scenario. Together with Feste, they diagnose Malvolio with insanity and demon-possession (III,iv,91-150). There's considerable irony in this, as of all the people coping with unrequited love in this act, Malvolio is far from the most irrational.

Malvolio in his stockings
Tile art, 2013

Sir Andrew Aguecheek bursts in on the successful conspirators with the predictably stupid letter he has written to challenge Viola/Cesario to a duel. Having enjoyed success with the Malvolio ploy, Sir Toby, Fabian, and Maria decide to steal the letter and incite the foolish Sir Andrew and the young and timid 'Cesario' to fight, by convincing each of them that the other is a skilled and extremely angry swordsman.

The climax of the duel is postponed by another exchange between Viola/Cesario and the Countess. Olivia voices a heartbreakingly accurate insight into her own unrequited passion (III,iv,209-213):

'I have said too much unto a heart of stone

And laid mine honor too unchary on 't.

There's something in me that reproves my fault,

But such a headstrong potent fault it is

That it but mocks reproof.'

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