Twelfth Night Act 5: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson deals with the fifth act of Twelfth Night, which, in a single scene, resolves the many confusions and entanglements of the play. Mistaken identities are cleared up, and couples are romantically paired off. Some ambiguities, however, remain.

Twelfth Night: Resolving the Plot

The last act of Twelfth Night has a lot of dramatic work to do. Since the play is a comedy, misunderstandings need to be cleared up, and marriages need to be arranged. As is typical for Shakespeare's later work, however, this is not an artificially cheerful, happily-ever-after conclusion. The play's themes of loyalty and desire are prominent and vigorously argued over by the characters. Madness, too, continues to cast a shadow, and not only in the person of Malvolio. Mistaken identity at last ceases to be a problem, but this creates some complications of its own. Let's work through the complicated scene sequentially, as more and more characters come on stage to have their problems resolved.

Love and Loyalties

Feste's exchanges with Fabian and Duke Orsino at the opening of the act foreground the importance of loyalty for this scene. The wordplay on double meanings looks backwards to the problems of misunderstandings and mistaken identities that have prevailed throughout the play. The banter between the fool and the duke on the subject of friends and enemies (lines 10-25) prepares the audience for the ways in which friendship is both reaffirmed and denied in the rest of the scene.

When Antonio enters, still under guard, Viola/Cesario is quick to point him out to Orsino as her rescuer. She fears, though, that he's affected by madness (line 63). Antonio is not mad, but only involved in one of the play's many cases of mistaken identity, having thought Viola/Cesario was her brother, his beloved friend Sebastian. Brokenhearted by what he thinks is Sebastian's disloyalty in refusing to acknowledge him, he describes his friendship for the young man... and, confusingly for Viola and Orsino, claims that he and Viola/Cesario have been constantly together for the past three months (lines 74-95). Orsino goes so far as to tell him 'thy words are madness' (line 98).

Olivia claims she is married to Viola.
Act V scene I illustration

The entrance of the Countess Olivia is the source of still more confusion: a Hollywood screwball comedy has nothing on Shakespeare in this scene. She and Orsino make rival claims to Viola/Cesario's loyalty. Orsino claims it as master and as friend, while Olivia claims it as lover. She, madly in love with Viola/Cesario, has married Viola's twin Sebastian in an extreme case of mistaken identity. Orsino, still suffering from unrequited love for the countess, and outraged by what he perceives as Cesario's disloyalty, threatens to kill 'him' (lines 119-134).

Viola/Cesario, for her part, declares that she will suffer gladly because she loves Orsino 'More than I love these eyes, more than my life, / More by all mores than e'er I shall love wife' (lines 139-140). Everyone is distraught when the comic relief characters come storming in.

Yelling for a doctor is the only sensible thing Sir Andrew Aguecheek has done during the entire play. He also yells at Viola/Cesario, because 'he' has beat up both Sir Andrew and Sir Toby Belch (lines 182-204). When Sir Andrew offers his help to Sir Toby, who has been his constant companion, Sir Toby rejects it. He rejects Sir Andrew in one of Shakespeare's great strings of insults, calling him 'an ass-head, and a coxcomb, / and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull' (lines 216-217). On this note of broken friendship and loyalty, Sebastian (finally!) enters.

Confusion Cleared Up

Sebastian's entrance solves several problems in rapid succession. Running in, he instantly apologizes to Olivia for hurting her cousin Sir Toby, ruefully remarking that this isn't a very good start to his career as a married man (lines 219-225). His reaction to seeing Antonio is to exclaim: 'How have the hours racked and tortured me / Since I have lost thee' (lines 229-230). There's a lot of implied hugging.

Finally, Sebastian catches sight of Viola/Cesario. Shakespeare doesn't rush this important reunion. Brother and sister approach each other slowly, confirming details about their past (line 254). As they do so, they mirror each other's speech patterns, reflecting their physical resemblance in language (lines 237-267).

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