Although a summary is generally brief, this is the act where the convoluted and tortuous plot resolves. There are so many loose ends to tie off and so many questions to reslove, that a brief summary is impossible. Below is the entire of Act V in a pseudo-summary form.
Feste enters with the letter written by the imprisoned Malvolio. Fabian, in vain, begs to read it. The Duke arrives desiring to see Olivia. After Feste wrangles several coins from the Duke, he delivers the Duke’s message. The Duke’s guards then enter with the bound Antonio, who continues to mistake Viola for Sebastian. Of course Antonio’s account of rescuing the drowning Sebastian and freely giving him companionship, protection, devotion, and money these past three months seems absurd to Viola/Cesario. The Duke affirms that Viola has been in his employ these past three months.
Olivia’s entrance further continues the mistaken identity. She spurns the Duke’s flowery verbal adoration, but she mistakes Viola/Cesario for Sebastian, the man with whom she just pledged unending love in the presence of a priest. The Duke is incensed at the supposed betrayal of his love by the very messenger with whom he entrusted his petitions of love. Orsino then threatens to take Cesario offstage and kill him (“I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love/To spite a raven’s heart within a dove” Act V, Sc. 1, Lines 132-133). The priest then enters and confirms that such a vow was made in his presence not two hours ago.
This confusion remains unresolved when Andrew Aguecheek enters with a bleeding head wound. He received the wound from Sebastian, whom he mistook to be Cesario. Toby enters with a similar wound. Seeing Cesario on stage, the mistaken identity continues to compound when they believe him to be the one who injured them.
Feste leads the two wounded men off stage in one direction while Sebastian enters from the other. While Sebastian apologizes to Olivia for wounding her kinsman, the entire stage stands flabbergasted. After a few moments of shock, Sebastian realizes that the only thing hindering his reunion with his sister is Cesario’s male appearance. Sebastian then realizes that Olivia had mistaken him for Cesario and that she came extremely close to being betrothed to a woman. Orsino sees an opportunity that he quickly grasps. Cesario has frequently pledged love and devotion to Orsino, so the Duke feels that a simple change of clothes can also change that camaraderie to romantic love. Orsino insists on seeing Cesario dressed as a woman first.
Since Viola’s clothes are with the captain and the captain is detained by order of Malvolio, Olivia sends for Malvolio to be brought to them. Feste and Fabian enter with the letter Malvolio speaks of writing in Act IV. Fabian reads Malvolio’s letter, which describes his abuse and imprisonment. Olivia orders his release and that he be brought to her to explain further. Olivia entreats Orsino to cease his infatuation with her and to think of her now as a sister. He easily agrees.
Malvolio enters with the original letter that inspired his odd behaviors. Olivia examines the letter and determines the penmanship to be Maria’s, which is similar to and often mistaken for her own. Fabian explains, but not very accurately. Apparently he is protecting Maria from any responsibility. Fabian explains that he and Sir Toby concocted the practical joke played on Malvolio, because Malvolio had treated them both badly. Toby has repaid Maria for her efforts in the joke by marrying her. Feste reminds Malvolio that he criticized him and his foolishness; Feste has gotten even. Malvolio storms off the stage threatening to exact revenge on everyone.
Orsino escorts all characters, except Feste, off the stage with the intention of seeing Cesario dressed as Viola and then marrying her.
Feste closes the play with a song that makes light of the stages of life: childhood, manhood, marriage, and finally drunken debauchery. The final stanza, similar to the last lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reminds the audience that all the action they viewed was merely a play, not reality. All intention was purely for pleasure.
Close Reading Analysis:
- Discussion Points:
Characterization of Orsino:
(Lines 129-131) Come boy, with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief.
I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.
Apparently at this point in Act V, Orsino loves Olivia so much that he is willing to personally execute his best friend, most trusted servant, and his confidant. The irony is tremendous in retrospect when Orsino pledges his undying love to Viola. Perhaps Orsino finally realizes that more than adoration is needed for a lasting and meaningful relationship. Spending the rest of his life in a relationship grounded in friendship is his new and higher goal.
Comparison of Feste and Malvolio:
(Line 372) Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
Feste repeats this quotation verbatim from Maria’s letter found by Malvolio in Act II. Malvolio has been continually attempting to aggrandize himself, yet Feste is continually self-deprecating. What constitutes greatness? Malvolio’s lack of humility is a major factor in his never being more than a servant, consistently acting priggishly, and repeatedly being the butt of the jokes.
Characterization of Malvolio:
(Line 380) I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.
This line keeps Malvolio from attaining any tragic quality or from garnering any sympathy from the audience. Instead of being pathetic and evoking our sympathy, his anger reminds us that he is self-centered and proud. Olivia is right when she comments in her final line, He hath been most notoriously abused (V, 1, 380). But his vengeful vow and haughty exit help us to enjoy the abuse he has suffered.
Songs of the Play
The play begins in music and ends in music. Contrast the songs:
In Act I, Sc. 1, before the spoken play begins, there is a melancholy song played allowing Orsino to indulge further in self-pity. He takes his position, his unrequited love, and even himself far too seriously.
In Act V, the concluding song (“When That I was and a Little Tiny Boy”) indicates that life continues regardless of the fate of the individual. Duke Orsino, the most powerful and therefore the most important man in the play, begins the play with his diatribe asserting his distorted sense of self-importance. It completes the irony of 12th Night that the play ends with the lowly jester, the character whose purpose is questioned and criticized from the very beginning, is the one who concludes the play with wisdom. That wisdom, simply stated, is that none of us matters as an individuals – we are all part of the great scheme of Nature – the circle of life.
Ability to See One’s Own Folly
Orsino loses his love, but now seeks romance with his best friend. Sebastian realizes that he has promised marriage to a woman who is in love with his sister. Olivia has promised marriage to a stranger who thinks she is possibly crazy. Has Shakespeare illustrated a caprice in our attitude toward romantic love?
Marriage and Levels of Love
Sebastian and Olivia:
Sebastian meets a pretty girl who might possibly be seriously insane. But she is pretty and rich, so why not marry her?
Olivia marries a man who she believes is:
merely a boy
not in love with her
guilty of greatly deceiving his employer and friend
Then Olivia discovers that she did not marry the object of her infatuation; rather she married a stranger. Nonetheless, she hopes for happiness.
Toby and Maria:
Maria’s motivation is problematic. Although marriage to Toby will apparently raise her social standing (he is Sir Toby Belch after all), life with Toby will probably mean always trying to keep him from overindulging in liquor, as we are told by Feste early in the play.
If Sir Toby would leave drinking, thou wert as witty a piece of Eve’s flesh as any in Illyria. (Act I, Sc. 5, Lines 27 and 28).
Toby marries Maria apparently merely because she is highly skilled in playing practical jokes. “Maria writ the letter, at Sir Toby’s great importance, in recompense whereof he hath married her.(Act V, Sc. 1, Lines 364-366)
Orsino and Viola:
Orsino has all along treated Viola/Caesario as an underling, although a trusted servant and a confidant. But it is hard to forget that in the final scene, less than 300 lines before the end of the play, Orsino intends to kill Caesario. Some friendship!
But hear me this: / Since you to nonregardance cast my faith, / And that I partly know the instrument / That screws me from my true place in your favor, / Live you the marble-breasted tyrant still. / But this your minion, whom I know you love, / And whom by heaven I swear, I tender dearly, / Him will I tear our of that cruel eye / Where he sits crowned in his master’s spite. / Come, boy with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief. / I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love, / To spite a raven’s heart within a dove. (Act V, Sc. 1, Lines 120-131)
Viola at least knows her perspective spouse since she has been his confidant for the past 3 months, but during that time she has watched him mindlessly dote on a woman who disdains his regard. Not only is she willing to catch Orsino on the rebound, but she is willing to forgive or forget that he was ready to kill her moments earlier.
1. What is the situation with any of our couples in 10 years? Describe their marriage.
2. What eventually becomes of Malvolio?
3. Describe a family reunion 5 years from now. How will Orsino and Olivia interact?
1.VIDEO Watch the entire scene from Twelfth Night Act 5 QuickTime Video.