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Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night—an allusion to the night of festivity preceding the Christian celebration of the Epiphany—combines love, confusion, mistaken identities, and joyful discovery.

After the twins Sebastian and Viola survive a shipwreck, neither knows that the other is alive. Viola goes into service with Count Orsino of Illyria, disguised as a young man, "Cesario." Orsino sends Cesario to woo the Lady Olivia on his behalf, but Olivia falls in love with Cesario. Viola, in the meantime, has fallen in love with Orsino.

At the estate of Lady Olivia, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s kinsman, has brought in Sir Andrew Aguecheek to be her suitor. A confrontation between Olivia's steward, Malvolio, and the partying Toby and his cohort leads to a revenge plot against Malvolio. Malvolio is tricked into making a fool of himself, and he is locked in a dungeon as a lunatic.

In the meantime, Sebastian has been rescued by a sea captain, Antonio. When Viola, as Cesario, is challenged to a duel, Antonio mistakes her for Sebastian, comes to her aid, and is arrested. Olivia, meanwhile, mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and declares her love. When, finally, Sebastian and Viola appear together, the puzzles around the mistaken identities are solved:  Cesario is revealed as Viola, Orsino asks for Viola’s hand, Sebastian will wed Olivia, and Viola will marry Count Orsino. Malvolio, blaming Olivia and others for his humiliation, vows revenge.

Early printed texts

Twelfth Night appeared in print for the first time in the 1623 First Folio, and that text is the basis for all subsequent editions.

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Item Title: 
Works. 1623] Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies : published according to the true originall copies.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1623

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Item Title: 
Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. : Published according to the true originall copies.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22274 Fo.2 no.07
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1632

Picturing Twelfth Night

As part of an NEH-funded project, the Folger digitized thousands of 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century images representing Shakespeare’s plays. Some of these images show actors in character, while others show the plays as if they were real-life events—telling the difference isn't always easy. A selection of images related to Twelfth Night is shown below, with links to our digital image collection.

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Viola Young as Viola and James Allen as Sebastian (1904)

Item Title: 
Viola Allen, James Young [graphic].
Item Call Number: 
ART File A431 no.10 PHOTO copy 1 (size XS)
Item Date: 
[New York? : s.n., 1904]

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Julia Marlowe as Viola (late 19th or early 20th century)

Item Title: 
[Julia Marlowe as Viola in Shakespeare's Twelfth night] [graphic] / White.
Item Call Number: 
ART File M349.5 no.89 part 3 PHOTO (size M)
Item Creator: 
White Studio (New York, N.Y.), photographer.
Item Date: 
New York : [s.n., late 19th or early 20th century?]

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Edmund Blair Leighton illustration of Olivia (1896)

Item Title: 
The graphic gallery of Shakespeare's heroines ...
Item Call Number: 
ART Flat a24
Item Date: 
1896

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E.H. Sothern as Malvolio (1905)

E.H. Sothern as a mad Malvolio (Act 5, scene 1; 1905)

Item Title: 
E.H. Sothern as Malvolio [in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night] [graphic] / Sands, Prov. R.I.
Item Call Number: 
ART File S717.5 no.9 PHOTO (size XS)
Item Creator: 
Sands, W. A. (William A.), photographer, photographer.
Item Date: 
[Providence, R.I. : s.n., ca. 1905?]

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Viola, as Cesario, and Orsino (Act 1, scene 4; late 19th or early 20th century)

Item Title: 
[Twelfth night, act 1, scene 4] [graphic] / H. Thomas Maybank.
Item Call Number: 
ART Box M467.5 no.1
Item Creator: 
Maybank, H. Thomas, artist.
Item Date: 
[late 19th or early 20th century?]

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Olivia unveiling her face for Cesario (Act 1, scene 5; 1874)

Item Title: 
Olivia Unveiling
Item Call Number: 
FPa21
Item Creator: 
Frith, William Powell, 1819-1909, artist.
Item Date: 
1874

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Malvolio displays his cross-gartered legs for Olivia (Act 3, scene 4; early 20th century)

Item Title: 
[Twelfth night, Olivia and Malvolio] [graphic] / C. Buchel.
Item Call Number: 
ART Box B919 no.21 (size L)
Item Creator: 
Buchel, Charles A., artist.
Item Date: 
[early 20th century?]

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Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew, and Feste, singing and drinking (Act 2, scene 3; 19th century)

Item Title: 
[Twelfth night, II, 3] [graphic] / W. Heath del.
Item Call Number: 
ART Box H438 no.3 (size L)
Item Creator: 
Heath, William, 1795-1840, artist.
Item Date: 
[early to mid-19th century]

For more images of Twelfth Night, see our digital image collection. (Because of how they were cataloged, some images from other plays might appear in the image searches linked here, so always check the sidebar to see if the image is described as part of a larger group.)

Teacher & student resources

Created by teachers and curated by the Folger, this teaching module will help you with Twelfth Night in the classroom:

  • Olivia, May I?: Movement in Twelfth Night

More teaching modules and resources for teachers and students can be found in our Teach & Learn section.