Shakespeare : Twelfth Night.
This will get confusing quickly. So read slowly and hang in there. Let’s roll.
Orsino, Duke of Illyria, is sad. Super sad. Sad to the point of despondency and depression. Why? Because his neighbor, the Countess Olivia, doesn’t love him. In fact, she doesn’t want to see, hear, or have anything to do with him. And he is so in love. Desperately, madly, crazily.
She is sad too. Her beloved brother died previous to this story beginning and she is mourning his death for a specific period of time: seven years. For seven years she will mourn and have nothing to do with men. She is resolute on that point. For the time being.
So we have these two sad figures in Illyria.
Meanwhile, there’s a ship. A ship on the stormy ocean carrying a brother and sister. Twins. Sebastian and Viola. They’re identical. Absolutely identical. The winds pick up, the ship hits rocks, it goes down, the siblings get separated. With the captain’s help, Viola survives and they wash up on a beach; a beach we soon find out is a beach in Illyria. She is sad, super sad, because she loved her brother very much and he appears to have drowned. But life must go on.
She mourns, but not like Olivia and not like Duke Orsino. She knows she’s gotta survive somehow, which starts with getting a job. Getting a job is gonna be easier as a boy, so she makes a wardrobe adjustment, drops her voice half an octave, and with the captain’s help gets a job working for Duke Orsino. This is where the story really picks things up and gets interesting. Things about to get crazy.
Not only does Viola look like her deceased twin brother now, she takes a man’s name to complete the transformation. From henceforth, she will be Cesario. Cesario is a handsome lad and most importantly, a great listener, which Duke Orsino soon discovers. It’s not long before Cesario is his favourite confidante; he spends hours not playing sports and not going on walks and not hanging out with his friends and instead, telling Cesario all about his immense love for Olivia.
Duke Orsino has lots of love in his big heart, and Cesario - known by us in an epic example of dramatic irony to actually be Viola - is starting to admire that big heart. Day in and day out she listens to Duke mournfully mourn of his unreturned love for Countess Olivia, and the torment it does to his heart.
Cesario occasionally ventures a question here and there, sometimes along the lines of: “what if a woman loved you as much as you love Olivia, would you tell her that you didn’t love her, and would you expect her to be content with that answer?” Orsino always walks his way out of that one by insisting that no one else in the whole wide world has ever and will not ever love someone as much as he loves Olivia. Cesario (i.e. Viola) knows this isn’t true, because she’s got a pretty giant heart too and she can feel some love starting to fill it up…
Up to this point, Orsino has not had a fixed period of time to work with in terms of when Olivia will or will not give him a final answer. Apparently her “no, I will not see you, listen to you, talk with you, spend any time with you, and definitely not marry you” has not been a strong enough message, so he has held out hope. But then a messenger arrives and notifies him that the Countess will be indisposed and busy mourning for the next seven years. Which of course means she will have nothing to do with men, particularly Orsino.
Orsino takes two things from this message: A) that anyone who could love their brother that much must have an enormous amount of love stored up that’s going to be even bigger than he thought when she eventually realizes she loves him, and B) that perhaps he should send his favourite page, Cesario, to pay her a visit and talk him up.
So that is what happens. To recap: Viola (as Cesario) is in love with Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia. Olivia is too sad about her dead brother to have love for anyone. Until…
Cut to Cesario. He shows up and is persistent. Super persistent. Persistent to the point of the Countess’s servants informing her that he won’t leave until he sees her. Finally, curiosity overcomes her sadness and she agrees.
There’s a whole bunch of great dialogue between the two, but basically it comes down to this:
“Why don’t you like Orsino?” Cesario (a.k.a. Viola) wants to know. “He’s, like, the greatest, kindest, coolest, most valiant and virtuous guy I know!”
“I know, I get it,” sighs Olivia. “I just don’t love him. But...tell me more about you!”
Again, there is a bunch of banter and back-and-forth dialogue that is witty and wicked and beautiful, but the short version is that in a short amount of time, a triangle has developed:
Duke Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia
Countess Olivia is in love with Cesario, who is actually Viola
Viola (pretending to be Cesario) is in love with Duke Orsino
Things are getting complicated and hearts are getting broken. Countess Olivia still misses and mourns her brother, but this Cesario fellow is really getting to her. She’s starting to think that even with her being royalty and Cesario being a lowly page, that there’s got to be some way they can be together. She starts scheming, and sends a diamond ring as a present to Cesario, in convoluted fashion, by saying that the Duke had left it for her and she was merely returning it, but secretly wanting Cesario to read between the lines and figure out that it’s actually a gift for him.
Viola (Cesario) does figure this out, and groans. “Why, oh why, oh why?” she sighs. “Her love for me is as pointless as mine is for Orsino.”
Three unhappy people. So she gets back to the Duke and relays the message from Olivia. “Stop courting me, I’m not into you, et cetera.”
But the Duke has great faith in Cesario and his charming personality. “Go back tomorrow, and let’s see if you can change her mind then.” He then goes on to sing a song that is mournful and beautiful and romantic and it hurts Viola’s heart, because the words are intended for Olivia, not for her.
“...my poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save, lay me O where
Sad true lover never find my grave, to weep there!”
Orsino notices Cesario looking sad after the song and uses his incredible intuition to deduce that Cesario is in love with someone: “...what kind of woman, and of what age is she?” he asks.
“Umm, he basically looks like you, my lord,” says Cesario, leaving Orsino to smile; he is not quite bright enough to connect the dots and figure out that Cesario is speaking of him. Daft man, the Count.
The next day rolls around and Viola dutifully fulfills her most important duty as Cesario, which is to go again to speak with Countess Olivia on the Duke’s behalf. This time, when Cesario shows up, the gates are thrown open and he is ushered immediately to the Countess’s presence, whereupon the Countess graciously requests that Cesario never ever speak of the Duke again, and instead, hear her out. The long version of Countess Olivia’s message is this:
“I am totally in love with you, Cesario, and I cannot control my passion.”
Cesario sighs and basically says: “Here’s the deal: not only do I not love you, but I will never ever love any woman.”
Then he leaves. But we’re not done with this scene. As Cesario is leaving, a previous suitor of Olivia’s somehow learns, possibly via the servant gossip chain, that Cesario has insulted the Countess with his rejection, and he resolves to defend her honor and possibly get back in her good graces by going after this insulting scoundrel, who appears to be smaller than himself and therefore a safer choice to challenge to combat.
Cesario - Viola - has had limited sword training, and as this aggressive combatant advances, she remembers that not only has she had limited sword training, she has had no sword training. She is loath to reveal herself, yet she is also loath to die, but is saved from this rock and a hard place by the serendipitous arrival of a stranger.
This stranger seems to know her, and better yet, seems to like her - and remember, she is still presenting herself as Cesario. “If you have a problem with my friend,” the stranger says to the aggressor, “then take it up with me.” And he draws his sword.
Viola (Cesario) is super excited about this turn of events, and very confused, when there’s a reversal of this fortune reversal. Several officers of the law arrive and inform her new friend that they are taking him into custody for a law he broke some years before. Her friend does not seem surprised, but asks Cesario for his purse.
“Um, of course,” says Cesario, pulling out his purse. “You can have pretty much all the money in it, which isn’t very much. I need to keep a tiny bit but you can have the rest.”
The stranger steps back with a look of anger and disgust. “That’s what I get for saving your life? After everything I’ve done for you?”
Cesario tries to ask him what the deal is, but the officers pull him away and start marching him off. He gets in one last yell at Cesario as he leaves...but he calls him “Sebastian.”
Viola’s (Cesario’s) mind is racing, but the officers are taking their prisoner off to quickly for her to ask any questions, so she conjectures that because she’s dressed like a boy, that this man has mistaken her for her twin bro Sebastian.
This conjecture is correct. I will practice dramatic irony here and tell you something that Viola does not know: Sebastian, her brother, is alive. The stranger who thought Cesario was Sebastian was a fellow named Antonio, and he had rescued Sebastian during the storm and brought him aboard his ship. They grew so close and Antonio grew so fond of Sebastian that he resolved to do anything he could to make Sebastian’s life better, so when Sebastian suggested they check out the city of Illyria, Antonio agreed...although he did not want to. Long ago, he got into a fight with Duke Orsino’s nephew. It ended badly, the kid got hurt, and now he’s being hauled off to prison to answer for his crime. Oh no.
So to recap Sebastian and Antonio: Antonio rescues Sebastian, after a while at sea they get to Illyria, Antonio gives Sebastian his purse and tells him to get whatever he wants, because, you know, they’re best buds. Sebastian goes to shop, Antonio heads back to the inn, but eventually goes to look for his bud in town, and finds him outside Countess Olivia’s place where he’s about to get skewered by a mean man. This is where Antonio steps in, and Sebastian rudely, cruelly betrays him and seems to not even recognize him. Not cool.
Except that we know Sebastian is not actually Sebastian. It’s actually Cesario.
Except that we know Cesario is not actually Cesario. It’s actually Viola.
So there we are. Antonio off to jail. Cesario - Viola - has hightailed it out lickety-split and is trying to figure out what in the name of Shylock is going on, and...Sebastian shows up outside the Countess’s place, where the original stranger trying to curry favor with the Countess by defending her honor sees Cesario - who is actually Sebastian - return, and decides to proactively attack him. With a sword. He does so, but this time, Cesario - Sebastian - whips his out and gets into it. So these two man-boys are fighting. Idiots.
A woman comes out and puts a stop to it. Seeing that it’s Cesario - who we know is Sebastian - she invites him in and is greatly concerned about whether or not he’s okay. Sebastian is surprised. But a beautiful dame wants to look after him? Cool.
Even cooler for Olivia is the fact that suddenly, Cesario (Sebastian) seems very interested in her. In fact, he seems to totally dig her. In fact, things are going so well that the Countess proposes that...well, in fact she proposes.
“Let’s get married!” she says.
“Um, yeah, let’s do it!” he says. “Shall we set a date?”
“Serendipitously,” she says. “There happens to be a priest downstairs at this very moment. How about now?”
And thus it is done. They are married after what can accurately be described as a whirlwind courtship.
Sebastian - whom she knows as Cesario - wants to immediately go tell his good buddy Antonio about how great his afternoon is been, and as he can think of nothing else better to do immediately after his wedding, that’s what he does. He leaves his new bride and heads out to find his bud.
Not serendipitously, it is at this moment that Duke Orsino chooses to arrive at the Countess’s digs. Also, in what can best be described as coincidence, the officers of the law have brought Antonio before the Duke to receive his punishment.
So they’re outside the house. Countess is still inside, and Sebastian is still out and about looking for Antonio, who is held prisoner by the law. That’s where we’re at. Confused? So is everyone.
So Antonio sees Viola, and of course thinks she is Sebastian, and leaps into berating and giving a full-on guilt trip for all the good stuff he’s done for the last three months and what an ungrateful wretch Sebastian is for barely even acknowledging his presence, let alone helping him out.
Somewhere in this scalding scolding, the Countess steps out of her abode - remember, all this is taking place in front of her place - and she starts saying all these lovey-dovey things to Cesario, who she thinks is Sebastian, whom she has just married.- But of course Cesario is not only not Sebastian, Cesario is Viola; Viola has been sent to help woo the Countess on behalf of the Duke and now (almost) everyone is here together and it’s a big messy mess.
The Duke finally gets a face-to-face with Countess Olivia, something he’s been trying to get in, uhh, forever or so, and what is she brazenly doing? Saying all this love stuff to CESARIO, the very same Cesario he had sent to help on his behalf. Is he incensed? Uh, yes. Now it’s the Duke’s turn to light into Cesario and heap on the guilt trip.
So now Viola is getting hit hard from two different directions: from Antonio, who thinks she is Sebastian, and from Duke, who thinks she is Cesario. What a mess. Duke is seriously thinking about having him executed, because he is, after all the, the Duke.
The Duke angrily orders his page Cesario to come with him so he can possibly execute him, at which point Countess Olivia begins loudly protesting, as she is unexcited about losing her husband of a few hours. When Viola (Cesario) discovers that she is apparently married to Olivia, she racks her brain, yet somehow cannot recall a point in the past two hours in which she played the co-starring role in a wedding. Memories can be faulty, however, so the priest is called in.
The priest verifies that yes, he did in fact marry the two lovebirds a few hours ago. Despite Viola’s protestations, it seems evident that it’s two-against-one and that she simply forgot, or something, because Olivia and the priest insist that there was a marriage.
Duke continues to fume. He has lost the love of his life. Worse, he has not simply lost her, he has lost her to the very man he entrusted to help win Olivia for himself.
Sickened, he turns to go, glaring at Olivia and warning Cesario to never enter his sight again. And that is the end.
As the Duke is leaving, something amazing, absolutely amazing happens, and it is the serendipitous coincidence of all coincidences. Another Cesario shows up, and this one seems to have a vivid memory of his recent marriage, as he warmly greets his new bride.
We’ve figured out by now that this must be Sebastian, the real husband of Olivia. At this point, it’s time for the light to begin dawning. Viola (Cesario) looks at Sebastian, and it’s like looking in a mirror, and she starts to suspect something that could absolutely not be true. But could it be? Stay tuned…
Post-script, part deux
Yes, it could be. It could be actually her brother whom she had supposed to drown. She does not believe it, nor does he, upon learning that his sister is alive. But finally, believe they do, and they began laughing.
First they laugh with happiness at finding each other alive, then they turn to Countess Olivia and began laughing at her for falling in love with Viola, and then they all laugh together with joy at Sebastian and Olivia’s marriage.
Someone is not laughing. Duke Orsino. He glares at the laughing people as he watches his greatest dream, the love of his life, dance and cavort with her husband, who is not him. He does not even try to be happy for Olivia, because he is not happy for her, or with her, or on her behalf. His smile turns grim, but then it turns happy as his gaze slowly moves from Olivia to Viola, whom he has known as Cesario, and he realizes: wow, I always thought he was a striking young man, but now that I know Cesario is a woman, I realize how beautiful she is!
And then his mind begins playing back different things Viola - as Cesario - has said to him about being in love, and as he replays this tale in his head, he realizes he was an idiot and that there is no one he has enjoyed spending time with her more than Cesario. Excuse him: Viola.
As this realization dawns on him, he makes a sudden decision: it’s a good to marry. Priest is still around, so he coerces him into a second wedding. Viola happily says yes, and thus the day that had started so sadly ends with Viola being wed to Orsino, Duke of Illyria, and Sebastian marrying Countess Olivia, owner of a massive fortune. Happiness all the way around. For the most part.