Twelfth Night – A Shakespearean Tale

A shipwreck from a violent storm, a young lady dressed in male attire, and a love affair of complicated affections.

Twelfth Night 

– A Shakespearean Tale – 

SEBASTIAN and his sister Viola, a young gentleman and lady of Messaline, were twins, and (which was a great wonder) from their birth they so much resembled each other, that, but for the difference in their dress, they could not be known apart. They were both born in one hour, and in one hour they were both in danger of perishing, for they were shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria, as they were making a sea-voyage together.

The ship, on board of which they were, split on a rock in a violent storm, and a very small number of the ship’s company escaped with their lives. The captain of the vessel, with a few of the sailors that were saved, got to land in a small boat, and with them, they brought Viola safe on shore, where she, poor lady, instead of rejoicing at her own deliverance, began to lament her brother’s loss; but the captain comforted her with the assurance that he had seen her brother, when the ship split, fasten himself to a strong mast, on which, as long as he could see anything of him for the distance, he perceived him borne up above the waves. Viola was much consoled by the hope this account gave her, and now considered how she was to dispose of herself in a strange country, so far from home; and she asked the captain if he knew anything of Illyria.

‘Ay, very well, madam,’ replied the captain, ‘for I was born not three hours’ travel from this place.’

‘Who governs here?’ said Viola. The captain told her, Illyria was governed by Orsino, a duke noble in nature as well as dignity. Viola said she had heard her father speak of Orsino, and that he was unmarried then.

‘And he is so now,’ said the captain; ‘or was so very lately, for, but a month ago, I went from here, and then it was the general talk (as you know what great ones do, the people will prattle of) that Orsino sought the love of fair Olivia, a virtuous maid, the daughter of a count who died twelve months ago, leaving Olivia to the protection of her brother, who shortly after died also; and for the love of this dear brother, they say, she has abjured the sight and company of men.’

Viola, who was herself in such a sad affliction for her brother’s loss, wished she could live with this lady, who so tenderly mourned a brother’s death. She asked the captain if he could introduce her to Olivia, saying she would willingly serve this lady. But he replied this would be a hard thing to accomplish because the lady Olivia would admit no person into her house since her brother’s death, not even the duke himself.


Then Viola formed another project in her mind, which was, in a man’s habit, to serve the Duke Orsino as a page. It was a strange fancy in a young lady to put on male attire, and pass for a boy; but the forlorn and unprotected state of Viola, who was young and of uncommon beauty, alone, and in a foreign land, must plead her excuse. She had observed a fair behaviour in the captain, and that he showed a friendly concern for her welfare, entrusted him with her design, and he readily engaged to assist her. Viola gave him money and directed him to furnish her with suitable apparel, ordering her clothes to be made of the same colour and in the same fashion her brother Sebastian used to wear, and when she was dressed in her manly garb, she looked so exactly like her brother that some strange errors happened by means of their being mistaken for each other; for, as will afterwards appear, Sebastian was also saved. Viola’s good friend, the captain, when he had transformed this pretty lady into a gentleman, having some interest at court, got her presented to Orsino under the feigned name of Cesario. The duke was wonderfully pleased with the address and graceful deportment of this handsome youth, and made Cesario one of his pages that being the office Viola wished to obtain: and she so well fulfilled the duties of her new station, and showed such a ready observance and faithful attachment to her lord, that she soon became his most favoured attendant.

To Cesario Orsino confided the whole history of his love for the lady Olivia. To Cesario he told the long and unsuccessful suit he had made to one who, rejecting his long services, and despising his person, refused to admit him to her presence; and for the love of this lady who had so unkindly treated him, the noble Orsino, forsaking the sports of the field and all manly exercises in which he used to delight, passed his hours in ignoble sloth, listening to the effeminate sounds of soft music, gentle airs, and passionate love-songs; and neglecting the company of the wise and learned lords with whom he used to associate, he was now all day long conversing with young Cesario. Unmeet companion no doubt his grave courtiers thought Cesario was for their once noble master, the great Duke Orsino. It is a dangerous matter for young maidens to be the confidants of handsome young dukes; which Viola too soon found to her sorrow, for all that Orsino told her he endured for Olivia, she presently perceived she suffered for the love of him; and much it moved her wonder, that Olivia could be so regardless of this her peerless lord and master, whom she thought no one could behold without the deepest admiration, and she ventured gently to hint to Orsino, that it was a pity he should affect a lady who was so blind to his worthy qualities; and she said:

‘If a lady were to love you, my lord, as you love Olivia (and perhaps there may be one who does), if you could not love her in return, would you not tell her that you could not love, and must she not be content with this answer?’

But Orsino would not admit of this reasoning, for he denied that it was possible for any woman to love as he did. He said, no woman’s heart was big enough to hold so much love, and therefore it was unfair to compare the love of any lady for him, to his love for Olivia. Now, though Viola had the utmost deference for the duke’s opinions, she could not help thinking this was not quite true, for she thought her heart had full as much love in it as Orsino’s had; and she said:

‘Ah, but I know, my lord.’

‘What do you know, Cesario?’ said Orsino.

‘Too well I know,’ replied Viola, ‘what love women may owe to men. They are as true of heart as we are. My father had a daughter who loved a man, as I perhaps, were I a woman, should love your lordship.’

‘And what is her history?’ said Orsino.

‘A blank, my lord,’ replied Viola: ‘she never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm in the bud, feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought, and with a green and yellow melancholy, She sat like Patience on a monument, smiling at Grief.’

The duke inquired if this lady died of her love, but to this question, Viola returned an evasive answer; as probably she had feigned the story, to speak words expressive of the secret love and silent grief she suffered for Orsino.

While they were talking, a gentleman entered whom the duke had sent to Olivia, and he said: ‘So please you, my lord, I might not be admitted to the lady, but by her handmaid she returned you this answer: Until seven years hence, the element itself shall not behold her face; but like a cloistress she will walk veiled, watering her chamber with her tears for the sad remembrance of her dead brother.’

On hearing this, the duke exclaimed: ‘O she that has a heart of this fine frame, to pay this debt of love to a dead brother, how will she love, when the rich golden shaft has touched her heart!’ And then he said to Viola: ‘You know, Cesario, I have told you all the secrets of my heart; therefore, good youth, go to Olivia’s house. Be not denied access; stand at her doors, and tell her, there your fixed foot shall grow till you have an audience.’

‘And if I do speak to her, my lord, what then?’ said Viola.

‘O then,’ replied Orsino, ‘unfold to her the passion of my love. Make a long discourse to her of my dear faith. It will well become you to act my woes, for she will attend more to you than to one of the graver aspects.’

Away then went Viola; but not willingly did she undertake this courtship, for she was to woo a lady to become a wife to him she wished to marry: but having undertaken the affair, she performed it with fidelity; and Olivia soon heard that a youth was at her door who insisted upon being admitted to her presence.

It is a dangerous matter for young maidens to be the confidants of handsome young dukes.

‘I told him,’ said the servant, ‘that you were sick: he said he knew you were, and therefore he came to speak with you. I told him that you were asleep: he seemed to have a foreknowledge of that too, and said, that therefore he must speak with you. What is to be said to him, lady? for he seems fortified against all denial and will speak with you, whether you will or no.’

Olivia, curious to see who this peremptory messenger might be, desired he might be admitted; and throwing her veil over her face, she said she would once more hear Orsino’s embassy, not doubting but that he came from the duke, by his opportunity. Viola, entering, put on the most manly air she could assume, and affecting the fine courtier language of great men’s pages, she said to the veiled lady: ‘Most radiant, exquisite, and matchless beauty, I pray you tell me if you are the lady of the house; for I should be sorry to cast away my speech upon another; for besides that it is excellently well penned, I have taken great pains to learn it.’

‘Whence come you, sir?’ said Olivia.

‘I can say little more than I have studied,’ replied Viola; ‘and that question is out of my part.’

‘Are you a comedian?’ said Olivia.

‘No,’ replied Viola; ‘and yet I am not that which I play’; meaning that she, being a woman, feigned herself to be a man. And again she asked Olivia if she were the lady of the house. Olivia said she was; and then Viola, having more curiosity to see her rival’s features, than haste to deliver her master’s message, said: ‘Good madam, let me see your face.’ 

With this bold request, Olivia was not averse to comply; for this haughty beauty, whom the duke Orsino had loved so long in vain, at first sight, conceived a passion for the supposed page, the humble Cesario.

When Viola asked to see her face, Olivia said: ‘Have you any commission from your lord and master to negotiate with my face?’ And then, forgetting her determination to go veiled for seven long years, she drew aside her veil, saying: ‘But I will draw the curtain and show the picture. Is it not well done?’

Viola replied: ‘It is beauty truly mixed; the red and white upon your cheeks is by Nature’s own cunning hand laid on. You are the most cruel lady living if you will lead these graces to the grave, and leave the world no copy.’

‘O, sir,’ replied Olivia, ‘I will not be so cruel. The world may have an inventory of my beauty. As, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; one neck; one chin; and so forth. Were you sent here to praise me?’

Viola replied: ‘I see what you are: you are too proud, but you are fair. My lord and master loves you. O such a love could but be recompensed, though you were crowned the queen of beauty: for Orsino loves you with adoration and with tears, with groans that thunder love, and sighs of fire.’

‘Your lord,’ said Olivia, ‘knows well my mind. I cannot love him, yet I doubt not he is virtuous; I know him to be noble and of high estate, of fresh and spotless youth. All voices proclaim him learned, courteous, and valiant; yet I cannot love him, he might have taken his answer long ago.’

‘If I did love you as my master does,’ said Viola, ‘I would make me a willow cabin at your gates, and call upon your name, I would write complaining sonnets on Olivia, and sing them in the dead of the night; your name should sound among the hills, and I would make Echo, the babbling gossip of the air, cry out Olivia. O you should not rest between the elements of earth and air, but you should pity me.’

‘You might do much,’ said Olivia: ‘what is your parentage?’

Viola replied: ‘Above my fortunes, yet my state is well. I am a gentleman.’

Olivia now reluctantly dismissed Viola, saying: ‘Go to your master and tell him, I cannot love him. Let him send no more unless perchance you come again to tell me how he takes it.’ And Viola departed, bidding the lady farewell by the name of Fair Cruelty.

When she was gone, Olivia repeated the words, Above my fortunes, yet my state is well. I am a gentleman. And she said aloud: ‘I will be sworn he is; his tongue, his face, his limbs, action, and spirit, plainly show he is a gentleman.’ And then she wished Cesario was the Duke, and perceiving the fast hold he had taken on her affections, she blamed herself for her sudden love: but the gentle blame which people lay upon their own faults has no deep root; and presently the noble lady Olivia so far forgot the inequality between her fortunes and those of this seeming page, as well as the maidenly reserve which is the chief ornament of a lady’s character, that she resolved to court the love of young Cesario, and sent a servant after him with a diamond ring, under the pretence that he had left it with her as a present from Orsino. She hoped by thus artfully making Cesario a present of the ring, she should give him some intimation of her design; and truly it did make Viola suspect; for knowing that Orsino had sent no ring by her, she began to recollect that Olivia’s looks and manner were expressive of admiration, and she presently guessed her master’s mistress had fallen in love with her.

‘Alas,’ said she, ‘the poor lady might as well love a dream. Disguise I see is wicked, for it has caused Olivia to breathe as fruitless sighs for me as I do for Orsino.’

Viola returned to Orsino’s palace and related to her lord the ill success of the negotiation, repeating the command of Olivia, that the Duke should trouble her no more. Yet still, the Duke persisted in hoping that the gentle Cesario would in time be able to persuade her to show some pity, and therefore he bade him he should go to her again the next day. In the meantime, to pass away the tedious interval, he commanded a song which he loved to be sung; and he said: ‘My good Cesario when I heard that song last night, methought it did relieve my passion much. Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain. The spinsters and the knitters when they sit in the sun, and the young maids that weave their thread with bone, chant this song. It is silly, yet I love it, for it tells of the innocence of love in the old times.’

Come away, come away, Death,

And in sad cypress let me be laid;

Fly away, fly away, breath,

I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

My shroud of white stuck all with yew, O prepare it!

My part of death no one so true did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,

On my black coffin let there be strewn:

Not a friend, not a friend greet

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!

Viola did not fail to mark the words of the old song, which in such true simplicity described the pangs of unrequited love, and she bore testimony in her countenance of feeling what the song expressed. Her sad looks were observed by Orsino, who said to her: ‘My life upon it, Cesario, though you are so young, your eye has looked upon some face that it loves: has it not, boy?’

‘A little, with your leave,’ replied Viola.

‘And what kind of woman, and of what age is she?’ said Orsino.

‘Of your age and of your complexion, my lord,’ said Viola; which made the Duke smile to hear this fair young boy loved a woman so much older than himself, and of a man’s dark complexion; but Viola secretly meant Orsino and not a woman like him.

When Viola made her second visit to Olivia, she found no difficulty in gaining access to her. Servants soon discover when their ladies delight to converse with handsome young messengers, and the instant Viola arrived, the gates were thrown wide open, and the Duke’s page was shown into Olivia’s apartment with great respect; and when Viola told Olivia that she was come once more to plead in her lord’s behalf, this lady said: ‘I desired you never to speak of him again; but if you would undertake another suit, I had rather hear you solicit, than music from the spheres.’

This was pretty plain speaking, but Olivia soon explained herself still more plainly, and openly confessed her love; and when she saw displeasure with perplexity expressed in Viola’s face, she said: ‘O what a deal of scorn looks beautiful in the contempt and anger of his lip Cesario, by the roses of the spring, by maidhood, honour, and by truth, I love you so, that, in spite of your pride, I have neither wit nor reason to conceal my passion.’ But in vain the lady wooed; Viola hastened from her presence, threatening never more to come to plead Orsino’s love; and all the reply she made to Olivia’s fond solicitation was, a declaration of a resolution never to love any woman.

No sooner had Viola left the lady than a claim was made upon her valour. A gentleman, a rejected suitor of Olivia, who had learned how that lady had favoured the Duke’s messenger, challenged him to fight a duel. What should poor Viola do, who, though she carried a manlike outside, had a true woman’s heart, and feared to look on her own sword?

When she saw her formidable rival advancing towards her with his sword drawn, she began to think of confessing that she was a woman; but she was relieved at once from her terror, and the shame of such a discovery, by a stranger that was passing by, who made up to them, and as if he had been long known to her, and were her dearest friend, said to her opponent: ‘If this young gentleman has done offence, I will take the fault on me; and if you offend him, I will for his sake defy you.’

Before Viola had time to thank him for his protection or to inquire the reason of his kind interference, her new friend met with an enemy where his bravery was of no use to him; for the officers of justice coming up in that instant, apprehended the stranger in the Duke’s name, to answer for an offence he had committed some years before: and he said to Viola: ‘This comes with seeking you’: and then he asked her for a purse, saying: ‘Now my necessity makes me ask for my purse, and it grieves me much more for what I cannot do for you, than for what befalls myself. You stand amazed, but be of comfort.’ His words did indeed amaze Viola, and she protested she knew him not, nor had ever received a purse from him; but for the kindness he had just shown her, she offered him a small sum of money, being nearly the whole she possessed. And now the stranger spoke severe things, charging her with ingratitude and unkindness. He said: ‘This youth, whom you see here, I snatched from the jaws of death, and for his sake alone I came to Illyria, and have fallen into this danger.’ But the officers cared little for hearkening to the complaints of their prisoner, and they hurried him off, saying: ‘What is that to us?’ And as he was carried away, he called Viola by the name of Sebastian, reproaching the supposed Sebastian for disowning his friend, as long as he was within hearing. When Viola heard herself called Sebastian, though the stranger was taken away too hastily for her to ask an explanation, she conjectured that this seeming mystery might arise from her being mistaken for her brother; and she began to cherish hopes that it was her brother whose life this man said he had preserved. And so indeed it was. The stranger, whose name was Antonio, was a sea-captain. He had taken Sebastian up into his ship, when, almost exhausted with fatigue, he was floating on the mast to which he had fastened himself in the storm. Antonio conceived such a friendship for Sebastian, that he resolved to accompany him whithersoever he went; and when the youth expressed a curiosity to visit Orsino’s court, Antonio, rather than part from him, came to Illyria, though he knew, if his person should be known there, his life would be in danger, because in a sea-fight he had once dangerously wounded the Duke Orsino’s nephew. This was the offence for which he was now made a prisoner.

‘She began to think of confessing that she was a woman.’ – Twelfth Night Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Antonio and Sebastian had landed together but a few hours before Antonio met Viola. He had given his purse to Sebastian, desiring him to use it freely if he saw anything he wished to purchase, telling him he would wait at the inn, while Sebastian went to view the town; but Sebastian not returning at the time appointed, Antonio had ventured out to look for him, and Viola being dressed the same, and in face so exactly resembling her brother, Antonio drew his sword (as he thought) in defence of the youth he had saved, and when Sebastian (as he supposed) disowned him and denied him his own purse, no wonder he accused him of ingratitude.

Viola, when Antonio was gone, fearing a second invitation to fight, slunk home as fast as she could. She had not been long gone when her adversary thought he saw her return; but it was her brother Sebastian, who happened to arrive at this place, and he said: ‘Now, sir, have I met with you again? There’s for you’; and struck him a blow. Sebastian was no coward; he returned the blow with interest and drew his sword. A lady now put a stop to this duel, for Olivia came out of the house, and she too mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, invited him to come into her house, expressing much sorrow at the rude attack he had met with. Though Sebastian was as much surprised at the courtesy of this lady as at the rudeness of his unknown foe, yet he went very willingly into the house, and Olivia was delighted to find Cesario (as she thought him) become more sensible of her attentions; for though their features were exactly the same, there was none of the contempt and anger to be seen in his face, which she had complained of when she told her love to Cesario.

Sebastian did not at all object to the fondness the lady lavished on him. He seemed to take it in very good part, yet he wondered how it had come to pass, and he was rather inclined to think Olivia was not in her right senses; but perceiving that she was mistress of a fine house, and that she ordered her affairs and seemed to govern her family discreetly, and that in all but her sudden love for him she appeared in the full possession of bet reason, he well approved of the courtship; and Olivia finding Cesario in this good humour, and fearing he might change his mind, proposed that, as she had a priest in the house, they should be instantly married. Sebastian assented to this proposal; and when the marriage ceremony was over, he left his lady for a short time, intending to go and tell his friend Antonio the good fortune that he had met with.

In the meantime Orsino came to visit Olivia: and at the moment he arrived before Olivia’s house, the officers of justice brought their prisoner, Antonio, before the Duke. Viola was with Orsino, her master; and when Antonio saw Viola, whom he still imagined to be Sebastian, he told the Duke in what manner he had rescued this youth from the perils of the sea; and after fully relating all the kindness he had really shown to Sebastian, he ended his complaint with saying, that for three months, both day and night,  this ungrateful youth had been with him. But now the lady Olivia coming forth from her house, the Duke could no longer attend to Antonio’s story; and he said: ‘Here comes the countess: now Heaven walks on earth! but for thee, fellow, thy words are madness. Three months has this youth attended on me’, and then he ordered Antonio to be taken aside. But Orsino’s heavenly countess soon gave the duke cause to accuse Cesario as much of ingratitude as Antonio had done, for all the words he could hear Olivia speak were words of kindness to Cesario: and when he found his page had obtained this high place in Olivia’s favour, he threatened him with all the terrors of his just revenge; and as he was going to depart, he called Viola to follow him, saying: ‘Come, boy, with me. My thoughts are ripe for mischief.’

Though it seemed in his jealous rage he was going to doom Viola to instant death, yet her love made her no longer a coward, and she said she would most joyfully suffer death to give her master ease. But Olivia would not so lose her husband, and she cried: ‘Where goes my Cesario?’

Viola replied: ‘After him I love more than my life.’

Olivia, however, prevented their departure by loudly proclaiming that Cesario was her husband, and sent for the priest, who declared that not two hours had passed since he had married the lady Olivia to this young man. In vain Viola protested she was not married to Olivia; the evidence of that lady and the priest made Orsino believe that his page had robbed him of the treasure he prized above his life. But thinking that it was past recall, he was bidding farewell to his faithless mistress, and the young dissembler, her husband, as he called Viola, warning her never to come in his sight again, when (as it seemed to them) a miracle appeared! for another Cesario entered, and addressed Olivia as his wife. This new Cesario was Sebastian, the real husband of Olivia; and when their wonder had a little ceased at seeing two persons with the same face, the same voice, and the same habit, the brother and sister began to question each other; for Viola could scarce be persuaded that her brother was living, and Sebastian knew not how to account for the sister he supposed drowned being found in the habit of a young man.

But Viola presently acknowledged that she was indeed Viola, and his sister, under that disguise. When all the errors were cleared up which the extreme likeness between this twin brother and sister had occasioned, they laughed at the lady Olivia for the pleasant mistake she had made in falling in love with a woman; and Olivia showed no dislike to her exchange when she found she had wedded the brother instead of the sister.

The hopes of Orsino were forever at an end by this marriage of Olivia, and with his hopes, all his fruitless love seemed to vanish away, and all his thoughts were fixed on the event of his favourite, young Cesario, being changed into a fair lady. He viewed Viola with great attention, and he remembered how very handsome he had always thought Cesario was, and he concluded she would look very beautiful in a woman’s attire; and then he remembered how often she had said she loved him, which at the time seemed only the dutiful  expressions of a faithful page; but now he guessed that something more was meant, for many of her pretty sayings, which were like riddles to him, came now into his mind, and he no sooner remembered all these things than he resolved to make Viola his wife; and he said to her (he still could not help calling her Cesario and boy):

‘Boy, you have said to me a thousand times that you should never love a woman like to me, and for the faithful service you have done for me so much beneath your soft and tender breeding, and since you have called me master so long, you shall now be your master’s mistress, and Orsino’s true Duchess.’

Olivia, perceiving Orsino was making over that heart, which she had so ungraciously rejected, to Viola, invited them to enter her house, and offered the assistance of the good priest, who had married her to Sebastian in the morning, to perform the same ceremony in the remaining part of the day for Orsino and Viola. Thus the twin brother and sister were both wedded on the same day: the storm and shipwreck, which had separated them, being the means of bringing to pass their high and mighty fortunes. Viola was the wife of Orsino, the duke of Illyria, and Sebastian the husband of the rich and noble countess, the lady Olivia.


This story was taken from the book: 


Tales from Shakespeare – Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Tales from Shakespeare is a collection of some of the Bard’s best known and loved narratives, compiled and edited by Mary and Charles Lamb. It contains his finest plays, re-produced for a younger audience, including ‘The Tempest’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Hamlet’, and many more. Mary (1764 – 1847) and Charles Lamb (1775 – 1834) were brother and sister, best known for this fantastic work of children’s literature.

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