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In Act I, you meet most of the principal characters. Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, loves the countess Olivia. She will not have him, and he can think of nothing but her. Viola, a nobly born young lady from another country, is cast on the Illyrian shores by a shipwreck. For safety's sake, she disguises herself as a boy and becomes Orsino's servant. The situation becomes complicated when Orsino sends his new servant as a messenger to Olivia. Believing Viola to be a boy, Olivia falls in love with "him." You also meet the comic collection of servants and relatives who make up the rest of Olivia's household.
ACT I, SCENE I
Orsino, Duke of Illyria, listens to his musicians play a melancholy tune. When he speaks, we learn that he craves melancholy music- music with a "dying fall" (cadence)- as a starving man craves food. His opening line is a famous one: "If music be the food of love, play on."
Orsino is completely captivated by thoughts of love. It would not be an exaggeration to say he seems to worship love. Love is like the sea, he says; that is, it can encompass anything. Compared to love, he claims, anything else is worthless.
One of Orsino's servants tries to distract him by suggesting they go hunting, but the duke quickly changes the subject back to love by saying that he is hunted by his own desires. Not until he has finished his lengthy description of his own emotions does he mention the name of his beloved- Olivia.
A messenger returns from Olivia's house with the news that he was not allowed to see her. Her maid gave him this message: Olivia intends to keep to herself and mourn her brother's death for seven years.
Her attitude is just as exaggerated as Orsino's, but still he finds hope in this message. If she shows so much dedication to a brother, he reasons, just think how faithful she will be to a husband! This new idea seems to inspire Orsino to change his locale. Off he goes to "sweet beds of flowers."
The Orsino we meet in this scene is not in love with Olivia, or any real person. He is in love with love. Notice that his elaborate speech in praise of love comes before any mention of the lady. Notice also that he makes no attempt to see Olivia himself. He sends a messenger instead. Her inaccessibility gives him the opportunity to enjoy his unrequited love.
NOTE: ON EXCESS
Excess runs through the entire play, and is an important idea. Olivia's decision to mourn her brother for seven years is excessive. As new characters are introduced, try to determine which ones behave in an excessive manner and which ones attempt to cope sensibly with excessive behavior in others.
ACT I, SCENE II
On the seacoast of Illyria, a young girl, a sea captain, and some sailors have just emerged from the ocean. Their ship was sunk in a storm. They were lucky to avoid drowning.
The girl is more unhappy than relieved, however, because her brother was not as lucky as the others. When she is told they are in Illyria, she says her brother is in "Elysium," that is, heaven. The Captain offers her hope: he says he saw her brother tie himself to a piece of the ship's mast, so he may have survived.
Feeling a little better about her brother's situation, the girl, Viola, turns her attention to her own predicament. The Captain knows Illyria. He tells her that it is ruled by a noble duke named Orsino. According to the latest gossip, the Captain says, Orsino is in love with Olivia, "a virtuous maid" whose father and brother have both died within the year.
Viola is in a difficult position. She is a young woman in a strange land with no family to protect her. Therefore, she does not want to reveal who she is right away. Her first idea is to temporarily become a servant of Olivia's. The Captain, however, tells her that Olivia will not see anybody.
In desperation, Viola invents a plan. With the Captain's help, she will disguise herself as a boy and present herself to Orsino. (She says she will present herself as a eunuch, a castrated youth. This part of the plan is never mentioned again after this scene, however.)
You learn several important facts about Viola in this scene. First, she is a young woman of noble birth. The Captain treats her with great respect, and she is able to reward his kindness with gold. Second, she cares deeply about her brother. Her own escape from death is meaningless to her until she learns that her brother may have survived also. Finally, she is sensible and resourceful. She is smart enough not to reveal her true identity until she knows more about the people around her. Look how quickly she comes up with the idea of disguising herself as a boy.
Shakespeare uses the imagery of Viola's speech to suggest that she is suited to Orsino. Remember the music in the first scene? Look at what Viola says: "I can sing, / And speak to him in many sorts of music."
NOTE: By having Viola pretend to be a boy, Shakespeare sets up the comic confusion that will follow. When Twelfth Night was performed in the Elizabethan theater, there was another wrinkle in the comedy. Acting was not considered a respectable profession for a woman. All the female parts were played by young boys. So, in this play, a young boy played a young girl who disguised herself as a young boy!
ACT I, SCENE III
The action now moves to Olivia's house, but you do not yet meet the lady herself. Instead, you are introduced to one of her servants, Maria, and one of her "poor relations," Sir Toby Belch. Sir Toby complains that his niece Olivia's mourning is taking all the fun out of the house. Maria counters that Sir Toby is having too much fun- drinking and partying every night- and that he had better reform because Olivia will not take much more.
Maria dislikes Sir Toby's companion, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. She calls him "a very fool and a prodigal." Sir Andrew, according to her, is a quarreler, a coward and a drunk. Sir Toby disagrees, claiming that his friend is cultured, wealthy and well-educated.
NOTE: Observe how evenly matched Sir Toby and Maria are. They treat each other like equals. Her criticism is direct and forceful, definitely not servile! His deflection of her assaults is skillful. For example, Maria tells Sir Toby: "you must confine yourself within the modest limits of order" (lines 8-9). Sir Toby pretends to misunderstand her, replying "I'll confine myself no finer than I am" (line 10), playing on the fact that the word "confine" also meant "clothe." When Maria says that Sir Andrew is "drunk nightly in your company," Sir Toby replies that they are "drinking healths [that is, toasts] to my niece" (lines 36-38).
The debate about Sir Andrew is interrupted by the arrival of the man himself. It quickly becomes obvious that Maria's description of him is correct. He attempts to flirt with Maria by showing how clever he is, but he fails miserably. Sir Toby advises him to "accost" Maria (in other words, "go get her"). Sir Andrew thinks "Accost" is her name. Once that confusion is cleared up, Sir Andrew presents Maria with additional opportunities to make a fool of him. She takes advantage of every one. For example:
Andrew: Fair lady, do you think you have fools in hand?
By the time Maria leaves, Andrew has been thoroughly deflated.
Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are left alone. We see why Sir Toby likes the young knight- Sir Andrew is his puppet. He can be persuaded to believe anything the older man says. Sir Toby knows that Sir Andrew is a fool, but a useful fool. The one true thing Sir Toby told Maria was that Sir Andrew is rich.
First, Sir Andrew announces that he is going home. Sir Toby brought him here to woo Olivia, and he has had no success. In fact, he has just found out that Orsino himself wants her. Sir Toby replies that she does not want Orsino. He says that Sir Andrew has hope. With that, the knight decides to stay another month! Then Sir Andrew, who is probably still smarting from Maria's insults, begins to praise his own virtues. Sir Toby distracts him from any further complaints by getting him to demonstrate his dancing ability. As you read the scene, picture how comically clumsy Sir Andrew must be and with what a smirk Sir Toby must praise his puppet's skill.
It is appropriate that, at the end of their first scene together, Sir Toby has Sir Andrew literally dancing to his commands. Sir Andrew figuratively dances to Sir Toby's commands throughout the play.
NOTE: THE DOUBLE PLOT
If you examine the way this scene is laid out on the page, you will notice that it is in prose, unlike the previous two scenes. They were written in blank verse- unrhymed iambic pentameter (lines with ten syllables, every second syllable accented). Shakespeare commonly wrote most of the speeches for his noble upper-class characters in verse, while the lower-class and comic characters spoke in prose. In this play, the nobles speak mostly in verse, though they have prose passages, also. The low comic characters all speak only in prose.
ACT I, SCENE IV
Viola, now calling herself Cesario, has entered Orsino's service. The scene begins with one of the other servants commenting on how remarkable it is that "Cesario" should have become so well-liked in only three days. Viola asks whether the duke is inconstant (fickle) in his affections. Having met Orsino in the opening scene, we can appreciate the ironic humor in the servant's answer "No, believe me."
Orsino enters. He confirms the fact that "Cesario" is his favorite by sending the other servants away so he can talk to the "boy" alone. You observe how close the duke and Cesario have become when Orsino says "I have unclasped / To thee the book even of my secret soul" (lines 13-14). He means, of course, that he has told Cesario about Olivia and his love for her. Now, he wants Cesario to be his messenger to his lady.
Viola reasonably points out that Olivia refuses to see anybody. Orsino's answer fits his tendency to excess: "Be clamorous and leap all civil bounds / Rather than make unprofited return" (lines 22-23). He seems confident that Cesario will succeed where others have failed.
Orsino also believes that, due to Cesario's youth and his almost feminine (!) beauty, the boy will be a fitting messenger of love. Orsino promises to reward Cesario if he is successful.
Before Viola/Cesario leaves, she pauses for an aside. [Asides are a theatrical convention in which the character speaks directly to the audience. The other characters do not hear an aside.] Viola tells us that she will have a hard time wooing Olivia on Orsino's behalf. Her problem is that she has fallen in love with him herself!
NOTE: Observe how skillfully Shakespeare draws you into his plot. The idea of a girl disguised as a boy being in love with her master but having to woo another lady for him sounds hard to believe. But by working his way into the situation step by step (from Orsino's helpless love, to Olivia's denial, to Viola's shipwreck and need for disguise), Shakespeare makes the situation seem logical, almost inevitable.
One reason why it is hard to take Orsino's love for Olivia too seriously is that at the end of the play he turns to Viola so easily. But consider the way he has been treating "Cesario" in this scene. Orsino finds the boy a perfect person to talk to, someone he can really feel comfortable with. Should you be surprised when he offers Viola his love?
ACT I, SCENE V
Back in Olivia's house, Maria is scolding Olivia's Clown, Feste, for being absent when the lady was looking for him. The two trade quips, with Maria trying to make the Clown realize he's in trouble, and the Clown expressing his confidence that his foolery will save him from punishment.
NOTE: In this play the terms "Clown" and "Fool" have the same meaning. A "fool" was another name for a jester. He was employed to amuse a noble or wealthy person. Fools in Shakespeare's plays were generally wise fools. Feste may be the wisest of them all. Under the guise of foolery, he tells the truth about people and situations. If you have ever known a person able to cut a braggart down to size or make a good point with a well-chosen joke, then you know the function of a Shakespearean fool.
Olivia enters with her steward Malvolio. As Maria predicted, Olivia is angry. Her first words are "Take the fool away."
Feste's method of dealing with Olivia's anger shows us a lot about his methods. He responds quickly in a seemingly absurd fashion. Turning to the guards, he says "Do you not hear, fellows? Take away the lady." This bit of silliness does not amuse Olivia. Brushing aside her criticisms, Feste keeps insisting that she is actually the fool. Olivia gives in enough to allow the fool a few moments to prove his claim. To do so, he questions her:
Clown: Good madonna, why mournest thou?
Feste's tactic works. Olivia is no longer angry.
What do you learn about Feste from this exchange? You see his ability to show people their own foolishness. Notice how familiar he is in the way he speaks to Olivia. You will see that Feste can move freely and comfortably from one social level to another.
Olivia appreciates the fool's ability. He both amuses her and gives her comfort about her brother. His jest can also be seen as a gentle hint that Olivia's announced seven years of mourning are excessive and unnecessary.
Malvolio is not amused. He insults the fool, asserting that he recently saw Feste "put down" (defeated in jesting) by "an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone." Malvolio brags that he is too smart to be amused by a fool.
Olivia sees her steward for what he is: "O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite." She knows that Malvolio is jealous of anybody who is considered clever. He is so pompous he cannot stand even gentle ribbing.
Maria brings word that a new messenger from Orsino waits at the gate. Sir Toby Belch, she says, is dealing with him. Olivia also knows her uncle for what he is: "Fetch him off, I pray you. He speaks nothing but madman." She orders Malvolio to get rid of the messenger.
Sir Toby reels in, already drunk though it is only morning. Olivia asks "how have you come so early by this lethargy?" meaning his drunkenness. He responds "Lechery? I defy lechery." Is he purposely avoiding her question, or is he too drunk to know the difference? You have to decide. In either case, he soon staggers off.
NOTE: Some readers view Sir Toby and Sir Andrew as representatives of knighthood in decline. Compared to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance was a relatively peaceful time. Knights were no longer called upon to quell rebellions or venture off on Crusades in the Holy Land. The two knights in this play have nothing to do but eat, drink, and sleep. Though Sir Toby is intelligent and resourceful, even brave, he performs no useful function in Olivia's household.
Olivia reveals a compassionate nature in her response to Sir Toby. He annoys her, and she may wish he were not living in her house, but she worries about his welfare nonetheless. She sends the fool to look after him.
A moment later, Malvolio returns. He hasn't been able to get rid of the messenger. Whatever Malvolio has said, the man has had an answer for it. You know that the messenger is Viola and that she's following Orsino's orders by refusing to take "no" for an answer.
Olivia inquires what this messenger is like. As fits his nature, Malvolio is reluctant to give any information at all. When Olivia insists, he cannot say anything nice ("He is very well- favored") without adding something nasty ("He speaks very shrewishly"). Olivia's curiosity wins out over her reticence. She covers her face with a veil, calls for Maria to join her, and tells Malvolio to let the messenger in.
Viola enters as Cesario. Olivia intends to have this messenger deliver his speech and leave, but Viola is too clever. She insists on being told whether the person she addresses is actually Olivia. After all, she says, she took a lot of time and trouble to memorize her speech. She would hate to waste it. Olivia reveals her identity.
Viola's next task is to talk with the lady privately. She banters engagingly with Olivia and Maria. Finally, her request for a private audience is poetic enough to be successful: "What I am and what I would, are as secret as maidenhead: to your ears, divinity; to any other's, profanation." Maria leaves.
Now Olivia believes she is alone with a young man. She continues to insist that she cannot love Orsino, but she is strangely fascinated by this messenger.
Viola has said that her words would be divinity to Olivia's ears, so Olivia begins by questioning her like a preacher giving a sermon (from the question in line 222, "What is your text?" to her conclusion in line 230 "It is heresy!").
Changing the subject, Viola asks Olivia to remove her veil. Olivia grants the request. In the discussion that follows, Viola is honest to the point of being rude. She begins by saying Olivia's face is "Excellently done, if God did all." After listening to Olivia, she concludes that the lady is "too proud" but concedes she is beautiful.
Olivia admits in turn that Cesario's master is a fine man. She lists all his virtues (possibly to prevent Cesario from doing it). But she firmly states that she still cannot love him.
Viola counters that Olivia's refusal makes no sense. Robbed of any other argument, she tells the lady what she (Cesario) would do in Orsino's situation. Her statement takes the form of a hauntingly beautiful verse about the loneliness of rejected love.
Olivia is clearly moved. She asks Cesario about his family. (In that time, the social status of your family determined your social status.) Olivia then sends Cesario back to Orsino to say she cannot love him. He is also never to send a messenger again, unless it is Cesario. Viola refuses Olivia's offer of payment and leaves.
NOTE: You learn a great deal about Viola while she's in disguise. Though she plays the role of a young boy, she displays her own wit, spirit, and passion. She knows how to be humble and charming, as when she says she doesn't want to waste her speech because she took such pains to learn it. She can also be direct, as when she accuses Olivia of being too proud. Finally, you feel the depth of Viola's passion when she describes what she would do in Orsino's place. The passionate intensity of the speech may partly be due to the fact that Viola cannot speak of love to Orsino.
Left alone, Olivia is shocked to discover that she has fallen in love with Cesario! Taking a ring off her finger, she calls in Malvolio. She tells him that Cesario left a ring with her as a gift from Orsino. She orders him to follow the messenger and return the ring. The truth, of course, is that she is sending the ring as a gift to Cesario.
Olivia's speech after Malvolio leaves points up a major theme in the play. She says "I do I know not what" and "Ourselves we do not owe (own)." Many of the characters in this play do not understand themselves. For example, Orsino thinks he is in love with Olivia, but he is really in love with love. Malvolio thinks he is virtuous, whereas in reality he is a self-righteous hypocrite. They deceive themselves. Look for other examples.
NOTE: OLIVIA'S CHARACTER
Another point about Olivia: some readers believe that her intention to mourn her brother for seven years is merely a ruse, a way of attracting attention. They point to the fact that she falls in love so quickly as proof. Do you think she knows what she's doing, or that, as she says, her behavior confuses even her?
At the beginning of Act Two, you meet Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, who is on his way to Illyria. Meanwhile, Orsino continues to use Viola as his messenger to Olivia. Olivia's steward Malvolio reprimands Toby, Andrew, Feste, and Maria when he catches them carousing in the middle of the night. Maria, who was only there trying to quiet the others, invents a plan to take revenge on Malvolio. She forges a letter from Olivia and leaves it where Malvolio will find it. Malvolio falls for the trick and believes that the letter is evidence that Olivia loves him.
ACT II, SCENE I
This short scene between Viola's brother Sebastian and Antonio, the man who rescued him from the shipwreck, tells you several important things. First, you learn that Sebastian is still alive. You also learn that he and his sister look very much alike. In a production of Twelfth Night, Viola and Sebastian would wear identical-costumes. This similarity will become important later in the play.
Sebastian cares as deeply for his sister as she does for him. He assumes she is drowned, and when he talks about her he has a hard time to keep from crying.
Another important thing you learn is that Sebastian is heading for Illyria. He wants to go alone and refuses to explain his reasons for going. You can guess that he may hold some desperate hope that his sister may have made it to the shore in that country. He may not want to admit that he still clings to such a slim hope.
Sebastian's friend and rescuer, Antonio, cannot follow him there. He says he has "many enemies in Orsino's court." At the last minute, however, he decides to follow his friend despite the danger.
NOTE: The actions of Sebastian and Antonio constitute a subplot. Shakespeare wants you to notice who these two are and to remember the nature of their relationship. That's why this scene appears where it does. Note that the next scene (II, ii) completes the action started in the scene before this. By inserting this exchange between Sebastian and Antonio in the middle, Shakespeare calls attention to it.
ACT II, SCENE II
Malvolio catches up with Viola on the street outside Olivia's house. With a sneer, he follows his lady's orders and "returns" the ring. Viola finds the situation confusing. She plays along, refusing to take the ring back (since she never gave it to her in the first place). Malvolio rudely drops the ring to the ground and walks off.
Viola's confusion does not last long. She quickly figures out that Olivia has sent her a love gift. Her situation is going from bad to worse! Not only is she in love with a man who thinks she is a boy, but now the woman he loves is in love with Viola.
She blurts out "Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much." Viola means her own disguise as a man, but the statement has a wider thematic meaning in the play. Viola's disguise causes problems, but the false appearances of others (see discussion of Act I, Scene v) get them into just as much trouble.
Her head swimming, Viola takes a moment to sum up the situation. She must admit that it is a mess and that she has no idea what the solution will be.
NOTE: Although Malvolio has played a relatively minor role so far, he is being set up as a character who is arrogant, rude and conceited. Shakespeare is preparing you to enjoy the trick that will soon be played on Malvolio.
Shakespeare has now presented all the elements of his Romantic plot: Orsino loves Olivia, who cannot love him; Viola loves Orsino, who thinks she is a boy; Olivia loves Viola, who she thinks is Cesario; and Viola's double (Sebastian) is on his way to Illyria.
ACT II, SCENE III
Now the Low Comic plot begins in earnest. At Olivia's house, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are up late drinking. Sir Andrew may have just suggested that he would like to go to bed, because Sir Toby is busy explaining why being up late is the same thing as being up early. Sir Andrew is too slow to follow this reasoning, but he will go along with whatever his friend says.
Feste soon joins the party. Notice how Sir Andrew responds to the clown. He envies Feste's ability to sing and dance. And the fool knows he has a good customer in Sir Andrew. Whatever nonsense the fool spouts, Sir Andrew finds hilarious.
NOTE: There are two fools in this scene- Feste and Sir Andrew. As a "wise" fool, Feste is essentially an entertainer. He amuses you with his wit. A "natural" fool like Andrew is funny in spite of himself. He amuses you because he is witless. Shakespeare's other wise fools include Touchstone in As You Like It and the Fool in King Lear. Other examples of natural fools are William in As You Like It and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.
At Sir Toby and Sir Andrew's request, the fool sings two songs. The first could be considered a summation of the Romantic plot: "O mistress mine, where are you roaming?" Orsino, Olivia and Viola are each seeking the right love mate. The second song has more to do with the Low Comic characters. "Present mirth hath present laughter; / What's to come is still unsure," sings Feste. Today you might say "Have fun now; who knows what will happen tomorrow?" That seems to be Sir Toby's philosophy.
After the fool's solo, all three join in a "catch," or "round." The noise has awakened Maria, and she comes in to warn them that they had better be quiet before they wake up Malvolio. They are too lost in merrymaking to pay any attention. A few moments later, Malvolio himself appears.
Nobody looks his best at four in the morning, and you can picture how ridiculous Malvolio must appear, standing in his nightgown. Looking bleary-eyed but stern, he shouts "My masters, are you mad? or what are you?" Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste dissolve into helpless laughter. As Malvolio scolds them, they laugh, sing and make fun of him. A man like Malvolio, who is "sick of self-love," does not like being mocked, especially in the middle of the night. Sir Toby goads him further by directly attacking Malvolio's sense of self importance: "Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Sir Toby is reminding Malvolio that, as a knight, his social position is well above that of a steward. Malvolio behaves as though he were Olivia and had her authority, which he does not. What's more, Sir Toby bellows, just because you choose to be so pompous and insufferable, don't expect others to follow suit.
Mortally offended, Malvolio threatens to tell Olivia about the episode. He also includes Maria in his wrath, because she was there and failed to help him.
His final threat was a mistake. As soon as Malvolio leaves, Maria invents a plot to get even with him. (Sir Andrew comes up with a confused plot to challenge Malvolio to a duel and then make a fool of him by not showing up, but you already know not to take Sir Andrew seriously.)
Maria's plot works like this: she will prepare a letter that appears to have been written by Olivia. The letter will make Malvolio believe that Olivia is in love with him. Maria knows the truth about Malvolio- that despite the fact he behaves like a Puritan, he really deceives himself into thinking that other people find him witty, charming and attractive. Therefore, he will fall for the trick and make a fool of himself in front of Olivia.
NOTE: Maria's personality encompasses two extremes. She performs her duties with decorum and even takes it upon herself to try to reform Toby. She also has a mischievous sense of humor. This scene demonstrates both sides of her nature. She enters for the same reason as Malvolio- to impose order. Once angered, however, she becomes the chief prankster. There is no real malice in her joke. She only wants to teach Malvolio a lesson.
After Maria leaves, the carousing resumes. You learn that Sir Toby is aware that Maria loves him. You are also informed that Sir Andrew has loaned him a great deal of money.
NOTE: You are continually reminded how witty Sir Toby is, even when he's drunk. In line 177, he calls Maria "Penthesilea." He refers to the queen of the Amazons, a race of gigantic warrior women. The comment works in two ways. On one hand, there is ironic humor in the fact that Maria is physically quite small. On the other hand, she's a formidable warrior in the battle against Malvolio.
ACT II, SCENE IV
Back in Orsino's palace, you find that nothing has changed. Orsino is still calling for music and talking about nothing but love. He asks for a melancholy song he heard the night before. His servants go to find Feste, the clown, to sing it. (Though Feste is Olivia's fool, you never know where he will be found.) While they search, Orsino orders the musicians to play the tune.
Cesario (Viola) comments that the tune "gives a very echo to the seat / Where Love is throned." Orsino is surprised that the boy knows so much of love, and asks about the one Cesario loves. Though Viola says she loves a person of the same age and temperament as Orsino, he fails to realize the truth.
The irony in this scene is that Viola actually feels the same way Orsino thinks he feels. She wants him just as desperately as he thinks he wants Olivia. She patiently listens as he lectures her about love, a subject she already knows about from first-hand experience.
Feste enters and sings the song Orsino has asked for. It is indeed melancholy, telling the story of a young man who died for the love of a woman.
NOTE: This song linking love and death serves two functions. To Orsino, dying for love represents the ultimate expression of his romantic indulgence. For Viola, the meaning is more profound. She understands romantic longing, because she loves Orsino but cannot have him. She also realizes that love, youth, and beauty are like fair flowers that "die, even when they to perfection grow." This awareness of the inevitability of aging, death, and decay enriches the play and deepens its portrayal of the human condition. It serves as a melancholy counterpoint to the broadly comic scenes.
After hearing the song, Orsino tells Viola to take another message of love to Olivia.
Viola now has several reasons for not wanting to go. She desires Orsino herself, she knows his suit to Olivia is hopeless and, finally, she knows that Olivia loves Cesario. She tries to convince Orsino to give up. In doing so, she almost tells him the truth about her love for him.
First, she asks him to imagine that a woman loved him as he loves Olivia. If he could not love her, that woman would have to accept his refusal, Viola tells him. Orsino counters by saying that no woman could love a man as powerfully as he loves Olivia.
Now, Viola knows he is wrong. She tells him a carefully worded story about her "father's daughter" who loved a man. She even goes so far as to add "As it might be perhaps, were I a woman / I should your lordship." This "daughter" never revealed that she was in love. Instead, she pined away with grief, the same thing Orsino is doing.
Still seeking to prove that women cannot love as deeply as men, Orsino asks, "But died your sister of her love, my boy?" Orsino overlooks the fact that, despite all his sighing and moaning, he is still alive and well. "I am all the daughters of my father's house / And all the brothers too, and yet I know not" is Viola's answer. Speaking so directly about her love for Orsino and being reminded that her brother is probably dead is too much for Viola. If she continues talking, she will cry. Bowing to Orsino's wishes, she goes to speak with Olivia.
NOTE: This scene contrasts Viola's deep and real love for Orsino with his imagined love for Olivia. Viola's love leads her to unselfishly put Orsino's desires before her own. She talks with him about his feelings and acts as his messenger. Her pain is intensified by the fact that she cannot even speak of her love, except indirectly, as she does here. Orsino is only in love with love. At this point, he really cares for nobody besides himself.
ACT II, SCENE V
In Olivia's garden, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew wait for Maria. They are joined by Fabian, another of Olivia's servants who hates Malvolio. Malvolio seems to have told Olivia that Fabian was involved in bear baiting. To be fair, bear baiting was a cruel sport, though very popular, The point is not Fabian's taste in games, however. You are reminded that Malvolio is a "snitch" and a killjoy.
Maria runs in, just ahead of Malvolio. She tells the other three to hide. Malvolio, she says, has been "practicing behavior to his own shadow this half hour." In other words, he has been admiring himself, so she knows he's ripe for the joke about to be played. She places the phony letter on the ground where he will see it, and she leaves.
As he enters, Malvolio is talking to himself. Thinking he is alone, he speaks his true thoughts. The man you see is a far cry from the Puritan he pretends to be when other people are around. He is daydreaming about a time when Olivia will marry him and make him her equal. He takes the fact she treats him with respect as a sign that she loves him. (He says she treats him better than she treats anybody else, but we have to suspect he is deceiving himself.) Caught up in his fantasy, Malvolio imagines the other members of the household bowing to him. He sees himself ordering Toby to give up drinking.
NOTE: Malvolio talks about marrying Olivia, but he never mentions loving her. As far as you can tell from this soliloquy, he is motivated solely by ambition. His self love seems to have rendered him incapable of loving anybody else. That could explain why the others dislike him so. On the surface, they want revenge on him for spoiling the fun. On a deeper level, they may hate and fear him because he represents cold-hearted ambition untempered by concern for his fellow man.
Remember that Toby, Andrew and Fabian are watching and listening. They make comments to each other as they listen and only hold themselves back from attacking Malvolio in order not to ruin the joke. Fabian's comment is especially accurate: "Look how imagination blows him." Malvolio's imagination gives him an "inflated" idea of who he is.
Then Malvolio spots the letter. He picks it up and begins to read. Malvolio is quickly convinced that the letter is Olivia's- the handwriting looks like hers, the choice of words sounds like hers and the letter is closed with her seal. So far, the plan is working. The three men spying on him can hardly contain themselves.
Can you imagine how Malvolio must feel? While daydreaming that Olivia loves him, he finds a letter addressed "To the unknown beloved"! Opening the envelope, he finds a poem that begins "Jove knows I love- / But who?" A few lines later it reads "I may command where I adore." Putting two and two together, Malvolio comes up with the answer he wants- he himself is the object of his lady's affections. Of course Olivia may command anybody in her household. Malvolio is only reaching the conclusion he wants to reach.
Look how completely Malvolio has now been taken in. The next line of the poem gives him a little trouble, but he is determined to make it work out. "M. O. A. I. doth sway my life." Fabian calls it a "fustian riddle;" in other words, nonsense. Malvolio simply observes that "M" is his initial and the other letters are all in his name somewhere, so she must mean him. Maria was right- he is very ripe for this joke.
The poem is followed by some prose. This part of the letter appears to be Olivia's instructions to Malvolio about what he should do to be worthy of her love. Maria, of course, chose all the things Olivia would hate most. First, Malvolio is told "Be opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants. Let thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into the trick of singularity." That's like telling a butler or a waiter to argue with his patrons instead of serving them.
Next, he is instructed how to dress. He is to wear yellow stockings and to cross his garters both above and below the knee. (Little does he know that Olivia hates yellow stockings and crossed garters.)
The letter ends with an appeal to Malvolio's ambition:
Go to, thou art made, if thou desir'st to be so.
This last challenge was hardly necessary. Malvolio cannot wait to follow the instructions in the letter.
He finds a postscript that tells him that, if he wants to show his love for Olivia, he should smile constantly. You can imagine that Malvolio, who always frowns, looks even worse trying to smile. Also, Olivia is in mourning. Smiling would be out of place, even insulting. He has been completely fooled, however. As he leaves he promises to do everything the letter asks of him.
NOTE: Malvolio jumps at the letter's suggestions so eagerly that he almost appears to be a willing accomplice in his own deception. Though the letter is a phony, it works by appealing to Malvolio's true nature. Maria's assessment of his character was correct. His puritanical behavior is an act. He assumes a solemn countenance merely to intimidate others. Therefore, this practical joke serves a positive purpose- the exposure of hypocrisy.
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian roll with laughter at their joke. Sir Toby swears he could marry Maria for having thought of it. Maria comes in, and Sir Toby begins to praise her. Sir Andrew echos everything the older man says. Maria reviews the things that the letter asks Malvolio to do and the reasons that Olivia will hate them. Then, they all go to watch Malvolio make a fool of himself.
NOTE: To appreciate the humor of this scene you must use your imagination while reading it. Picture Malvolio completely entranced by the letter while the others laugh and whisper to each other. Occasionally, Malvolio might hear a noise and turn around, causing the others to dive for cover. One classic joke in productions of Twelfth Night is for Malvolio to turn when the others have no time to hide. In that case, they each assume a pose like a statue in the garden. Malvolio is too self-absorbed to notice anything unusual!
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