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Act III, Scene 1
Viola returns to Olivia's house for the second time to plead the Duke's case. In the garden, she meets Feste and they proceed to verbally spar with each other until Viola tires of it. She claims that "They who dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton." After more playful deliberations about Feste’s job title as Olivia’s fool, he leaves to call Olivia, but not before he chides Viola for not having a beard, a last dig at Viola’s lack of fully developed manhood. While Viola is waiting for her, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby enter, and greet Viola. A little later Olivia and Maria enter the scene. Viola gives Olivia the Duke's message and is carefully observed by Sir Andrew who immediately sees that Olivia is in love with Cesario. This is reinforced when Olivia asks everyone to leave except Viola. When they are alone, Olivia makes it clear that she is not interested in Orsino, and she does not want to think of Orsino at all. She declares her love for Viola/Cesario and explains the reason for her sending the ring to Viola through Malvolio. Viola pities Olivia, who at first sees it as a sign of love, but when reminded that one can pity an enemy decides to put an end to this conversation. She feels that it is better to "Fall before the lion" (Orsino) "than the wolf" (Viola). Yet just as she writes off Cesario as a lover, she asks him what he thinks of her. An exchange between them reveals that they both are not what they seem. Cesario deflects all of Olivia’s questions as adroitly as she can yet this engages Olivia’s curiosity even more. Finally, Olivia declares her love for Cesario and Cesario’s response is that he does not love any woman nor will he ever do so. Olivia asks her to come again as he may at some point change his mind.
This scene is the climax of the main plot as Olivia passionately declares her love for Cesario/Viola. Her behavior is unusual for a young lady who is in mourning, and who is supposedly socially superior to the young pageboy (Viola). The declaration of her love places Viola in a very delicate situation. Viola must now keep her own identity a secret, repulse Olivia's love, and continue to plead Orsino's case with Olivia, while suppressing her own love for him and taking care not to hurt Olivia too deeply. The plot therefore becomes further complicated before it begins to unravel in the following scenes. The deception of disguises is brought out most acutely here with the where Olivia asks Viola what she thinks of her and Viola responds, "That you do think you are not what you are" meaning that you are mistaken because you think you are in love with a man." When Viola tries to impress upon Olivia that "I am not what I am," Olivia responds that "I would you were as I would have you be." Olivia wants Cesario to be in love with her. This series of double entendres reveal verbally the complicated intricacies of love, especially that of unrequited love where one’s expectations never fit the reality of the situation. Olivia finally throws off her shield of witticisms and coy lines by admitting that she is in love with Cesario and that she does not care if it is unrequited. Here she aligns herself with Duke Orsino by declaring in so many words that it is better to love and lose than never to love at all.
Olivia's confused state of mind in this scene reveals the capriciousness of love as well as the human spirit’s inability to speak truly from the heart. It takes her most of the scene to build up to her confession of love for Cesario. At first she attempts through subtle hinting that she is in love with him, then she tells him that he must go when he does not pick up on her subtle disclosures, then she playfully spars with him before finally divesting of the armor of her passion. Her resolve that she shall stop all show of emotions when she says, "Enough is shown" is in sharp contrast to her declaration "Nor wit, nor reason can my passion hide." This scene reveals the constant disguises at work that shield and protect people’s from exposing themselves which is similar to how Viola’s disguise is meant to protect her from physical harm.
Although the scene begins with a playful and harmless verbal bantering between two bright minds, that of Feste and Viola, it soon devolves to a darker look at how words can hurt people. Viola is quite aware that her rejection of Olivia is causing her much pain yet she cannot be her true self without the risk of being hurt herself. This scene brings the reader back to the main plot, after having been diverted by the action of the subplot in the previous scene. It also reveals a new side plot as Andrew becomes interested in Viola because of Olivia’s interest in her.