Twelfth Night (Folger Shakespeare Library)
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Twelfth Night Summary and Analysis

by William Shakespeare

Act 1

Act I Summary:

Scene 1:

Count Orsino of Illyria is introduced; he laments that he is lovesick, and wishes that "if music be the food of love," he could kill his unrequited love through an overdose of music. His servant, Curio, asks Orsino if he will go and hunt; Orsino answers with another lovelorn reply, about how his love for the Lady Olivia has been tearing him apart. Orsino's servant Valentine, whom Orsino sent to give his affections to Olivia, returns; Valentine was not allowed to speak directly to Olivia, but Olivia sent a message, via her handmaiden, that Olivia will continue to mourn her dead brother, and will neither allow Orsino to see her or to woo her. Orsino laments that Olivia does not hold the same deeply felt love that he professes to have.

Scene 2:

Viola lands in Illyria, after a terrible shipwreck in which she was separated from her twin brother, Sebastian. Viola hopes that her brother was saved, as she was; the Captain, who also managed to get ashore, tries to console her of the hopes of finding her brother alive. The Captain recalls seeing her brother in the water after the shipwreck, clinging onto a mast, and riding above the waves. As it happens, the Captain is from Illyria, and tells Viola of Count Orsino, and of his love for Lady Olivia; the Captain also mentions Olivia's recent loss of both her father and her brother, and Viola, having lost her brother as well, commiserates with Olivia's situation. Viola proposes that she serve Orsino, since he is a good and just man; she conspires with the Captain that she may be presented to Orsino as a eunuch, and that her true identity as a foreign woman be concealed. The Captain agrees to help her, and he leads her to Orsino.

Scene 3:

Sir Toby, Olivia's drunken uncle, is approached by Olivia's handmaiden, Maria, about his late hours and disorderly habits. Maria also objects to one of Sir Toby's drinking buddies, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a rather foolish man who Sir Toby has brought as a potential suitor to Olivia. Sir Toby has great affection for Sir Andrew, but Maria does not; she believes that Sir Andrew is a drunkard and a fool, and not to be suffered. Sir Toby attempts to introduce Sir Andrew to Maria; wordplay ensues from a series of misunderstandings, puns, and differing usages of words. Maria exits, and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew continue to quibble, with some amusing results; at last, they decide to start drinking.

Scene 4:

Viola has now disguised herself as a boy, Cesario, and has been taken into the service of Count Orsino. Valentine remarks that Orsino and Viola, as Cesario, have become close in the short time that Viola has been employed; indeed, Orsino has already told Viola of his great love for Olivia. Orsino asks Viola to go to Olivia and make Orsino's case to the lady; he believes that Viola/ Cesario, being younger and more eloquent than his other messengers, will succeed. Viola says she will obey, although she confesses in an aside that she already feels love for Orsino, and would rather be his wife than try to woo Olivia for him.

Scene 5:

Feste's first appearance in the play; unlike Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, who make wordplay by mincing each other's meanings, Feste is more perceptive and quick-witted, and gets into an entertaining argument with the equally quick-witted Maria. Olivia enters, with her attendants, and is somewhat displeased and short with Feste; Feste says she is a fool for mourning her brother, if she knows that her brother is in heaven. Viola/ Cesario arrives at Olivia's house, and is admitted after much waiting, and being examined by both Sir Toby and Malvolio. Viola is brought in to meet Olivia, who finds out Viola is a messenger on Orsino's behalf, and Olivia discourages Viola from wooing her for the Count. Viola tries to make Orsino's suit, though Olivia counters this with elusive and witty remarks; Olivia begins to show interest in Viola as Cesario in this scene, and still insists that she cannot love Orsino. Viola is sent away at last, and Olivia has Malvolio go after Viola, with a ring and an invitation to come back tomorrow.

Act I Analysis:

The play's action occurs in the mythical land of Illyria, the name taken from an ancient area on the Adriatic coast, opposite Italy. In Roman times, Illyria was the home of a great number of pirates who would pillage Roman ships; but, in Shakespeare's time, Illyria was a group of city-states under the control of Venice. The Illyria of the play, as Shakespeare portrays it, may be geographically related to Mediterranean regions through its name; but the people of Illyria, most notably Olivia, are very English in the way their households are arranged, and in their customs and behaviors. However, understanding of the play does not depend upon its relation to a particular geographic area, and the land of Illyria is quite a mish-mash of English culture, and things both romantic and magical.

The play is sometimes regarded as having an Italian or Mediterranean setting at least because of the Italianate names used for some of the characters. Orsino was the name of the prominent dukes of Bracciano, who presided over an area in Tuscany; names like Curio, Valentine, Viola, Maria, and Antonio are Italian in origin as well.

Orsino opens the play with a speech, beginning, "if music be the food of love, play on"; the "if," and the particular diction of the line, makes the statement sound like an allusion to a familiar proverb, though no corresponding proverb is known (I.i.1). The first part of his speech is a metaphorical relation of music and love; Orsino relates music to food, and overindulgence in music to overeating, wishing that listening to too much music would kill his desire for love.

The music that Orsino is listening to pleases him at first; he makes a simile, comparing the music to the "sweet sound" (denoting a breeze) that picks up the smell of flowers (I.i.5). Orsino then contrasts love, which steals away the value of things, and the sea, which transforms things. He continues his metaphorical relation of love with appetite; he states that love is "quick and fresh," meaning keen and hungry, and takes in more than it has capacity to swallow (I.i.9). "So full of shapes is fancy," Orsino continues, relating all the many things that love swallows up to love's power to be imaginative (l.14).

Orsino repeatedly leads his conversation back to the topic of love; when his attendant, Curio, asks him if he will go hunt a hart, Orsino answers by speaking of his heart, quite a clever pun. But then, he relates the topic of hunting to his lovelorn condition; he alludes to Ovid's account of Actaeon, who was punished for seeing the goddess Diana naked by being turned into a hart, and then attacked by his own dogs. Another allusion to Ovid is made, when Orsino refers to the "rich golden shaft" of Cupid's arrow that will strike Olivia and make her lovelorn‹for, according to Ovid, Cupid caused love with an arrow that was keen, sharp, and made of gold (l. 34).

The language that Orsino uses in this first scene may be full of artifice; but it also indicates a capacity for strong feeling and great vitality. Orsino may be pining for love, but his feelings are very urgent; the image of him being torn apart by hounds expresses the great impact his feelings have on him, and his perseverance in wooing Olivia means that he is not capricious in his fancy. Orsino is no Romeo; he is not drawn to hasty actions or rash decisions, and is not subject to the kind of instant infatuation that gripped Romeo. These qualities lead to Viola and Orsino coming together, and are shown in his proofs of love, and of friendship to Viola.

Olivia's reply to Orsino's entreaty contains the only known usage of the word "cloistress," according to the Oxford English dictionary (l. 27). The word can be roughly translated as equivalent to "nun," but is more mannered because of its formal tone and its rarity. In her reply is also the comparison of tears to brine; and as brine is used to "season," or preserve foods, her tears, by the metaphorical association, will preserve her brother's memory (l. 29).

Orsino recalls the moment when he fell in love with Olivia by saying that he thought she "purged the air of pestilence," making an allusion to the Elizabethan belief that illnesses were caused by bad air (l. 19). He also recalls Elizabethan folk beliefs when he speaks of Olivia's "liver, brain, and heart," which were thought to be the seats of passion, judgment, and sentiment, respectively, and the three centers of power within the body (l. 36).

In scene 2, Viola continues the string of mythological allusions begun in scene 1. In her grief, she says that her brother's "in Elysium," and she is in "Illyria": the assonance of the place names helps to highlight the contrast between the two places (I.ii.. 2-3). But, Viola does her best to hope that her brother is not dead; "perchance," she says to the Captain, "he is not drowned" (l. 4). The Captain plays off her use of "perchance," which Viola uses to mean "perhaps," by using the same word to mean "by accident." To cheer Viola, the Captain conjures up an image of her brother "like Arion on the dolphin's back"; Arion is another figure from Ovid's work, a musician who was saved from drowning when a dolphin carried him to shore (l. 14).

Viola and Olivia's parallel situation, of mourning a recently deceased brother, is significant because it creates a bond of sympathy, at least from Viola's point of view. Viola expresses her wish to serve Olivia after hearing of Olivia's loss; and Viola's sympathy colors her later interactions with Olivia, with Viola being especially sensitive and caring toward Olivia.

In this scene, Viola bears her optimistic and gentle nature; though she fears that she has lost her brother forever, yet she hopes that he is still alive, and tries her best not to succumb to her grief. Her tone is not as richly poetic or filled with extravagant imagery as Orsino's; her words are more plain and straightforward, denoting grief but also her sensibility. Although she does not know the Captain, she presumes that he has a "fair and outward character" from their limited interaction, and his offers to help her (l. 48); she assumes the best of him, rather than the worst, though she admits even while she makes her judgment, that appearances can be deceiving.

Viola chooses to be presented to Orsino as a eunuch so that her high-pitched voice does not seem odd, and so that she will seem less threatening to Orsino. Eunuchs were men who were castrated when they were young, usually to preserve their high singing voices; eunuchs were relatively common until the 18th century, at which time the procedure fell out of favor in Europe. The procedure was mostly performed in places like Italy and Turkey, and was less common in England and Nothern Europe.

Scene 3 is mostly involved with quibbles, wordplay, and literal misunderstandings. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew cannot seem to understand the real meanings of one another, or of Maria either; the confusion begins when Sir Toby attempts to introduce Sir Andrew to Maria. Sir Andrew tends to mince his words badly, as when he addresses Maria as "fair shrew," which is quite a paradox; he intends the statement to be a kindly one, but a shrew refers to an ill-tempered woman, one who would certainly not be addressed as "fair" (I.iii.43). Sir Toby tells Sir Andrew to "accost" Maria, meaning to proposition her; Sir Andrew asks what "accost" means, and Toby thinks that his friend is asking who Maria is. Sir Andrew then wrongly assumes that Maria's name is Miss Mary Accost, and then Toby is forced to explain the no-so-delicate meaning of "accost" before the party: "woo her, assail her," he explains the term to mean (I.iii.53). Although Sir Andrew is not the most perceptive of men, he does sense that Maria thinks both of them are fools: "do you think you have fools in hand," he asks her, meaning does she think she is in the company of fools (l. 61). Maria proceeds to take the question literally: she answers, "I have not you by th' hand," confessing her poor opinion of them both (l. 62). Sir Andrew takes this in a good-natured way, giving her his hand to shake.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew have a good number of such farcical exchanges; Sir Andrew does not quite get Maria's metaphor of her breasts to a butter-bar, and Maria must explain her statement as being "dry," which Sir Andrew again misunderstands. Sir Toby takes Sir Andrew's talk about "tongues" to be about "tongs," which leads to a discussion of Sir Andrew's hair. Then, their speech reflects the many meanings of "caper," being a dance, a kind of seasoning for mutton, and an adventure as well. Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are definitely the comic relief of the play, and their misadventures, which begin with this scene, prove very entertaining.

If there is one attribute that Sir Toby and his niece, Olivia, have in common, it is their great pride. Sir Toby owns up to his pride in an exchange with Maria; he does not want to appear any more grand than he actually is, and is against any kind of false shows. He says that Olivia, too, has this same pride in herself; and because of it, she refuses to marry above her station, or get involved with people of great rank, like Orsino. Unlike Malvolio, who tries to present an image of greater stature, Olivia and Toby want to be seen as exactly what they are, and are fiercely proud of their station.

Another uncertain issue in the play is the issue of time; at the beginning of Scene 4, Valentine states that Viola has been in the service of Orsino for only three days; yet, at the end of the play, three months are said to have transpired. The lengths of time mentioned are likely unreliable; the three days could very well be meant to emphasize the quick bond that has grown between Orsino and Viola, and the three months to highlight how things have changed in the time elapsed.

Orsino himself speaks of how he and Viola have become close; "I have unclasped to thee the book even of my secret soul," he says, using the metaphor of an unclasped book that is used elsewhere in Shakespeare to represent very personal communications (I.iv.13-4). From this, and the way in which Orsino speaks to his page, drawing Viola aside to speak to her in confidence, shows how close they have become, and how much trust Orsino already has in Viola.

Unwittingly, Orsino states the truth about Viola's disguise, without being aware of it. He says of Viola that "thy small pipe is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound, and all is semblative a woman's part" (I.iv.32-4); the statement is laden with dramatic irony, as Orsino has guessed the truth about Viola without knowing it, while the audience both knows about Viola's true identity, and Orsino's good guess.

The language of Scene 5 is less laden with literary elements than the language of the previous scenes, because of the temperaments of Olivia and the others involved, and also because of Olivia's focus on getting the plain truth out of people. Olivia has the ability to quickly match a witty statement with an equally witty answer; she plays off of Feste's faux-logic about "a drowned man, a fool, and a madman" with ease, and offers a quick rejoinder to Viola's quip about the realness of Olivia's beauty (I.v.125). She is not quite as involved in wordplay as Feste or Maria, preferring not to quibble about less significant facts; this is perfectly displayed in her conversation with Viola, in which Olivia prefers to address the more important aspects of the situation, and diffuse Viola's argument as best she can.

Feste, when he confronts Olivia, speaks in a mock-religious tone; he speaks in would-be proverbs, like "God give them wisdom that have it, and those that are fools, let them use their talents" (l. 13-4). He addresses Olivia simply as "madonna," says he will "catechize" her, and assumes a cleric-like logic in trying to prove Olivia a fool. This tendency of Feste to play a mock-priest foreshadows his later attempt to taunt Malvolio, in the guise of a cleric.

Even at such an early point in the play, Malvolio's character becomes clear through Olivia's perceptiveness. "You are sick of self-love, Malvolio," she tells him, after only a brief appearance by the steward; Olivia also notes his propensity to make "birdboltsŠ[into] cannon bullets," a charge which later proves true (l. 85-8). Although Malvolio's vanity, arrogance, and self-deceptive qualities are not on clear display in this act, Olivia pegs them down, and her judgment of him does prove correct.

Also, Olivia's favor for Viola is first shown in this scene; when questioning Viola, Olivia asks Viola/Cesario about parentage, perhaps to see if this young page is of a high enough rank to be considered for marriage. When Viola leaves, Olivia remarks on the young page's looks, and states her preference for Cesario over Orsino; yet, Olivia is not one to rush into the situation, asking herself if "even so quickly may one catch the plague" (I.v.285). For the last lines spoken in this scene, Olivia even reverts to rhyme, speaking two couplets about her new favor for Cesario. Previously in this act, rhyme and verse were primarily spoken by the lovelorn Orsino; perhaps this sudden shift from prose to rhyming verse is meant to show that poetry is born of love, and that eloquence in verse is a symptom of being in love.

One major theme of the play, first developed in this act, concerns how Olivia and Orsino are changed by their relationship with Viola, and how her simplicity and directness helps them to shed their mannerisms and also their mannered language. Before meeting Viola, Orsino speaks poetically but somewhat artificially about his love for Olivia; after he meets Viola, he gets right to the point, disclosing to her the extent of his affections, and his plans to woo her. In Olivia's first encounter with Viola, her somewhat self-righteous shows of mourning are dropped, as Olivia must use her wit and plain speech in order to deal directly with Viola. Viola is not the formal, affected aristocrat that both Olivia and Orsino are; and throughout their contact with her, they become more emotionally direct and more honest with themselves and with her, leaving aside their shows of formality.

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