Act II Summary:
Sebastian, Viola's brother, is shown alive, and in the company of Antonio, a somewhat shady sea-captain who is wanted by Count Orsino for questionable doings on the seas. Sebastian tells Antonio of his sister, Viola, who he fears has been drowned; he thanks Antonio for his kindness in saving him from being drowned, and resolves that he must be off alone. Antonio asks if he may go with Sebastian, but Sebastian refuses this kind request, and is gone.
Malvolio catches up to Viola, with the ring he was instructed to give Viola by Olivia. Viola is surprised, since she left no ring with Olivia; Malvolio grows impatient with Viola's claim to know nothing of the ring, and he throws it down onto the ground, and storms off. Viola realizes that the ring is proof that Olivia has some affection for her as Cesario; she regrets that Olivia is in love with her disguise, as that will come to nothing, and also that she is in love with her master, but that she can do nothing in her present disguise.
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are up late, drinking; Feste joins them, and they request that he sing a song about love. They proceed to make a great deal of noise, by singing, drinking, and talking nonsense; Maria tries to get them to be quiet, but Malvolio is awakened by the noise, and comes down to berate them for disturbing the household. Once Malvolio leaves, Maria concocts a plan to make Malvolio look like a complete fool: since Maria's handwriting is similar to Olivia's, she will write love letters to Malvolio and make it look like the letters have come from Olivia. The party decides to try this out and see if it will work; Maria leaves to go to bed, and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew decide to drink the rest of the night away.
Orsino calls upon Feste to sing an old song, that pleases him very well; Orsino then begins to talk to Viola/ Cesario of love, and its imperfections. Orsino compares women to roses "whose fair flower/ being once displayed, doth fall that very hour"; Viola does not completely approve of Orsino's slightly cynical view of women, and will seek to correct it later in the scene. Feste begins to sing his song, a sad one about love and death, and when he is done, he is dismissed, and makes a remark about Orsino's extreme changeability of mood.
Viola attempts to soothe Orsino's melancholy by getting him to accept that Olivia might not love him, but that perhaps another woman does; Orsino counters this with the argument that women are very inconstant in their love, and could not have a feeling as deep as the love he has for Olivia. Viola knows that this is not true, in light of the great amount of feeling she has for Orsino; she attempts to persuade him that women are "as true of heart" as men, by telling him a story she makes up about a sister that loved only too constantly and too well. Orsino asks Viola to go again to Olivia, and make his suit; Viola obeys, and sets off to see Olivia again.
Maria appears, with the love-letter she has written for the purposes of baiting Malvolio. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and their friend Fabian are present; they hide behind a tree as Malvolio approaches, and Maria places the letter somewhere where he is certain to find it. Malvolio approaches, already muttering nonsense about thinking that Olivia fancies him, and about how things would be if they were married; this angers Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, who want to beat Malvolio for his pretension. Malvolio finally spots the letter, and recognizes the handwriting as Olivia's; he takes the bait completely, believing it to be proof that Olivia really does love him. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew marvel at Maria's plan, and how it has worked, and cannot wait to see Malvolio make an even bigger fool of himself.
Act II Analysis:
At the beginning of Act II, it is revealed that Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, is indeed alive; and he, also, presumes that his sibling has drowned in the wreck. Scene 1 is written completely in prose, though most Shakespearean scenes of this type, which are meant for narrative advancement, are written in blank verse. The language and tone of the passage are more formal and constrained than would be expected for this type of scene; Sebastian's statement that "the malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours" is perhaps more stilted than would be expected of one who is in mourning, and speaking to someone with whom he is somewhat familiar (II.i.4-5). Also strangely, once Sebastian leaves, Antonio expresses himself in verse, breaking from the style of speech he had with Sebastian.
One unexplained aspect of this scene is Sebastian's reluctance to divulge his identity; he makes reference to a name he used, Roderigo, when he first introduced himself to Antonio. Why Sebastian would feel the need to conceal his identity is very unclear, and not referred to again within the play. Also, after being referred to as "Duke Orsino" throughout Act I, in Act II Orsino is most often referred to as a "Count". This change in titles might denote a difference in the versions of the play compiled into modern texts, or a change made by Shakespeare mid-way through the text.
Continued in this scene is the comparison of salt-water to tears, which Olivia mentioned earlier, in Act I. But while Olivia spoke of her tears as brine, Sebastian creates a metaphor between his tears and the ocean which drowned his sister, both being salt-water. Sebastian's great grief belies the constriction of his language, as he confesses that he is about to break into tears in this scene, but tries to keep up the formality of his language nevertheless.
In scene 2, Viola notes the great irony inherent in her present situation. That Olivia is in love with Cesario, who the audience knows to be Viola, is an instance of dramatic irony that will cause mayhem throughout the play; but, Viola sees already how her disguise will cause problems also in her relationship with Orsino, and will hinder her from expressing her true feelings for him. She notes this bothersome contradiction, that "as I am man, my state is desperate for my master's love"; but that, "as [she is] womanwhat thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!" (II.ii.36-9). Viola also laments that Olivia could fall in love with Cesario so easily; she compares women's hearts to sealing wax in an apt metaphor, and notes how easily the "proper false" leaves a lasting impression in their hearts (II.ii.29). Viola's perceptive statements foreshadow some kind of confrontation with Orsino and Olivia about her true identity; and she does not look forward to disappointing either one.
In scene 3, Sir Toby shows himself to be a more educated fool than he believes his goofy friend, Sir Andrew to be; Sir Toby alludes to a Latin proverb, "diluculo surgere," meaning "to get up at dawn," that is taught to many Elizabethan school-children. Sir Andrew proves to be an air-headed foil to Sir Toby; when he tries to make reference to things that he has learned, he speaks of "Pigrogromitusthe VapiansQueubus," figures that were probably made up by Feste and told in one of his tales (II.iii.22-3). Even Feste shows himself to be more learned than the supposedly knowledgeable Sir Andrew; Feste tosses around burlesque words, telling them he "did impeticos thy gratility," meaning pocket the money they gave him (l. 25).
The songs that Feste sings in this act, and throughout the play, have not been definitively shown to be of Shakespeare's making. The song that Feste and Sir Toby begin to sing when confronted by Malvolio is from an English song-book of the period; and Feste's songs appear to have similarities to other songs of the time, though no particular matches for these songs in Shakespearean-period songs has yet been found.
Sir Toby continues the comparisons to illness that appear earlier in the play; here, he compares music to illness, because of its contagious quality. Sir Toby says that Feste's song is like "a contagious breath," creating a clean metaphor between the catchy-ness of a song and the catchy-ness of a disease (l. 52). There seems to be some concern for plague and disease underlying the frequent metaphors with illness that have popped up in the play; perhaps these instances are merely echoing the worry over disease held in Elizabethan England, and are a reminder of the plague epidemic that shut down theaters less than ten years before this play was written.
Throughout this scene, Sir Toby and company continue to make allusions to elements of popular British culture of the time. He calls Malvolio a "Peg-o'-Ramsey," a reference to the title of a popular song, and calls the group, "'three merry men be we,'" an allusion to a popular refrain of the time (l. 71-2).. Sir Toby also appears to know at least a little about classical mythology; he calls Maria "Penthesilea," the name of the Queen of the Amazons, which is ironic in view of her small stature.
Malvolio's mock-grandiose manner becomes clear in this scene; Maria accurately notes that Malvolio "cons state without book," meaning that he uses high-flown language without necessarily knowing its proper meaning (II.iii.138). Malvolio resorts to legalistic-type language when berating the group for their merry-making; he notes their lack of "mitigation or remorse" in their "misdemeanors" (II.iii.85,92). Likely, Malvolio is not acting of Olivia's will, as he claims to be; he is such a high-strung and officious character that his chastisement of the party is not out of the range of his ordinary behavior. Malvolio is very much the "puritan," as the party well knows; he dislikes parties, drinking, merriment of all sorts, and Sir Toby, Maria, Feste, and Sir Andrew openly resent Malvolio trying to put a damper on their high spirits. Although some of the group's dislike of Malvolio stems from his kill-joy behavior, their characterization of him, as overly proud, puritan, and meddling is correct in most respects.
As Orsino becomes more despondent in his love and more cynical about women, Viola tries to persuade him that his views of women are not fair. At first, Orsino states that men are more wavering in their affection than women are, with "fancies [that] are more giddy and infirm" (II.iv.32). Paradoxically, he espouses the opposite view later in the scene; he talks about how "no woman's heart[can] hold so much" as his can, and how women's love is very variable and not lasting (II.iv.94-5). Again, Orsino uses the image of the sea to describe how vast his love is; but the love Viola describes, of a fictional sister, eclipses both what Orsino professes to feel, and what he thinks women are capable of feeling.
This brings up the theme of kinds of love, which recurs throughout the play. Several of the characters in the play are greatly bound up in love; Orsino is consumed by his love for Olivia, Olivia is torn by her love for her dead brother and also for Cesario, Viola is conflicted by her love for Orsino, and Malvolio is thwarted by his love for himself. This is a very simplistic way of stating the kinds of feelings these characters have, which differ in every possible respect. But it is the difference in the quality, nobility, and constancy of the love of the characters in the play which determines their outcome at the end, and whether their love deserves to be requited or no.
When Orsino asks Viola about love, Viola states that she is in love with someone of Orsino's same complexion, and age; this is indeed true, though Viola is speaking of Orsino himself. The irony of Orsino's negative statements about women's capacity for love is that Viola loves him at least as constantly as he does Olivia, and with more devotion. It is this unrequited love that Viola summons up when creating the story of Cesario's fictional sister; she is certainly the maid she describes, pining away patiently for love, and not giving into shows of melancholy like Orsino does.
Viola's speech shows Orsino transitioning from his previous self-absorbed state in which only his grief mattered, into someone who is sympathetic and cares about Viola's story at least as much as his own. When Viola's story is done, it is she who has to turn the focus of their conversation back to Olivia; he is engrossed by her story, and temporarily forgets about his suit to woo Olivia. This scene shows how Orsino and Viola's relationship has matured into a very deep friendship, with a poignant emotional bond; from this point on, though his suit to Olivia continues, his emotional connection to Viola runs far deeper.
Orsino touches on the image of the rose, in his comparison between the perfection of women and the fragility of the rose. Like a rose, women "die when they to perfection grow," and their beauty fades even as it becomes fully exposed (II.iv.40). The simile emphasizes that perfection is partly defined by its very vulnerability, and that this perishable quality is inherent in any instance of real beauty. This balance between beauty and frailty, the happy and the sad, is a motif that prevails throughout the play; rarely is there an instance of either complete despair or complete joy in the play, but that these emotions often serve to temper each other, and coexist within the characters. Another fitting example is Viola's speech about her sister; the tone of her statement is bittersweet, yet the themes of love and death both resound in her story. The mood of the play is frequently autumnal in this sense; though the play discusses issues of love, death is ever-present, and reminders of mortality become bound up in the experience of love.
Even Feste recognizes the variability of Orsino's nature; Feste says Orsino is like an opal, a symbol of changeability because of its iridescent qualities. Orsino is not so inconstant that his affections change rapidly; yet, as is shown in this scene, his feelings are variable because of the influence of love, and he can turn from calm to despairing in little time at all. The image of "changeable taffeta" that Feste proffers is also an accurate description of Orsino's moods, with its color changing according to the angle of view and the amount of light.
Scene 5 serves mostly to confirm Malvolio's character, and play out Sir Toby's and Maria's cruel little trick on him. Malvolio indeed proves that he is full of "self-love," as Olivia noted in Act I; he believes himself so charming and irresistible that a young woman like Olivia would be desperately in love with him, and older servant, despite Orsino's continuing entreaties of her love. Even before he reads the letter, he entertains a fantasy about being married to Olivia, and getting to insult Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for a change, due to his imagined rise in station. Malvolio's thinking out loud gets him in trouble with Sir Toby especially; the party decide that Malvolio is being a perfect "turkeycock," which is a good image to describe Malvolio's strutting and his ridiculous amount of pride.
Maria's prank works because it plays off of Malvolio's weaknesses; his self-regard, his wish for social advancement, and his delusions that Olivia might feel something for him. The trick might seem a bit mean-spirited, but it is meant to teach Malvolio a lesson in the end; perhaps he will realize his great foolishness when the prank has run its course, and will mend some of his more obvious faults as a result.