If you know the rough outline of the play’s plot, you might assume that the Twelfth Night plot summary would begin with the shipwreck that strands Viola in Illyria. And you’d be wrong to make that assumption. Instead, we get a ridiculously lovesick duke and one of the most famous opening lines in Shakespeare:
This unnamed duke (we will learn later his name is Orsino) waxes poetical on music, calls for more of it, then just as abruptly calls for its end, as it is “not so sweet now as it was before” (I.i.8). He is so lovesick that when it is suggested that he go hunting to relieve his mind, he talks of Ovid’s story of Acteaon, who is turned into by a hart (stag) by Diana and killed by his own hunting hounds… only here, it’s Olivia (we learn her name here) that has turned Orsino into the hart, and it’s his own desires that are tormenting him.
And why is he so lovesick and tormented? Like Romeo before, unrequited love, baby. As we hear from a messenger, Olivia will spend the “next seven years” (I.i.27) mourning her “brother’s dead love” (I.i.32). As over the top as that seems, Orsino tops it:
To pay this debt of love but to a brother,
How will she love when the rich golden shaft
Hath killed the flock of all affections else
That live in her; when liver, brain, and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied, and filled
Her sweet perfections with one self king!
And we’re off (delusional) and running.
In Act One, Scene Two, we finally do see the results of the shipwreck. Viola enters, questions her ship captain where they are, and he provides: Illyria. Her response takes the play from lovesick tinged with grief (Orsino’s love is unrequited because Olivia has lost her brother), to seemingly full-on grief: “My brother he is Elysium” (I.ii.4), the old Greek notion of a blessed afterlife, or heaven. So Viola, too, has lost a brother, and we learn why: drowning. But there is a glimmer of hope: just as she has survived, it is possible that her brother has survived as well, as the captain recounts,
Most provident in peril, bind himself
(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)
To a strong mast that lived upon the sea,
Then Captain Exposition (my name for him, not the play’s, as he, too, is unnamed and will remain so) then provides more information: Illyria is ruled by “noble” (I.ii.25) Duke Orsino, a bachelor who (the last the captain heard) “did seek the love of fair Olivia” (I.ii.34). Olivia is, the captain explains,
That died some twelvemonth since, then leaving her
In the protection of his son, her brother,
Who shortly also died, for whose dear love,
They say, she hath abjured the sight
And company of men.
Viola has found a kindred spirit in loss, and voices a desire to serve Olivia, but the captain nixes that quickly. Olivia, he says, “will admit no kind of suit, // No, not the duke’s” (I.ii.45-6). And here, we get our first inkling of a classed society in Illyria: if Olivia won’t even accept a messenger from the Duke, what hope does Viola have? (Actually, this is the second inkling, as the captain earlier said, “What great ones do, the less will prattle of” [I.ii.33]).
Thus daunted, Viola sets her sights on serving the duke. She asks that the captain help her disguise herself (“conceal [her] what [she is]” [I.ii.53]), and then present her to Duke Orsino as a eunuch because she can “sing // And speak to him in many sorts of music” (I.ii.57-8). The plan seems logical–the ruse of being a castrated eunuch would be a good cover story disguising Viola’s voice, just as men’s clothes would disguise her figure. It’s convenient, too, that we know the duke loves his music (of course, Viola doesn’t know this, but just go with it).
The captain agrees and we’re off and still running.
Of course (and is there always an “of course”?), there is a plot issue here: we never get any mention of her being a eunuch or her singing again. Her being a eunuch would make Orsino’s interest in her/him a little less than savory.
Act One, Scene Three takes us to the estate of Olivia, and we find one of her kinsmen, Sir Toby, and her waiting gentlewoman Maria. Sir Toby is concerned about Olivia’s mourning: “What a plague means my niece to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure care’s an enemy to life” (I.iii.1-2). Maria has no time for that subject and focuses on Toby’s “ill hours” (I.iii.5) and the “great exceptions” (I.iii.4) Olivia takes to them. It seems that Toby’s carousing and his bringing in “a foolish knight” (I.iii.14-5) to woo her are not going over well.
Toby tries to explain the virtues of the prospective wooer, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (and what a wonderfully descriptive name is that: the man has the jaundiced look of a man with malaria), citing his bravery (“tall” [I.iii.19]), riches (“three thousand ducats a year” [I.iii.21]), and intelligence (“speaks three or four languages” [I.iii.25]), but Maria sees him as a “fool… (and) quarreler… but (one who has)… the gift of a coward” (I.iii.28-9). When Sir Andrew enters (with such an introduction, could his entrance be far off?), he’s calling for Sir Toby; for the only time in the play, we hear Sir Toby’s last name, and it rivals Aguecheek as a descriptor: “Belch.” Perfect for a drinker and carouser.
Before her exit, there are exchanges that prove Maria’s categorization of Sir Andrew as fool, and some that prove that both she and Sir Toby are not above sexually bawdy innuendo. Once she is gone, Sir Andrew announces his desire to return home, and when he doesn’t understand Sir Toby’s asking of why, “Pourquoi?” (I.iii.86), we learn that French is not one of the three or four languages Sir Andrew supposedly speaks (one has to wonder if all of Sir Toby’s statements supporting Sir Andrew are lies–save maybe for the money, money Sir Toby can fleece from Sir Andrew).
During this conversation, we hear that not only is Sir Andrew jaundiced, but his hair “hangs like flax” (I.iii.96), straight and white-blond–not an appealing vision. Plus, Olivia will “have none of (Sir Andrew). The count himself here hard by woos her” (I.iii.101). However, Sir Toby is not convinced:
Again, we see examples of the classist society in Illyria. If Olivia had been truthful to Sir Toby (and if Sir Toby is being honest himself… big IF), Duke Orsino has no chance.
Sir Andrew talks of dances, with Sir Toby egging him on, and the scene comes to a close.
The fourth scene of the first act takes us back to the court of Duke Orsino, where some “three days” (I.iv.3) have passed, and not only is Viola dressed as a man, taken on the name Cesario, and situated into the duke’s entourage, but the duke likes “Cesario” so much that he is “like to be much advanced” (I.iv.2). Again, the class system at work.
Orsino enters and immediately wants to talk to Cesario, to whom he says he has “unclasped … the book even of (his) secret soul” (I.iv.13-4). Orsino wants Cesario to go to Olivia and
And tell them, there thy fixèd foot shall grow
Till thou have audience.
Be clamorous and leap all civil bounds
Rather than make unprofited return.
- I.iv.16-8, 21-2
Cesario is to deliver Orsino’s message of love, and success “shall become (Cesario) well” (I.iv.26). Social advancement awaits. But why send Cesario? Orsino has sent older, more serious messengers, but to no avail. Orsino describes Cesario’s appearance as
Is not more smooth and rubious, thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a womans part.
Orsino seems to feel that maybe someone less threatening as a messenger may be more successful. But really… Orsino, hello? Don’t you get it? Cesario’s a girl!
Anyway, Orsino sends Cesario off, and Viola lets us know her true feelings: “Whoe’er I woo, myself would be (Orsino’s) wife” (I.iv.42). Viola loves Orsino.
Any guesses what happens next?