Twelfth Night Plot Summary: Act Two, Scenes Four and Five–A Pure Philosophical Discussion of the Genders, and the Gulling of a Puritan

As we continue our Twelfth Night plot summary, the fourth scene of Act Two takes us back to court of Orsino, where the duke (as he did at the beginning of the play) calls for more music. And as they wait for Feste to arrive to sing, Orsino tells Cesario/Viola,

                           If ever thou shalt love,
In the sweet pangs of it remember me,
For such as I am, all true lovers are,
Unstaid and skittish in all motions else
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved.
  • II.iv.15-20

If we thought Orsino was ridiculous back at the beginning of the play, this statement of being the quintessence of lovers doesn’t back him away from the edge of ridicule. At least, his self-centeredness isn’t all-encompassing; he notes Cesario’s “eye // Hath stayed upon some favor that it loves” (II.iv.23-4). When Orsino asks Cesario of the woman he fancies, Viola begins another game of verbal cat-and-mouse, just as she had with Olivia earlier in the act. According to the duke, a woman of Orsino’s “complexion” (II.iv.26) is not worthy of Cesario, and a woman of Orsino’s “years” (II.iv.28) is “too old” (II.iv.28) for the youth.

Why? Because, in Orsino’s mind, “the woman (should) take // An elder to herself” (II.iv.29-30). Of course, this works out perfectly in the end, when Orsino and Viola become a couple (whoops, spoilers!). Orsino advises the “boy” that men’s “fancies are more giddy and unfirm” (II.iv.33) than women’s are.

Feste arrives, and we are treated to one of the most depressing love songs in Shakespeare… but perfect for the pining, unrequited Orsino, who loves it. And it prompts him to send Cesario back to Olivia to tell her that it isn’t her lands or possessions he wants (as part of a dowry), but rather her beauty (“that miracle and queen of gems // That nature pranks in her” [II.iv.85-6]).

Cesario asks what would Orsino do if Olivia cannot love him; he won’t accept the answer. Cesario/Viola, however, turns the table on him:

Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,
Hath for your love as great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia. You cannot love her;
You tell her so. Must she not then be answered?
  • II.iv.89-92

For Orsino, this is rhetorical, hypothetical; for Viola, reality and a test case. His response takes him back to the laughable self-centeredness of earlier in the scene: no woman can love like he does, as their hearts are not big enough to hold what he feels. He concludes,

                           Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.
  • II.iv.101-3

For me, this would be the deal-breaker. But Viola, loves him–and I’m guessing, with the same self-delusion as he loves (or thinks he loves) Olivia–and she begins to respond “Ay, but I know–” (II.iv.103), then cuts herself off. My thinking here is that she fears revealing herself to him.

This time, he presses the point, asking what “he” knows. She responds,

Too well what love women to men may owe.
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your Lordship.
  • II.iv.105-9

It’s a wonderfully ironic speech, seemingly about a sister, but really about herself. She goes on to say how this sister “never told her love, // But let concealment” (II.iv.110-1) eat away at her. This, too, Cesario/Viola argues, is love. When the helpless romantic asks if the sister died of her love, Viola uses her irony as a shield again: “I am all the daughters of my father’s house, // And all the brothers, too” (II.iv.120-1). And the duke sends her off with a jewel to Olivia, and a message that he will not be denied.

The last scene of Act Two is the gulling of Malvolio that was set up a couple of scenes back. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and another servant Fabian enter, complaining of the steward. Maria arrives to announce the coming of Malvolio, and the threesome hides to watch. When Malvolio enters, he’s musing to himself how fated his relationship with Olivia is. “Fortune” (II.v.21) will rule all, he says, then lists the ways Olivia has shown she cares for him. He even flatters himself with the idea of marriage to the countess, angering Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, with Fabian trying to quiet them.

Malvolio’s fantasy is quite elaborate: in it, he’s dressed in a velvet gown, has just left Olivia on a “daybed” (II.v.45)–sofa, as opposed to the night bed (even his fantasies are chaste)–and reprimanding Sir Toby, who just about loses his mind. Malvolio’s reverie is cut short, however, when he finds the hidden note.

Now this is a sequence that I’ll most likely go over in more detail later (both cleanly and bawdily), so I won’t delve too deeply here.

The letter is addressed “To the unknown beloved, this, and my good wishes” (II.v.87-8), and the writing on the outside matches “(his) lady’s hand” (II.v.83), as Maria predicted. He opens the seal and reads the poetic opening, the final line being “No man must know” (95); he makes the quick logical jump to ask himself, “If this should be thee, Malvolio?” (97-8). The letter continues with the phrase “I may command where I adore” (II.v.100), which only emboldens Malvolio’s delusion.

The delusion reaches its comic epitome when Malvolio attempts to decipher the line “M. O. A. I. doth sway my life” (II.v.103). He sees his own name in the letters: “M” obviously, and “every one of these letters are in my name” (II.v.133).

With the delusion accepted as fact, Malvolio moves on to the prose portion of the letter. “Be not afraid of greatness,” the letter continues: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em” (II.v.136-138). This feeds Malvolio’s fantasy not only of having Olivia as his wife, but to achieve the relative greatness of her social stature (remember all that classist stuff from the first act… well, it’s baaaaack). “The Fates open their hands” (II.v.138), and Malvolio must taken them. The letter then outlines some specific acts that he must perform, including argue with a kinsman (Sir Toby? he’s the only kinsman we know in the house) and wear yellow stockings, cross-gartered. Do these things, the letter implies, and “thou art made” (II.v.146-7)–again, social advancement–but if he doesn’t do these things, he will be “a steward still, the fellow of servants, and not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers” (II.v.147-9).

The trap has been sprung. Malvolio is sure that Olivia loves him. He says that he will “wash off gross acquaintance” (II.v.154) and do all the letter commands. He thanks “Jove and (Malvolio’s) stars” (II.v.i), or fate. And he goes off, ready to smile at Olivia as the post-script of the letter dictates.

Sir Toby is so thrilled with the results that he tells Fabian that he “could marry the wench for this device” (II.v.173). When the wench Maria returns, she fills in her three stooges on some inside information: Olivia “abhors” (II.v.190) yellow, “detests” (II.v.191) cross-gartering, and will find Malvolio’s smiles “unsuitable to her disposition… melancholy” (II.v.192-3). And the merry band of pranksters exits to end Act Three.

We’ll see the results in a couple of days.

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