How does one interpret the line, "... yet doth this accident and flood of fortune ...," found in Act 4, Scene 3 in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night?
The line in question is spoken by Sebastian in Act 4, Scene 3, immediately after having gone into Olivia's house with her and having been given a pearl by her. He is referring to his having unexpectedly met her as an "accident"; he is also referring to her showering him with affection as a "flood of fortune" (11). Furthermore, this passage illustrates the theme of madness that is dominant in the play because he is feeling so confused about her showering affection on him so suddenly that he feels she must either be mistaking him for someone else or he has gone insane, as we see in the larger passage:
For though my soul disputes well with my sense,
That this may be some error, but no madness,
Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune
So far exceed all instance, all discourse,
That I am ready to distrust mine eyes
And wrangle with any reason that persuades me
To any other trust but that I am mad. (9-15)
One reason why the theme of madness is central to the play as a whole is because the play was written for a Twelfth Night celebration. The twelfth day after Christmas is also known as Epiphany and marked the arrival of the Magi or Three Wise Men who came baring gifts to baby Jesus. While one would expect the Feast of Epiphany to be similar to the rest of the Christmas celebration, apparently in this time period it was very "secular and even quite bawdy" ("Shakespeare's Twelfth Night"). It was known to be a time of "masques, revels, defiance of authority, and general foolishness" ("Shakespeare's Twelfth Night"). Shakespeare For Students also points out that the Christian Church replaced Roman holidays with Christian holidays, but that the Christian holidays still held on to the ancient pagan customs that accompanied the holiday. It's important to know that the Feast of Epiphany replaced what was known as the Feast of Fools, which accounts for the wild behavior associated with the holiday ("Twelfth Night Essays: Chaos and Order in Twelfth Night"). Since Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night to mirror or parody the behavior common to the Feast of Epiphany, he made foolish or mad behavior dominant themes in the play. Hence, in this passage, Sebastian is illustrating the theme of madness by thinking that Olivia's bizarre behavior towards him shows that either he is mad or Olivia is mad.