Act 1, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated June 22, 2023.

Scene One

The first scene of Twelfth Night opens at the home of Orsino, Duke of Illyria. The Duke is joined by his attendant Curio and several other lords and musicians. The Duke calls for music, the "food of love," so much music that it sickens him and eases the pangs of love plaguing him. Then he quickly changes his mind, for the music is no longer sweet. The spirit of his love has made everything else fall in value in his eyes.

Curio asks Orsino if he intends to hunt the hart. The Duke replies that he seems to have turned into a hart, pursued by the hounds of his passion for his beloved Olivia. At that moment, the Duke's attendant Valentine, who has just come from Olivia, enters, and the Duke immediately questions him. 

Valentine responds that Olivia, grieving for her brother, will refuse the company of any man for seven years. The Duke praises Olivia's loyal heart and ponders what her love would be like if she gave herself to a lover.

Scene 2

In the second scene, the setting shifts to the Illyrian coast, where Viola is speaking to a Captain. The two have just survived a shipwreck and have arrived in the country of Illyria, the Captain's homeland. Viola grieves the loss of her brother in the wreck, yet she hopes he has not drowned somehow. 

The Captain assures her that he saw her brother binding himself to the ship's mast. Viola, her hope strengthened, promises him gold and asks where they are. The Captain explains the situation in Illyria, noting that Orsino, while still a bachelor, has fallen in love with Olivia, who, after her father's and brother's deaths, "hath abjur'd the company and sight of men."

Viola wishes to serve such a lady but decides to offer her service to the Duke instead in the disguise of a young man. The Captain agrees to help her, and the two set out for the Duke's palace.

Analysis

These scenes introduce three significant characters, two primary themes, two fundamental conflicts, and Shakespeare's masterful employment of figurative language, allusion, and historical and cultural reference.

Duke Orsino is lovesick and fickle. First, he wants music, hoping it will make him nauseous and weaken his appetite for love. Then he changes his mind and orders the music to stop. He knows that his love for Olivia devours all things and lessens their value in his eyes, yet he cannot control it. 

Duke feels like a deer pursued by hounds of passion, and he cannot escape. Part of him, perhaps even most of him, does not want to escape. He wants to be caught by Olivia, but Olivia does not want him. She has vowed to mourn for her lost brother for seven years, isolating herself from the company of all men. The Duke wishes that Olivia would instead give herself over to him passionately. He is intent on one purpose only: winning Olivia.

Viola, like Olivia, is mourning a brother, whom she believes died in the shipwreck she has just survived. Unlike Olivia, however, she does not enter into deep mourning or hide away from the world. 

Olivia is in a new and unknown country and apparently feels vulnerable in her state as a young, unmarried woman. That is why she decides to disguise herself as a young man. She can move around more freely, get to know the nature of Illyria and its people, and then determine how she wants to proceed. This is wise, for it gives her time and independence, she would not otherwise have. Viola is clever and intelligent. She reasons well, perceives accurately, and acts decisively.

These scenes also present two of the play's central themes. The audience is invited to reflect on the nature of love. The Duke claims to love Olivia but seems more driven by passion than anything else. He does not, for instance, fully respect her decision to mourn for her brother. 

The Duke is not content to wait for her but will continue to pursue his cause relentlessly, just as the hounds of his passion are chasing him. The audience may wonder if the Duke's feelings are more driven by love or lust, for his "love" appears to be inattentive to the preferences of his beloved.

The second central theme of deception, disguise, and the confusion that follows is introduced in scene 2 when Viola decides she cannot safely and openly move around in Illyria. She will disguise herself as a young man and enter into the service of Orsino under false pretenses. While her motive may be legitimate, she does not realize the chaos her decision will unleash for herself, Orsino, and Olivia, among others.

Along with three characters and two themes, these two initial scenes reveal two fundamental plot conflicts that will be developed and eventually resolved throughout the play. The Duke's unwavering love for Olivia sets in motion one line of conflict: the Duke's passionate perseverance versus Olivia's equally resolute resistance. Viola's choice to travel in disguise initiates a second conflict that will cause significant confusion and little distress as the play progresses.

Finally, in these first two scenes, Shakespeare begins to employ his mastery of figurative language, allusion, and historical and cultural reference. The Duke speaks of the hounds of passion pursuing him and plays delightfully with the homonyms "hart" and "heart." 

In scene 2, Viola recognizes the Captain's "fair behavior" but wisely notes that "nature with a beauteous wall / Doth oft close in pollution." This metaphor suggests that a person's outward beauty in form and action often disguises inward corruption and wickedness.

Modern readers may not understand Shakespeare's allusions, but they are worth exploring, adding depth and interest to the story. For example, the Duke's reference to the hounds and the hart allude to the mythological story of Actaeon, who sees the goddess Diana naked and is turned into a stag for his offense. His hounds hunt him down and kill him. 

The Captain, too, offers a mythological allusion when he tells Viola that her brother bound himself to the mast like "Arion on the dolphin's back." According to Greek lore, Arion was a singer whose music charmed the dolphins so much that when he was forced overboard to escape certain death, a dolphin carried him to safety.

Shakespeare uses many historical and cultural references throughout the play, including in these first two scenes. When the Duke mentions the "liver, brain, and heart" concerning Olivia's love, for instance, he is referring to a commonly held belief that the liver is the seat of passionate love, the brain the location of judgment and thought, and the heart the area of sentimental feelings. The Duke wishes that Olivia would turn all of these organs and their respective characteristics toward him.

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Act 1, Scenes 3–4 Summary and Analysis