Act 1, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated June 22, 2023.

Scene 5

Scene 5 opens with a witty conversation between Maria and the clown Feste. Maria lightly scolds Feste for being absent from Olivia’s service for too long, and the two enjoy a series of jokes and puns. 

Olivia then enters with Malvolio, and Feste demonstrates cleverly that Olivia herself is a fool for mourning her brother’s death to such extremes. If his soul is in heaven, then she has nothing to grieve. Olivia is properly entertained, if not convinced, by Feste’s argument, but Malvolio, her steward, is appalled. Olivia scolds Malvolio, noting that he is “sick of self-love” and tastes the world “with a distemper’d appetite.” He takes himself and his own opinions far too seriously.

Maria comes in bearing the news that a young man is at the gate, and Olivia orders Malvolio to get rid of him. Sir Toby appears, mostly drunk, and then staggers back out. Olivia cannot draw much in the way of sense from her uncle, but she sends Feste to care for him. 

Malvolio reenters with the message that the young man at the gate will listen to no excuses; he must speak with Olivia. She gives in, and Maria drapes a veil over Olivia’s face.

The young man is Viola disguised as Cesario, and she delivers the message of praise from the Duke. She also gently taunts Olivia for hiding herself beneath a veil and hints that she, too, is not who she seems to be. Finally, Olivia agrees to a private audience and removes her veil, and Viola compliments her on her beauty but also scolds her for pride and cruelty toward the Duke. 

Olivia firmly maintains that she does not and cannot love the Duke, even though she knows he is noble. Viola reiterates her master’s passion and suffering, but Olivia will not budge, even when Viola says that if she had a passion like the Duke’s, she would not move from Olivia’s gate or cease to cry out her name.

However, Olivia is becoming increasingly interested in the “young man” before her. She questions Viola about her parents and position. Viola responds vaguely. Then Olivia sends Viola on her way, telling her she may return with the Duke’s response. Olivia, however, continues to reflect on the fine qualities of the “young man,” and she sends Malvolio after Viola with a ring to “return” to “him.” Viola, of course, has left no ring with Olivia; indeed, the latter is sending her own message.


Scene 5 introduces the audience to one of Shakespeare’s most interesting archetypes: the clown or fool. In this case, Feste embodies this role. Clowns or fools are entertainers, but they are much more than their title seems to suggest. 

A fool like Feste is often the wisest character in a Shakespearean play, for his role allows him to speak his mind without reserve, even if that means insulting those who occupy higher statuses. Therefore, he provides insights into the characters’ situations and motivations that no one else would dare to express.

Feste does this to Olivia when he calls her a fool. He maintains that her mourning for her brother is excessive, but he does not say so outright. Instead, he draws Olivia to that conclusion by asking her why she mourns. To her response that she mourns for her brother, he calmly states that he thinks his soul is in hell. That gets Olivia’s attention, and she exclaims, “I know his soul is in heaven, fool.” “The more fool, madonna,” Feste replies, “to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven.” 

Feste has not only made his point, but he has led Olivia to a truth she may not otherwise have realized. Olivia does not admit that Feste’s proposition convinces her, but her behavior does change.

Olivia’s character develops significantly in this scene. She agrees to receive one of the Duke’s messengers, which has never happened before. She speaks with that messenger and even grants a private audience, removing her veil so Viola (as Cesario) can see her face. She verbally spars with Viola, engaging in wordplay. 

In response to Viola’s inquiry if she is the lady of the house, Olivia remarks, “If I do not usurp myself, I am.” A few lines later, Olivia carries on an extended witty dialogue about the “doctrine” of the Duke’s heart and then another in which she itemizes her beauty. 

By the end of the encounter, Olivia is engrossed with Viola, whom she believes to be a fine young man, to the point that she begins a deception of her own. She sends a ring after Viola and claims to return it when she is trying to lure the “young man” back. Olivia is starting to fall in love.

In her newly infatuated state, Olivia introduces a secondary theme at the end of the scene. “Fate, show thy force,” she declares, “ourselves we do not owe; / What is decreed must be; and be this so.” 

Perhaps Olivia wants to give herself an excuse to follow her new course of action—falling in love with Cesario—by calling on fate. She seems to be telling herself that such a relationship is meant to be; it is ordained by fate and must happen. 

By this logic, she can safely give up mourning her brother and begin wooing the young man. The last clause, however, reads almost like a prayer.

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