Last Updated June 22, 2023.
Scene 4 returns to the Duke’s palace, where Orsino calls for music. He wants a particular song sung by a particular person, Feste, and he sends Curio to find him. Meanwhile, the Duke and Viola, who are still disguised as Cesario, discuss love. The Duke proclaims that he is as “all true lovers are,” agitated except for the “constant image” of his beloved. Then he asks Viola if she has been in love, and she admits she has.
The Duke questions her about the “woman” she loves, and Viola’s responses point straight to Orsino himself. The Duke disapproves of Viola’s choice, for he says women will never love men younger than themselves.
Feste enters and performs the requested song about unrequited love and death. The Duke pays him generously for his music, and Feste leaves Orsino with a lightly veiled criticism of his melancholy and misplaced constancy.
After Feste’s departure, Orsino and Viola resume their conversation about love. The Duke orders Viola to return to Olivia and tell her again of his noble love and her great beauty. When Viola asks what to say if Olivia still refuses, the Duke responds, “I cannot be so answer’d.” Viola then wonders what the Duke would do if a woman loved him as he loves Olivia, and he could not return her love.
The Duke replies that no woman could ever love as strongly as he does. Viola speaks of a “sister” who once loved a man deeply and never told him of her feelings. The Duke then sends her off with a jewel for Olivia.
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, now joined by another servant, Fabian, gather to carry out their prank on Malvolio and observe the results. Fabian, too, holds a grudge against Malvolio, for the latter has put him out of favor with Olivia because he participated in bear-baiting.
The three men hide as Malvolio enters, already priding himself that Olivia may fancy him for his complexion and imagining himself as “Count Malvolio.” He assures himself that there have been cases in the past in which ladies have married their servants, and he envisions himself in a visible position of honor and authority.
Malvolio sees himself demanding that Sir Toby change his drunken ways and end his association with Sir Andrew. The three in hiding, meanwhile, respond quietly to Malvolio’s fantasies.
Just then, Malvolio spies the “love letter” sneakily dropped by Maria. He picks it up, believes he recognizes Olivia’s handwriting, reads the letter’s riddle, and applies it immediately to himself. He then peruses the prose section of the letter, which presents assurances that his lower status is not an obstacle to love and outlines the behavior “Olivia” expects of her beloved.
Olivia advises that he wear yellow stockings with crossed garters; be prideful, quarrelsome, and surly toward all; carry himself according to his new, exalted status; read politics; and smile constantly. Malvolio declares he will act as the letter orders and win his lady’s love.
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Fabian, and Maria celebrate the success of their prank, and Maria suggests that they pay special attention to Malvolio’s first encounter with Olivia. Malvolio will follow the letter precisely, so he will behave in a manner that opposes all of Olivia’s true preferences. In her melancholy, Maria continues, Olivia is sure to regard him with “notable contempt.”
Duke Orsino proves to be as lovesick as ever, even as he reveals that he arguably knows little about true love. The Duke recognizes his agitation and ascribes it...
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to his love for Olivia when it may be no more than his impatience with her denials.
When Viola declares that she, too, loves a “woman” of the Duke’s age and complexion, Orsino scolds her for choosing someone too old. He proclaims that men’s “fancies are more giddy and unfirm” than women’s, and men often lose interest in older women as they age. This piece of “wisdom” may be true in part but fails to consider the breadth of possible expressions of love.
When the conversation between Orsino and Viola continues after Feste’s song, the Duke continues to reveal how much his passions have blinded him to the realities of true love. He orders Viola to return to Olivia and refuses to take no for an answer. When Viola tentatively asks Orsino how he would feel if a woman loved him like he loves Olivia, and he could not respond positively to her love, the Duke once again shows his ignorance.
The Duke claims that no one could ever feel so strong a passion as his. A woman’s passion, he explains in the parlance of the day, is from the palate rather than the liver—that is, it is merely sensual and not true love. He feels that women’s passions are soon sated and forgotten, whereas he will remain forever.
The audience recognizes the dramatic irony of this, for Viola’s love for Orsino appears to be substantial rather than a passing fancy. Viola reveals her wisdom when she remarks that men tend to speak much about their love and make many vows but prove “little” in their love. She has described the Duke perfectly.
The tone of scene 5 contrasts considerably with that of scene 4. Scene 5 hilariously presents Maria’s prank on Malvolio and the latter’s descent into true foolishness as Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian watch and comment from the sidelines.
Malvolio’s ambition is evident even before he finds the “love letter.” He pictures himself as “Count Malvolio,” occupying a seat of authority and threatening Sir Toby with expulsion from the household if he fails to amend his ways and get rid of Sir Andrew. Olivia does not even figure in the fantasy, for Malvolio is arguably more in love with himself and his aspirations than with her.
Maria’s letter is cleverly composed to provide Malvolio with the challenge of a riddle and specific instructions for his humiliation. Malvolio quickly “solves” the riddle in his favor merely by noting that all the letters in the series of initials are in his name.
The riddle is never explained and may lack any meaning, for Maria realizes that no matter what she writes, Malvolio will make it fit his designs. His desires supersede his reason. Further, Maria contrives the letter’s instructions to detail everything Olivia despises, yet Malvolio fails to notice.
Malvolio has probably been in the service of Olivia and her family for years. Still, his focus is on himself and his ambition, so he has likely paid little attention to Olivia’s preferences and personality. Therefore, he takes the letter at face value and begins playing the fool to entertain Maria, Sir Toby, and their companions.