Last Updated on September 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927
As scene 1 begins, Viola and Feste are discussing the whimsicality of words and engaging in a witty exchange of wordplay. Viola pays Feste for his entertainment, noting that “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, / And to do that well craves a kind of wit.” Feste, she continues, is a close observer of human beings, and he turns their folly into wise remarks.
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew enter and speak briefly to Viola before Olivia arrives and orders them out so that she may have a private conversation with Cesario. As before, Viola declares her purpose of coming to woo Olivia on Orsino’s behalf. Olivia declares that she never wishes to hear of the Duke again and admits that she sent the ring after Viola at their last meeting. She realizes that her honor is at stake and that it depends on what Viola will say next. Viola responds, “I pity you.” Olivia identifies pity as a form of love, but Viola is quick to correct her. Olivia then remarks that it may be time to abandon love, and she acts as though she means to send Viola on her way, but as Viola is leaving, Olivia stops her. Viola tells Olivia that she does not realize what she is doing and says, “I am not what I am.” Ignoring these words, Olivia admits her love for Cesario. Viola responds that she has only one heart and that no woman shall ever be mistress of it.
At the beginning of scene 2, Sir Andrew is angry, for he has overheard the exchange between Olivia and Viola and is jealous. Fabian, however, responds that Olivia has really given Sir Andrew proof of her love for him, for she has shown favor to the “young man” only to wake Sir Andrew up and “put fire in your heart, and brimstone in your liver.” He continues by noting that Sir Andrew should have interrupted, for that was what Olivia was expecting, but now he has missed his opportunity and must make it up through some act of valor.
Sir Toby suggests that Sir Andrew challenge Cesario to a fight, for he is sure to impress Olivia if he hurts the young man “in eleven places.” Fabian agrees that this is the only possible course of action, and Sir Toby adds that the written challenge must be “eloquent and full of invention” and packed with taunts and lies. Sir Andrew exits to write his letter.
Sir Toby confides to Fabian that he doubts Sir Andrew will ever actually follow through with his challenge, and Fabian adds that the “young man” does not seem cruel. Maria then arrives and reports that Malvolio is following every line of her false love letter and that if Sir Toby and Fabian want a good laugh, they should come and see.
In scene 1, Shakespeare calls attention to his own masterful wordplay. When Viola asks Feste if he lives by the tabor, he responds that he lives by the church. She wonders if he is a churchman then. No, he says, he just lives next door to the church. The joke revolves on the double meaning of “live by,” first as a reference to one’s profession and second as a reference to one’s location.
Viola picks up on the linguistic humor and applies it further, to which Feste responds, “A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turn’d outward!” He means that a witty person can play with words and turn their meanings inside out and upside down as quickly as someone can do the same with a flexible kidskin glove. Viola is quick to agree but warns that one who dallies with words “may quickly make them wanton.” Words can be misused as well as manipulated in fun. Feste proceeds to provide a prime example by wishing that his sister had no name. In response to Viola’s “why,” Feste explains that a name is a word and “to dally with that word might make my sister wanton.” Words, indeed, are rascals, he concludes, and sometimes even false. In these rich lines, Shakespeare is both playing with words and warning his audience to be careful of them.
Shakespeare also plays with a secondary theme of interpretation and misinterpretation in these two scenes. Olivia interprets Viola’s statement “I pity you” as an expression of love, which it is not, and she completely misinterprets Viola’s anger at being made a fool as a “love that would seem hid.” Indeed, Olivia has become much like Orsino; she, too, will not accept no as an answer to her wooing.
Fabian takes interpretation and misinterpretation to an extreme in scene 2. In response to Sir Andrew’s anger after witnessing the encounter between Olivia and Viola, Fabian calmly explains that Olivia showed favor to Cesario only to make Sir Andrew jealous and to spur him to some act of valor. This interpretation is nonsense, and Fabian knows it. Olivia is not thinking of Sir Andrew at all, but Sir Andrew is too dim-witted to see through Fabian’s joke and thus accepts his interpretation of Olivia’s action without question. Sir Toby picks up on Fabian’s lead and suggests that this act of valor must involve a challenge to the “young man.” Again, Sir Andrew agrees and falls right into another one of Sir Toby’s pranks. The revelry and deception continue, again in the name of ambition and love.
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