Last Updated on September 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126
Act 4, scene 1 opens in the midst of an argument between Sebastian and Feste. Olivia has sent Feste to summon Cesario, but Feste has mistakenly approached Sebastian, who angrily denies knowing anything about the matter. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian enter, and Sir Andrew strikes Sebastian, who immediately hits him back and draws his dagger. While Feste runs for Olivia, Sir Toby holds Sebastian’s arm, and Sir Andrew threatens a lawsuit. Sebastian breaks away from Sir Toby and draws his sword, but then Olivia enters. Olivia also identifies Sebastian as Cesario and blames Sir Toby for the confrontation. She invites Sebastian inside, and, thinking he must be in a dream, he follows her.
Feste disguises himself as the priest Sir Topas to taunt Malvolio, who is now locked in a dark room as a madman. Feste pretends to believe that Malvolio is possessed by a demon and tells the steward that he is not really in the dark at all but rather surrounded by windows. Malvolio continues to insist that he is not mad and is indeed in darkness. Feste taunts him further with Pythagoras’s opinion about reincarnation and says that Malvolio must accept it to prove he is not crazy. Malvolio refuses to approve of such a theory.
Feste then reverts to his own persona to continue to ridicule Malvolio, but Sir Toby is beginning to have second thoughts. He has fallen out of favor with his niece and is nearly ready to give up the prank and free Malvolio. Feste, however, sings and teases Malvolio, even as he reiterates his sanity and begs for paper, ink, and light so that he might write to Olivia and plead his cause.
Sebastian cannot decide if he is the luckiest or the craziest of men. He cannot find Antonio, so he is wondering what has happened to his friend, but he is more distracted by Olivia’s behavior. She has given him a pearl and treated him with great love, and he does not understand why. Yet she cannot be mad, for she manages her household well, and she possesses a “smooth, discreet, and stable bearing.”
Olivia interrupts Sebastian’s musings with a priest and a proposal. She asks Sebastian to go to the chapel with her and participate in a betrothal ceremony. They do not have to make their relationship public yet, she grants, but her “most jealous and too doubtful soul” wants to secure his pledge. Sebastian agrees, and the two exit with the priest.
In act 4, deception reveals its consequences and revelry turns sour as one of Sir Toby’s pranks backfires and another turns into cruelty. Sir Andrew, urged on by Sir Toby and Fabian, has decided to continue his challenge toward Cesario, but he never expects to come face-to-face with Sebastian instead. Sir Andrew strikes Sebastian, thinking the young man before him is Cesario. Sebastian, however, strikes back and draws his dagger. Sir Andrew was not expecting this, and Sir Toby has to work hard to restrain Sebastian until Olivia arrives while Sir Andrew howls about a lawsuit, even though he struck first. Olivia is furious at the attack on her “beloved,” and Sir Toby loses whatever was left of her favor. His prank has backfired on him and on Sir Andrew, who is humiliated rather than revenged (although Sir Toby probably enjoys that).
The other ongoing prank is that against Malvolio, and it takes a cruel turn. Malvolio has been locked in a dark house, which was a common treatment for people suffering from mental illness, for it was thought to calm their overactive senses. Malvolio, though, is not insane, even if he is self-centered, ambitious, stern, scolding, and sour. Sir Toby and Feste do their best to try to make him seem insane in scene 2, when Feste, disguised as a priest, talks in circles, tries to convince Malvolio that he is really sitting in a bright room, and ignores Malvolio’s pleas. Such is enough to madden Malvolio, but he continues to insist upon his sanity and innocence. At this point, the prank has actually become callous and inhumane. Malvolio may be a curmudgeon who tries to stop others from having their fun, but he does not deserve such torture. A fake “love letter” that leads to embarrassment is one thing; deliberate physical and mental abuse is another. This prank of revelry is no longer lighthearted and teasing, and the play seems to be inviting the audience to reflect on when and how a joke is no longer funny.
Viola’s deceptive disguise reveals another of its consequences in act 4. Olivia sees Sebastian and mistakes him for her beloved Cesario. Sebastian, of course, has no idea what she is talking about or even who she is. He wonders if he is crazy or dreaming, but he follows Olivia, first into the house and then straight to the altar for their betrothal ceremony. Sebastian believes that he has fallen madly in love with Olivia, but his experience is far closer to mere infatuation. He knows nothing at all about Olivia. At one point, he even questions whether or not she is mad but decides she must not be because she seems stable. Yet he gladly agrees to a betrothal with a woman he has just met. This is not true love, for it has no foundation in mutual knowledge and understanding. Sebastian is merely fascinated and captivated by this beautiful woman who claims to love him.
Olivia, for her part, fails to recognize that Sebastian is not actually Cesario. Someone who is truly in love with another person ought to know that person well enough not to be fooled, even by a near duplicate, but of course, Olivia does not actually know Cesario at all. If she had, little differences in speech, expression, stance, and motion would have told her that Sebastian is not Cesario. Olivia’s love, too, is still shallow and probably best characterized as infatuation.
A modern audience may be confused by the difference between a betrothal and a marriage. Sebastian and Olivia go to the chapel for a betrothal ceremony. In doing so, they become engaged to be married and bind themselves to marrying only each other. In Shakespeare’s day, a betrothal was a legal contract, and there could be serious consequences for breaking it. Olivia wants this commitment from Cesario so that her jealous heart and “doubtful soul” might feel more at ease. Sebastian seems entranced by the situation, and while he probably enters into this betrothal with good intentions, he does so under false pretenses. He is simply not Cesario, and he does not bother to explain that to Olivia. The betrothal is fraudulent because of the deception involved.
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