Twelfth Night Act I, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act I, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Orsino: the Duke of Illyria, who is madly in love with Olivia

Curio: one of the Duke’s attendants

Valentine: another gentleman attending the Duke

The play opens at the Duke’s palace in Illyria. The Duke is lovesick, and so the first 15 lines express his powerful love for the Countess Olivia. He pours forth sweet words of passion for his love object.

He desires to have music feed his appetite for love. He feels at first that he can’t get enough of the energizing “food of love,” but abruptly urges the musicians to stop playing: “Enough, no more!”

Then, addressing the “spirit of love,” he characterizes it as so broad a force that nothing can outdo or overcome it. Love is very, very powerful.

After this outpouring, one of the Duke’s attendants, Curio, asks him if he plans to go hunting. But Orsino is in no mood for recreation; he is deeply in love. So his response is more than a mere “no.” He says that his desire for Olivia has stronger control over him than anything else.

Valentine, another attendant, enters with words that the Duke does want to listen to because they concern Olivia. Valentine informs the Duke of Olivia’s mourning. She is grieving the loss of her dead brother and plans to stay in mourning for a long time. So, for her, love is out!

This news frustrates the Duke. He realizes that he will not achieve the object of his desire—at least, not yet. He recognizes that Olivia is full of love, but is channeling it in another direction, away from him. Still, his lover’s hope does not lessen as long as he feels that love will awaken in Olivia.

The first scene leads us instantly into the major theme of the play—love. Shakespeare, the skillful dramatist, wastes no time in developing it. In so doing, he uses poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, puns, and synesthesia to reveal the extraordinary nature of true love.

The poetry of the Duke’s opening speech clearly conveys the power of his love for Olivia:

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

The Duke uses a physical metaphor of eating food to show how strong his experience of love is. He commands the musicians to overwhelm him with music, so that his lingering appetite for Olivia will die. He is totally wrapped up in his love for her.

Further on in the Duke’s opening speech, he directly addresses the “spirit of love,” using a falconry metaphor to indicate the depth of true love. One doesn’t have to be a hunter to appreciate the thought he tries to convey. Consider that the sky is such a broad and spacious area and that falcons can reach great heights while flying. The power of the poetry here rests in comparing the experience of love with the falcon reaching its highest point in flight. It’s a dizzying image. The bird reaches its highest point and then must come down to lower heights. Just as the falcon cannot outdistance the sky, so “nought” can overdo or overwhelm the power of love. All other forces and influences will “fall into abatement” if they try to overwhelm...

(The entire section is 854 words.)