Duke Orsino

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Last Updated on September 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573

Extended Character Analysis

Duke Orsino is the duke of Illyria. He is mercurial and passionate, and he is more in love with the idea of being in love than he is with any person. He passionately pursues Lady Olivia for the majority of the play while simultaneously revealing his personal thoughts and emotions to Cesario.

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Orsino and Surfeiting Love

Duke Orsino is so in love with Lady Olivia—or at least he believes he is—that he wishes to be drowned in Olivia’s love. The idea of satiety, or of being surfeited in love, is something that Orsino longs for throughout the play. He only wishes for his love-sickness to end, claiming, “If music be the food of love, play on!”

Orsino exemplifies love’s irrationality in his decisions and his tendency to leap into romance. His affection for Olivia has little foundation. Orsino appears to enjoy pining for Olivia more so than he actually loves and wants to be with Olivia. Olivia’s consistent refusal allows him to continue to be in the throes of unrequited love as opposed to actually being with Olivia.

Orsino’s Friendship with Cesario

In Twelfth Night, Orsino is unaware that Cesario, his recently hired servant, is Viola in disguise. However, he does feel a certain attraction towards Cesario because of Cesario’s “shrill” voice and feminine looks. Orsino allows Cesario into his confidence within three days, which is a short period in which to begin to trust a stranger. Furthermore, Orsino claims that he has opened his soul to Cesario like a book and has allowed Cesario to see his deeper emotions and thoughts: “I have unclasped / to thee the book even of my secret soul.” In doing so, Orsino forms a close relationship with Cesario, inspiring Viola’s eventual love for Orsino.

Unfortunately for Viola, Orsino trusts Cesario enough to send her to woo Lady Olivia for him. Cesario’s existence is also a tool for Orsino; as a Duke, he is likely unable to act out, so he instead asks Cesario to go to Olivia and “be clamorous and leap all civil bounds.” Whereas Orsino cannot do this, Cesario can. Furthermore, Orsino believes that Cesario’s admirable feminine features will help. He claims that Lady Olivia will be more inclined to return Orsino’s favor after hearing it from a younger and sweeter-looking man like Cesario. Ironically, Orsino’s idea ruins any chance of gaining Olivia’s love—being unwilling or unable to go and woo her himself, he inadvertently causes Olivia to fall for Cesario.

Orsino’s quick friendship with Cesario and his unrequited love for Lady Olivia highlight his irrational nature when it comes to love and relationships. This reflects Twelfth Night’s underlying theme of the revelry and madness of love.

Orsino and Viola

Orsino continues pursuing his unrequited love for Olivia until Viola casts off her disguise and reveals that she is truly a young woman. Orsino then happily agrees to marry Viola, despite claiming to have been in love with Lady Olivia for almost the entire play. He sees that he can still gain something from the situation by marrying Viola, stating, “I shall have share in this happy wrack.”

In Twelfth Night, Orsino shows the madness that love can bring through his pining for Olivia. However, when there is no longer a problem of identity, his decisions in love become more logical, as everything has returned to its “proper” place. 

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