Download Twelfth Night Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Shakespeare for Students)

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, naught enters there,
Of what validity and pitch so'er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute.


Orsino's opening meditation on his unrequited love for Olivia encompasses some of the most famous lines and images in the whole Shakespeare canon. The lines also identify the major themes and concerns of Twelfth Night. In the lines above, the references to love and to the sea encompass elements that will resound throughout the action of the play. Orsino compares the capacity of love to the capacity of the ocean in its ability to be infinite and overpowering. (cf: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet who also expresses her love in the same terms: "My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / my love as deep. The more I give to thee / the more I have for both are infinite" II.i.175-177.) He goes on to say that love can also be destructive since, like the sea, its ability to completely consume the mind and heart of a person can eventually destroy them—much as the sea eventually destroys and devalues everything that is washed into it.

So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.


The essence of these lines is that love can take many shapes and forms. Not only that, but it can also be highly imaginative in the way it presents itself and consumes the mind and imagination of lovers. The word 'fancy' is often associated with love in Shakespeare, particularly with love that is illusory or deceptive. Orsino's over-romanticised love for Olivia is deceptive in that his love is presented as fancy: he loves with his eyes and only imagines that his love comes from the heart. The notion of fancy, or illusory love sets up the situation for Orsino's journey in the play. He needs to be 'cured' of his imaginative fancies about love and to discover what 'true' love really is.

O when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence;


Orsino's declaration of his love for Olivia prepares us for the play's focus on the kaleidoscopic nature of love. Love in Illyria takes many different forms: love at first sight; love versus lust; self-love; self-indulgent love; the love of true friendship; true love. In this quote it is clear that Orsino's love for Olivia is based on his first sighting of her: his love is about seeing rather than feeling. His words also identify love with disease, specifically a pestilence or plague. To the Elizabethans, the word 'pestilence' carried negative and frightening associations since the plague was an ever-present threat to their lives. In this case, Orsino suggests that the very sight of Olivia has the power to cleanse the air around her of disease, but the irony is that Orsino himself has fallen prey to the disease of love.

That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.


One of the play's many classical allusions, and one that expresses love in violent imagery. Orsino is vividly expressing his frustrated love for Olivia by comparing himself in metaphor to the hunter Actaeon. In Greek legend, Actaeon saw the goddess Artemis bathing naked in a river. In punishment she turned him into a stag whereupon he was pursued by his own hounds and torn to pieces by them. These lines again highlight the destructive abilities of love, particularly of illusory love. Orsino is also continuing the hart/heart pun on Valentine's earlier question as to whether Orsino intends to hunt that day.

And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother, he is in Elysium.


Viola believes that her brother has drowned during the storm that wrecked the ship. She asks what is to become of her now that her brother is no longer alive to protect her. Elysium, the classical Greek equivalent to heaven represents a place of peace and eternal joy. The similarity in the sounds of the names seems to link Illyria with Elysium, suggesting a place of security and...

(The entire section is 2,614 words.)