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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 in act 1, scene 1, 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. (See also Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, who expresses her love in the same terms in act 2, scene 1: “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.”) 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 overromanticized 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.

This is 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.

In act 1, scene 2, 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 happiness. The inference is that Illyria will eventually provide the healing that Viola needs after the (apparent) loss of her brother.

There is a fair behaviour in thee, captain
And though that nature with a beauteous wall
Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee
I well believe thou hast a mind that suits
With this thy fair and outward character.

Viola confides her plans for disguising herself as a boy to the sea captain who has saved her from the storm. She comments that although a fair and kindly exterior can sometimes conceal a corrupt soul, she believes that the captain’s nature is as true and loyal as his appearance suggests. This being so, she intends to trust him with her secret plan of dressing herself as a boy to protect herself whilse she is in Illyria, and she will even ask the captain’s aid in achieving this.

Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes.

As Orsino does in act 1, scene 1, Olivia identifies the notion of love at first sight in scene 5. She declares that “Cesario’s” charms are working on her eyes and she is overwhelmed by what she has seen. Just as Orsino’s love for Olivia is presented as “fancy” or illusory love, so is Olivia’s sudden and violent emotion towards Viola-Cesario. Yet this is also a comic moment since, as an audience, we know of her vow of seven-year grieving (reported by Valentine in act 1, scene 1). With the advent of Viola-Cesario, Olivia’s solemn vow toward the memory of her brother is completely overturned in the extravagance of her reactions to this personable young man. It is the moment at which Olivia’s character displays the comic edge that remains throughout the play and alters our image from the romantic, tragic figure in mourning that Orsino has described.

Fate, show thy force; ourselves we do not owe.
What is decreed must be; and be this so.

Olivia’s rapturous rhyming couplet after Viola-Cesario’s exit at the end of act 1, scene 5, identifies another of the play’s themes: that of Fate as the ultimate controller of human destiny. Olivia’s words are comparable with Viola’s invocation to Time to “untangle this, not I,” when she realizes that Olivia “loves me sure.” In this scene, Olivia places the situation in the hands of Fate because, she argues, humans do not own (i.e., control) their own destinies; therefore, she will have to wait and see what happens. (See also Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, whose attitude is opposite in act 1, scene 1: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie / Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky / Gives us free scope.”) She ends with a variation on the proverbial phrase “What must be will be.” This gleeful resolution to let Fate take its course anticipates the comic situation at the end of the play where Olivia does try and take Fate into her own hands by betrothing “Cesario.”

Did you never see the picture of “we three”?

This question from act 2, scene 3, is a topical reference to the caption of contemporary seventeenth-century “trick” pictures of two fools or clowns in which the viewer of the picture then becomes the third “fool.” An anonymous painting of two fools, possibly the well-known jesters Tom Derry and Archie Armstrong, exists by this title Wee Three Logerhds, and it is possible that Shakespeare has something like this painting in mind when he wrote this line. Other versions are known to have existed as inn signs, in which the two “fools” were depicted as asses, which may explain Sir Toby’s greeting to Feste in act 2, scene 3: “Welcome, ass.”

Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Sir Toby is confronting an irate Malvolio, who has come to investigate the noise made by the midnight revelry of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste. The “cakes and ale” of Sir Toby’s speech are a metaphor for the title of the play and also present Illyria as a place of permanent informality and festivity. Twelfth Night marked the end of the season of Christmas festivity and Yuletide leniency which pervaded the great English houses over the twelve days of Christmas. During this period, normal conventions and behavior were disregarded and all attention given to merry-making and revelry. Malvolio, who is said to be “a kind of puritan” in act 2, scene 3, represents the puritanical disapproval of overeating and drinking—so much so that he is prepared to challenge his employer’s uncle on his behavior. Sir Toby’s mocking question is both a challenge to Malvolio’s authority and his puritan beliefs. It highlights his scorn and disregard for his niece’s steward and anticipates the “revenge” he takes on Malvolio later in the play when he has him imprisoned in the dark house.

Why, thou hast put him in such a dream that when the image of it leaves him, he must run mad.

The image of love wavering closely between dreaming and madness is another of the play’s motifs, displayed here in act 2, scene 5. Maria is referring to the “dream” that Malvolio is experiencing of Olivia being in love with him through the trick played by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian. She suggests that once Malvolio realizes it is a trick and that Olivia is not in love with him, the knowledge will drive him mad. Compare these lines with Sebastian’s lines in act 4, scene 1 and his soliloquy at the beginning of act 4, scene 3. Olivia has declared that she is in love with him, and he has never seen her before. In act 4, scene 1, he initially decides that “this is a dream. . . . If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep.” The dreamlike state continues, and in act 4, scene 3, he is desperately seeking some kind of explanation for the situation he finds himself in. He tries to convince himself that “’tis not madness” and that “this may be some error but no madness” but is finally forced to conclude, “I am mad, / Or else the lady’s mad.” Sebastian’s “dream” is temporary in that the apparent madness is dispelled when the identity of the twins is finally revealed and he can claim Olivia as his wife. However, Malvolio’s experience in the dark house turns his “dream” into a living nightmare in which his protestations of sanity are ignored and he is humiliated and humbled.

Have you not set mine honour at the stake
And baited it with all th’unmuzzled thoughts
That tyrannous heart can think?

Here is another example, this time from act 3, scene 1, of the violent intensity of love. Olivia is referring to the Elizabethan sport of bear-baiting, in which a bear was tethered to a stake and is baited by dogs that eventually tore it to pieces. Olivia’s metaphor suggests that she is the bear and her love for Cesario resembles the unmuzzled dogs that tear at the bear’s flesh. This violent image is similar to the one Orsino uses at the beginning of the play in which he compares himself to Actaeon being torn apart by dogs.

Come, we’ll have him in a dark room and bound. My niece is already in the belief that he’s mad.

Sir Toby’s injunction in act 3, scene 4, continues the motif of madness but introduces a darker and more troublesome side to the play. While love can induce a kind of madness that can create the kind of melancholy suffered by Orsino, Sir Toby is refers here to mental insanity. The common cure for insanity during this period was to imprison the patient in a dark room in the belief that the darkness would drive out the evil spirits from the patient’s body. This cruel and often violent practice continued for many years. Sir Toby’s proposal to subject Malvolio to this “cure” when he knows that the madness is not real indicates a dark side to Sir Toby’s character. (See also Dr. Pinch’s proposed treatment for Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus in act 4, scene 4, of The Comedy of Errors: “They must be bound and laid in some dark room.”)

Nothing that is so, is so.

This line from act 4, scene 1, more than any other perhaps, encompasses one of the dominant themes of Twelfth Night, that of deceptive appearances. Within the world of the play, almost everything is deceptive: appearances, love, even death. Feste is speaking this line to Sebastian, whom he believes to be Cesario. Yet Cesario is not who he seems to be either. The play is dominated by a man who seems to be in love with a woman who does not return his love, and this woman herself is in love with a woman who seems to be a man. Viola’s brother seems to be drowned, and Sebastian believes his sister to have died during the shipwreck. These images of deceptive reality also capture the mercurial spirit of the world of Illyria.

Shakespeare has endowed Illyria with a kind of magical quality that allows these inversions of normal behavior and situations. It is only in Illyria that the festival of Twelfth Night can be carried on permanently by Sir Toby and his associates; only in Illyria in which girls can masquerade as boys; only in Illyria where dead siblings can be resurrected. Illyria seems like a real place with a sea coast, storms, and ruling dukes, but it too is not as it seems to be. It is a make-believe world of illusion and fantasy comparable with Shakespeare’s other created, magical worlds: the forest of Arden in As You Like It and Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors.

Clown: But do you remember—“Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal, and you smile not, he’s gagged”? And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

Malvolio: I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!

Feste’s lines here in act 5, scene 1, remind Malvolio of the incident in act 1, scene 5 in which Malvolio dismisses the wit of the fool. Clearly, Feste has nursed a grudge against the steward for his condescending rebuke, and the “jest” against Malvolio in the dark house has been by way of Feste’s revenge. The “whirligig of time” becomes the explanation as to why Malvolio has been treated the way he has. The wheel has come full circle, and Feste’s remark seems to indicate that through the Sir Topas jest, he and Malvolio are now square and the “feud” between them can end. Malvolio, however, does not see it this way and seems set to continue the feud, which casts a damper of reality over the closing moments of the play.

In the theatre, these lines have been played in countless different ways—particularly with regard to Malvolio’s final line and exit. Malvolio’s threat could be directly addressed to the perpetrators of the “joke”—Maria, Sir Toby and Fabian—or more specifically at Feste, with whom he seems to have a running antagonism. Maria describes Malvolio as a “kind of puritan” in act 2, scene 3, and it has also been suggested that this line anticipates the Puritan control of England forty years later, during which the theatres were closed and Twelfth Night revels were ended.

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Quotes in Context