Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



The play begins in Illyria, at the court of Orsino, Duke of Illyria. Orsino calls for music: "If music be the food of love, play on." He is suffering agonies of love, which he expects his entire court to suffer with him. He loves Countess Olivia. He barely knows her, but she is beautiful, noble, and wealthy, so he pursues her. However, since her brother's recent death (and her father's death not too long ago), Olivia has gone into deep mourning and will receive none of his messengers.


The play is set in Illyria, an imaginary country in Shakespeare's time, but which did exist as a country hundreds of years earlier, around the 10th century BCE, on the Balkan Peninsula. It eventually became part of the Roman Empire. Shakespeare often chose exotic locations for his plays, which allowed him to invent bizarre customs or laws or to present situations that would not occur in Elizabethan England. He often uses cities in Italy for this purpose, but he also invented his own countries.

By using a fictional setting, Shakespeare could more easily claim the people or events in his plays did not represent real people. For example, he could insist Orsino did not represent a particular duke. Orsino suffers tremendously from unrequited love for Olivia, a woman he has scarcely ever seen. The only thing that soothes him is music, particularly sad music: "That strain again! It had a dying fall."

Orsino speaks in blank verse. Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter, so each line is made up of 10 syllables, usually five stressed alternating with five unstressed syllables, but without rhyme. Shakespeare regularly used blank verse for the speech of his noble or higher-status characters. In Twelfth Night, blank verse is also often used when talking about love.

Orsino is not the only character with a dramatic—some would say overdramatic—reaction to the events in his life. For instance, after her brother's death, Olivia vows she will remain in mourning, veiled, and hidden from "the element itself" (i.e., the sky) for seven years. By today's standards, many Shakespearean plays appear almost soap opera–like in terms of dramatic reactions and effects, and Twelfth Night is no exception. However, Shakespeare is establishing the play as a comedy, so characters have exaggerated reactions to relatively normal events such as unrequited love or a sibling's death. People generally survive unrequited love, and while a sibling's death is painful and tragic, seven years of deep mourning and isolation seem a bit extreme.
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