Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

At Olivia's house, her uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and her maid, Maria, talk about Olivia's grief for her brother. Sir Toby is frustrated: "What a plague means my niece to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure care's an enemy to life." He wants to have fun. In particular he wants Olivia to accept his friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, as a husband. But Sir Andrew is hardly an impressive specimen, and Olivia has not taken any notice of him.

Analysis

Shakespeare's comedies inevitably include some elements of low comedy—things done purely to make people laugh, often involving physical humor, crude jokes, sexual innuendo, boasting, and drunkenness. This helped keep the attention of the groundlings, those members of the audience who bought cheap tickets, stood nearest the stage, and were known to throw food at the actors when they were bored. While they certainly enjoyed the dramatic speeches, a few quick, easy laughs also helped keep them engaged. Shakespeare's plays often include a host of characters who are guaranteed to provide this type of humor. Low-comedy characters typically speak in prose rather than in verse, as in this scene, in which the audience meets Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's servant Maria, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek for the first time.

Sir Toby characterizes himself immediately by saying "care's an enemy to life." Olivia, in his mind, needs to stop being so sad, but his approach of drunken and noisy partying does not suit his niece at all, as Maria tries to explain. Sir Toby teases Maria with a play on words; when she tells him to "confine" his activities, he takes it as a request to dress better. Maria brings up another grievance: Sir Andrew. From Maria and Sir Toby's conversation, the audience understands Sir Toby likes Sir Andrew chiefly because he has money and is easy to manipulate. Maria says Sir Andrew is foolish and cowardly. His surname, Aguecheek, also suggests he is skinny, as if he is suffering from a disease.

When Sir Andrew does appear, he immediately demonstrates his foolishness. Sir Toby encourages him to flirt with Maria, hinting with sexual innuendo, but Sir Andrew doesn't seem to understand what Sir Toby means. Maria does, and she dismisses the idea, leading Sir Toby to complain that Sir Andrew was "put down." Although Sir Andrew is foolish, he knows he won't win Olivia. He tells Sir Toby she won't even see him. Nevertheless, with minimal persuasion from Sir Toby, he swears to stay "a month longer," and the two of them go off to celebrate noisily.

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