Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary



Three days have passed. Viola, disguised as a boy named Cesario, is Orsino's new favorite servant. Valentine, one of Orsino's attendants, tells her so, and reassures her that Orsino is not "inconstant" in his treatment of servants. Orsino commands Cesario to go to Olivia and wait outside her gate until she receives his message. He thinks Cesario might be able to gain admittance to see Olivia and woo her effectively because he is so young and looks almost like a girl. Viola agrees to see Olivia, but does so reluctantly—she has fallen in love with Orsino herself.


It is extraordinary that Viola would be Orsino's favorite servant after only three days at his court. Maybe Orsino is easily swayed by a new face, but Valentine's comment indicates otherwise. Viola must have been a particularly effective servant in those three days for Orsino to be so determined to send her to speak to Olivia.

Why is Orsino so desperate to have Olivia? He tells Cesario to push the boundaries of polite behavior if that is what it takes for Cesario to get an audience with Olivia. Olivia seems to have become a symbol of idealized womanhood to Orsino, and he is determined to conquer her. Many marriages in Elizabethan England were more practical than romantic, particularly for titled individuals. But Orsino is not seeking Olivia's lands or titles. She is a countess, but he is the ruler of Illyria. Orsino's conversation focuses solely on the lady's personal qualities, and he is determined to have her—at great emotional cost to Viola, who has already fallen in love with Orsino.

At the end of the scene, Orsino suggests Cesario will be more effective in wooing Olivia because of his youth. He says: "For they shall yet belie thy happy years / That say thou art a man." He describes Cesario's lips as hairless and his voice as feminine, even comparing his lips to those of the goddess Diana. Orsino thus seems to be attracted to his male servant (though he is clearly interested in women), yet it never occurs to him that Cesario might be a woman.

Viola says she wishes she could marry Orsino. Shakespeare's use of language in Twelfth Night shows the audience that Orsino and Viola are meant to be together. Orsino and Viola both speak in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter, or alternately stressed, 10-syllable lines) because they are noble characters. When Orsino is raving about his love for Olivia, however, Shakespeare deliberately breaks some of the lines. Sometimes Shakespeare intentionally makes a line by Orsino shorter than 10 syllables, and some of Orsino's broken lines are actually completed by Viola (in other words, if Orsino's and Viola's lines are combined, they equal 10 syllables). For example, at the end of the scene, Orsino's line ends " ... To call his fortunes thine" and Viola responds, "I'll do my best." Each looks like a half-line, but together they add up to a full line. They appear to be visually related on the printed page. This relationship between Orsino and Viola's lines is suggestive of the culmination of their romance by the end of the play—in other words, they are meant for each other because they complete each other's thoughts.
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