Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house
. . .
Cry out “Olivia!”. . .
In Olivia’s house, Maria talks with Feste, Olivia’s clown. Feste has been away for some time, it seems, and nobody knew where he was. Maria tells Feste that he will be in trouble with Olivia and that Olivia is likely to fire him. But, despite her threats not to stick up for him, Feste refuses to tell Maria where he has been.
Olivia arrives with Malvolio, the steward of her household. As Maria has anticipated, Olivia orders her servants to put Feste out of the house. But Feste, summoning up all his wit and skill, manages to put Olivia into a better mood. He asks her why she is mourning, and she answers that she is mourning for her brother. He says that he thinks her brother’s soul is in hell, and she replies that he is in heaven. “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven,” he says, and she responds approvingly (I.v.61–62). But Malvolio does not like Feste and asks coldly why Olivia wishes to keep a servant around who has no function except to poke fun at her. Olivia rebukes Malvolio for his “self-love” and says that Feste’s insults are only “birdbolts” that do no damage (I.v.77–79).
Maria arrives with the message that there is a young man at the gate to see Olivia. (We know that this must be Viola, disguised as Cesario, bringing the message that Orsino gives her in Act I, scene iv.) It turns out that Sir Toby is currently talking to the young man, but Olivia sends Malvolio out to receive the messenger. Sir Toby comes in, obviously drunk (despite the early hour of the morning), and Olivia criticizes him for his alcoholism. Sir Toby goes out, and Olivia sends Feste to look after him.
Malvolio comes back, reporting that the young man refuses to leave the house until he has spoken with Olivia. Olivia asks Malvolio what the young man is like and receives the report that he is very young, handsome, and delicate-looking. Olivia is intrigued, and she decides to let the boy speak with her.
Viola, disguised as Cesario, is let in to see Olivia. Viola begins to deliver the love speech that Orsino gave her, but Olivia refuses to hear the memorized speech. Viola is eloquent enough to make Olivia pay attention to her, though, as she praises Olivia’s great beauty and virtues to the skies. Olivia, increasingly fascinated by the messenger, begins to turn the conversation to questions about Cesario himself. Asking him about his parentage, she learns that Cesario comes from an aristocratic family (which, technically, is not a lie, since Viola’s family is noble).
Olivia sends Cesario back to Orsino to tell him that Olivia still does not love him and never will. But she tells the young man to come back, if he wishes, and speak to her again about “how he [Orsino] takes it” (I.v.252). Then, after Cesario leaves, she sends Malvolio after him with a ring—a token of her attraction to Cesario—that she pretends Cesario left with her. Olivia, to her own surprise, finds that she has fallen passionately in love with young Cesario.
At the beginning of Act I, scene v, we first meet Olivia’s clown, Feste. (Feste’s name is mentioned only once in the play; the stage directions usually refer to him simply as “Clown,” while other characters call him “clown” or “fool.”) Many noble households in the Renaissance kept a clown, and Shakespeare’s comedies usually feature at least one. The fool’s purpose was to amuse his noble masters and to tell the truth when no one else would think of telling it. The dual nature of the job meant that fools often pretended to be simpleminded when, in fact, most of them were skilled professionals and were highly intelligent.
Feste embodies this duality: he spends much of his time making witty puns, as is expected, but he also has a sense of professionalism and of his own worth. As Feste says to Olivia when she orders him to be taken away, “Lady, ‘Cucullus non facit monachum’—that’s as much to say as I wear not motley in my brain” (I.v.48–50). Feste means that his brightly colored clown’s uniform—his “motley”—doesn’t imply that he is any less intelligent than she is. Moreover, his ability to quote a Latin proverb on behalf of his argument reveals the depth of his learning. The Latin phrase means “The hood doesn’t make the monk”—that is, what appears to be true is not always in harmony with what is true. Like Viola, then, Feste wears a kind of disguise: hers disguises her identity as a woman, while his conceals his true intelligence.
In this scene, we also meet both Olivia and her steward, Malvolio, for the first time. Malvolio has become, over time, perhaps the most famous character in Twelfth Night. He plays a small role in this scene, but he immediately attracts our attention because of how out of place he seems. In a comic play filled with ridiculous characters, Malvolio is serious and sour, with a distaste for amusement and laughter of any kind, as we see in his reaction to Feste. As the play goes on, the conflict between his temperament and that of the other characters—especially Sir Toby and Sir Andrew—comes out into the open, with extreme consequences.
Malvolio seems oddly matched with his mistress, given Olivia’s emotionalism and her wild mood swings. When we first meet her, she is deep in mourning, but by the end of the scene, her grief gives way to a powerful infatuation with Cesario. In part, Shakespeare uses Olivia to portray romantic love as a kind of sickness that strikes people without warning. Love cannot be controlled; instead, it controls people. Olivia’s sudden attraction to Cesario recalls the way Orsino talks about his love for Olivia in Act I, scene i. There, Orsino speaks of love as if it were a sickness that has overcome him, and then says that he has turned into a deer and “my desires, like fell and cruel hounds / E’er since pursue me” (I.i.21–22). In the same way, Olivia describes her sudden love for the handsome, young Cesario as a disease that has overwhelmed her. Just after Cesario leaves, she asks herself in confusion, “Even so quickly may one catch the plague? / Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections / . . . / To creep in at mine eyes” (I.v.265–268).
Olivia’s language, like Orsino’s, reflects Renaissance ideas of courtly or romantic love: Olivia’s and Orsino’s descriptions of love—as a hunter, disease, or something willed by fate—echo ideas about romance that were common in Shakespeare’s day. The same can be said of the language that Viola uses to describe Orsino’s love for Olivia. For instance, Viola tells Olivia that Orsino loves her “[w]ith adorations, fertile tears, / With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire” (I.v.274–275). Courtly ideals are also reflected in Viola’s “willow cabin” speech in Act I, scene v (lines 237–245), in which she tells Olivia what she would do if she were the one trying to court Olivia. Viola says that she would build herself a house outside Olivia’s gate, write Olivia love songs and sing them in the middle of the night, and call out Olivia’s name until the hills and air echoed. This kind of romantic exaggeration was the kind of language often used by lovers and poets in Shakespeare’s time.
Yet even as the play operates within the bounds of this tradition of courtly love, it also subverts it by showing how ridiculous it can be. After all, Viola’s pretty speeches do not reflect her own thoughts but instead those of Orsino—and Orsino is really more in love with himself and his own inner life than he is with Olivia, as later scenes make clear. Furthermore, Olivia falls in love with Cesario after a few pretty speeches—but Cesario is really a woman who has herself fallen in love with Orsino in a matter of days! Thus, the play suggests that we should not take the various characters’ romantic obsessions too seriously—they seem to come and go quickly and to be based less on real attraction than on self-indulgent emotionalism.