If music be the food of love, play on,
. . .
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh are thou. . . .
In the land of Illyria, Duke Orsino enters, attended by his lords. Orsino is hopelessly in love with the beautiful Lady Olivia and pines away for her. He refuses to hunt and orders musicians to entertain him while he thinks about his desire for Olivia. His servant Valentine reminds him that Olivia does not return his love or even listen to the messages he sends her. We learn from Valentine that Olivia is in mourning for her brother, who has recently died. She wears a dark veil, and she has vowed that no one will see her face for another seven years—and she refuses to marry anyone until then. Orsino, obsessed with the woman who keeps refusing him, wants only to lie around on beds of flowers, listening to sweet music and dreaming of Olivia.
Meanwhile, on the Illyrian sea coast, a young noblewoman named Viola speaks with the captain whose crew has just rescued her from a shipwreck. Although Viola was found and rescued, her brother, Sebastian, seems to have vanished in the storm. The captain tells Viola that Sebastian may still be alive. He says that he saw Sebastian trying to keep afloat by tying himself to a broken mast. But Viola does not know whether or not it is worth holding onto hope. In the meantime, however, she needs to find a way to support herself in this strange land.
The ship’s captain tells Viola all about Duke Orsino, who rules Illyria. Viola remarks that she has heard of this duke and mentions that he used to be a bachelor. The captain says that Orsino still is a bachelor, but then goes on to tell Viola about the Lady Olivia, whom the duke is courting. Again, we hear the tale of how Lady Olivia’s brother died, leading her to cut herself off from the world. Viola expresses a wish that she could become a servant in the house of Olivia and hide herself away from the world as well. The captain responds that it is unlikely that Viola will enter Olivia’s service because Olivia refuses to see any visitors, the duke included. Viola decides that, in that case, she will disguise herself as a young man and seek service with Duke Orsino instead. When she promises to pay him well, the captain agrees to help her, and they go off together in order to find a disguise for her.
Viola’s plan for disguising herself in Act I, scene ii introduces one of the central motifs of the play: disguise and the identity confusion related to it. Similarly, Orsino’s mournful speech in Act I, scene i lets us know that the play will also concern matters of love: emotion, desire, and rejection. Put together, the two scenes suggest the extra twist that is the hallmark of Twelfth Night: mistaken gender identity. Twelfth Night is one of the plays referred to as Shakespeare’s “transvestite comedies,” and Viola’s gender deception leads to all kinds of romantic complications.
The opening lines of Twelfth Night, in which a moping Orsino, attended by his servants and musicians, says, “If music be the food of love, play on,” establish how love has conquered Orsino (I.i.1). His speech on this subject is rather complicated, as he employs a metaphor to try to establish some control over love. He asks for the musicians to give him so much music—the “food of love”—that he will overdose (“surfeit” [I.i.2]) and not be hungry for love any longer. Orsino’s trick proves too simple, however; while it makes him tire of the music, it fails to stop him from thinking about love.
Orsino also makes a pertinent comment about the relationship between romance and imagination: “So full of shapes is fancy / That it alone is high fantastical” (I.i.14–15). This comment relates the idea of overpowering love (“fancy”) to that of imagination (that which is “fantastical”), a connection that is appropriate for both Orsino and Twelfth Night as a whole. Beginning in this scene, the play repeatedly raises the question of whether romantic love has more to do with the person who is loved or with the lover’s own imagination—whether love is real or merely something that the human mind creates for the sake of entertainment and delight. In the case of Orsino, the latter seems to be true, as he is less in love with Olivia herself than he is with the idea of being in love with Olivia. He claims to be devastated because she will not have him, but as the audience watches him wallow in his seeming misery, it is difficult to escape the impression that he is enjoying himself—flopping about on rose-covered beds, listening to music, and waxing eloquent about Olivia’s beauty to his servants. The genuineness of Orsino’s emotions comes into question even further when he later switches his affections from Olivia to Viola without a second thought; the audience then suspects that he does not care whom he is in love with, as long as he can be in love.
Meanwhile, Viola’s decision to disguise herself as a young man in order to find a job seems somewhat improbable. Surely this elaborate ploy isn’t necessary; even if Orsino only hires young men, there must be ladies other than Olivia in Illyria who are hiring servants. But Viola’s act of disguising herself generates an endless number of interesting situations to advance the plot. Shakespeare’s comedies frequently rely on similar improbabilities, ranging from absurd coincidences to identical twins. We can interpret Viola’s disguise as something that makes the unprotected young woman feel safer in the strange land into which she has wandered. When she first describes her plan in this scene, she asks the ship’s captain to disguise her as a eunuch—a castrated man. This part of the plan is never mentioned again, and Shakespeare seems to have changed his mind or forgotten about it: Viola later presents herself as simply a delicate young man. Still, the idea of a eunuch is important to the play, since it stands as yet another symbol of gender uncertainty.
In noting the gender confusion that pervades Twelfth Night, it is important to realize that, for Shakespeare’s audiences, the idea of a girl successfully disguising herself as a boy wasn’t as ludicrous as it might seem to us. In Shakespeare’s day, all the parts in a play were acted by men: women weren’t allowed to perform on the English stage until the late 1600s, more than half a century after Shakespeare flourished. Thus, every acting company included several delicate young boys, who played the female characters. Renaissance audiences were open to the idea that a young man could convincingly disguise himself as a woman, and vice versa. Such fluidity in portraying characters of either gender adds an extra dimension to the complexity of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing characters.