In the house of Lady Olivia, we meet Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and Olivia’s waiting-gentlewoman, Maria. Sir Toby lives at Olivia’s house and is cheerful, amusing, and usually tipsy. Maria warns Sir Toby that Olivia is annoyed by his drinking, but Sir Toby shrugs off this admonition. Maria also tells him that she has heard that he has brought a foolish friend to court Olivia: Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who shares Sir Toby’s disreputable habits. Sir Toby protests that Sir Andrew is a perfect match for his niece, because he is very rich and is also accomplished in music and languages, but Maria doesn’t care: in her view, Sir Andrew is a fool, a brawler, and a drunk.
Sir Andrew enters and, while Sir Toby is trying to introduce him to Maria, makes a fool of himself by repeatedly getting her name wrong. Evidently, Sir Andrew is a bumbling idiot. After Maria leaves, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby talk and joke like old friends. But Sir Andrew tells Sir Toby that he is discouraged and that he does not think that Olivia likes him. He plans to leave the next morning, and he remarks that Olivia will probably choose Orsino over him. Sir Toby persuades him to stay by flattering him. He says that Olivia will never marry “above her degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit,” so Sir Andrew has a good chance with her (I.iii.90–91). Sir Toby compliments his friend’s dancing and, through his encouragement, gets the vain and weak-minded—but good-hearted—Sir Andrew to show off his dancing skills.
Meanwhile, at the house of Duke Orsino, Viola has adopted a new name—Cesario—to go with her new persona as a teenage boy. After only three days in Orsino’s service, Cesario has already become a favorite of Orsino. Indeed, so much does Orsino favor his new servant that he insists on picking Cesario to go on his most important errand: to carry his messages of love to Olivia.
Cesario protests that Olivia, who has ignored Orsino for a long time, is not likely to start listening to his love messages now. But Orsino points out that Cesario is extremely young and handsome—so beautiful, in his lips and features, that he resembles a woman—and that Olivia is sure to be impressed by his attractiveness. Orsino tells Cesario to “act my woes” when he goes to see Olivia—to behave as if he shares Orsino’s adoration for the noblewoman (I.iv.25). After some discussion, Cesario reluctantly agrees to carry the message—reluctantly because, as she tells the audience in a quick aside, Viola herself has fallen in love with Orsino and wishes that she could be his wife.
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria are Twelfth Night’s most explicitly comic characters, since they take themselves less seriously than the play’s romantic leads. (Furthermore, the two noblemen’s very names—“Belch” and “Aguecheek”—seem comically out of place.) These three provide amusement in different ways, however: Sir Toby seems to be an intelligent man and makes witty puns, to which the equally clever Maria is quick to respond. Sir Andrew Aguecheek, however, appears to be a fool. He doesn’t understand Toby and Maria’s wit, as we see when he is forced to ask Maria, “What’s your metaphor?” and “[W]hat’s your jest?” (I.iii.60–64). He is also easily flattered and doesn’t realize certain painful truths—that he is not very witty, that Toby and Maria are making fun of him, and that he does not stand a chance with Olivia.
Act I, scene iv shows us the developing relationship between Orsino and Cesario. In another useful improbability, we find that, after only three days, Cesario has become a great favorite of the duke. As Orsino’s servant Valentine tells Cesario, “If the Duke continues these favours towards you, . . . you are like to be much advanced” (I.iv.1–2). In the same conversation, Valentine assures Cesario that Orsino isn’t fickle—that he remains steady and constant in his love. Since we have heard Orsino’s flowery speeches about Olivia in Act I, scene i, we may question how sincere or steady his love really is, an uncertainty that grows as the play progresses.
Regardless, the way Orsino talks to Cesario makes it clear that Orsino likes Cesario very much—and his language is closer to that of romantic love than that of ordinary friendship. “Cesario,” he tells him, “Thou know’st no less but all. I have unclasped / To thee the book even of my secret soul” (I.iv.11–13). Clearly, Orsino already seems to be attracted to Cesario in a way that defies our expectations of how male friends interact with one another.
This peculiar attraction is further developed when Orsino tells Cesario why he plans to send him to woo Olivia. Orsino explains that Olivia is more likely to listen to Cesario: “She will attend [Orsino’s repeated messages of love] better in thy youth / Than in a nuncio’s [i.e., messenger’s] of more grave aspect” (I.iv.26-–27). Cesario denies Orsino’s claim, but Orsino tells him that he should believe it, because, in his youthfulness, Cesario is as pretty as a young woman. “Diana’s lip / Is not more smooth and rubious [i.e., rosy]” than Cesario’s, Orsino tells him, comparing him favorably to the goddess Diana; and Cesario’s voice, Orsino claims, “[i]s as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, / And all is semblative a woman’s part” (I.iv.30–33). This series of compliments is both intriguing and complicated. In praising Cesario’s attractiveness, Orsino tells Cesario that he looks like a woman. His interest in having Cesario go to Olivia suggests his belief that Cesario’s womanly beauty will somehow entice Olivia. At the same time, it is difficult not to read in -Orsino’s words the suggestion that he too finds Cesario attractive: after all, Cesario reminds him strongly of a beautiful young woman.