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Analysis: Act I, scene v

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.