Commentary by Maria Rioux
Romantic Love, Familial Love; Pride; foolishness; wit
Viola and Olivia are both mourning a brother, but there is a significant difference in the manner of their mourning. Olivia immerses herself in mourning and makes great efforts to ensure that these feelings of grief will not abate. Viola fears her brother may be lost to her forever, yet she hopes he is still alive and struggles not to succumb to grief. Grief, for Olivia, seems less real, self-indulgent, and affected. In describing her, Valentine uses the comparison of tears to brine. Brine is used to “season,” or preserve foods; her tears, by the metaphorical association, will preserve her brother’s memory.
“The element itself, til seven year’s heat, shall not behold her face at ample view; But, like a cloistress, she will veiled walk and water once a day her chamber round with eye offending brine: all this to season a brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh and lasting in her sad remembrance.”
It’s as if Olivia thinks her prolonged mourning will cast a favorable light on her in the perception of others. It is almost a point of pride. On the other hand, she’s right:
O, she that hath a heart of that fine frame to pay this debt of love but to a brother, how will she love when the rich golden shafthath killed the flock of all affections else that lived in her….”
When Olivia speaks of her grief the language she uses is dramatic and poetic; Viola’s manner is plain and straightforward, denoting grief but also sensibility. Viloa is optimistic by nature, as seen in her attitude towards the captain. Although she does not know him well, she presumes that he has a “fair and outward character” from their limited interaction, and his offers to help her. She assumes the best of him, rather than the worst, But is also aware that appearances can be deceiving.
There is fair behavior in thee, captain; and though that nature with a beauteous wall doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee I will believe thou hast a mind that suits with this thy fair and outward character.
Romantic Love: Orsino is besotted by Olivia. From the outset, his manner is richly poetic and full of extravagant imagery. Olivia does not return his affections; she does everything in her power to dissuade him, his efforts are fruitless, and he should have no allusions as to what hopes he might have.
Your Lord does know my mind: I cannot love him:Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble, of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth in voices well divulged, free, learned, and valiant; and in dimension and the shape of nature a gracious person: but yet, I cannot love him; He might have took his answer long ago.
One wonders what her objections to the paragon of manhood might be. At first I had the sneaking suspicion that here was yet another instance of the heart devoid of reason. As the play progresses, however, we see the very great pride of Olivia and realize she would no more marry below her station than above it.
She’ll none o’ the count: she’ll not match above her degree, neither in estate, years, or wit.
I see what you are, you are too proud; but if you were the devil, you are fair.
Ironically, it is through Orsino’s efforts to woo and win Olivia that she meets and falls for Viola (a dead ringer for her brother, apparently. Viola later admits to patterning Cesario on her brother, which works well in the story since it makes it more believable that Olivia could substitute Sebastion for Viola. It also seems somewhat reasonable, for what better way to comfort grief than to watch your brother live in you?) Olivia’s favor for Viola is first shown in Act I, scene 5: What is your parentage? Above my fortunes, yet my state is well, I am a gentle man. I’ll be sworn thou art; thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, thy actions, and spirit, do give thee five fold blazen: not too fast, soft, soft! Unless the master were the man. How now! Even so quickly may one catch the plague! Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections with an invisible and subtle stealth to creep in at my eyes.
Olivia asks Viola about parentage, perhaps to see if this young page is of a high enough rank to be considered for marriage. When Viola leaves, Olivia remarks on the young page’s looks, and states her preference for Cesario over Orsino; yet, Olivia is not one to rush into the situation, asking herself if “even so quickly may one catch the plague”. For the last lines spoken in this scene, Olivia even reverts to rhyme, speaking two couplets about her new favor for Viola/Cesario. “Fate, show thy force, ourselves we do not owe; What is decreed must be, and be this so.” Previously in this act, rhyme and verse were primarily spoken by the lovelorn Orsino; perhaps this sudden shift from prose to rhyming verse is meant to show that poetry is born of love, and that eloquence in verse is a symptom of being in love.
One major theme of the play, first developed in this act, concerns how Olivia and Orsino are changed by their relationship with Viola, and how her simplicity and directness helps them to shed their affectations. Before meeting Viola, Orsino speaks poetically but somewhat artificially about his love for Olivia; after he meets Viola, he gets right to the point, disclosing to her the extent of his affections, and his plans to woo her. He’s in the realm of the practical now. He still heaves heavy sighs, there remain occasional outbursts of sentiment, but these are tempered and less flowery. It was as if, at the outset, he was as focused on the outward expression and appearance of being in love as Olivia was in regard to the loss of her brother and her expressions of grief. Viloa has a similar effect on Olivia. Her shows of mourning are dropped, as Olivia must use her wit and plain speech in order to deal directly with Viola. Olivia proves herself witty, direct, and having good judgement. She correctly pegs Malvolio: “You are sick of self love, Malvolio…” She notes his propensity to make “birdbolts into canon bullets” which would be the equivalent of making a mountain out of a mole hill, although more colorfully stated. Viola is not affected in her behavior or manner, although she is an aristocrat. Through their dealings and contact with her, both Orsino and Olivia become less self-absorbed and more direct and honest with themselves and those around them.
We meet Sebastion, who appears to be more formal than Viola, making his grief seem less personal. While Valentine spoke of Olivia’s tears as brine, Sebastian creates a metaphor between his tears and the ocean which drowned his sister, both being salt-water. Sebastian is truly grieved, for he admits he is about to break into tears. His language may be a device he uses to detach himself from the situation. Sebastion’s presence leads to misunderstandings. Olivia is in love with Cesario, who looks like Sebastion, acts like Sebastion, and can be replaced by Sebastion. The affections of the heart, it is hinted, are fickle.
Viola sees how her disguise will cause problems in her relationship with Orsino, and will hinder her from expressing her true feelings for him. She notes this bothersome contradiction, that “as I am man, my state is desperate for my master’s love”; but that, “as woman, what thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!” (II.ii.36-9). Viola also laments that Olivia could fall in love with Cesario so easily; she compares women’s hearts to sealing wax and notes how easily the “proper false” leaves a lasting impression in their hearts (II.ii.29). Viola’s statements foreshadow a confrontation with Orsino and Olivia about her true identity; and she does not look forward to disappointing either one. She feels a sort of kinship with Olivia, as they both have loved and lost brothers. This leads her to be kind and gentle in her refusals of love.
As Orsino becomes more despondent in his love and more cynical about women,Viola tries to persuade him that his views of women are not fair. At first, Orsino states that men are more wavering in their affection than women are, with “fancies are more giddy and infirm” (II.iv.32). Paradoxically, he espouses the opposite view later in the scene; he talks about how “no woman’s heart hold so much” as his can, and how women’s love is very variable and not lasting(II.iv.94-5). Again, Orsino uses the image of the sea to describe how vast his love is; but the love Viola describes, of a fictional sister, eclipses both what Orsino professes to feel, and what he thinks women are capable of feeling. Several of the characters in the play are greatly bound up in love; Orsino is consumed by his love for Olivia, Olivia is torn by her love for her dead brother and her feelings for Cesario, Viola is conflicted by her love for Orsino,(she presents his case to Olivia without tempering it in any way, and without reference to her own feelings and how this situation affects her hopes) and Malvolio is thwarted by his love for himself. The difference in the quality, nobility, and constancy of the love of the various characters in the play determines their outcome at the end, and whether their love deserves to be requited. When Orsino asks Viola about love, Viola states that she is in love with someone of Orsino’s same complexion, and age; this is indeed true, though Viola is speaking of Orsino himself. The irony of Orsino’s negative statements about women’s capacity for love is that Viola loves him at least as constantly as he does Olivia, and with more devotion.
A blank, my lord. She never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud, feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought; and with a green and yellow melancholy she sat like patience on a monument, smiling at grief. Was not this love, indeed? We men may say more, swear more, but indeed, our shows are more than will; for still we prove much in our vows, but little in our love.
Viola’s speech shows Orsino transitioning from his previous self-absorbed state in which only his grief mattered, into someone who is sympathetic and cares about Viola’s story at least as much as his own. When Viola’s story is done, it is she who has to turn the focus of their conversation back to Olivia; he is engrossed by her story, and temporarily forgets about his suit to woo Olivia. This scene shows how Orsino and Viola’s relationship has matured into a very deep friendship, with a poignant emotional bond; from this point on, though his suit to Olivia continues,his emotional connection to Viola runs far deeper.
Though the play discusses issues of love, death is ever-present. There is a kind of changeability of feeling that one experiences in the play. Even Feste recognizes the variability of Orsino’s nature; Feste says Orsino is like an opal, a symbol of changeability because of its iridescent qualities. Orsino is not so inconstant that his affections change rapidly; yet, his feelings are variable because of the influence of love, and he can turn from calm to despairing in little time at all. Olivia is once grieved and mourning, and next feeling the first flush of love for Cesario.
There is a kind of pervasive foolishness in the play which suggests that idiocy is the plague of the living. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew continually mistake each other’s meaning. Olivia and Orsino are both to some extent foolish in their lavish display of emotion, more than is warranted. Malvolio is made a fool in part through the manipulation of others, but more through his own pride. Feste, who is a fool, that is, a jester, is by contrast perceptive, learned, and intelligent.
Feste is not just a comic relief figure, like Sir Andrew; he is perceptive when others are not, as Viola notes after the encounter. Feste and Viola actually have a good bit in common; both are paid servants who are much more than they seem to be. Viola knows, unlike Olivia, Orsino, and the others, that Feste is anything but a fool; he “is wise enough to play the fool, and to do that well craves a kind of wit,” (III.i.59). Feste is a good judge of human nature, as he shows in his correct assessment of Orsino in Act II; and, he might also be the only one in the play to guess at Viola’s disguise. “Now Jove in his next commodity of hair send thee a beard,” (l. 44); the statement can be taken as proof that Feste knows that Viola is in disguise, and Viola’s quick and somewhat agitated reaction supports this claim.
The confrontation between Feste and Viola also brings up the theme of appearance versus reality. Neither of them are quite what they seem, though both of them are able to see through the other’s disguise with little problem. Also, Viola speaks of the real divide between wisdom and knowledge; those who appear, or wish to appear as wise, like Malvolio, are often greater fools than Feste, who hides his knowledge behind his shows of foolery. Feste seems belligerent towards Viola and is characterized as a kind of mercenary (his attempts to get more money), while Viola is shown to be even-tempered and slow to anger.
At the end of the play, Malvolio still has no knowledge of his failings; although the pranks played on him were meant to punish him for his pride and vanity, he has still not seen the error of his ways, or tried to change himself. Feste’s statement about how his enemies “tell me plainly I am an ass, so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself,” could be taken as a justification for the whole attempt to bring Malvolio to penance. It remains unsuccessful, accentuating the earlier theme of foolishness. Some fools are irredeemable.
The play is a comedy, although there is the element of darkness as in other plays we have read. Olivia has married Sebastion, and the two are content even though they are strangers. Viola and Orsino plan to marry once things are sorted out. Antonio and Orsino remain angry, and Malvolio remains Malvolio, much as we had hoped for a new man. Orsino talks about the “goldentime” they are soon to enjoy, but Feste’s prologue, “for the rain it raineth every day,” casts a pall over Orsino and the others’ sunny expectations.