This play is often regarded as a "festival" comedy, that is a comedy specifically designed for performance on a festival day. In this case, as the title suggests, the feast is "Twelfth Night," the feast of the Epiphany, or the last day of the Christmastide revels. For more on this see Greenblatt's Norton edition introduction.
1.1. Orsino's concepts or notions of love are established immediately. It's worth taking the time to work them out as precisely as possible from his first speech. What sort of image is implied by music as the "food" of love? Is music what love desires? Or does this mean that music inspires love and makes it grow stronger? Does Orsino ask for excess of music or excess of love? What sort of appetite does he imagine love to be?
What sort of image of love is prompted by the sea simile? What is Orsino's notion of "fancy." Orsino's word-play on hart/ heart is confusing. Sometimes he seems to designate Olivia as his "heart," "the noblest that I have," but the problem is that he doesn't have Olivia at all. Then he applies the hart metaphor to himself, as if he were hunted by his own personified desires (his own "heart," as it were, and so is victim of his own desires. Desires for Olivia, for surfeit, for "a dying fall"?
Orsino's man, Valentine, entertains his master with a very bizarre image of Olivia's mourning habits. He likens her to a nun who cries all day long, and whose tears are like the brine used to preserve vegetables like pickles--"all this to season/ A brother's dead love, which she would keep fresh." Perhaps Valentine's bizarre imagery reflects his scorn for Olivia, or his growing boredom with this apparently hopeless suit. Or perhaps he chooses his imagery because he knows it will entertain his master who also tends to link desire, hopelessness, and images of death, as if love, to him, were best enjoyed in hopelessness and frustration?
Orsino's imagination continues its bizarre tones as he fancies his conquest of Olivia. Valentine's description of her over-the-top mourning practice does not invite his scorn, but sharpens his desire. He admires such dedication, perhpas because it is dedication to a hopeless cause. She cannot keep either her brother or his love "fresh" with "eye-offending brine" or anything else. Orsino appears to get really turned on by the image of Olivia's utterly hopeless (even ridiculous) devotion. He imagines that "the rich golden shaft" of desire for him will kill and supplant all other affections and so make him the object of her weird devotion. It turns out, of course, that Orsino is far more weird about love than Olivia, whose excessive mourning for her brother is mostly a cover for other desires.
1.2. The Captain's brief account of Olivia's recent history is revealing. Her father died a year ago and left his County and fortune to his son. She was left in her brother's "protection." Since then the son, her brother, has died. That means that Olivia is now in the position of the Count; she is a Countess. She has achieved a kind of widow's position without ever having been married or widowed. Orsino's desire, though he doesn't say so, may have something to do with her inherited position. Her resistance to his suit may indicate her desire to hold onto a position of independence she would lose if she married. In any case, she's a very eligible catch--all the fortune and position of a widow (a role she plays with some gusto) and yet a maid.
Viola is immediately attracted to this lady, or more precisely, to her position. It reminds her of her own position. She also is the daughter of a nobleman, and her twin brother may be drowned (in salt water, no less). She has good reason to bide her time until she can determine just what her "estate" is, and to attach herself to a woman of similar "estate." She is even less protected than Olivia. She appears to like the idea of a woman who abjures "the company and sight of men."
Why, then, does she so suddenly give over her plan of attaching herslef to Olivia, and plan instead the elaborate scheme to serve Orsino? The Captian says Olivia "will admite no kind of suit," not even the Duke's, but would her abjuration of "the company of men" extend to such as Viola? When Viola hears that Olivia rejects the Duke, she seems all at once to conjure up this idea of a disguise. It's hard to see the motivation here. What do you think?
1.3. If Olivia is excessive in her mourning, her kinsman Toby is excessive in quite the opposite direction. She will go veiled and refuse men for seven years while Toby says he will "drink to her as long as there is a passage in my throat and drink in Illyria." In her mourning she has alienated her fool (1.5) and in his revelry he has always his fool about him--Andrew. They are, to be sure, entirely different kinds of fools. Feste plays cunningly with words and Andrew is a malapropist and a dimwit.
It is perfectly in keeping with the world-turned-upside-down character of a twelfth night revel to have the clownish characters called "Sir," as in Sir Toby and Sir Andrew; they are clown-knights.
The word-play between Maria and Andrew is very funny. He misunderstands a whole series of words and Maria plays on his misunderstanding with puns. Puns that suggest he is witless and impotent. He is such a fool that he even unwittingly insults himself with his own words. Throughout the play Toby takes a great deal of delight in the fact that Sir Andrew misunderstands almost everything said to him; he is a malapropist both in his speech and in his interpretations of other's speeches. As a result he can neither make his desires known to others (especially Olivia) nor comprehend the desires of others (like Toby and Maria who use him for their sport). He is, in a way, an emblem of the problematic implied by the play's subtitle: knowing "What You Will."
When Toby says, "She'll none of the Count" (90), he may just be leading Andrew on so that he will stay and spend more of his money, but he may also speak truth about Olivia's intentions: "She'll not match above her degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit" (90-92). This would be consistent with my theory that she likes being Countess and will not enter into any marriage that would compromise her power and position.
1.4. Once she is assigned to woo Olivia for Orsino, Viola's palimpsest of roles becomes even more complicated. In the world of the play, she is a woman, pretending to be a boy-servant, assigned to "act" her master's "woes" before Olivia in hopes to gain her love. She/he stands in for Orsino. What's more, she reveals at the close of the scene that she would rather stand in for Olivia and be wooed by Orsino rather than wooing in his place. Viola, therefore is in herself the central knot (not?) of all desire in this play. She desires the prime desirer (Orsino) and to be the prime desired (Olivia); she must "act" the role of the prime desirer (Orsino) at the court of the woman who does not want to be desired (Olivia). Soon the designated prime desired (Olivia) will turn into a desirer (for Ceasrio). THis sort of thing is what makes the play fun.
1.5. How does Feste manage to prove Olivia "a fool"? What does this whole encounter imply about the sincerity of her mourning?
Viola acts the part of a hyperwillful messenger: "fortified against any denial" (128). However is her heart (her own will) in this task? How does she manage in this scene to both betray and conceal her own will? Is she successful?
Olivia has sworn not to admit suitors of any kind, and to remain veiled before men for seven years. What prompts her to change her mind at line 145? And line 193? And line 205? After Olivia "unveils" herself, Viola appears press Orsino's suit more earnestly, less by rote (209-245). Why? What effect does this have on Olivia? What are we to understand from lines 227-232?
2.1. Sebastian (Viola's brother) says he does not wish to reveal his secrets (11-12), but since Antonio is too mannerly to try to extort his secrets (11), he will "express" himself openly to him. How does this make sense? Just what is Sebastian's will in this regard?
A useful exercise is to reach the play, using you browser's the search function on a complete window of the play, for all expressions of desire: will, would, wish, desire, lack, want. The play is very full of them, and they rarely are what they seem, and often are mistaken by others.
Are Antonio and Sebastian exaggerating in lines 30-34? Is this just polite hyperbole? Lines 41-42?
2.2. Viola uses Olivia's sudden affection for her (as Cesario) to pronounce on "women's waxen hearts" and their fleshly "frailty" (27-30). Does she include herself and her affection for Orsino in this generalization? Or is she "the man" here. Lines 34-39 imply that, to Viola's mind at least, there can be no romance between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. As long as Viola appears to be a man, her love is desperate and since she is not a man, Olivia's love is "thriftless." Yet the play seems to be suggesting that such homoerotic romance is possible, at least under denial. Orsino's quickly grown affection for Cesario has made him his favorite in only three days (1.4.1-2) and Orsino has already spoken admiringly of Cesario's charms in very Petrarchan-sounding terms (1.4.30-35). He has not expressed love for Cesario, but he appears to feel it. Similarly, Cesario appears to have charmed Olivia not so much by her manliness, but by her youth, by the very features that make her seem more a woman than a man, just as Orsino predicted. Olivia confesses that Orsino is perfect husband material in every way, but she cannot love him (1.5.227-232). Could it be that heteroerotic attraction is not so very different from homoerotic attraction (Antonio for Seabstion, say).
2.3. Turning night into day by reveling till dawn is part of the topsy-turvy ethos of a twelfth night celebration, and of the topsy-turvy world of Illyria.
A catch is a song sung in rounds. Many catches of the period contained simple lyrics about the good life, but when sung in rounds the words would combine from one part to another to form salacious remarks and insults. Thus the singers would be "constrained" by the form of the round to emit bawdy sentences and insults against their will, as it were, the sentences being constructed by the round, not by their own intentions. Of course, anyone who agrees to sing in a catch knows that bawdy and insulting sentences will emerge when the parts are sung in round, so in a sense, they do intend those sentences. A catch, then, may stand as a kind of epitome of the whole play, demonstrating the ambiguities of intention, utterance, and interpretation.
Maria thinks that Malvolio "is a kind of putitan," but only a kind. He really is not constant to any kind of doctrine or interest than his own self-love (1.5.77). Maria plans a device that will use that self-love to power a marvelous misinterpretation.
2.4. Orsino, I think, is a lot more like Malvolio than is usually thought. He's a Malvolio of a much higher social rank, to be sure, but like Malvolio he thinks quite a lot of himself (16-19). He keeps at Olivia and will accept no rejection. He thinks he's the ultimate lover, but proves unconstant even in his own doctrines. Compare lines 16-19 to 31-33; which does he really believe? Now look at lines 91-101 and remember back to Orsino's opening lines in 1.1. Consider Feste's estimation of Orsino (72-76).
Why is Orsino so interested in Cesario's love life? Is this just guy-talk, or is there some kind of unconscious jealousy in it.
Why does Orsino love these love songs that talk so much about death? Being slain by a proud woman's rejection and all that?
2.5. A long, disgusting look at Malvolio's desire! He thinks Olivia loves him, but on the flimsiest of evidence. His desire is not even for Olivia, but for a rise in "place": "To be Count Malvolio" (30, my emphasis). His fantasy is not about sleeping with Olivia, but about rising from the bed to lord it over everyone lese, especially Toby. Does Malvolio mask his real desire with the language of love? Does he even realize that its not Olivia he loves, but simply himself, himself as "Count." Perhaps all his self-love is a kind of self-loathing?
From the moment Malvolio picks up the letter, his reading of it, his interpretation, is driven by his desires, his fantasies of himself, even if he has to "crush" the letters a little to make them say what he wishes. Perhaps Malvolio is a kind of Puritan after all in that he uses whatever strategies he can think of to make the letter say what he wishes it to say, and then calls that interpretation "open" and plain--the "letteral" sense. This is what many Puritans did and still do.
3.1. It's easy enough to see how words and meanings can be turned whichever way one wants from the opening lines of this scene. Who's being literal minded and who's punning? Can the literal sense be a pun? Can there be more than one literal sense to any utterance? But how can "dallying" so with words make someone unchaste or "wanton"? Can playing with words lead to playing with desires? Can mistaken words produce mistaken intentions? If one's language is corrupted will that cause corruption of persons?
As with Orsino and with Olivia, Feste seems to "have an eye" of Viola, as if somehow he knows she's not what she seems (24-26). He also senses that she conceals her true desires (50-51), and Viola gives us reason to credit his intuition and powers of observation (53-59). In this play, as in Lear, the fool is the only one that seems to see through everybody's disguises, even the ones they are unaware of.
The interview between Olivia and Viola here--is it not a love scene? Fraught as it is with misinterpretation and mistaken intentions? Olivia takes her scorn for a sign of affection, just as Orsino take Olivia's rejection as a true sign of constancy. The signs are so easily misread. When can we be ceratin that no means no and yes means yes when desire plays so wantonly with words and meanings and interpretations?
3.2. Now it's Sir Andrew's turn to be goaded into misinterpreting. He needs some goading because his desire is so terribly weak, barely existent.
3.3. Just what are we to make of Antonio's desire? He risks his life to accompany this man he barely knows. He gives him his purse. And even though Sebastian protests that he "can no other answer make but thanks," Antonio still hangs on and even promises that when Seabstian returns in the evening to the Elephant, "There shall you have me" (42). Does Sebastian just not get it? Does he refuse to understand Antonio's "willing love"? Even more significant, can we as an audience also refuse to get it and just pass this off as devoted friendship rather than love at first sight? This is a wonderful example of desire spoken and demonstrated quite plainly and Sebastian simply refuses to see it. And Antonio refuses to credit his refusal.
3.4. The stychomythic (look it up) interchange between Olivia and Malvolio (27-52) would sound in performance much like a catch, full of repeated and mistaken words. Indeed each time it is repeated--"thou art made," "Am I made" (49-50) a sentence turns its meaning inside out "like a chevril glove."
Some utterances, it seems, like Andrew's letter of challenge (133-152) are so at odds with themselves that they cannot convey the meaning the are meant to. In this case, Toby takes it upon himself to "deliver" Andrew's challenge verbally so that it will have the desired effect. But who is it really desires this effect? Andrew? Toby? And do not these little pranks with letters and interpretations wind up having a greater effect than was desired?
Sometimes the words of the play seem to carry a meaning none of the characters who speak them or hear them is capable of intending. This appears, for example in 202-204. Toby's words mean much more than he intends or than Viola can fathom. This becomes clear in 5.1.121-127.
What must Antonio think of Sebastian now (330-35). He thinks his love, service, and devotion have been betrayed for money. Of course he is mistaken, for this is Viola not Sebatian. But is he mistaken when Sebastian drops him for Olivia in a second?
4.1. Just how did the play get us from confusion of intentions, to confusion of persons, and now to confusions about one's self: "nor this is not my nose neither. Nothing that is so, is so?" (6-7)?
In this topsy-turvy world, Sebastian (soon to be Olivia's husband and lord) agrees in an instant to "be ruled" by her. If this persists, he seems just the right sort of man for Olivia who swore not to marry above her estate, years or wit.
4.3. All good comedies must, by genre, end in a wedding. Usually the prime boy gets the prime girl. In this case the prime girl marries the prime boy's gentleman servant. Or she thinks she does. Sebastian get himself elevated here into the main plot, and without a word of wooing! "There's something in't/ That is deceivable"!
5.1. Orsino's love turns very weird in this scene. First he threatens to kill Olivia for being such a cruel maid, then he turns on Viola thinking he(she) has betrayed him. Only at the point of killing Viola does he confess he loves her (him) (126). But then, hasn't love mixed with death been his wooing theme all along? We might have thought he was willing to die the romantic death of a rejected lover, but it seems now he's more interested in killing than in dying. This would finally put Olivia into some true mourning for a true loss, no?
At lines 130-35, Olivia must think she has been terribly mistaken; she's married a man who loves another man?! Lines 142-146 sound very much like the lines in Malvolio's false letter, don't they? Perhaps Malvolio had Olivia's number all along--she loves to love beneath her, to love even cowards, or so it seems.
So Olivia, who lost a brother, gains a sister (315), Viola and Sebastian regain each other, but are parted by marriage. Orsino gets the boy/girl he really always wanted and Olivia gets the girl/boy she always wanted. And Toby get Maria. But what about Antonio? Poor Antonio, his love has been the plainest, the strongest, the most longsuffering of all and he gets bupkus. He just fades away somewhere around line 217. He's no better off at the end of the play than Malvolio whose love was of the basest sort--self-love.