Shakespeare Action and Words. Analysis of "Twelfth Night" (Act II, Scene IV)

Seminar Paper, 2013

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content


2. Critical Reception of Scene

3. Critical Analysis of Scene

4. Production Idea

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Two key themes stand out in Act 2, Scene 4, of William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. On one hand constancy of love plays a significant part and on the other hand gender deception. In this scene Viola, disguised as Cesario, defends the love of women and defies Orsino’s critic of women’s inconsistent love compared to men’s enduring passion:

Too well what love women to men may owe.

In faith, they are as true of heart as we.


Viola’s appreciation of the woman’s side and her continuous word plays demonstrate her intention to help Orsino uncovering her disguise and reciprocating her love. The following dialogue provides an essential challenge for the interpretation and production of this scene. One can either illustrate that Orsino actually reveals Violas deceit or lay emphasis on Orsino’s simplicity and thus demonstrate his naivety. Her hints commence when she says: “We men may say more, swear more, but indeed our shows are more than will” (2.4.116). Here, Shakespeare uses the phonological identity of ‘we men’ and ‘women’ to create an ambiguity of meaning. The ambiguity peaks with her admission: “I am all the daughters of my father’s house, and all the brother too” (2.4.118-119), indicating that Viola assumes her brother Sebastian died in the shipwreck. Orsino seems captured in Viola’s story before he commands her to go to Olivia again concerning his confession of love.

However, the scene begins with a melancholic Orsino demanding for a song, performed by Feste. The waiting for the jester leads to a conversation between Orsino and Viola. Orsino realizes that Viola is in love with someone and interrogates her. In this dialogue she insinuates that Orsino is the one she loves but due to her disguise Orsino does not detect the clue although she uses the word ‘your’ conspicuously three times in a row.

Viola: A little, by your favour.

Orsino: What kind of woman is’t?

Viola: Of your complexion.

Orsino: She is not worth thee then. What years, i’ faith? Viola: About your years, my lord.


How to emphasize Viola’s ‘your’ is another crucial challenge for the interpretation of the production of this scene. After disclosing the age of Violas loved one Orsino gives her the advice to always take a woman that is younger than the man for the reason that the men’s love is unsteady and faltering. We notice the proof for that statement at the end of Twelfth Night when Orsino realizes that Viola is a woman and marries her right away without hesitation. After the dialogue Feste finally appears and sings the somber song which Orsino likes that much on account of his melancholy. In the following pivotal colloquy Orsino explains Viola that Olivia cannot refuse him anymore because his love is too passionate. In his desperation and anger he scornfully talks about women:

There is no woman’s sides Can bide the beating of so strong a passion As love doth give my heart. No woman’s heart So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.

Alas, their love may be called appetite,

No motion of the liver, but the palate


With those words he implies that women just love superficially in comparison to men whose love is much deeper. It becomes obvious how despaired Orsino is, which results in the fact that he does not perceive the hints of Viola’s love for him at first because his feelings are the only ones important. Consequently the challenge for the interpretation in this dialogue is the acting of Viola. The decision if a man or a woman plays her or even both and how she reacts to the accusations of Orsino against women.

Therefore, this scene is highly important because it is on one hand the first time Viola confesses her love for Orsino and the question comes up if he realizes that. On the other hand Orsino reveals a lot about his character and his childish ignorance and does not want to accept that the woman he adores does not reciprocates his feelings.

2. Critical Reception of Scene

Due to the scene’s significance it has been read and criticized by several literary scholarships. As in all plays of Shakespeare, rhetorical figures can be found a lot whereby they mostly illustrate and amplify the behavior and actions of the characters. On account of Orsino’s many appearances, especially in Act 2, Scene 4, he attracts attention to himself, although his “moods and opinions change too quickly to give rise to extended rhetorical orations” (Keller 2009: 124). However, especially those mood swings display his childish and inconstant character. Viola on the other hand, uses rhetorical figures to create a dramatic irony and comedic situations when she talks to Orsino. Daniel Keller emphasizes on that in his book The Development of Shakespeare's Rhetoric: A Study of Nine Plays: “[S]he spends the rest of the play trying to conceal her affection for Orsino, while trying to disclose it, using a double-sided discourse that amuses the audience” (Keller 2009: 125). The ‘double-sided discourse’ refers to her hints about her real gender. In this way Shakespeare creates a facetious atmosphere without a lot of effort and Orsino’s ignorance. But at the same time Viola is able to create empathy for herself when she tells Orsino the story about her fictive sister as Keller explains in his book:

Yet Viola’s reference to an imaginary sister who died for untold love of a man (the ultimate directness device) also taints the comical exchange with a more sombre mood:

(Keller 2009: 132)

Although we know that her sister does not exist, we feel sympathetic to Viola on account of her disguise and her emotional situation. That is why the comical situation causes a negative connotation in the audience. Nevertheless,

Viola is such an inventive speaker that she beats Orsino at the ‘we men’ [2.4.114-116] game even in these tense moments. Exploiting his ignorance about her identity, little rhetoric is needed to expose the self- aggrandising nature of his love for Olivia.

(Keller 2009: 133)

This statement clarifies Viola’s witty character and that Orsino, who is her master, is clueless and unaware of Viola’s deception despite her hints and word plays; at least until the end of the scene.

Speaking of hints and word plays, Feste the Jester, who “may be the most fully portrayed and most-agile minded of all Shakespearean clowns” (Keller 2009: 133), functions as the voice of rationality and sanity. He uncovers the flaws and mistakes of the other characters and is the only person who makes decisions with sobriety. Therefore, Jane Lyman considers him “the critical centre of the play, [...], the malcontent, the man who sees all and says little, the cynic” (Lyman 1976: 45). Furthermore she calls him a “deliberate enigma, poised uneasily between the two world of the court and the great house” (Lyman 1976: 45). Besides Viola, he is the only character that is able to get along in those two worlds but acts naturally and sincerely in contrast to Viola. Here in Act 2, Scene 4, Feste “is very perceptive about Orsino and offers a penetrating judgement” (Lyman 1976: 45) when he calls the Duke’s mind “a very opal” (2.4.73). ‘Opal’1 refers to Orsino’s temper and love, which changes during the play. Anyway, the main reason for Feste’s appearance in this scene is to give the Duke pleasure with the performance of his desired song. According to Leah Scragg, “the various songs [...] of Twelfth Night, for example, serve to entertain both their internal and external audiences, they also contribute to the meaning of the play as a whole” (Scragg 1988: 214). The melancholic song, performed by Feste, about the death of a deeply grieved lover correlates to Orsino state of mind.

Therefore it is undeniable how emotional the Duke actually is although he might just “basks in his romantic conception of himself” (Zesmer 1976: 225). Because of that it seems highly possible that Orsino could be played by a child who wants to possess what he cannot have and does not know what real love for another person is. This becomes clear during his monologue about the strength of his love:

There is no woman’s sides Can bide the beating of so strong a passion As love doth give my heart. No woman’s heart So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.


Here, “Orsino regards himself as the epitome of constancy and bristles at Cesario’s suggestion that a woman’s love might be as strong as his” (Zesmer 1976: 225). Taking a look a the end of Twelfth Night, we realize the dramatic irony of this quotation and that he is the one who lacks retention when he suddenly stops loving Olivia and marries Viola. Anyway, during the play he does not accept any of Olivia’s refusals on account of the fact that Opal gemstones are famous for changing their color in the environment of different kind of lights.


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Shakespeare Action and Words. Analysis of "Twelfth Night" (Act II, Scene IV)
University of Cologne
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shakespeare, action, words, analysis, twelfth, night, scene
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Nicolas Theisen (Author), 2013, Shakespeare Action and Words. Analysis of "Twelfth Night" (Act II, Scene IV), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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