Thoughts on Orsino’s opening speech in Twelfth Night, and on the ending of the play—as occasioned by re-reading the play to attend Pig Iron’s performance in the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival

Re-reading Twelfth Night in preparation for seeing Pig Iron’s interpretation of it in Philly’s Live Arts Fest, I re-lived my delight in this great comedy, which I first discovered when I was twenty.  But somewhat to my embarrassment I found that lots of things I thought I understood when I was in my twenties now are more mysterious and paradoxical to me in late middle age.  For instance, the meaning of the Duke Orsino’s famous opening speech:

If music be the food of love, play on;

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

That strain again! it had a dying fall:

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:

‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,

That, notwithstanding thy capacity

Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,

Of what validity and pitch soe’er,

But falls into abatement and low price,

Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy

That it alone is high fantastical.   (I.i.1-15)

Thwarted in love, or what he thinks is his love for the Countess Olivia, Orsino opens the play with a sweet but cynical speech about the inconstancy of love.  He basically says it’s just like appetite—what tastes good for a while then begins to be “not so sweet now as it was before.”  He doesn’t compare love to any higher emotion or even hint that it has a spiritual dimension or the possibility of constancy.  Indeed, the Duke even suggests that a person in love can become a connoisseur of his or her emotions as they sour, not just when they are fresh and new:  he loves the “dying fall” in the music and the “excess” that causes all emotion to “sicken, and so die.”   This sweet pessimism about love’s sour transience reaches its culmination in the extended sea metaphor, where he says that individual passions are like rivers flowing into a capacious sea, where “nought enters there … but falls into abatement and low price.”   What was once valued is now devalued.  A sentence that appears to begin full of optimism and an apostrophe to love as “quick and fresh” ends in a crude economic metaphor for something now judged to be worthless.

The “pitch” reference in this paean to love’s ups and downs is particularly lovely, yet it ultimately proves disturbing in this context.  Taken from falconry, pitch describes the highest point of a falcon’s flight.  Which means that even such a soaring vision of love’s heights is dunked in saltwater here.  The speech nicely enacts what it describes too, since the Duke first calls for more music and then gets tired of it and grumps about it.  The only constant here is that the Duke expects that all his commands will immediately be obeyed.  Orsino, revealingly, also takes his own shifting feelings as an example of a universal principle of all passion, not merely his own inconstancy and errancy.

So what’s the problem?  What’s not to understand?  Well, how do we explain the conclusion to the speech?  Doesn’t it claim that fancy remains “high fantastical,” constantly renewing itself?   Or is this ending a weak tautology, basically just saying in a sonorous way that fancy is fantastical?  (If so, perhaps this moment is meant to hint of the Duke’s pomposity and narcissism, just as earlier the speech revealed him to be a creature of whim.)  An even greater puzzle is how any of this follows logically from what’s been said before.  The final sentence about fancy is preceded by a colon, like it really does sum everything up.  But to my ear now it actually seems completely to ignore or contradict everything that’s just been said, unless we take the conclusion merely to mean that each and every one of fancy’s infinite shapes will soon no longer seem very fantastical at all.   If that’s the case, then what first appears like a triumphant summing up actually lands like a dying fall.

The opening speech’s comic mixture of narcissism and cynicism of course nicely sketch not just the Duke’s up-and-down moods at that moment but also his character as the play gradually reveals it.  He’s inconstant in just about everything except repeatedly sending a proxy, Viola, to annoy Octavia.  Yet by the end of the play are we really supposed to believe his marriage to Viola will be a happy and a constant one?  What, except for whim, explains the Duke’s sudden decision to throw off his claims to love Octavia for love of Viola instead?  Is he just rebounding from Octavia’s sarcasm and rejection?  Or has Orsino actually grown up a little and become confident he can love Viola’s inner character, regardless of her outward appearance?   (After all, he says he’ll marry her while she’s still dressed in the guise of a man!  That for sure was a comic detail I don’t remember noticing when I was younger, I wonder why.)

Concluding that the Duke’s love has become less narcissistic is obviously a more optimistic reading of the Duke’s character and the comedy’s ending, but it requires a leap of faith.  Despite recently accusing Viola of betrayal, the Duke may realize after the play’s climactic revelations about who’s who that his new “male” servant has repeatedly shown him constancy, compassion, and inventive intelligence.  Perhaps the Duke decides he must love with those qualities in another, outward appearances be damned.  Such a view of Duke Orsino’s growth would certainly be consistent with the genial optimism of his last speech in the play, so different from his first:

“When … golden time convents

A solemn combination shall be made

of our dear souls.” (V.i.384-6)

Convents—cool verb that means “come together” or convene.  Current in the 16th century but obsolete now.  The Duke certainly suggests here that he now sees love as the sacred coming-together of two souls, not something bedeviled by price fluctuations!  Yet the Duke’s opening speech and his actions throughout the play shadow this “golden” ending, and we’re left to wonder which is the true Duke and what kind of husband Viola will actually get.  With Viola we have few such doubts.  To borrow a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she exhibits “something of great constancy” despite her rapidly changing situations and fortunes in the play.   Perhaps the best evidence for the Duke’s new constancy is that Viola vouches for it.  But who the Duke really is, or what either he or Olivia really desire or deserve, remains a conundrum.

The theme of this comedy reminds me of the title to the old Sammy Kahn and Jule Styne tune, “I Fall in Love Too Easily” (from the Broadway musical Anchors Aweigh, 1945).   Kahn’s lyric, sung by Frank Sinatra, reflects, “I fall in love too easily/ I fall in love too fast/ I fall in love too terribly hard/ For love to ever last.”  Everybody in Twelfth Night, including even Viola’s and Sebastian’s rescuers, fall in love impetuously and completely.   The play is sweetly cynical about this, but in the end it gently works to give these characters what they desire:  it all works out.  (Malvolio and Sir Andrew being the well-deserved exceptions, of course.)  Yet of course this comedy doesn’t really just give the main characters what they fell in love with at the start; it changes their desires and gets them to reflect a little on what it is they really want or deserve. Perhaps it’s only Viola and the Fool, though, who can now and then fully step outside of their own emotions a bit and ponder what’s happening and how strange, comic, and unknowable it all is.  I love that verb Viola uses in II.ii.33, “How will this fadge?” she says, meaning “work itself out”:  “O time! thou must untangle this, not I” (II.ii.40).  Viola must have a lot of inner confidence to trust Time like this—and after a shipwreck too.

Feste the Clown’s concluding song holds many sweet-sad conundrums too, and it is composed in an even more melancholic “strain” than the tune that opened the play.  Certainly Feste’s ditty shadows any sense that Time’s action on our lives is as “golden” as the Duke decrees it will be, or Viola hopes it is, or the genre of comedy scripts things to be.   In a marvelous colloquy with Viola in III.i, Feste’s only extended time with her in the play, this professional “corruptor of words” cynically says that any word can be twisted inside-out like a glove to mean just about anything, including it antonym (III.i.9-10).  Even “purity” can be made to mean “wanton.”  Feste’s made us and his employers laugh and he’s earned a few coins, but he’s also throughout the play teaching us skepticism toward everything we think we know.

What does his song at the play’s end say?  It’s hardly as “festive” as its singer’s name might imply.  It says we go through the stages of our lives predictably captured by the illusion that we’re acting uniquely on our own and know what we’re doing.  (Remember the subtitle that the play slyly offers us and then hilariously refutes, which says that comedy is about “What You Will” coming to pass.)  In Feste’s song, though, our actions in this world are revealed to be entirely conventional and blind.  Boys all have the same illusion about their toys.  All men of “estate” act the same too.  Not to mention aristocrats who may eventually get what they think they want without perhaps really learning very much.  For what we think we possess and know slips from our control like rainwater running away:

But when I came to man’s estate,

With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,

For the rain it raineth every day….


I now realize that in my younger days I thought Twelfth Night was about “golden time” eventually giving us more or less what we want.  I was not insensitive to the melancholy, minor-key music in the play; those notes were what made this—perhaps—my favorite Shakespeare comedy, along with the reversals and pratfalls.  It’s in the spirit of festival time, when the normal order of things is reversed and, in the case of traditional “Twelfth Night” festivities in England, the night-long party celebrates days growing longer again after the midwinter solstice.  But having lived a little more I realize I’m now more skeptical about the Duke and Olivia as characters and more ironical about how truly golden Time’s actions are towards “what we will,” in comedy or in life.  How will this fadge?

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