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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
Act I, Scene 1
At his palace, Duke Orsino of Illyria is listening to music and letting himself get carried away by thoughts of his love for Countess Olivia. Having sent a messenger with winsome thoughts for his love, he waits for an answer. Suddenly bored by the music, he tells the musicians to stop and then expounds upon the notion of love. His messenger then returns without delivering the message, saying that Olivia’s brother has died and that she plans to mourn for seven years in his memory. The Duke views such devotion as an indication that when Olivia does fall in love, she will display the same devotion to her lover. He therefore does not lose hope.
In the imaginary country of Illyria, anything can happen if one wills it as the sub-title of the play, "What You Will" suggests. It is easy to imagine this first scene being staged. In fact, the whole play lends itself to visual and aural delights. Courtly musicians play melancholy music while the Duke listens, his mind drifting to thoughts of love. Yet as soon as he tires of the music, he demands that it stop. This mercurial trait will reappear at the end of the play when Orsino’s love for Olivia is transferred almost immediately to Viola.
This short scene, beginning with a soliloquy, addresses the main theme of the play: the fickle nature of love and its darker indulgent qualities. Duke Orsino declaims that "if music be the food of love, play on" which reveals his predilection towards excess. The Duke is a typical, melancholic lover, more in love with the idea of love than with Olivia, the supposed object of his affection. This can be seen in his reaction to the news that she is in mourning for seven years. Rather than put him off, the Duke appears even more excited by this tendency which they both share: wallowing in their own musings, whether it be thoughts of love or death. This conflation of emotions brings a tinge of melancholy to this play which is less light-hearted than others, such as As You Like It and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Some of the characters here suffer because they will it upon themselves or because they are at the mercy of other’s cruel games.
Olivia is also a sentimental romantic, excessive in her mourning and melodramatic in being a "cloistress." Her mourning is interpreted by Orvino as something constant rather than extreme, however, which is to his liking. Both of these characters are engaged with a romantic notion of what love and devotion is: Orsino sees it as something to luxuriate in as when he describes going to sleep, he believes that "love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bow’rs," while Olivia indulges in pious devotion to a loss loved one.
The depth of this wallowing is seen in Orvino’s response to Curio’s question, "Will you go hunt, my lord?." He responds not in the context which Curio means, of whether he wants to go on an actual hunt, but in a metaphorical context, that of Olivia being the object of his pursuit, the word "hart" being a pun both on the word, "heart" as well as the word for rabbit.