Tag Archives: character: olivia

Notes on four words in Twelfth Night


[I wrote this a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to come back and edit it since then: to tamp down some of the more effusive enthusiasm, to prune some of the more indulgent sentences. But given that this is unlikely to happen any time soon, now that the school year has begun, I thought perhaps an actual messy post was better than a hypothetical neater one.]

Eventually, this post is going to be about four words in Olivia’s first scene, the question she poses to Feste when he asks for leave to prove her a fool: “Can you do it?” It’s just going to take me a bit of time to get there.

I have many theories about Shakespeare’s comedies (unsurprising, since I wrote my dissertation on them), but one of those theories is that they require you to be a much more nimble close-reader of small details than the tragedies do. And in performance, they require you to hit your mark far more exactly than the tragedies, because tragedy will give you a whole soliloquy where comedy will often give you a line. If Twelfth Night were a tragedy, and Viola’s brother Sebastian had really died in their shipwreck, she might get a whole speech about her grief and loss. But it’s a comedy, and he isn’t dead – but here’s the thing: Viola doesn’t know that. So you have to give her the expression of that same grief and loss, or you hollow out the breathtaking reunion scene at the end of the play – only here’s what you get to do it in:

And what should I do in Illyria?

My brother he is in Elysium.

Perchance he is not drowned: what think you, sailors? (1.2.3-5)

Then, when the captain replies, “It is perchance that you yourself were saved” (look at the forbidding emphasis those repetitive pronouns place: don’t hope for a second miracle when your own survival barely occurred), you get one more line: “O my poor brother! And so perchance may he be” (1.3.7). A couple of lines later, after the captain reveals that he saw Sebastian tie himself to the mast of the ship and float away (“hold acquaintance with the waves” is what he says, beautifully, as though Sebastian is an equal of the ocean, not at its mercy), Viola thanks the captain and says, “Mine own escape unfoldeth to my hope, / Whereto thy speech serves for authority, / The like of him. Know’st thou this country?” (1.3.19-21). The caesura in that last line is a marvel of compression: from desperate hope to practicality so fast that if you haven’t played the previous lines properly, it’s easy to downplay or overlook the terrible future Viola is holding at bay here, a world without her brother. And indeed, you see this all the time, on stage and (especially) in criticism: people relying on their foreknowledge of a comic ending to assume that we don’t have to give this shadow-world its due. (I think this is why so many productions of Twelfth Night seem so oddly weightless to me.) But we have to live in that world with Viola, even if only for as long as it takes for her to say “My brother he is in Elysium” – that stark moment where she cannot imagine how she could manage to live without him, what the point of such a thing would even be (“And what should I do in Illyria?”). If you’re the actor or the director, and you don’t come absolutely prepared to make us live in that shadow-world from the top of the scene, it flickers away and vanishes, and you can’t call it back; you don’t get another shot. At best, you get a reminder, in 2.4, when Viola speaks obliquely of an imagined sister whom she still – even fictional as that sister is – can’t bring herself to label as dead; she meets Orsino’s “But died thy sister of her love, my boy?” with “I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too, and yet I know not” (2.4.126-7). (If you’ve done your job properly, that word “brothers” ought to punch us in the chest.)

So too, in a less fraught vein, with Olivia. She doesn’t get a soliloquy, or even a monologue like Orsino’s opening “If music be the food of love, play on”; her entire first scene is about her interactions with others. We’ve learned before now, through the remarks of others, what she is – “the fair Olivia,” “daughter of a count,” in double grief for a father and a brother – but not who she is. And her first line is… “Take the fool away” (1.5.33). A good actor can do a lot with that line, but even so, it’s not the most revealing introduction for a character. She gives the game away just a bit when she responds to Feste’s repeated insistence that she is in fact the fool by calling him “Sir” (1.5.47): as Feste is one of her servants, there’s a sense of potential playfulness to her use of the title. If she were truly angry or even just dismissive, she would probably call him “sirrah” (which is her usual term of address for her male servants [1]), so even if she’s not being playful exactly, she is being ironic in being exaggeratedly over-formal. So we know she has something at least resembling a sense of humor. But it’s when Feste insists that she should ‘give him leave’ to prove that Olivia is in fact a fool, and she responds with “Can you do it?” (1.5.51), that we learn something important about what Olivia is like.

Take a second, and imagine this black-clad figure on stage. We know she’s still in the grip of mourning; she’s just sent a message back to Orsino’s court that she intends to hide away from the world in grief for seven years (“The element itself, till seven years’ heat, / Shall not behold her face at ample view…”). She’s suggested throughout this encounter with Feste that she wants nothing more than for him to go away (“Take the fool away”). And yet, the moment Feste offers her this bait of a witty intellectual puzzle, her response is not an angry dismissal, or a repeated command for him to leave her, but a glimmer of interest: “Can you do it?” She can’t help herself; the puzzle is too puzzling for her to resist. She tries, in her other answers to Feste after this – the terseness of “Make your proof” (1.5.53); the airy unconcern of “Well, sir [there’s that “sir” again], for want of other idleness, I’ll bide your proof” (1.5.56-7) – to pretend as though she hasn’t just cared about something, but it’s too late.

And the thing about a question – this is practically tautological, but bear with me – is that it isn’t an answer. Answers are (or can be, anyway) chary, parsimonious things; they give as much information as the other person requires, sometimes even a little less. (“What are you reading?” “A book.”) But a question – that requires opening yourself up to dialogue, to spontaneity, to risk: you may know what answer you hope for, but a real question means that you don’t know what the answer will be. Dialogue, spontaneity, risk: all of those are things that Olivia has been trying to shut out, with her rituals of mourning (“But like a cloistress she will veilèd walk, / And water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine,” 1.1.29-31). The goal of her mourning is to resist change: “All this to season / A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh / And lasting in her sad remembrance” (1.1.31-33). But dialogue is all change, all the time; a question makes you the asking, vulnerable partner in a dance, where the other person could dismiss or reject.

Olivia’s question, too, is wholly unnecessary from the standpoint of the parameters that Feste has set up. When he says “give me leave,” she could say simply “yes,” or “you have leave,” or – as she says two lines later – “Make your proof.” But “Can you do it?” means she’s showing an interest, giving something of herself to the moment, taking part. It’s overabundant, in the way that comedy is often overabundant, in the way that Feste’s own response to Olivia’s question is: not just “yes, I can,” but “Dexteriously, good madonna” (1.5.52). Things aren’t just happening to Olivia or around her, when she asks a question instead of simply responding; she is putting herself into the stream of a situation that could go horribly awry. (As it very nearly does, when Feste says as part of his “catechism,” “I think [your brother’s] soul is in hell, madonna” [1.5.60]. Can you imagine what that line must feel like – what a betrayal it must seem to be – when Olivia has put her trust in him in opening herself up to this exchange?) It’s easy to play the scene as though Olivia is simply won over by Feste’s catechism about mourning and foolishness – but that little question of hers shows that this isn’t quite right: there is a willingness to her, an eagerness to participate in the world, that is crucial to the headlong way she falls for Cesario later in this scene. Even if she can’t yet admit it to herself, she is ready for the world to come to her.


[1] Olivia calls Feste “sirrah” at 5.1.286, and addresses Fabian with the same term at 5.1.301 (“How does he, sirrah”; “Read it you, sirrah”). This word is oddly popular in this scene, after appearing nowhere else in the play; Orsino also uses it toward Cesario at 5.1.146 – “Her husband, sirrah?” – although there it feels almost insulting, given Orsino’s tendency to refer to Cesario as “Dear lad” or “boy” elsewhere in the play. (This is another one of those small comic details that carries a lot of weight.)

Text: Twelfth Night, RSC Shakespeare (Modern Library). Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, eds. New York: Random House, 2010.