Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night: Character Analysis
In this lesson you will learn who Duke Orsino is, and how his characteristics shape his role in Shakespeare's play, 'Twelfth Night.' Take a look at the character analysis and then test your knowledge with a quiz.
Duke Orsino: A Character Analysis
Orsino is the powerful Duke of Illyria and a bachelor in Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night. When we first see the duke, he is in the absurdly romantic pose which characterizes him throughout the play. He has seen Olivia, and the very sight of her has fascinated him to such an extent that his romantic imagination convinces him that he will die if she does not agree to be his wife.
After seeing Olivia, Orsino demands music to calm his lovesick soul. But, almost as soon as it has begun, he demands that it be stopped because it is not as sweet as it once was. His entire opening speech is filled with a romantic, melancholy indulgence in which he is pining away for love of Olivia.
The Duke persists in his pursuit of Olivia, using Cesario, his page, despite Olivia's continuing rejection of him. The Duke, however, is not so much in love with Olivia as he is in love with love. He is so absorbed in his own romantic fantasies that he does not realize that Cesario is, in fact, Viola, who cannot profess her own unrequited love for him.
Orsino even boasts of his self-indulgent and erratic behavior, which he associates with love, to Cesario/Viola as he/she tries to bring him to his senses. He is utterly self- absorbed and blind; to Olivia's constant rejection, Viola's unprofessed love, even to Feste, clown and musician extraordinaire, who openly mocks him with a love song of death. He does not, or cannot, recognize that things are not as he wishes them to be.
At the play's climax, Orsino's self-absorbed longing takes a darker turn as, spurred on by yet another of Olivia's rejections, he decides to kill Cesario in a romantic gesture combining love and death. But, even as he proposes to 'sacrifice the lamb that I do love, / To spite a raven's heart within a dove' (5.1.128-129), he realizes his affection for Cesario. Once Viola's identity as Cesario is revealed, Orsino is immediately ready to love her, forgetting all about his love for Olivia. He is not only self-indulgent, melodramatic and self-absorbed, he is as fickle as the moon. Yet Viola loves him and has always loved him, which suggests that he must have some redeeming qualities.
Not until the end of the play, however, and his marriage to Viola, do those redeeming qualities emerge. By virtue of having at last recognized love (and life) as it truly is, rather than what he has fantasized it to be, he is brought to a state of loving grace, and seems to achieve something of the quality of wisdom. And as he orders that someone 'pursue, and entreat him to a peace' (5.1.379), he becomes the man his position requires, a ruler who understands both power and mercy.
Remember, Orsino is the powerful Duke of Illyria and a bachelor, who persists in pursuing his love for Olivia in spite of her continuing rejection of him. He is melodramatic, self-indulgent, and so absorbed in his own fantasies that he cannot recognize that it is not Olivia he is in love with, but love itself. He even goes so far as to decide to kill Cesario, his page, who is really Viola, and in love with him.
As Orsino determines to do the deed, he realizes his affection for Cesario. Then as Viola reveals herself as Cesario and expresses her love for the Duke, he switches his love from Olivia to her, revealing his fickleness. Then, at the end, because he finally recognizes true love and gives up his fantasies of love, he achieves wisdom and a state of grace, becoming the man his position requires, a ruler able to understand both power and mercy.
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