The Analysis of Character Sketch of Duke Orsino in the “Twelfth Night”
Duke Orsino is the first character we see in the beginning of the play. Opening the “Twelfth Night” Duke starts his speech with the declaration of hopeless love to beautiful Olivia who is ignorant to his advances. Shakespeare portrays Duke Orsino as a flamboyant character who loves life in all its forms. The character traits are mostly positive: Duke is generous, noble and joyful, though a bit too selfish. From the very beginning his personality contrasts with strict and solemn Olivia.
The real possible counterpart of Duke Orsino is Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracciano, a noble Italian, known by Shakespeare. There are few memories about the real man, but it seems that in general, Virginio’s personality was quite similar to the character. We still don’t know if such a portrayal was a compliment (i is still a comedy after all), but the play was very successful in Italy also, so it seems that Virginio, if Duke Orsino from “Twelfth Night” was really related to him, took it easy.
But another, not so flattering character trait of the Duke is his inability to distinguish the real feelings from his imagination. He loves Olivia only because she is the perfect romantic character for his personal tale: she doesn’t return his feelings, so the Duke considers that he just has to try harder. The fact that Olivia is in mourning and doesn’t want any relationships right now doesn’t stop him. It seems that the very personality of the woman doesn’t matter from Duke Orsino.
He just wants to accomplish his goal. In his speech at the beginning of the “Twelfth Night” Duke Orsino focuses only on his own feelings, lamenting his lovesickness and inability to enjoy life without his beloved Olivia. He diminishes her feelings, considering her mourning excessive and deciding to put an end to it, disregarding even the fact that Olivia can just possibly not like him personally.
When the plot starts to develop, we see Orsino as a benevolent master. He is very friendly to Viola in disguise and indeed he has lots of traits he can be loved for. No wonder that the girl is charmed with his bright personality. But still, Duke Orsino remains a very selfish man, oblivious to the feelings of others.
When Viola, who he uses as a free psychotherapist, talking about his unrequited love, asks him in despair: what if there was a woman who loved him just as much and suffered just as much as him – the Duke plainly rejects this thought, saying that no woman is capable of such a strong and complicated feeling as he is. We can only imagine the feelings of poor girl, who saw this side of her beloved for the first time.
From the one side, all the “Twelfth Night” portrays Duke Orsino as the perfect knight and gentleman: noble, polite, brave and generous. But from the other side, he is too immersed in the knightly virtues, pretending to fit into the legendary character sketches, with the Fair Lady to love and to suffer of her indifference.
His real personality is very changeable: the Duke easily gets bored and shifts his attention from sadness to enjoying the feast and party. His love to Olivia, that seems to be the defining character trait at first, becomes just another his hobby. He doesn’t really investigate how to help the woman overcome her grief and move on, Duke Orsino considers that the very fact that he is interested in her shall flatter Olivia enough to immediately return his feelings.
Another question that inevitably is raised throughout the story – who does the Duke’s duties? Who rules the land during all the feasts and attempts to win Olivia? Lots of things demand attention in Illyria, from the very storm and shipwreck that brought Viola to him to the average daily business with getting things done in his country. We never see Duke Orsino actually doing something. It only emphasises the overall tone of the comedy: it is too light-hearted for the serious things. Duke can allow to dedicate himself to the sentimental feeling exclusively.
Still, despite his selfishness and even shallowness, Duke suddenly appears capable of the really deep feelings. It is his feeling of friendship to Cesario (Viola). Gradually, mostly courtesy of Viola’s empathy and desire to be near her beloved, their relationship becomes more and more trusted. Finding someone who truly understands him, his soft side, Duke is very grateful to his “page”. He trusts Cesario the secrets and task he wouldn’t trust anything else: he actually makes “him” his only ally in the fight for Olivia’s heart.
The relationship with Cesario also teaches Duke Orsino a lot and helps to improve his character traits. He is of a low opinion about all the women at first, considering them just an objects of love, not subjects of it. Using her male disguise, Viola can confront him and makes him reconsider his attitude to women in general and also his feelings towards Olivia. She can use her natural empathy and the level of mutual trust to influence the Duke and help him stop suffering just for the sake of suffering and really move on.
In the end of the play Duke has to admit that Olivia chose another man – but instead of immersing deeper in his beautiful suffering, he finally admits yet another thing: Cesario was right when “he” told him about the very devoted and loving woman near him. We don’t know if Duke really appreciates the willingness of Viola to make her beloved happy even with the cost of her own chance to be loved, or he just doesn’t want to lose his best friend who appears to be a woman. We only see that Duke Orsino immediately shifts from Olivia to Viola, demanding her to dress into female garments, so that he can see her beauty.
It is important to understand that this demand is necessary for the stage play, because the scene of mutual affection between two characters dressed as males could be seen as scandalous. So the Duke can be spared here: we can hope that he is able to love Viola not only in fancy dress and not only for her beauty, but for her personality.
The character analysis shows us that the portrait of Duke Orsino in the “Twelfth Night” is a bit simplified and exaggerated for the comical effect. The overall portrayal of the character is mostly positive, but still the Duke is too grotesque to be taken seriously. This allows the audience to easily believe that he gives up his feelings to Olivia in mere minutes and falls in love with Viola instead – the general tone of the “Twelfth Night” encourages this shift and makes the ending really happy, not ambiguous as it could be in real life. Duke’s personality fits well into the canvas of the play, where Sebastian falls for Olivia and marries her with the same speed as Duke.
Duke’s character is a counterpart to Olivia’s one: while one is jovial and bright, the other one is solemn and strict. These traits are deliberately emphasised to show that Duke Orsino and Olivia don’t fit each other in any way. More reserved and balanced Sebastian and Viola soften these features and thus make two perfect couples in the terms of the setting. Also, despite being one of the main characters, Duke sometimes acts as comical relief, for example in the scene when he gets bored with every new song the musicians play and annoys them with new and new demands. The author constantly reminds us not to take the Duke too seriously and look at him as at the comical figure.
Illyria’s placement somewhere in the Mediterranean also adds to the Duke’s portrait some traits from the traditional carnivals. From this point of view, Duke Orsino (as all the other local characters, excluding Viola and Sebastian) can be interpreted not like shallow but real people, but rather like the archetypical carnival masks, that exist to express not the whole personalities but feelings, emotions and states of mind. The closeness of the “Twelfth Night” to the venetian theater of masks only enhances this feeling. If we treat the characters this way and not through the prism of modern morals and ethics, we may enjoy the comedy so wholeheartedly as the audience of the times of William Shakespeare.