Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night Character Analysis

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Duke Orsino’s character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is brief and not as profound as other major characters. However, Shakespeare made sure to compensate his briefness with uninhibited satire that makes Twelfth Night a classic in the romantic comedy genre. What makes him stand out from the rest of the characters is his unbridled quest for love that keeps on evading him until the very end of the play. Here are Duke Orsino’s character traits.

The first character trait of Duke Orsino is that he is very romantic. His life generally revolves around winning a woman’s heart. He does not care what people perceive of him or how many times he gets rejected. He persists to the very end in his pursuit of Olivia- the woman of his dreams.

He has a way with words and does not shy away from revealing to the whole world about his feelings for her. He meticulously uses beautifully lingo to describe his love for Olivia, sometimes equating love with sweet songs and lovely flowers. Albeit accompanied by foolishness, his actions are actually very romantic. For instance, while addressing Curio he likens his desires to cruel hounds that that chase after him:

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn’d into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’er since pursue me. (Act 1 Scene 1)

Secondly, he is very passionate about his love for Olivia. He does not take no for an answer and constantly sends people to woo her to accept him, but each time he is rejected. In act 1 scene 1, when valentine informs him that Olivia is mourning her deceased brother for the next seven years, he is not discourage, even though he knows that it is a ploy to make him give up. In fact, it only acts a fuel to his passion. He sees her unconventional way of mourning, as a gesture of loyalty to her family and claims that she would be a great lover to the man she falls for:

O, she that hath a heart of that fine frame
To pay this debt of love but to a brother,
How will she love, when the rich golden shaft (Act 1 Scene 1)

Thirdly, he is fickle in nature. He gets bored easily. He has a very short attention span and quickly changes his mind. This becomes obvious in his opening dialogue at the beginning of the play. He loves music and believes it will redeem him from his “so-called suffering” and immediately orders his band of musicians to play him some music to soothe him. But as soon as the bands starts to play, he orders them to stop, claiming that the sound of music has ceased to impress him:

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. (Act 1 Scene 1)

We also see this fickle behavior when he comes to terms with the fact that Olivia has married Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother. He is unfazed and quickly jumps to the idea of courting Viola, once it becomes clear that she is not a man. He even requests her to be in female clothes so that he could see her: “Give me thy hand; And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds”.

He is also an authoritarian.  When he is not whining about his love for Olivia, then he is obviously dishing out orders. Like all rulers, his words are final and he commands people at his will. Though he rules with an iron rod, and everybody fears him, Olivia is not in the least bit scared of him, maybe because she also comes from a noble family. .

In fact, when it comes to Olivia the old duke is as brittle as glass. She is the only person who reveals his weak and vulnerable side. However, Duke Orsino is not the weak ruler, as he behaves for the better part of the play. He is actually a courageous leader that once fought and won against Antonio, his enemy. Unfortunately, we come to learn of his heroic exploits at the closing stages of the play.

Furthermore, the duke is selfish and self-centered. He wants everything to revolve around him. All the weird melodramatic behavior is just to suck up all the spotlight to himself. His love for being the center of attention stems from an overinflated sense of self-worth. His so-called love for Olivia is not actually true love, as we realize later in the play. It may be the excitement people get when they seek something forbidden or beyond their reach. Or, it may be his ego that refuses to accept that Olivia does not want him as a suitor. When he realizes that Olivia has already been married to Sebastian, he quickly accepts Viola to save face.

It can also be argued that Orsino is daft. He is the definition of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. His approach towards Olivia has failed over and over again, but he still sticks to it even though it does little to impress her. Instead of approaching her personally, he is constantly sending servants to do all the negotiations for him, but this shows that he is a coward. He does not believe in himself.

When Cesario (Viola) advices him to go to Olivia himself, he belittles himself because he is old and informs her that Olivia will receive her better because she is young and beautiful. On the other hand, Sebastian who cannot be compared to Orsino in any possible way, easily wins Olivia’s heart and marries her. Orsino’s daftness cannot allow him to see that Olivia is not impressed by wealth and power and his method of approaching her clearly shows that he has nothing else to offer her, apart from wealth and power which she already has.

Furthermore, we see his stupidity when he is able to be duped by Viola that she is a man. He is also not able to put two and two together when Viola gives him all the clues revealing her love for him. It is not until the very end when Viola blatantly announces her affection for him that he becomes aware:

Orsino. Thou dost speak masterly:
My life upon’t, young though thou art, thine eye
Hath stay’d upon some favour that it loves:
Hath it not, boy?

Viola. A little, by your favour.

Orsino. What kind of woman is’t?

Viola. Of your complexion.

Orsino. She is not worth thee, then. What years, i’ faith?

Viola. About your years, my lord. (Act 2 Scene 4)

Duke Orsino is also childish. It is actually an irony that he is still looking for love at his age. An old man behaving like a teenage girl when he is rejected does not work in his case to win the love of Olivia. Looking at his competitor, Sebastian, he is actually the opposite of Orsino. While the duke is effeminate to some degree, Sebastian is the definition of masculinity. He is very aggressive, brave and has a penchant for taking risks.

He survives a ship wreck, comes to land and beats up Sir Toby and Sir Andrew and still has enough energy to win the heart of Olivia. He is an entertaining character that easily impresses Olivia with his adventures and misadventures. On the other hand, Orsino has not yet mastered enough courage to approach her. She is obviously going to choose a person who will take her on a rollercoaster of adventures, and not the one who will confine her in a castle and bore her to death.

Lastly, our beloved duke is actually funny. His actions reveal to us how strong love is and how the mighty fall from grace because of it. Through his relationship with Viola, we realize that true love is always near us, within our vicinity and right there in front of our eyes. Most times than not we actually sacrifice true love, while searching for infatuations that leave us heart broken and depressed.

However, most people are never lucky like Duke Orsino, who actually gets his soul mate in the end of the play. They do not realize what true love is until it is too late and their rightful partners have already moved on with their lives.

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