Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, is sitting in his palace and enjoying himself by listening to music. He is in love and is in a whimsical, romantic mood, luxuriating in the various emotions which the music evokes. But he impulsively decides that he has heard enough, and after sending the musicians away, he expounds on the subject of love. Curio, one of his pages, asks his master if he wouldn't like to hunt; perhaps exercise will cure his master's soulful, philosophical moodiness. Orsino replies that he would like to hunt — but he would like to hunt the lovely Olivia, to whom he has sent another of his pages, Valentine, as an emissary. At that moment, Valentine enters. But he brings such bad news that he begs "not [to] be admitted": Olivia's brother has died, and she has vowed to mourn her brother's death for seven years. Surprisingly, the news does not dampen Orsino's spirit. He rhapsodizes on how a girl with such sensitivity can express her emotions; if she "hath a heart of that fine frame," he says, then she would be even more devoted and loyal to a lover.
Twelfth Night has always been one of Shakespeare's most popular plays on the stage. On a first reading of the play, some students find the play difficult to come to grips with. This is because so much of the delight of the play comes from viewing the play. One must imagine the opening of the play with musicians entering and playing lovely music of a languid and melancholy nature to match the mood and personality of Duke Orsino's mood.
The general setting of the play is also significant. Shakespeare always set his comedies in faraway places so as to emphasize the ethereal quality of the romance. The name "Illyria" would be as little known to his audience as it is to today's average person; the fact that such a place did in fact exist on the Adriatic coast is of no importance to the play, for the name itself evokes images of faraway places filled with intrigues and love, and this is the concept that is emphasized throughout the play by the extensive use of music. In some productions, in addition to the songs played and sung on the stage, languid background music is played throughout the comedy.
The duke is in love, and his famous first lines announce this feeling:
If music be the food of love, play on!
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die. (1-3)
But the duke is not in love with any one particular person (even though it would be foolish not to acknowledge, of course, the Lady Olivia); but most of all, the duke is in love with love itself; after all, the Lady Olivia has rejected his protestations of love, and yet he continues to insist that she marry him. The duke thoroughly delights in giving himself up to the exquisite delights of his own passions, but actually he does little to try to possess the object of his affections. In fact, this is the reason why he will later use Viola (Cesario) to do his courting for him.
The duke's character is set in his first speech. At the same time that he indulges in the sentimental music, he impetuously grows tired of it and dismisses the musicians. The duke then evokes the metaphor of the sea, which he likens to love. The sea is vast, as is the duke's capacity for love, but the sea is also changeable, unstable, and constantly shifting its mien. At the end of the comedy, the duke, significantly, will shift his love from the Lady Olivia to Viola within a moment; thus we should not be disturbed by this quick change. Feste later compares the duke's love to an opal, a gem which constantly changes its color according to the nature of the light.
When we hear that the Lady Olivia is going to mourn her brother for seven years, her desire to remain "cloistered like a nun" for seven years identifies her as a person of extreme romantic sentimentality, one who is not in touch with the real world; thus, she is a romantic counterpart to Duke Orsino. When the duke hears the news, he is pleased: if she can remain devoted to her brother for so long, it means that she has a constant heart; therefore, she will be constant to a lover forever, when the time comes. The duke then lies down; he goes to his "sweet beds of flowers" (usually an ottoman or lounge) in order to sleep and dream, believing that "love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers." In this short opening scene, we have seen the duke restless and enamored of love, tired of love, and finally ready to sleep and dream of love.