In Olivia's house, Maria and Feste, the jester, are exchanging quips. Olivia, she tells him, is piqued because of Feste's absence. She jokingly tells him that Olivia may hang him, but Feste is not intimidated. "Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage," he retorts. He delights in teasing Maria, whom he is complimenting in mock extravagance when Olivia and her steward, Malvolio, enter.
The two of them are very grave and very serious. Olivia orders Feste away, but Feste stays on, determined to amuse his mistress; he launches into a series of jokes that eventually amuse Olivia, despite her serious mien. But Feste's merriment does not amuse the pompous and humorless Malvolio. Malvolio says that the jester is a weak and sick man, as is his wit. Malvolio's arrogant scorn delights Feste, and he easily parries Malvolio's weak wit and, thereby, impresses Olivia. She tells Malvolio that he is "sick of self-love" and "distempered." Jesters, she says, do not slander; it is their craft, a harmless craft, and that Feste is only reproving Malvolio.
Maria enters and tells them that a fair young man from Duke Orsino has arrived and wishes an interview with Olivia, but that he is being detained by Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby. Olivia's temper flares. She will not be wooed by the duke — nor by anyone else. She doesn't care what the messenger is told; any excuse will do. She wants to see no suitors, she says, and she tells Maria to send the young man away immediately. While Maria and Malvolio are gone, Sir Toby appears. He is drunk, and Feste has a marvellous opportunity to ape Olivia's old uncle's drunken antics. Olivia is amused by Feste's cleverness, and her mood softens; she sends Feste to look after her uncle after he exits. She wants to make sure that nothing serious happens to him in his inebriated condition.
Malvolio enters and tells Olivia that the "fair young man" is indeed "fair" and "young," and that he is, in addition, persistent. Olivia relents and agrees to see the lad — as long as Maria is present. She then veils her face before he enters.
Viola, disguised as Cesario, enters and begins his mission by addressing Olivia with many compliments, while adroitly avoiding answering Olivia's questions about his status and background, for Olivia is very inquisitive about this fair, young "man." Cesario continues, and Olivia at last feels so comfortable with the fellow that she dismisses Maria, and the two of them begin to speak of Duke Orsino and his status as a suitor for Olivia's hand in marriage. Olivia is eventually persuaded to unveil herself, and she presents her beautiful face to Cesario — to which "he" responds playfully and most positively: "Excellently done, if God did all." Cesario then laments that the owner of such beauty is indeed cruel if she would carry her "graces to the grave" and "leave the world no copy." He reassures her of Orsino's love, but Olivia says that she doubts that Orsino's love is of any real depth. He does not truly know her; therefore, he must press his suit no further. Yet, on the other hand, if Cesario wishes to come again, Olivia will be most happy to see him. She hands the young man a purse of money for his troubles, but Cesario refuses it. Indignantly, he says that he is no "fee'd post." He bids Olivia farewell — farewell to her "fair cruelty."
Absolutely intrigued with young Cesario, Olivia calls to Malvolio. She tells him to follow Orsino's messenger and to return a ring that he left behind. She also tells Malvolio to inform Cesario that if the youth returns tomorrow, she will explain in detail why Orsino's suit is impossible.
Olivia has fallen in love. The ring is a ruse; Cesario left no ring. Olivia is merely trying to arrange a rendezvous tomorrow between herself and the handsome young envoy from Duke Orsino.
Most elegant houses of this time would include, in addition to a large number of servants of different standings, a person who was considered the official "fool," "jester," or "clown." Many critics make a distinction between these terms, but even Shakespeare uses them indiscriminately. Traditionally, in Renaissance terms, the word clown often referred mainly to rustics such as those found in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and a person such as Feste would more appropriately be termed a "fool" (a court jester). Here, Feste opens the scene with the witty servant Maria, and they are engaged in a verbal sparring match. The two are very well matched; Maria is a mischievous, quick-witted person, and Feste has a mind like quicksilver. The pattern of their verbal humor and interchanges is executed in a rapid give-and-take repartee, which is extremely effective on stage.
The entrance of the Countess Olivia has been long awaited. We have heard about her since the opening scene of the act, and now finally at the end of Act I, she makes her first appearance. We are not disappointed. She is beautiful and poised, and she possesses a commanding presence as she immediately reprimands the clown for his lack of seriousness at a time when she is in mourning. As the scene progresses, we see that Olivia shows great intelligence; she is very adept in verbal skills, she appreciates the magnificent humor of the clown, especially when it is aimed at the dour and grave Malvolio, and she is also very practical in disapproving of her uncle's drunkenness and loud belching. And while she acknowledges that the duke is handsome, wealthy, devoted, learned, and refined — in other words, everything a lady could desire — yet she feels that she cannot love him. Later in the scene, we learn that one of her reasons could be that the duke exhibits extreme melodramatics in his message to Olivia. When Cesario delivers the duke's message that he loves Olivia "with adorations, with fertile tears, / With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire," this declaration represents gross sentimentality; the phrasing is a perfect description of the rhetorical and superficial nature of Duke Orsino's love.
At her entrance, Olivia immediately instructs someone to "take the fool [Feste] away." She finds him to be a "dry fool" — that is, Olivia is in mourning, and foolery ill becomes her at this time. When the fool asks for permission to prove his lady a fool, she grants him permission to do so, and eventually Olivia appreciates the fool's wit and logic; in fact, she is sharp with Malvolio, who disparages the fool and wonders how his mistress can take delight in such a rascal. Again, Malvolio shows that he has no sense of humor; he constantly tries to keep the entire household in an atmosphere of gravity and oppression. His oppressive melancholy prepares the audience to take great delight in the trick that will be played on him later.
When Cesario arrives at the gate, notice that Olivia will have nothing to do with this messenger. Yet Olivia changes her mind about seeing the messenger when she hears the description of the youth given her by Malvolio, a description which whets her imagination; suddenly she desires very much to see him, but she is not anxious to reveal this in front of the dour Malvolio. Thus, we realize that Olivia's guise of mourning for her brother is only another of the many disguises that are employed during this comedy — that is, Lady Olivia used the excuse of her brother's death as a pretext for singling herself out and making herself interesting, and certainly news of her excessive mourning has been carried throughout the country, as we saw in all the preceding scenes.
When Cesario is admitted, further masks and disguises are used to their fullest. First, Olivia has a veil over her face which disguises her true appearance. Viola herself, of course, is in disguise as the young Cesario and, furthermore, as Cesario, she is playing a part because as Cesario, she has memorized a speech that is to be delivered to Olivia. Then, too, there is an abundance of play on words, constantly emphasizing how Olivia is usurping her own role and that Cesario wants only to present the heart of the message, which is to play on Olivia's heart, and when Cesario finally finishes his speech, he says that he holds an olive, the sign of peace in his hand. Note that "olive" is a derivation of Olivia's name and ultimately, by the end of this scene, Cesario will figuratively hold Olivia in "his" hands, since she will by then be enamored of the youth. Cesario must, of necessity, be a good wooer or else lose favor with Duke Orsino. Therefore, there is such a passionate intensity in his pleading that Olivia is struck not so much by the message (which is trite, old and hackneyed), but by the messenger (who is young, passionate, and good-looking). At the same time, Cesario senses that Olivia is too proud to be wooed by proxy, but he attempts to do so anyway. After the message is delivered, Olivia is oblivious to it, but she is so entranced by the messenger that she offers a purse filled with money. Cesario refuses the gift indignantly; he is no fee-accepting person: "I am no fee'd post, Lady; keep your purse. My master, not myself, lacks recompense."
After Cesario has left, Olivia remembers Cesario's proud declaration: "I am a gentleman." Olivia, in fact, savors remembering Cesario's entire conversation; she is aware that she is falling in love with the "boy," and she wonders if it is possible that Orsino is pretending to be Cesario. Her desire to find out and her desire to see the young "boy" again cause her to perpetrate a ruse to bring the youth back to her. We know that this is a trick; Cesario left no ring behind, but this is the safest way that Olivia can try to persuade the youth to return.
At the end of Act I, Olivia is in a delicious state of incipient love after having rejected the duke's offer of love. She accepts her fate, whatever it may be, and exits, thinking of young Cesario in the warmest terms. The situation is now extremely complicated: Olivia loves a girl (Viola) masquerading as a boy (Cesario), while Duke Orsino loves Olivia, who rejects him, and he is in turn loved by a girl (Viola) who, to the duke, is merely a young man whose company he delights in.