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The glittering plot is reinforced by some of Shakespeare’s best and most delicate dramatic poetry.Moreover, the drama is suffused with bittersweet music, and the idyllic setting in Illyria blends with language and imagery to create a most delightful atmosphere wholly appropriate to the celebration of love and to the enjoyment of this world.While these characters are flawed, they are certainly more engaging than the inflated Malvolio.
She seems destined to unite the two melancholy dreamers, but what the play instead accomplishes is that Viola, in her own person and in that of her alter ego, her brother, becomes part of both households. It is, of course, immaterial to the dreamy Orsino that he gets Viola instead of Olivia—the romantic emotion is more important to him than is the specific person.
Olivia, already drawn out of her seclusion by the disguised Viola, gets what is even better for her, Sebastian.
The one notable briar in the story’s rose garden is Malvolio; however, he is easily the play’s most interesting character.
He is called a Puritan, but although he is not a type, he does betray the characteristics then associated with that austere Anglican sect.
With nine comedies behind him when he wrote it, Shakespeare was at the height of his comic powers and in an exalted mood to which he never returned. It is a brilliant irony that Shakespeare’s most joyous play should be compounded out of the sadnesses of its principal characters. Orsino’s opening speech—which has often been taken overly seriously—is not a grief-stricken condemnation of love but rather owes much more to the Italian poet Petrarch.
Chronologically, the play immediately precedes Shakespeare’s great tragedies and problem plays. However, the sadnesses are, for the most part, those mannered sadnesses that the Elizabethans savored. Orsino revels in the longings of love and in the bittersweet satiety of his romantic self-indulgence. On the other side of the city is the household of Olivia, which balances Orsino and his establishment.
Some critics have suggested that Malvolio is treated too harshly, but a Renaissance audience would have understood how ludicrous and indecorous it was for a man of his class to think, even for a moment, of courting Countess Olivia.
His pompous and blustery language is the key to how alien he is to this festive context.
He is a self-important, serious-minded person with high ideals who cannot bear the thought of others being happy.
As Sir Toby puts it to him, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?