Orsino is the sentimental Duke of Illyria, “in dimension and the shape of nature a gracious person.” In the beginning of the play Shakespeare reveals Orsino’s love for Countess Olivia; he also lets us know that the Countess has taken a seven years’ vow of mourning for her dead brother. She therefore refuses to receive the messenger of his courtship. Thus Shakespeare offers us an irresistible force of Orsino’s passion which is stalled by the rigidity of the self-imposed seclusion of the Countess.
Most critics seem to accept Orsino as a man predestined to sentimentality. and accept every word spoken by him as a reprobation of love. This line of criticism takes away what J.R. Brown termed as “the richness and ardency” of both the play and the Dukes fancy, though we cannot deny that he himself seems to be luxuriating in it. Since the play is a comedy, we must wonder. specially since it is a Shakespearean comedy, where every love ends in marriage, whether or not his love can exist till the end. in its persistent, even pestering form of the beginning of the play, and more importantly whether or not it would end in matrimony. The hope is that in comedy, vows such as those made by Olivia, are meant to be broken. The problem is that Orsino is totally passive in his wooing, and comedy conceives love as an active emotion. If we are sure that Olivia would break her vow, we are also sure that she would not break it due to Orsino’s passive sentimentality.
By the time Orsino appears in the fourth scene of the first Act, we know a good deal about him. We know that he is “A noble Duke, in nature as in name.” When he finally appears Shakespeare tells as that he is not “inconstant in his favours.” When we next meet him in Act II Scene IV, the Clown mocks at Orsino’s melancholy and capriciousness of mood, as Orsino and Viola are permitted their first few moments alone. Shakespeare balances the irony of Orsino’s unawareness that Cesario is a woman and loves him, and the pathos of Viola’s inability to enlighten him, with wonderfully delicate finesse.
We meet Orsino next, in real terms, only in the fifth Act, where we are to learn that his genuinely benign nature and good humour would be an admirable foil to the passions that he is called upon to show. He is first seen to display it in front of Antonio, who is arrested by his men and brought before him. He reveals no anger, though he is stern, which is obvious since he is dealing with an enemy. Shakespeare introduces Olivia,’ since Antonio’s interrogation is not of any importance to the play. When she refuses his suit once again, he brings forth his first emotion of anger. His impulse is to kill Olivia, but the impulse is rejected even before it is consciously accepted. because he does not have the “heart to do it”. He then, impulsively, decides to kill Viola:
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“I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.”
The impulse is threatrial and even melodramatic, and when Viola responds to the threat:
“And I most jocund, apt, and willingly,
To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die.”
We do not know whether to take the threat seriously or to reject it altogether. The entire play cries out for us to reject it; but instead we accept it, since this sublimates Viola’s love in the burning embers of supreme self- sacrifice. Yet Shakespeare’s technique is such that the tussle in our minds lasts only for a moment, for the very next moment the clouds of crisis blow away. When Olivia wants to know where Cesario is going, Viola speaks:
‘After him I love
More than I love these eyes, more than my life,
More, by all mores, than e’er I shall love wife.”
Orsino’s sentiment is cured when he sees Sebastian make love like a man. He elevates himself to behave in a similar manner with Viola. Till that moment he had been living in a world of fancy and day-dreams. His unreal mood of emotion, and the dangerously passive enemy called sentimentality. makes him a man sick in the mind. The only cure for the sick in the mind is reality. Orsino faces this reality when he finds that Olivia has married Sebastian and he awakens from the slumbrous limbo that he had chosen as his predominant emotion.
Orsino is an attractive figure. The name, no doubt, was suggested by that of the great Italian family of Orsino. He is called a Duke only in the first Act in the rest of the play he is called “Count”. His attractive personality is abundantly brought forth in the following lines:
“Of fresh and stainless youth;
In voices well divulg’d, free, learn’d, and valiant,
And in dimension and the shape of nature
A gracious person.”
This kindly courteousness is evident in front of every person. He speaks with eloquence, and his thoughts have the fancy of a poet. Since most persons with a poetic disposition seem to sentimentalise life far in excess of acceptable levels, he too is guilty of this fault. It is due to this excessive sentimentality that he is unable to retain the sympathy that he wins initially. When his page takes his marriage proposals to Olivia repeatedly, only to be sent back with rejection, the feeling that we have not of sympathy for Orsino, since we feel that Orsino is feeding on his love some delicate fare, which gives him opportunities to make some fine speeches, and brings him forth more as a connoisseur of words and idioms rather than a man seriously in love. Even when he speaks of his sorrows, we get a feeling that we are in front of an artist who uses his own emotions as a subject. Rarely, if ever, do we deem his love for Olivia as anything other than an artistic self-indulgence. This becomes even more evident when we see him do little to pursue his love; despite repeated rejections he merely luxuriates in his own garden, surrounded by songs and his own fancies. When at the end of the play he calmly transfers to Viola, what he thinks to be his affections, we are not surprised, since we are at the time convinced that his love for Olivia is mere fiction. Though he does manage to convince us that his transfer of love to Viola may arouse in him genuine fondness for her, there is still a lingering doubt whether or not he would indeed be able to love anyone other than himself. He is as likable as an egoist can possibly be; yet he is foremost an egoist, and in his own eyes he would always remain the person of prime consequence.