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The scene opens after a terrible ship wreck. Viola, a few sailors, and a (sea) captain arrive on shore and Viola asks where they are. The captain says they're in Illyria.
(Viola's name isn't revealed to the play-going audience until Act 5. Readers of the play, however, know her name because it's in the script and marks the beginning of each of her lines.)
Viola is bummed that she's in Illyria and says her brother is probably in heaven, but she's holding onto hope that he is alive.
The captain tries to comfort Viola and says that, after the ship sank, he saw her brother tie himself to the mast, which had somehow managed to stay afloat.
The captain's description of Sebastian clinging to the ship's mast also reveals to the audience what went down at sea. (Thank goodness for that, because, until this moment, we're as confused as Viola. Shakespeare is so crafty that way.) Apparently, when the ship split in two and the passengers and crew went into the water, Viola, being a very scrappy girl, avoided drowning by hanging on to the side of a life boat.
Viola gives him some gold for being a nice guy and for cheering her up.
The captain, who grew up three hours away from Illyria, tells Viola about the country and dishes a little dirt about its local celebs. The beloved Duke Orsino is a bachelor who's been trying to hook up with the Countess Olivia. But, Olivia's so not into him. Her dad died about a year ago and then her brother died shortly after, so she's sworn off the company of men while she grieves.
Viola responds to the gossip by wishing she could disguise her identity and social class for a while by working as Olivia's servant – at least until she gets her bearings and figures out what to do next.
The captain explains why that's just not going to happen: Olivia isn't seeing any visitors, not even the Duke.
Viola tells the captain that he seems like a trusty fellow, so she's going to pay him a ton of dough to dress her up like a boy and not tell anyone about it. Since she's got such a great singing voice, she wants the captain to introduce her to the Duke as a eunuch. The idea is that parading around as a eunuch will guard Viola from suspicion that she's a woman, while allowing her singing talents to earn her some props in the Duke's court.
(We interrupt this program for a little history snack: Back in the day – as early as 400 A.D. – choir boys were frequently castrated before they hit puberty to preserve their extraordinary singing voices. Castration = no testosterone = a nice soprano, or more accurately, a castrato. We know that castrati sang in the choir at the Sistine Chapel in the 1550s – around the same time that Will Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night. Also, in Italy, castrations for the, um, listening pleasure of choir buffs weren't outlawed until 1870. Yikes.)
The captain agrees to keep his lips zipped while Viola dresses up like a boy and plays "I'm a singing eunuch" at Orsino's court.