Orsino is the powerful Duke of Illyria – he's a bachelor and the object of Viola's affection but he's trying to woo the inaccessible Olivia. The play's opening scene gives us our first gander at the Duke and we think this opening passage tells us a whole lot about his character. It's a bit lengthy, but hang in there because it's worth it:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before. (1.1.1)
Here, Orsino commands his musicians to "play on" because music feeds his desires. But, he never lets the musicians finish as he interrupts by proclaiming, "Enough; no more; / 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before." What does this suggest about the Duke? Well, he's powerful, passionate, self-centered, and just a tad moody. (Notice how the nifty end-rhyme, "no more" / "before," works to highlight Orsino's fickleness.)
Later in the play Feste pretty much nails Orsino's erratic moods when he says the Duke's "mind is very opal" (2.4.4). An opal gemstone, as we know, shimmers and shifts colors. This is not a compliment – Feste implies that Orsino is temperamental and unstable. This reminds us of the tone of the overall play, which swings from highs to lows and everything else in between. (For more, see our discussion of "Tone," but come right back, or else.) So, if the Duke's moody and kind of silly and the play's mood shifts around a lot, does that make the play kind of silly too? You bet.
We know from the opening scene (above) that Orsino is a passionate guy and we soon learn that he's set his sights on Olivia. But, when Orsino says he's in love with the Countess, should we believe him? There's lots of evidence that says we shouldn't. For example, when Duke Orsino shares one of his erotic fantasies with us, we can see that it really has nothing to do with the Countess. Here's the Duke's description of the first time he saw Olivia:
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me. (1.1.3, our emphasis)
Orsino says he was turned into a "hart" (a male deer and also a play on the word "heart") and that he was chased or hunted by his own desires, which were like "hounds." So, Orsino doesn't imagine his pursuit of Olivia so much as he fixates on his pursuit of himself in a fantasy that is all about him. (Shakespeare all but invites us to imagine Orsino alone his bed – or on a bed of Violets, which he is also fond of – "pursuing.") Notice the repeated use of personal pronouns, "me," "my," and "I." Orsino is all about Orsino, not Olivia.
Like we said, Orsino likes his metaphors and similes, which makes him a kind of poet. To be fair, the cadence or rhythm of the guy's language is pretty nice, musical even, as we can see from the opening passage. So, props for that, but Orsino really needs to work on the content of his love musings, which consist of lots and lots of clichés. (Love is like insatiable hunger, music is the food that fuels passion, love is like the ocean, etc. We better stop there because our gag reflexes are kicking in.) We're not the only ones who think the Duke's a little over the top – when "Cesario" tries to deliver the Duke's love message to the Countess, Olivia mockingly refers to the Duke's "hideous matter," a "heresy" that she's heard and "read" many times before (1.5.10).
It's fun to make fun of Orsino (trust us, Shakespeare wants us to), but there's at least one character who takes him seriously and that's Viola. We often wonder what it is Viola sees in Orsino. As we've said before, our best guess is that she digs his fiery passion and poetic musings. (Feel free to disagree.) When Orsino reminds "Cesario" (Viola in disguise) that he has "unclasp'd […] the book even of [his] secret soul," the audience knows that Orsino has shared with Viola/"Cesario" very intimate details of his oh-so-steamy passion.
The fact that he compares his intimate thoughts to a "book" aligns Orsino with a volume of love poetry, which Viola is totally into. But wait! Isn't Shakespeare also a love poet? Why would he bag on love poetry when he's written an entire volume of it (The Sonnets)? What can we tell you? The guy's got a great sense of humor and isn't afraid to make fun of himself and his profession. He also seems interested in separating the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to poetry. You can check out more details about this by going to "Language and Communication," but be sure to get back here because we're not done.
When Orsino learns that his trusty boy page "Cesario" is really a girl, Viola, he jumps at the chance to get engaged. Where did that come from? We thought he wanted to marry Olivia. The easy answer is that Twelfth Night is a comedy (see our discussion of "Genre"), so everybody has to get married at the end. OK, sure, but we think we can do better than that.
There's evidence in the play that Orsino has been attracted to "Cesario" all along, so it's not so surprising that he would want to marry Viola when her identity is revealed. Remember how we said earlier that "Cesario" and Orsino share some pretty intimate moments that seem to cause Viola to fall for the Duke? Well, these moments also trigger Orsino's fondness for "Cesario," a figure he can confide in and trust. Also, the Duke thinks "Cesario" is pretty attractive. When "Cesario" says "aw, shucks" after the Duke says "Cesario" is youthful and attractive, here's what Orsino says:
Dear lad, believe it;
[…] Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part. (1.4.5)
Orsino's description of "Cesario's" luscious mouth and sweet voice is pretty steamy. (You can check out a more detailed discussion of this quote by going to "Love.") Even though Orsino thinks "Cesario" is a boy, he's clearly attracted to his page's "girlish" features. Does this mean that Orsino is only attracted to "Cesario" because "he" is girly looking? Not necessarily. Even after Orsino knows the truth about Viola, he still calls her "boy" and "Cesario," as the two get cozy and prepare to celebrate their upcoming nuptials. This suggests that the Duke is also attracted to Viola's "boyish" charm. Part of Duke Orsino's function in the play, it seems, is to demonstrate how a person can be attracted to another's "feminine" and "masculine" features.