An Echo Chamber for Narcissus

An Echo Chamber for Narcissus: Mythological Rewritings in Twelfth Night[1]


Charlotte COFFIN


[This paper was first published in Cahiers Élisabéthains 66 (Autumn 2004), 23-28. Reproduced by kind permission of the General Editors.]


Part of the fascination aroused by Aristotle’s Poetics stems from the mysterious complexity of its two major concepts, mimesis and catharsis. Although mimesis is clearly imitation in Plato’s Republic, which develops a theory of successive copies, in Aristotle’s Poetics the word takes on a more ambiguous meaning, closer to the idea of creation than to a process of mere duplication. It thus gives rise to two distinct translations, either “imitation” or “representation”.[2] In this perspective, this reading of Twelfth Night is a study of imitation and representation, of their interweaving in a play which seems dedicated to repeating previous texts, previous Shakespearean plays, and even previous episodes of the play itself.”[3] At the heart of the process of imitating and doubling is the relationship between Twelfth Night and Ovid’s fable of Echo and Narcissus, as Shakespeare uses myth both as subtext and instrument of exploration.


The characterization of Twelfth Night as a rewriting of the fable of Echo and Narcissus dates back to the late 1970s. In a brief note published in 1977, Anthony Brian Taylor underlines two direct echoes to Golding’s translation of the myth, and suggests that it is Golding’s interpretation of the story, focused on the notions of “pride” and “impotent desire”, that prompted Shakespeare to echo him in Act I Scene 5, when Olivia and Viola first meet.[4] Since then, D. J. Palmer,[5] Jonathan Bate[6] and Pierre Iselin[7] have taken up the mythological perspective.[8] With different concerns and purposes, all three of them describe Orsino and Olivia as embodiments of Narcissus, while Viola is identified with Echo. At the same time, they all notice that Malvolio’s description of Viola/Cesario — “Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man” (I.5.160-61)[9] — initially associates Viola with Narcissus, who “seemde to stande beetwene the state of man and Lad” (l. 438).[10] Nevertheless, Palmer argues that the heroine is closer to Echo,[11] and Bate follows suit:


But Viola redeems the play because she proves to be selfless, not selfish, in love. She becomes Echo instead of Narcissus.[12]

Pierre Iselin suggests a more ambivalent interpretation, describing Viola as both Narcissus and Echo, “oscillating” between the two identities and “fusing” the myths together. However, he qualifies his statement in the ensuing paragraph: in the end, Echo provides the dominant image.[13]


This same process of noticing and dismissing, repeated by three different authors, points to a destabilizing element in Shakespeare’s handling of mythology. The myth itself is somewhat unstable, as it is not altogether clear whether one should speak of one or two myths. Interweaving is already a characteristic of the subtext. And it resurfaces every time one looks for mythical identifications, insofar as Narcissus is largely defined in relation to Echo, and Echo in relation to Narcissus. In the representations of the myth, relation and identity cannot be dissociated. It is true that their self-centredness links Olivia and Orsino to Narcissus from the start, while Viola, like Echo, has no freedom of speech. What we shall see is that the relative positions of the characters, without undermining those similarities, suggest a more shifting set of identifications as the play unfolds.

In Act I Scene 1, Orsino strikes the pose of the melancholy lover. The paradoxes of excess[14] developed in the introductory lines rewrite Narcissus’ famous complaint, “my plentie makes me poore” (l. 587), following a literary tradition in which the line was appropriated “as a paradigm of unrequited love”.[15] Orsino is definitely self-centred. Olivia is conspicuously absent from the first fifteen lines, whereas her name haunts the Duke’s speeches afterwards,[16] and his discourse on desire and love shows that he is in love with an image rather than a person.[17] Significantly, he does not meet Olivia until the last scene of the play; his is the realm of imagination: “So full of shapes is fancy, / That it alone is high fantastical” (I.1.14-15).

On the other hand, Olivia’s rejection of Orsino casts doubt on his narcissistic identity, and reveals the ambivalence of Narcissus as an exemplar of unrequited love: before his experience by the pool, Narcissus was the epitome of unrequiting love. As René Girard suggests, Orsino probably was such a man before he saw Olivia, which is why, according to the theory of mimetic desire, he falls in love with somebody who is profoundly like him:

At a deeper level, Orsino realizes that he and Olivia are very much alike. The spectacular disharmony between them does not stem from conflict of personalities or from some other intrinsic difference but from the very reverse, an almost perfect identity.[18]

In other words, one is the other’s reflection, as is confirmed throughout the play by the symmetry of their social positions and characters. But Olivia’s narcissistic scorn of her lover also turns him into a new Echo, unable to speak directly to her/his love. Indeed, Orsino keeps sending messengers to Olivia who echo his words in a vain attempt to establish communication. Narcissus runs away from Echo; Olivia shuts herself in her estate, refusing to hear Valentine (“So please my lord, I might not be admitted”, I.1.24). And though Orsino’s imagination is fruitful, or rather disordered, according to a theory of melancholy to which Narcissus is closely related,[19] the character is also defined by his obsession with music, and especially with musical repetition. In two instances he asks his attendants to play again for him (I.1.4, II.4.1-3): in the same way as he never tires of repeating his petrarchist hyperboles of love or of sending messengers to Olivia,[20] his approach to music is essentially a matter of echoes.

Act I, therefore, sets up a more ambivalent pattern of identifications than Orsino’s  complacent discourse initially suggests. The first encounter between Viola and Olivia, in Act I Scene 5, is another crucial passage where the figures of Echo and Narcissus overlap and swap roles. While Viola/Cesario waits for Olivia to let her in, (s)he is first described as Narcissus by Malvolio, as most critics have noted. Yet her part at Olivia’s is that of Echo, repeating Orsino’s speech which she has “taken great pains to con” (I.5.175).[21] When she identifies with her master and tells Olivia how she would woo her, she clearly refers to the mythical nymph:

Olivia:  Why, what would you?
Viola:  Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out, “Olivia!”
O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.
(I.5.271-80; my italics)

It has been pointed out[22] that the word “babbling” is a direct reference to Golding’s translation, which describes Echo as a “babling nymph” (l. 443). Another allusion to the myth is to be found in the verb “halloo”: “Why fliste, he cryeth once again: and she the same doth hallowe” (l. 478). Thus Viola is depicted echoing Olivia’s name among the hills. She is associated with sounds and music, whereas Olivia is connected with images. The Countess refers to her own face as a picture,[23] and is rather complacent about this part of her anatomy:

Olivia:  … but we will draw the curtain and show you the picture. [Unveiling.] Look you, sir, such a one I was this present. Is’t not well done?

She later lists the various items of her beauty:

Olivia:  It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will. As, item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth. Were you sent hither to praise me?

For all the irony of the speech, the excerpt emphasizes Olivia’s obsession with her image and is reminiscent of Golding’s Narcissus, whose eyes, chin, and neck are also mentioned, besides “the perfect grace / Of white and red indifferently bepainted in his face” (ll. 529-30). “Indifferent” is again a direct echo of the translation of the myth,[24] while Viola evokes a comparable harmony of red and white in Olivia’s face:

Viola:  Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.


Up to now, the roles are clear-cut: Olivia is Narcissus, while Viola stands for Echo. Yet by the end of the scene, Olivia has fallen in love with Viola/Cesario and assumes the role of the unrequited lover. It is a case in point that she starts echoing Viola after she leaves the stage:


Olivia:  “What is your parentage?”
“Above my fortunes, yet my state is well;
I am a gentleman.” I’ll be sworn thou art.

Olivia and Viola have swapped roles. From then on, Viola/Narcissus rejects Olivia/Echo. The reference to pride, one of Narcissus’ characteristic features (ll. 441-42, 621), is another telling detail. In Act I Scene 5, pride is Olivia’s fault (cf. Viola, “I see what you are, you are too proud”, I.5.254); in Act III Scene 1, it is Cesario’s:


Olivia:  O world, how apt the poor are to be proud! (III.1.129)  

Olivia:  [Aside] O what a deal of scorn looks beautiful
In the contempt and anger of his lip! (III.1.147-48)[25]


Seen from a different angle, the various encounters between Olivia and Viola also stage the confrontation of two women, both hopelessly in love, and whose names are almost exact anagrams. In Girard’s approach, Viola is Olivia’s double, she is “the Olivia of Olivia”.[26] While Orsino and Olivia form a pair in which each is the other’s reflection, Olivia and Viola form another, thus contributing to a complicated system of doubles and repetitions. Viola is but the image of Olivia, and the unfortunate Countess, like Narcissus, is unaware of her mistake: “Poor lady, she were better love a dream”, Viola says in II.2.25.


The relationship between Viola and Orsino remains to be examined. Orsino’s first description of Viola/Cesario, in Act I Scene 4, links her to Narcissus, insofar as he underlines the ambivalence of her beauty and her desirability. Like Narcissus, Viola attracts men and women alike, and Orsino conveys this ambiguity by stressing Cesario’s female qualities:

Duke:  For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man; 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. (I.4.30-34)

While the extract seems at first to indicate that Cesario is “between boy and man”, as Malvolio later points out (I.5.161), it moves on to a feminine description of Cesario/Viola. Strangely enough, its purpose is to convince Cesario that he will better please Olivia than any other messenger. Meanwhile, the Duke himself does not seem to be insensitive to Viola’s ambivalent charms.[27] The connection between Viola and Narcissus is further confirmed by Viola, who exclaims:


Viola:  I’ll do my best
To woo your lady: [Aside] yet, a barful strife!
Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.
(I.4.40-42; my italics) 


The aside recalls Narcissus’ plight, as “He is the partie whome he wooes, and suter that doth wooe” (l. 535). Yet Viola is referring to her hopeless love for Orsino: in this respect, she stands closer to Echo. Interestingly, the lines are fraught with echoes: the repetition of the sounds [w], [ai], and the rhyme [-ife] create a miniature echo chamber which reinforces the comparison between Viola and the nymph.[28]


In Act II Scene 4, Viola and the Duke discuss the subject of love. After a brief exchange in which Orsino mentions again the “image” of his beloved, while Viola speaks of music as an “echo” (II.4.19-22), the Duke asks Cesario about his love life:

Duke:  My life upon’t, young though thou art, thine eye
Hath stay’d upon some favour that it loves.
Hath it not, boy?
Viola:             A little, by your favour.
Duke:  What kind of woman is’t?
Viola:             Of your complexion.
Duke:  She is not worth thee then. What years, i’faith?
Viola:  About your years, my lord. (2.4.23-28)  

Viola first echoes Orsino’s “favour”, which she repeats in a different sense. Like Echo, she does not initiate the dialogue. But as she answers the Duke’s questions she offers him an image of himself, thus combining the motifs of Echo and of Narcissus’ reflection.[29] Moments later, another echoing passage introduces Viola’s description of her imaginary sister:

Duke:  Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.
Viola:  Ay, but I know
DukeWhat dost thou know?
Viola:  Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter lov’d a man,
As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.
Duke:  And what’s her history?
Viola:  A blank, my lord: she never told her love…


This time, Viola presents her own mirror-image. The connection between brother and sister is reminiscent both of Pausanias’ version of the myth (according to which Narcissus identified the reflected image with his dead sister[30]) and of the play’s staging of twins. As Viola states: “I my brother know / Yet living in my glass” (III.4.389-90). On the other hand, the incapacity to speak out one’s love refers to Echo, as does the verb “pine” in II.4.113, which recalls Golding’s “Hir bodie pynes to skinne and bone” (l. 494).


Those scenes reveal the instability of Orsino’s, Olivia’s, and Viola’s mythological identities. The myth of Echo and Narcissus is indeed a subtext to the play, as is shown by the manifold echoes to Golding’s translation, but there is no straightforward association. In relation to one another, Orsino, Olivia and Viola are by turns Echo, Narcissus, and even Narcissus’ reflection.


Such an unstable pattern disrupts the idea that Viola/Echo stands “as an alternative to self-love” and rescues Orsino and Olivia from their narcissistic obsessions.[31] That interpretation is in keeping with a literary tradition in which the figure of Echo is used to save Narcissus and resolve the fable.[32] As Kenneth Knoespel points out, the myth itself seems to call for its resolution:


By depicting Narcissus forever looking into the fountain, Ovid created a fable that forever invites new visions that may entice Narcissus away.[33]


Above all we have seen that the fable of Echo and Narcissus generates narratives, and that these narratives seek to resolve the suspension portrayed in the fable through strategies that surmount the isolated vision of Narcissus in a more expanded vision provided by history.[34]


It is as if suspension in the myth were so unbearable that one had to depart from Ovid at some point. Although Shakespeare does avert the tragic ending and manages to incorporate the fable into a comedy, I would like to argue that he achieves this aim through an emphasis on repetition and doubles, rather than through the external intervention which Echo sometimes provides. Beyond the opposition between action and passiveness, and the contrast between otherness (Echo) and sameness (Narcissus),[35] it seems to me that both Echo and Narcissus symbolize sameness. Echoes and reflections are but two versions of representation as reduplication. Both Narcissus and Echo are confronted with the double, and both fail to communicate and fulfill their desires. Both are trapped in perfect imitation, and neither survives it. After showing the complementary nature of the two stories, Leonard Barkan encapsulates their deep resemblance:


[…] But underneath these contrasts there are more significant parallels. Echo’s metamorphosis from normal articulate woman to echo imprisons her in herself: she cannot initiate or even experience a fruitful sexual union because she is trapped in imitation and reflection. By setting up the concept of reflection, her character anticipates Narcissus’ position as a hopeless lover.[36]


In Twelfth Night, this common focus on doubles is fully explored. Not only does Shakespeare take up the notion from Ovid, but he carries it to its limits. In particular, he sets up new double patterns. Apart from the pair of twins and the alternative pairs among Orsino, Olivia, and Viola, other patterns of echoes and reflections are inserted into the subplot.


Malvolio and Aguecheek are caricatured embodiments of Narcissus and Echo. The former is “sick of self-love” (I.5.89)[37] and “practic[es] behaviour to his own shadow” (II.5.17).[38] The latter is so stupid he cannot speak of his own accord but keeps repeating other people’s words:[39]

Viola:  Most excellent accomplished lady, the heavens rain odours on you!
Sir Andrew:  That youth’s a rare courtier: “rain odours” — well.
Viola:  My matter has no voice, lady, but to your own most pregnant and vouchsafed ear.
Sir Andrew:  “Odours”, “pregnant”, and “vouchsafed”: I’ll get ’em all three all ready.

But there is more to it than meets the eye. Malvolio’s gulling is anything but a straightforward version of Narcissus’ self-deception. It first involves a scene of eavesdropping in which Malvolio is spied upon, picturing himself as “Count Malvolio” (II.5.35) — playing with his own image. Then he is deceived by a letter, written by Maria in imitation of her mistress’ handwriting, and which offers him a false image of himself (cf. the exposition of Maria’s intent, II.3.155-59):

Malvolio:  If I could make that resemble something in me! Softly! “M.O.A.I.” — (II.5.120-21)[40] 


Here, echoes and reflections multiply and blend in a confusing scheme. Malvolio sees his reflection in a letter which he echoes (he reads it aloud, and repeats various fragments), and which is itself an imitation of Olivia’s writing. Things become more complicated still when he appears at Olivia’s, dressed in a way which reflects the letter’s injunctions, and echoes again its contents (III.4). He repeats words he thinks come from Olivia, and Olivia, amazed at his behaviour, echoes his quotations (III.4.38-53). Furthermore, similar phrases strikingly reappear in Olivia’s speech in Act V Scene 1, when she asks Cesario to be ambitious and daring:


Olivia:  Fear not, Cesario, take thy fortunes up,
Be that thou know’st thou art, and then thou art
As great as that thou fear’st. (V.1.146-48)


In this excerpt, Olivia unwittingly echoes a text written in imitation of herself.[41] Thus, layers of imitation are superimposed throughout the play.


Echoes, reflections, doubles. While other rewritings of the myth of Echo and Narcissus strive to overcome imitation, that is, to produce a different ending and to triumph over the twin-image of Narcissus, it seems to me that Shakespeare does indeed create a different version of the myth — by repeating it indefinitely. Instead of substituting an image of otherness for the pattern of the double, he creates an endless pattern of reproduction. Echoes and reflections multiply, and finally Narcissus is cured not by another vision, but by the same vision. Viola alone is not responsible for the happy ending. Her double-dealings only lead her to a dead end, when she is torn apart between Olivia and Orsino in Act V Scene 1, each character claiming Cesario for his/her companion. Sebastian is needed to solve the puzzle. As he arrives on stage, Narcissus’ double steps out of the pond. Resolution in Twelfth Night comes when the shifting, triangular system of pairs between Olivia, Orsino and Viola is completed and stabilized by the reunion of the twins, the confrontation being a most spectacular affirmation of the double.[42] Thus Shakespeare manages to subvert the myth by imitating it to excess. Beyond the opposition of sound and image, of selflessness and selfishness, Twelfth Night rewrites the stories of Echo and Narcissus as they are in Ovid, entangled, and uses the myth to explore imitation and repetition. The play is saturated with echoes and reflections. And in this very saturation (this surfeit, Orsino would say) rests the true “rewriting” of Ovid: imitation carried to its limits becomes representation.



How to cite

Charlotte Coffin.  "An Echo Chamber for Narcissus: Mythological Rewritings in Twelfth Night." Cahiers Élisabéthains 66 (Autumn 2004), 23-28. Cited from A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology, ed. Yves Peyré. and

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