Somewhere on the coast, Viola, a young noblewoman, a Captain, and several sailors, have just washed ashore from a shipwreck. Viola asks what country they are in, to which the Captain responds, "Illyria." She then cries out that her brother is "in Elysium"—the land of the dead (1.2.4). The Captain reassures her that he last saw her brother, Sebastian, alive, clutching the mast of their ship during the storm. Viola thanks the Captain for granting her some hope.
Viola's single outburst of sorrow, in contrast to Orsino's flowery speech in the previous scene, suggests that her mourning for her brother is more sincere than his love-melancholy. Even so, in referring to "Elysium" she too uses literary allusion to express her intense feelings.
The Captain, who was born in Illyria, explains to Viola that Illyria is governed by a Duke Orsino, a bachelor who is in love with a noblewoman named Olivia. Olivia, herself the orphaned daughter of a count, who out of "dear love" (1.2.39) for her brother, died a year ago, has promised to never marry.
Viola's open and easy conversation with the Captain contrasts with the stilted exchanges between Orsino and his servants. The fact that they have both lost a brother creates a parallel between Viola and Olivia.
Intrigued, Viola wonders whether she could temporarily conceal her aristocratic identity and go work for Olivia. The Captain replies that this would be difficult because Olivia is refusing to see anyone. Viola then decides that she wants to become a servant to Orsino, and asks the Captain to help her disguise herself as a man and get an interview with Orsino. The Captain agrees.
Viola first considers concealing just her aristocratic identity, but then develops a plan that also includes hiding her gender. She trusts the Captain enough to confide in him.