Viola in William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"

Updated on November 9, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Viola: The Fulcrum of Action

The dramatic world of Twelfth Night is essentially built up on a constant conflict- between Imagination and reality, disguise and actuality. Within such a framework, the characters act and interact to generate the essential comic vision of Shakespeare. Viola, in this context, is presented as the fulcrum of action, since it is around her that the plot develops and the drama unfolds. Being a “non-Illyrian” from the very beginning, she is placed outside the realm of misguided perceptions that the citizens of Illyria possess, thereby becoming the epitome of practical sensibility.

Viola: A Unique Personality

From the very beginning, Viola shows her mark of intelligence even in her dealings with the sea captain. Despite her grief for her brother who is considered dead, and her despair in being left alone on an unknown land, she suppresses her passion and even pays the captain for his help. This action, apparently simple, is significant since it shows that Viola is prepared to take up the challenges of the patriarchal society in her own right. Even in the quickness of mind in which she decides to serve Orsino proves her capability to act strongly, independent of any active male assistance.

This brings up issues, which the modern critics prefer to classify as feminist issues. Indeed, the character of Viola proves to be the strongest character in the whole play. This is not something unusual in Shakespeare who created characters like Portia, Rosalind and even Lady Macbeth who often acted more strongly than their male counterparts. However, these characters were often disguised as men (even Lady Macbeth invokes the spirits to ‘unsex’ her to make her bolder). Viola, (alias Cesario) too assumes a masculine identity which however, fails to conceal her feminine aspects completely.

Orsino invariably responds to her charms unconsciously: " 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."

Ironically she has to be the Duke’s messenger to Lady Olivia even when she herself is in love with Orsino. However, the sincerity and sense of moral responsibility makes her carry out the task but at the same time the manner of executing the Duke’s command leads to completely adverse consequences- Olivia falls in love with Viola disguised as Cesario. It is at this point of realization that Viola appears to be shaken with misgivings but her inherent wisdom makes her leave things in the hands of Time.

Viola: Practical or Romantic?

Viola is, afterall, not Hamlet who felt that he was the chosen one to set the world right. Viola is practical enough to recognize the authority of Time over the consequences of human actions. She might wear a visible disguise, but she is clearer in conscience and true to her own self than others who wear the mask over their very souls. Both Orsino, in his assumptions of love, and Olivia, in her mistaken perceptions serve to be inferior contrasts to Viola. As for instance, Olivia makes a great show of mourning for her dead brother by “deciding” to turn away from vital human actions whereas Viola reacts in a far more sensible manner under the same (or rather worse) circumstance. Even, towards the end of the play, when she meets Sebastian, she actually confirms the reality by interrogations before she exults in being re-united with her brother.

However, to assume that Viola is made only of practical wisdom would be a mistake as it would overlook the essential Romantic element in her character. She is, in fact , a concretization of Shakespeare’s comic vision- a sense of balance between Imagination and Reality. Her name itself, with its musicality, generates a sense of compatibility with Orsino’s temperament, who at the beginning of the play proves to be a lover of music: " If music be the food of love play on..."

She is, in fact, essentially feminine, with all its trepidations. She is never at home in her disguise and never for a moment forgets that she is playing a part of being conscious of a constant conflict between Cesario and Viola, between appearance and reality: "Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness,. Wherein the pregnant enemy does much. How easy is it for the proper false. In women's waxen hearts to set their forms!"

She almost breaks down in the duel-scene and feels, “a little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man”. At the same time, she herself teaches Orsino as well as Olivia the true lessons of love. As she describes to Orsino the ideal of Womanly love through the concocted (made-up) story of a sister, so she holds up before Olivia the ideal of a masculine love by referring to the intensity of her “master’s flame”. Hudson observes, that in her(Viola’s) love, there is none of the skittishness and unrest which mark the Duke’s passion for Olivia….(it) is deep as life, tender as infancy, pure, peaceful and unchangeable as truth”. And yet despite all her urges she maintains the secret of her affection and is prepared to sit “like patience on a monument, smiling at grief.” Yet she is Romantic enough to have a strong faith that “ Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife”.

Viola-Orsino: A justified match?

Whether Duke Orsino really deserves such a patient, sincere and truthful partner is a valid question. There is always a sense of imbalance, of inadequacy in Orsino. However, Shakespeare had already established the duke as an efficient ruler and adequately gifted in other fields of life. Being in company of Viola has the promise of a correction and hence it makes the match between Viola and Orsino justified. Moreover, within the Comic world of harmony and procreation, marriage is a necessity (or at least it was in Shakespeare’s England). Hence Viola had to cast off her disguise and assume the feminine role secured for her.

Such a mark of sensibility, with its equal romanticism is the essential ingredient of Viola’s character. She still remains to be one of the most celebrated of Shakespeare’s heroines. Guided by the sentiments of love in the abstract, inspired by a pure sense of beauty, she has her being fostered and developed in an elevated atmosphere of her own. The smaller and grosser inclinations of nature disappear by being subordinated to the superior ones creating a perfect harmony of characterization in Viola.

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Questions & Answers

  • What was Viola's weakness?

    She is presented as a strong character. However, her weakness was more of a social kind. Being a woman, she was unable to negotiate with her problems dressed as a woman. However, this was not her fault but a consequence of the patriarchal society where a single lonely woman is never treated with dignity and compassion.

    Additionally, her admiration and love for Orsino also appear non-genuine and illogical apparently. However, that is also rooted in her survival instincts.

© 2017 Monami


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