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An Analysis of Viola in "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare

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Here, Viola is shown in a man's garb next to Orsino.

Here, Viola is shown in a man's garb next to Orsino.

Viola's Critique of Society

In a brief passage in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Act Two, Scene Four, lines 104–122, Viola critiques society by showing that societal expectations serve as barriers to reality. Within the bounds of what society dictates, men can express whatever feelings they desire, whereas women must control and constrain their true emotions. Such standards allow men to make declarations of love when these feelings do not truly exist and prevent women from expressing these feelings when they are present in their pure and true forms.

When Orsino, the duke of Illyria, declares that no woman can have feelings of love comparable to the ones he himself has for the lady Olivia, Viola goes on to prove him wrong. Dressed in a man's garb to conceal her true identity and gender, she declares that women are not as devoid of deep thoughts and emotions as they must appear and that they can harbor a love that rivals that of men. Viola, through her own experience as a woman in love, knows "Too well what love women to men may owe. / In faith, they are as true of heart as we" (2.4.105–6). Viola is claiming that women owe men nothing; they are equals in their ability to love.

This love, however, must be suppressed according to the rules of society, which force women to appear demure and unburdened with the passions readily expressed by men. Still unable to absolutely reject the society which she was born into, Viola herself embodies the suppression she so loathes, hiding her true emotions in a deceptive disguise and speaking about herself as another separate individual. It is only through these means that she discusses her love for the unknowing and unsuspecting Orsino: "My father had a daughter loved a man / As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, / I should your lordship" (2.4.107–9). By boldly speaking her thoughts, she is going beyond what society would accept, but the significance of this event is voided by her own unwillingness to take responsibility for these thoughts and actions.

Viola likens the forced concealment of her love to a worm eating at her as it does a flower, devouring first her unseen insides before working to the outer layer and leaving nothing but emptiness and wasted potential.

Viola likens the forced concealment of her love to a worm eating at her as it does a flower, devouring first her unseen insides before working to the outer layer and leaving nothing but emptiness and wasted potential.

However, the resulting suffering brought upon her by her own inability to openly declare her feelings proves the true gravity and extent of her love. Viola speaks of her suffering to Orsino: "She never told her love,/But let concealment, like a worm I' th' bud,/Feed on her damask cheek" (2.4.110–2). Her own experiences show how undeclared love eats away at a woman's insides and leads to an inner imbalance and illness that is at first glance unnoticed, but with time, diminishes her youth and identity. Such an image is like a worm eating away at the unopened and hidden interior of a bud, devouring first the unseen insides before working to the outer layer and soon leaving nothing but emptiness and wasted potential.

Viola goes further still by saying that in this suffering, women accept their pain with tolerance and patience. She uses herself again as an example of a woman living in a forced silence: "She pined in thought;/And, with a green and yellow melancholy,/She sat like Patience on a monument, Smiling at grief" (2.4.112–5). Her green-and-yellow melancholy embodies the inner imbalance and sickness brought upon her by her suppressed desires, a fate that Viola patiently accepts while sadly waiting for an end to this life of silent torture. She then challenges these attitudes, daring Orsino to claim stronger feelings than those she has just described, with her rhetorical question, "Was not this love indeed?" (2.4.115).

To this question, she wastes no time in waiting for an answer. Instead, she launches into an attack on the shallowness and falseness of the professions of love often offered by men. Enabled by society to give love words, men abuse the privilege and easily claim emotions they do not truly feel, using love as a pretext to satisfy their underlying lust.

Men are enabled to be more verbal in their expression of emotions, but this in itself does not change the fact that although muted, women experience feelings that are real, "We men may say more, swear more; but indeed/Our shows are more than will; for still we prove/Much in our vows and little in our love" (2.4.116–8). Viola claims that men talk about love but abandon all in their quest for physical satisfaction, whereas women will pine away, as patient and serene as a statue, until death frees their yearning for unsatisfied love.

Possibly due to the rising turmoil of these bitter thoughts, Viola goes on to reveal herself as the woman in love she was previously referring to, but this appears to go unnoticed by Orsino. Having declared earlier that her father's daughter loved a man as she could love Orsino, she goes on to claim: "I am all the daughters of my father's house, and all the brothers too" (2.4.120–1). Viola has proved through process of elimination that she is, in fact, a woman.

Through this short passage, Viola progresses from a woman cloaked in deception and a slave to society to one who realizes her true suffering and undeserved pain, actively challenging Orsino and the male-dominated society he represents and finally revealing her true identity in an outright rejection of the regulations she has lived under until this moment.


Schatzie Speaks (author) on April 30, 2012:

Thank you for your comments, Ala and Kristinia!

I always read others essays as well before starting my own and found it very helpful! I'm glad I could help you both out in turn! :)

Kristinia on April 24, 2012:

Thanks! This really helped me create my analysis on this section in Twelfth Night:)

Ala on April 22, 2012:

Honestly, this helped me a lot. Im not too good at essays and there isn't a lot of things to help on the internet about my essay. Thanks soo much :)

Schatzie Speaks (author) on March 27, 2011:

Thank you Annie, James, and Matt for your comments. I'm glad I could help with your assignments and essays. :-)

Matt on December 19, 2009:

Wow thanks, this was incredibly helpful for my most recent essay!

James Noble on December 07, 2008:

An intersting idea.

Annie on May 06, 2008:

I'm doing an assignment on Viola at the moment; and wow has that helped me.

I personally think this essay is excellent, and I agree with everything that you have said (or typed). Well done!