The Character of Viola

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When one is doing Viola Twelfth Night character analysis, they cannot but deny her pivotal role in the plot. Who is Viola in Twelfth Night is an important question, as her identity is in constant flux due to her disguise. The namesake of Shakespeare’s immortalized romantic comedy is the twelfth night celebrations, held on the occasion of Christmas.

Roles are reversed, the social order is completely subverted, the tables are turned and the city goes topsy-turvy in the event where everyone dons a disguise. In Twelfth Night the play, we see a similar confusion among the characters due to the disguise in which Viola appears before us. Dressed as Cesario, a young man in the flamboyant Duke Orsino’s court, Viola is deeply in love with her benefactor on an island where she has no other means of subsistence.

The dramatic world of the play is built essentially on the blocks of conflict. This conflict, on the whimsical island of Illyria, is that between the real and the imagined, the disguised and the actual. Shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother Sebastian, Viola truly becomes a symbol of perseverance and strength. Her many admirable character traits have been highlighted in this character sketch of Viola.

In the play, we see Viola as a true fulcrum of action in a frenzy of indecision, unrequited love and confusion. In spite of her dilemma- whether to confess her love to Orsino or not, she holds her ground and tries to leave subtle hints, without revealing herself. In this framework, all the other characters such as Orsino, Olivia, Antonio, Sebastian and not to mention, the Jester Feste are constantly acting and interacting to generate Shakespeare’s essential comic vision.

Even in the midst of Orsino’s obsession for the mourning, adamant Olivia, we see Viola’s well thought out patience and stability of character. The plot essentially develops around her and the drama unfolds surrounding her. As she is in fact, an outsider to the Illyrian island, she is able to take her decisions that do not belong to the realm of misguided perceptions of the Illyrian citizens. Hence, Viola is the only person thinking straight, in a practical manner.

Viola fully realizes what a mess she is in. In fact, early in Twelfth Night, in her disguise of Orsino’s male page Cesario, she realizes that she has accidentally made Olivia fall in love with her. Hence, her famous soliloquy, “I am the man”. Viola is the only character fully aware of her plight, and she finds it best to wait it out before she discovers the whereabouts of her shipwrecked brother. Nevertheless, she expresses her frustration in the play instead of tolerating it all in silence.

By donning the male garb, she goes on to observe that she has become a creature of both genders, a ‘poor monster’, who is not only confusing everyone else, but herself as well. This shows us her identity crisis, her conflict within herself and in modern interpretations, the turbulent coming to terms with one’s androgynous identity. In the Shakespearean theatre when female actors were not a norm, the layers of identity become complex. On one hand, a young male actor from the Shakespearean days would play the female Viola. Then again, the Viola on stage had to find herself disguised as young Cesario.

Therefore, the actor’s dilemma is a dilemma we all face- portraying the role of a young woman who has just put on a man’s garb, and remaining true to this complex gendered character. An actor playing a girl playing a boy is, therefore, an emblem of gender slippage. This acts as the basis of the stasis and movement of adolescent development. This particular peculiarity of Viola has been the subject of debate and discussion in the literary world.

Beyond her ambiguous gender identity, we also observe Viola’s strong mark of intelligence throughout the play. In the very beginning, we see her in a vulnerable and precarious position, shipwrecked on an unknown island. In spite of that, she is intelligent in her dealing with the captain of the ship. Even though she is overcome with grief for her brother, who she believed to be dead, and the uncertainty of being left alone in an unfamiliar island, she takes control of her situation effectively.

She suppresses her emotions and pays the captain duly for his assistance. This might have been a simple act of kindness on the surface, yet it has its significance in showing that Viola is ready to undertake the challenges of an unfamiliar world in her own right. Giving it a feminist reading, we see Viola taking charge and being her own agent in a patriarchal society, which is unlike the female characters of her time.

She is also quick in taking the decision of finding employment at Duke Orsino’s court, proving her capability to make rapid decisions, to act strongly and being independent of any male assistance in an active manner. Modern critics like to interpret her actions under a feminist lens due to her strength and preparedness.

Indeed, in comparison to many of Shakespeare’s other leading ladies, Viola’s character proves to be just as brilliant. Not only is she the strongest and most rational in the entire Twelfth Night play, she is also remembered fondly with other female characters of the esteemed playwright. Shakespeare’s list of leading ladies include Rosalind, Portia and even the villainous Lady Macbeth- characters who have surpassed even their male counterparts in action and preparedness. Many of these characters were disguised as men, especially Portia. Even Lady Macbeth’s invocation to the spirits was in order to ‘unsex’ her and give her the boldness of a man.

Following that tradition, Viola takes up the role of Cesario. We see Orsino respond invariably to her charms, perhaps in a subconscious manner, comparing her lips to the goddess of love, Diana and praises Viola’s shrill, feminine singing voice.  This masculine identity does not completely conceal some of her feminine characteristics, yet she truly proves herself to be a worthy page of Orsino and acts as his voice of reason.

In conversation with the Duke, Cesario  convinces him that a woman’s love can definitely be on par with that of a man, and that a woman is not cold hearted. “Our shows are more than will; for still we prove/ Much in our vows, but little in our love” is Viola’s declaration that men often make bold claims of love, which may not always hold true.

One of many character traits of Viola is her perseverance. It is indeed ironic that she has to be the Duke’s messenger in his efforts to woo Lady Olivia, when Viola herself is in love with her employer and benefactor. However, we see another admirable quality of Viola in her role as a message bearer. It is her sense of responsibility and sincerity towards her duty that makes her carry out her tasks for Orsino. At the same time, following the Duke’s orders leads to some unforeseen circumstances and confusion.

Olivia becomes attracted to Viola, finding her ‘soft, soft’, gentlemanly charm irresistible. In the teen movie adaptation of Twelfth Night, She’s the Man, the Olivia of the film says that unlike the other men, who are a ‘goonish’ kind of handsome, Viola in her disguise is ‘refined’ handsome. This realization on the part of Viola shakes her with misgivings, yet she does not reveal herself. She holds her ground, maintains her disguise and waits for the perfect opportunity to arise, which is the result of her inherent wisdom and patience.

Viola is no Hamlet. The latter felt that it was his responsibility to make the correct choice and set the world right. However, Viola is matured enough to realize that fate or time are not in her hands in this peculiar situation. Many critics have called her passive and inactive, yet many others have found her inaction fitting, considering her situation. Sometimes, inaction is the best course of action, and Viola is a proof of that. She might be the one wearing a disguise, yet her conscience is clear and she remains true to herself.

The Viola character is interesting as she acts as Orsino’s voice of reason in many occasions. The other characters, Olivia and Orsino, make great shows of mourning and love, yet are inferior in comparison with Viola. Olivia abandons her duties and necessary human interactions in order to simply mourn for her long deceased brother. However, Viola’s grief, much fresher in nature, does not stop her from doing what needs to be done in order to survive. Even in the end when her brother Sebastian arrives, she interrogates him thoroughly before she reveals herself and can confirm his identity.

It, is, however, not wise to assume that Viola is composed only of practicality and reason.  There is an essential romantic nature of her character, which is often overlooked. She dwells in the line between reality and imagination, which cements Shakespeare’s comic vision. Her name itself has musical origin, hence it serves as a sense of compatibility with the whimsical Duke, who believes music to be the food of love. Viola often sees her disguise as a curse, as a ‘wickedness’ and impediment to realize her love for Orsino.

Her moment of breakdown is during the scene of the duel where she feels that she might reveal her identity any moment. At the same time, she acts as the voice of reason for both Olivia and Orsino. She advocates Orsino’s cause well to Olivia, which is lost in translation due to Olivia’s own feelings towards Cesario/Viola. Therefore, we can say that Viola is a well-rounded character who still garners appreciation to this day.

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