Viola is the central character in Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. She is washed up on a beach in Illyria after losing her twin brother in a shipwreck. She disguises herself as a boy, gives herself the name Cesario and finds employment with Duke Orsino, the wealthy young ruler of Illyria.
What is Twelfth Night About?
Twelfth Night is a mature work, written around 1602, about the same time as Hamlet. It is a fast-paced romantic comedy with several interwoven plots of romance, mistaken identities and practical jokes.
The play presents the confused romantic pursuits of a group of aristocrats in a small Italian state. After Viola, disguised as Cesario, enters the service of Duke Orsino, he asks her to woo Countess Olivia for him, but Olivia falls in love with Cesario instead. Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, who she assumed died in the shipwreck, arrives in Illyria. Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and is betrothed to him. Orsino accuses Cesario of treachery and Viola reveals her true identity, thus ending the confusion. Orsino asks Viola to marry him, and she accepts.
There are several comic characters thrown in, to make it a thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience.
Viola Character Sketch
All through the play Viola shows strength of character, a quick wit and enormous resourcefulness. Being disguised as a boy leads to an impossible position but in spite of that she maintains self-control and a dignity that contrasts with the excessive emotions of the other main characters.
Viola is arguably the most delightful and engaging female character in Shakespeare’s comedies. She finds herself in the middle of some extreme emotions – Orsino’s excessive lovesickness, expressed with comic melancholy and Olivia’s aggressive pursuit of Viola whom she believes to be a boy. Viola’s common sense behaviour in response represents the normal emotions of a reasonable person: she immediately finds a way to deal with it – to make herself safe and to get on with things.
As a result of her circumstances, she demonstrates a high degree of practicality and resourcefulness. She is in a shipwrecked, vulnerable situation so she disguises herself as a boy so that she will be safe and have a man’s freedom to move about without protection.
She is very intelligent, shown in her dealings with people throughout the play, with an engaging wit and a huge amount of charm. It is those qualities that help her get into the service of Orsino in the first place, and also that cause Olivia to fall in love with her. By that time, Orsino is also in love with her, even thought he thinks she is a boy.
All these qualities, plus the loyalty she shows Orsino, crowned by her skill in music and conversation, win the complete trust of Orsino, enough to use her as his emissary to Olivia to woo her on his behalf.
Viola’s Role in Twelfth Night
Viola is the catalyst that drives the plot forward. Her arrival in Illyria begins the plot, and the two other main characters falling in love with her opens several plot lines in which her responses to both create more dramatic events. Viola is a dream role for an actor. Of all Shakespeare’s female roles it is Viola that provides the most scope and potential for an actor.
Viola and Gender Bending
Shakespeare was interested in providing ways in which the audience could suspend their disbelief, giving them something they could easily relate to and become engaged with. Women did not appear on the stage in Shakespeare’s time. There was no specific law about that but the authorities would not have allowed it.
Shakespeare found a solution, which he used in two comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. He introduces a female character at the beginning of a play then has her disguised as a man for the rest of the play until, in the final scene, she reveals herself as a woman. In those cases the boy playing the role is able to present himself as a male and be convincing as a male. We see that with Viola, and Rosalind in As You Like It. In the modern theatre we are always aware by body language, voice, gestures, and so on, that we are watching a woman disguised as a man. The Elizabethan audience, watching the male actors in those roles, could forget that and not be distracted by the falseness of it.
In Twelfth Night, the Duke Orsino sends Viola, whom he thinks is the young man, Cesario, to woo Olivia on his behalf. In the process he falls in love with Cesario, and some of the best lines in the play are an expression of that. When she is revealed as a woman in the last scene it makes no difference to him whether she is a man or a woman. That is not an issue and it is an excellent illustration of the Elizabethan gender attitude, where, like in contemporary society, falling in love was not necessarily gender-based.
The division between the genders was not as rigid as it is today. Everyone is on a scale between male and female, with some males being quite ‘feminine’ and some females being quite ‘masculine’, and we live in an era where one can change one’s birth gender. Moreover, some people are both male and female and if they display that in the way they live their lives they can be considered freaks. In Elizabethan times gender was more fluid. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries homosexuality was a taboo and illegal in most countries, and still is in some. The twenty-first century is much more in line with Elizabethan society on that issue in most Western societies, in that it isn’t – as it wasn’t in Elizabethan society – shameful to be openly in love with someone of one’s own gender. In fact, the twenty-first century has consolidated that in the introduction of same sex marriage in a number of countries.
And so, Orsino falling in love with Cesario (Viola disguised as a boy) would not have been an issue for the Jacobean audience.