Character Analysis of Viola In Twelfth Night By Shakespeare

Most critics accept Viola as Shakespeare’s most delightful heroines from his comedies. Throughout the play she is surrounded by people who present images of self-deception and delusional sentimentality. Both Orsino and Olivia, between whom she shunts continuously, are engulfed in unreal moods of emotion. Orsino is in the clutches of sentimentality and melancholy, while Olivia vacillates between an unreal mood of mourning for a dead brother. which is more of a self-indulgence than a genuine greet and aggressive emotionalism. To add to this she has the burden of her male disguise. Despite so much abnormality that surrounds her, it is she who represents the norm of behaviour in a strange and alien world of Illyria.

Her circumstances bring in her a practical wisdom and resourcefulness, which someone would not have been called to muster at such a tender age. At the beginning of the play she finds herself in the heartless position of a shipwrecked orphan in an unknown country. She immediately understands that she is a single woman and is surrounded with dangers in an unknown city. Wisely, she decides to donman’s clothing, to be safe and have a man’s freedom to move about without anyone to protect her. This quick-witted evaluation, this soundness of judgement, this resourcefulness, is evident in her throughout the entire play.

There is no doubt in our minds that Viola, and not Olivia, is the heroine of the play, mainly because the action of the play springs from her disguise In addition our sympathies are primarily centred around Viola. She has all the essential qualities a woman should have. She is tender and modest and has the shrinking delicacy of feeling which only the truly feminine can possess. She is the woman who “never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud, feed on her ‘damask cheek.” This delicacy of feeling becomes even more apparent when we compare her with other Shakespearean heroines Rosalind has a buoyant vitality and Portia has a potent intellect, a sharp wit and strong will power. Viola possesses none of these qualities. It is true that she is imaginative, and her imagination makes her conceive a plan: but it is equally true that her plan brings about dangers which she is ill-equipped to handle. Though she manages somehow, even graciously, she never forgets, nor allows us to forget, that she is playing a part. She loves with a quiet and fixed intensity. This is in sharp contrast of Orsino’s fickle and passive sentimentality, and Olivia’s impetuosity and ill-conceived passion.

Since Shakespeare wanted to present her heroine as a sensitive and gracious girl approaching womanhood, he does not give her exuberance and gaiety, when Olivia ardently woos her. Any lesser woman would have gleefully chuckled at Olivia’s stupidity in wasting her ardour on a woman. Viola is so completely healthy and happy, that despite being in love and being true to it, she never pines grievously under her own love-troubles. When she remarks about concealment feeding on the damask cheek, we know that she does not utter it seriously for herself. It is not as if she does not feel pathos at her situation, specially in the scenes such as those where her body trembles when Orsino embraces her lowered head in brotherly sympathy.

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Marriage, to Shakespeare, was an image of happiness that ends his comedies almost as invariably as death ends a tragedy. Shakespeare creates a basic harmony in his comedies, but he achieves this mainly through character, and in “Twelfth Night’, this character is Viola’s. Stopford A. Brooke comments that “the atmosphere of love is round all that Viola is; and it creates love in whomsoever it touches. It infects Olivia. It has already infected the Duke. He was Cesario; he needs only one touch of circumstance to love Viola”.

If we accept Viola as the motive-spring of the plot, the irony with which Orsino and Olivia are regarded becomes abundantly clear. This provides the pve intrigue of a remoteness which invests it with poetic charm and delicate If Shakespeare had to remain true to his comic vision then Viola must Jave her Orsino; that also means that Olivia must have a substitute for Cesario the form of Sebastian. Shakespeare manages to achieve this without appearing at all improbable. The irony is only to serve an artistic purpose- that of maintaining a gay and vibrant mood because Olivia and Orsino are both unaware that Viola is a woman. It is not there to serve the moral purpose of exposing the defects of character in Orsino and Olivia.

In fact she gives us an impression that she even forgets her love for the Duke sometimes when she is consumed with pity for Olivia’s hopeless and unreciprocated love. Yet her own love has a beauty that may well be deemed to be Shakespeare’s concept of ideal love, for

“She never told her love,

But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek; she pined in thought,

 And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like patience on a movement

Smiling at grief.”

Wilson Knight comments on Viola’s love thus: “The love of Viola is the sweetest and tenderest emotion that ever informed the heart of the purest and the most graceful of beings, with a spirit almost divine. Perhaps in the whole range of Shakespeare’s poetry there is nothing which comes more unhidden into the mind, and always in connection with some image of the ethereal beauty of the utterer, than Viola’s celebrated speech to the Duke in her assumed garb of the page, having hired herself into his service: She never told her love’. Being a woman, she could only suffer and be patient, had she been a man she would have known how to move heaven and earth to win her end.”



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