What are Viola's views on love in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night?

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freya221b eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Twelfth Night is a play about love of all kinds, and not just its happy aspects. Many of the characters — including Viola — discover that grief, fear, and despair can come to those who lose their hearts. Twelfth Night is rightly considered a comedy, but the emotional perils that it explores give it a chiaroscuro quality. Imagine a group of people dancing merrily along the edge of a cliff — that’s life in Illyria.

The first thing we learn about Viola is that she loves her twin brother, Sebastian, and dreads the thought that he may have drowned. The sea captain who rescued her from the wreck gives her hope that Sebastian may still be alive, but Viola has to struggle with her fear and sorrow until almost the end of the play. When she disguises herself as a young man, she is startled to look in the mirror and see what looks like her lost twin gazing back at her:

I my brother know
Yet living in my glass; even such and so
In favour was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate . . . .
                                        [III, iv]

Viola’s love for Orsino also brings her pain. She can be near him only by maintaining her disguise, but as long as she does so, she has no hope of winning his love. To make matters worse, Orsino is already in love with the beautiful Olivia, and he sends Viola to woo her on his behalf. Viola finds herself in the agonizing situation of trying to persuade another woman to marry the man whom she herself worships:

                                      I’ll do my best
To woo your lady. [Aside] Yet a barful strife!
Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.
                                                       [I, iv]


When Orsino remarks that women are incapable of loving as deeply as men do, Viola disagrees, arguing that it is women who love more truly:

We men may say more, swear more, but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.
                                    [II, iv]

But however hard things get for her, Viola never shows any sign of withdrawing emotionally. She weathers the pain and continues to love deeply. (Though she mocks herself a little for this, calling herself “Patience on a monument, smiling at grief.”) This bravery, and the loyalty and openness that go with it, are key to understanding Viola’s character.