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

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In William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Viola firmly believes that love is inconstant and irrational, and she sees clear evidence for this in the behavior of Orsino and Olivia. Viola believes, however, that she can love truly, constantly, and rationally.

Disguised as a young man named Cesario, Viola finds employment with Duke Orsino, who entrusts Viola/Cesario with wooing the Lady Olivia on his behalf.

Even while praising Orsino's love for Olivia to her, Viola recognizes the shallowness of Orsino's affections toward Olivia—Orsino is simply in love with being in love—and the overwrought expressions of his love.

VIOLA/CESARIO ...My lord and master loves you: O, such love
Could be but recompensed, though you were crown'd
The nonpareil of beauty!

OLIVIA. How does he love me?

VIOLA/CESARIO. With adorations, fertile tears,
With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire. (1.5.236–241)

Olivia says that she cannot love Orsino and, in denying his love, tells Viola all the reasons why she should love him if she could.

OLIVIA. Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble,
Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth;
In voices well divulged, free, learn'd, and valiant,
And in dimension and the shape of nature,
A gracious person: but yet I cannot love him... (1.5.243–247)

Olivia can't understand Olivia's irrationality in listing all of Orsino's positive, love-worthy traits, and then saying that she cannot love him.

VIOLA/CESARIO. If I did love you in my master's flame,
With such a suffering, such a deadly life,
In your denial I would find no sense;
I would not understand it. (1.5.249–252)

Olivia asks Viola what she would do if she loved someone.

VIOLA/CESARIO. Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud, even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me. (1.5.254–262)

Olivia proves Viola's belief that love is wholly irrational by falling in love with her alter ego, Cesario, at that very moment. Viola recognizes the foolishness of Olivia's sudden infatuation with Cesario, which is made even more foolish by the fact that Cesario doesn't really exist.

VIOLA. Poor lady, she were better love a dream. (2.2.25)

Despite her own belief in the fickleness and irrationality of love, Viola falls in love with Orsino, one of the most fickle and irrational characters in the play. Viola recognizes the seeming absurdity of her situation.

VIOLA. Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife. (1.4.44)

Viola is also aware of the love triangle in which she finds herself. Orsino loves Olivia, Olivia loves Cesario (who doesn't really exist, at least not as a man), and Viola loves Orsino.

VIOLA. ...[M]y master [Orsino] loves her [Olivia] dearly;
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love;
As I am woman,—now alas the day!—
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe! (2.2.32–38)

Nevertheless, Viola remains loyal to Orsino and continues to represent him to Olivia, even though Viola is well aware that Olivia has no love for Orsino, particularly after Cesario came into her life.

Viola's love for Orsino is constant, even if somewhat inexplicable, given her feelings about love. Viola's constancy in love seems to have a positive effect on Orsino and Olivia, even though they're totally oblivious to the reality of their situation with Viola/Cesario.

Viola helps Orsino understand the futility of his lovesickness for Olivia (which is to Viola's benefit), and Viola helps Olivia to come out of her isolation and back into the world, even if the person with whom Olivia falls in love doesn't exist.

VIOLA. O time! thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me to untie! (2.2.39–40)

Luckily, Time is listening, and Time does untangle the love triangle, even if the way that Time untangles it proves Viola's initial feelings about love.

When Viola reveals her true self, Orsino instantly transfers his love for Olivia to Viola.

Olivia instantly falls in love with Viola's brother, Sebastian, and transfers her love for Cesario to him. This isn't altogether unreasonable, given that Viola/Cesario and Sebastian are twins. Olivia simply swaps one for the other in her affections.

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Viola's views on love are somewhat traditional and definitely genuine, contrasting with the views on love of the other characters in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. While other characters like Olivia, Sir Toby, Maria, and even Viola's beloved Orsino play with love and treat their love affairs and relationships casually, Viola takes love seriously.

Viola's love for Orsino is enduring and patient, even while Orsino claims to love Olivia. Though Orsino's Romeo-like fascination with the state of being in love is off-putting, especially as his love object is someone with whom he never speaks, Viola's feelings hold true.

Through her choice to dress as a man, Viola communicates to the audience that she is a strong and brave young woman, which makes her love for Orsino seem incongruous with her character. After all, Orsino is self-indulgent with his feelings, which makes him a moody character, and he openly demonstrates his love for another woman for most of the play.

A woman of strength and courage might be expected to choose someone more worthy to love, but Viola's constancy proves that her love is indeed true. She is overpowered by her love for Orsino, and reason has nothing to do with her feelings. Some audience members may view Viola's love for Orsino as a force for good, as he seems elevated by her love by the end of the play.

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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.

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