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Extended Character Analysis

Viola is the protagonist of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night. She is an aristocrat who disguises herself as a young man named Cesario after being shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Viola is witty, resourceful, and charismatic. She shows self-control and dignity in contrast to the bombastic, overly sentimental performances of Orsino and Lady Olivia.

In the aftermath of the shipwreck, Viola has lost her twin brother, Sebastian. Viola decides to disguise herself as a man in order to survive in a male-dominated world. Her disguise acts as a protection. Without her brother, Viola is alone and unable to make a living. Disguised as Cesario, she is able to find a job under Orsino, the Duke of Illyria.

Viola as Cesario

Viola’s disguise brings confusion and duplicity into other characters’ lives as well as her own. As Cesario, Viola also provides insight into characters such as Lady Olivia and Duke Orsino. Although Viola is well-meaning, she realizes that her disguise leads to ill consequences. For example, Orsino, who is infatuated with Lady Olivia, orders Cesario to go and woo Lady Olivia for him. Viola, who is rational and logical, at first avers that Olivia wouldn’t let her in. However, Viola must do Orsino’s bidding, and in an aside Viola claims, “Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.” This shows that Viola has already decided to love and marry Orsino, despite her disguise and situation.

Unfortunately, when Cesario arrives at Lady Olivia’s home to deliver Orsino’s message, Olivia falls in love with Cesario instead. Viola’s disguise highlights Lady Olivia’s true desires. Olivia does not love Orsino, and she is hypocritical in how she throws out her proclaimed mourning period to court Cesario. Viola sees the fallacy and misfortune in Olivia’s love for Cesario, saying “Poor lady, she were better love a dream.”

Viola also finds herself the subject of dislike and trickery while disguised. Sir Toby, for example, tricks Sir Andrew into challenging Cesario to a duel in order to gain Olivia’s affection. Sir Andrew’s duel with Cesario for Olivia is a ridiculous act, and Viola tries to decline. When she fails to avoid the duel, she is tricked further by Sir Toby and Feste, who work to convince both Viola and Sir Andrew of the other’s prowess in dueling, when in reality, both Viola and Sir Andrew are inept duelers. Viola and Sir Andrew reluctantly show up to the duel, both feeling an irrational fear of each other’s skills due to Sir Toby’s and Feste’s trickery.

Viola’s disguise also inadvertently causes Antonio, a sea captain, to be arrested. Antonio, who is the savior and friend of Sebastian, sees Viola in disguise and believes she is Sebastian. He sees that Viola is about to duel Sir Andrew and tries to protect her from the duel. Antonio is then arrested by Orsino’s men, and he asks Viola for money, thinking that she is Sebastian. However, Viola does not know Antonio, and her refusal and claim of not recognizing him makes Antonio believe he has been betrayed by Sebastian.

Viola and the Irrationality of Love

The revelry of love is a primary theme in Twelfth Night. Viola is in the midst of much amorous wildness, with Duke Orsino’s excessive pining and Lady Olivia’s quick infatuation with Cesario. Even Viola finds that she is falling in love with Duke Orsino, despite her precarious situation.

Lady Olivia’s declaration of love for Cesario shows love’s irrationality, especially given her quick turnaround from grieving to infatuation. When Lady Olivia meets Cesario, she drops all pretenses of mourning and tries to court Cesario....

(This entire section contains 812 words.)

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Viola highlights Olivia’s rashness in a soliloquy, claiming that women are susceptible to falling in love with deceitful men: “How easy it is for the proper false / In women’s waxen hearts to set their form!” For the audience, Lady Olivia’s irrational love for Cesario is an example of dramatic irony. The audience knows that Cesario is Viola, a woman in disguise, while Olivia is blissfully unaware and infatuated with a person who, in a sense, doesn’t exist. With Lady Olivia’s advances, Viola finds herself unwillingly placed in an insensible love triangle. While reflecting on her powerlessness in love and relationships, Viola claims, “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I.”

Viola as Viola

At the end of play, Viola is reunited with Sebastian. After making sure he is truly her twin, she then reveals that she is a young woman in disguise. Viola then expresses her love to Duke Orsino, who agrees to marry her, despite having been supposedly in love with Olivia for the majority of the play. The lovesick characters are all married, putting an end to the romantic and duplicitous madness of Twelfth Night.


List of Characters


Duke Orsino