The characters in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night have individual personality traits, distinguishing qualities and certain purpose in the play. The character of Viola is one of them. She is the main character, represents the two themes of love and disguise or mistaken identity in Twelfth Night.
John Ruskin says-
Shakespeare has no heroes but heroines.
He perhaps means that heroines of Shakespeare surpass the heroes in romantic comedies. Whether ‘As You Like It‘ or Twelfth Night or The Merchant of Venice the heroines are the queens of beauty, wit intellect,wisdom and faithfulness. They are more sensitive to intuition and responsive to emotion. Such a heroine is Viola in Twelfth Night.
Viola is a princess, who is shipwrecked on the island of Illyria and fears that she has lost her brother to the sea. Viola has many qualities, her brother, Sebastian, describes her as clever and talented, when he says, “She bore a mind that envy could not but call fair” Line twenty-one Scene One Act two. One will also notice that Viola is resourceful and courageous in Line fifty-four Scene two Act one, when she says “for such disguise as haply shall become”, this is the point in the play when Viola decides to disguise herself as a young man.
Viola introduces the theme of disguise and mistaken identity by disguising herself as a young man, named Cesario. Viola, as Cesario, plays the role of a servant, messenger and friend to the Duke of Illyria. The Duke says to Viola, “I have unclasped to thee/my secret soul” Line eleven to twelve Scene four Act one, expressing that he already trusts her and considers her a friend. Viola’s pretence is the source of much dramatic irony, which, in turn, creates much humour in the play.
Viola, disguised as Cesario, is assigned to the task of courting Olivia on behalf of the Duke, as one notices when Viola says, “I’ll do my best to woo your lady” Line thirty eight to thirty-nine Scene four Act one. Viola also plays a role in the theme of love. Viola then quietly says to the audience, “myself would be his wife”, stating that she is in fact in love with the Duke. A love triangle is created when Viola’s personality causes Olivia to fall in love with Viola herself, instead of the Duke. Olivia says to Viola in Line one hundred and thirty-three Scene one Act three, “I love thee”, showing that she loves Viola.
Viola’s role in the play, along with her pretence, cause a large amount confusion when her and her twin brother, Sebastian, are mistaken for one another by numerous other characters in the play. Olivia, who mistakes Sebastian for Viola, asks Sebastian if he would marry her and he obliges. Sebastian also promises to stay with her and not to return to the Duke. In Line ninety Scene one Act five, Olivia says to Viola, “you do not keep promise with me”, Olivia does not realise that she has actually married Sebastian and that Viola has not promised her anything.
Another example of the confusion created is when Sir Andrew challenges Viola to a duel and Antonio, thinking that Viola is Sebastian, steps in to save her. The confusion caused by the arrival of Sebastian creates a good deal of humour. I find that Viola plays the most important role in the play and has the most diverse character. She also has an effect on all of the other characters in the play. Teacher’s comment: It is a pity you did not elaborate on the effect she has on you.