Character of Viola in Twelfth Night

Viola is the heroine of Twelfth Night – the protagonist and catalyst of the play. She is a romantic lover who suffers the pangs of disappointment; she changes and effects the change of other characters who have their own illusions about love.

Viola’s assumption of disguise is the motive spring of the plot, and our sympathies are mainly centered upon her.

Viola is characterized by the essentially feminine qualities of tenderness, modesty and shrinking delicacy of feeling. These qualities become more conspicuous when we compare her with other maidens in Shakespeare who assume the disguise of male attire. Rosalind has for instance a buoyant vitality of spirit that carries her through difficulties, Portia can trust in any emergency to her virile intellect, ready wit and force of will. But Viola is filled with

“a sweet consciousness of her feminine nature”, and although she plays her part creditably well, “never forgets, not allows us to forget that she is playing a part.” (Mrs. Jameson)

Viola is in a peculiarly difficult position. Putting on male attire, she takes service as a page with Duke who likes her but has no idea of her real sex. She falls in love with the Duke who again loves Olivia, the countess to whom he has no access. The Duke sends Viola (Cesario) as an emissary to carry his message of love to Olivia. The lady mistakes her as a handsome young man and falls in the love with him. Viola is in a complicated situation which she analyses with perfect clearness. She knows that time will untangle the knot:

O Time ! that must untangle this, not I!
It is too hard a knot for me to untie?

Thus she is perplexed, but not unnerved. Her self-control is as unshaken as her intelligence is acute.

Viola is devoted to the Duke and expresses her love in an indirect and oblique manner. She speaks about her love by telling how her sisters has felt compelled to hide her love and she had pined in thought, sitting like patience on a monument and smiling in grief. She invents a sister to express her disappointed love.

Also read:
"Twelfth Night" as a Romantic Comedy
The Theme of Love in "Twelfth Night"

Viola is loyal and true. Herself in love with Orsino, she is entrusted with the task of prosecuting his suit for the hand of Olivia. She does her best to advance Orsino’s suit with Olivia. Her keen sense of honour prevents her from acting treacherously. But she is at the same time a woman of strong emotions. On one occasion, she speaks in cryptic language which expresses her feelings as well as her master’s :

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.

Through her half playful, half-serious answers to Olivia, we get glimpses of a remarkable mind in which intelligence is enriched by love and sense of duty and honour. Her love quiet and unchanging contrasts with Orsino’s fickle and over-eloquent fancy, no less than Olivia’s impetuous passion. Viola shows love in silent strength while Olivia’s love is sensuous and sentimental.

In her encounter with the clown, Sir Toby Belch we get to know another aspect of Viola’s character. Her assessment of the clown expressed in a soliloquy shows that she is an excellent judge of character. She says that this fellow (the clown) is wise enough to play the fool because a professional fool must possess a sense of discrimination and should be able to judge the people whom she chooses as the targets of his sarcastic remarks. She says that the folly which the professional clown wisely shows is fit but with wise men, folly fallen quite taint their wit.

Viola is accused of ingratitude by Antonio and she is bewildered. She has never met Antonio who has mistaken her for Sebastian. She infers that she is mistaken for her brother, and she hopes that her brother is living. She is puzzled when Sir Andrew challenges her to a duel. She quails before a fool like Sir Andrew who has not “so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot of a flea” (III, ii, 68-9). The timidity, nervousness and ignorance she betrays on this occasion are characteristic of a woman who has no practical experience of fighting and is only passing herself off as a man. Although it brings out her womanly delicacy, it leaves her imagination and intellect unaffected.

Viola’s many-sided personality is revealed in the delicate and critical situation in which she is placed by her sex-disguise. Boas remarks about Viola:

In her Shakespeare has united qualities which he usually divides between two different types of women. She has the softness of Hero and Bianca, combined with the resolute will and ready tongue of Portia and Rosalind.