Like most of Shakespeare’s heroines, Viola is a tremendously likable figure. She has no serious faults, and we can easily discount the peculiarity of her decision to dress as a man, since it sets the entire plot in motion. She is the character whose love seems the purest. The other characters’ passions are fickle: Orsino jumps from Olivia to Viola, Olivia jumps from Viola to Sebastian, and Sir Toby and Maria’s marriage seems more a matter of whim than an expression of deep and abiding passion. Only Viola seems to be truly, passionately in love as opposed to being self-indulgently lovesick. As she says to Orsino, describing herself and her love for him:
She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
The audience, like Orsino, can only answer with an emphatic yes.
Viola’s chief problem throughout the play is one of identity. Because of her disguise, she must be both herself and Cesario. This mounting identity crisis culminates in the final scene, when Viola finds herself surrounded by people who each have a different idea of who she is and are unaware of who she actually is. Were Twelfth Night not a comedy, this pressure might cause Viola to break down. Sebastian’s appearance at this point, however, effectively saves Viola by allowing her to be herself again. Sebastian, who independent of his sister is not much of a character, takes over the aspects of Viola’s disguise that she no longer wishes to maintain. Thus liberated by her brother, Viola is free to shed the roles that she has accumulated throughout the play, and she can return to being Viola, the woman who has loved and won Orsino.
Orsino and Olivia are worth discussing together, because they have similar personalities. Both claim to be buffeted by strong emotions, but both ultimately seem to be self-indulgent individuals who enjoy melodrama and self-involvement more than anything. When we first meet them, Orsino is pining away for love of Olivia, while Olivia pines away for her dead brother. They show no interest in relating to the outside world, preferring to lock themselves up with their sorrows and mope around their homes.
Viola’s arrival begins to break both characters out of their self-involved shells, but neither undergoes a clear-cut change. Orsino relates to Viola in a way that he never has to Olivia, diminishing his self-involvement and making him more likable. Yet he persists in his belief that he is in love with Olivia until the final scene, in spite of the fact that he never once speaks to her during the course of the play. Olivia, meanwhile, sets aside her grief when Viola (disguised as Cesario) comes to see her. But Olivia takes up her own fantasy of lovesickness, in which she pines away—with a self-indulgence that mirrors Orsino’s—for a man who is really a woman. Ultimately, Orsino and Olivia seem to be out of touch with real emotion, as demonstrated by the ease with which they shift their affections in the final scene—Orsino from Olivia to Viola, and Olivia from Cesario to Sebastian. The similarity between Orsino and Olivia does not diminish with the end of the play, since the audience realizes that by marrying Viola and Sebastian, respectively, Orsino and Olivia are essentially marrying female and male versions of the same person.
Malvolio initially seems to be a minor character, and his humiliation seems little more than an amusing subplot to the Viola-Olivia-Orsino- love triangle. But he becomes more interesting as the play progresses, and most critics have judged him one of the most complex and fascinating characters in Twelfth Night. When we first meet Malvolio, he seems to be a simple type—a puritan, a stiff and proper servant who likes nothing better than to spoil other people’s fun. It is this dour, fun-despising side that earns him the enmity of the zany, drunken Sir Toby and the clever Maria, who together engineer his downfall. But they do so by playing on a side of Malvolio that might have otherwise remained hidden—his self-regard and his remarkable ambitions, which extend to marrying Olivia and becoming, as he puts it, “Count Malvolio” (II.v.30).
When he finds the forged letter from Olivia (actually penned by Maria) that seems to offer hope to his ambitions, Malvolio undergoes his first transformation—from a stiff and wooden embodiment of priggish propriety into an personification of the power of self--delusion. He is ridiculous in these scenes, as he capers around in the yellow stockings and crossed garters that he thinks will please Olivia, but he also becomes pitiable. He may deserve his come-uppance, but there is an uncomfortable universality to his experience. Malvolio’s misfortune is a cautionary tale of ambition overcoming good sense, and the audience winces at the way he adapts every event—including Olivia’s confused assumption that he must be mad—to fit his rosy picture of his glorious future as a nobleman. Earlier, he embodies stiff joylessness; now he is joyful, but in pursuit of a dream that everyone, except him, knows is false.
Our pity for Malvolio only increases when the vindictive Maria and Toby confine him to a dark room in Act IV. As he desperately protests that he is not mad, Malvolio begins to seem more of a victim than a victimizer. It is as if the unfortunate steward, as the embodiment of order and sobriety, must be sacrificed so that the rest of the characters can indulge in the hearty spirit that suffuses Twelfth Night. As he is sacrificed, Malvolio begins to earn our respect. It is too much to call him a tragic figure, however—after all, he is only being asked to endure a single night in darkness, hardly a fate comparable to the sufferings of King Lear or Hamlet. But there is a kind of nobility, however limited, in the way that the deluded steward stubbornly clings to his sanity, even in the face of Feste’s insistence that he is mad. Malvolio remains true to himself, despite everything: he knows that he is sane, and he will not allow anything to destroy this knowledge.
Malvolio (and the audience) must be content with this self-knowledge, because the play allows Malvolio no real recompense for his sufferings. At the close of the play, he is brought out of the darkness into a celebration in which he has no part, and where no one seems willing to offer him a real apology. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” he snarls, stalking out of the festivities (V.i.365). His exit strikes a jarring note in an otherwise joyful comedy. Malvolio has no real place in the anarchic world of Twelfth Night, except to suggest that, even in the best of worlds, someone must suffer while everyone else is happy.