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.
More characters from Twelfth Night