Viola is the protagonist of the play. She begins the play in an unfortunate and vulnerable position, having been shipwrecked in a strange land where she does not know anyone. Her first desire is to figure out the customs and power dynamics of Ilyria without revealing her true identity. This desire drives the plot forward because it leads her to assume a disguise as Cesario. However, once Viola is installed in Orsino’s household, a new desire appears: she falls in love with Orsino, and realizes that “myself would be his wife” (1.4.). Viola’s two desires are now in conflict with one another, and each prevents the other from being realized. She cannot explain her love to Orsino without revealing her true identity, and maintaining her disguise requires her to hide her feelings. Viola’s predicament leaves her largely unable to act or influence the actions of other characters.
Not only can Viola not take any actions to be with Orsino, she unintentionally drives him further away. Viola’s good looks and charm (as Cesario) lead Olivia to fall in love with her, creating a secondary conflict. Again, Viola cannot disclose the information that would resolve the conflict, and is forced to tell Olivia repeatedly that “I have one heart… And that no woman has, nor never none / Shall mistress be of it” (3.1.). Viola’s conflict is resolved through the intervention of fortune and luck rather than through her own actions. Since it turns out that Sebastian has survived the shipwreck, he can take the place of Cesario in Olivia’s affections. With Olivia happily married, and with the support of her brother, Viola can safely reveal her own identity. Once Viola reveals that she’s really a woman, Orsino reciprocates her affection, proclaiming that she shall be his wife. At the end of the play, Viola gets everything she wants, and the seemingly disastrous events have actually been propelling her toward a happy fate.