The Character of Viola in Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night - Viola

In Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, the character of Viola is explored through the play’s structure, the language used by the characters and the form in which the play is written in. These elements allow the audience to gain further insight into what the main protagonist, Viola, represents as Shakespeare offers alternative meanings behind her character; is she a strong, female role model, or a mere comic character?

During the Renaissance, the “comedy” genre applied to the theatre did not technically mean that the play was intended to be funny. It was the general term used to describe a play that contained a happy ending. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare states “In most comedies the happy ending involves a marriage or at least some kind of union or reunion that resolves the conflict and brings the characters into a state of harmony” (McDonald 81). It also states “Comedy moves from confusion to order, from ignorance to understanding, from law to liberty, from unhappiness to satisfaction, from separation to union, from barrenness to fertility, from singleness to marriage, from two to one”. These factors are all very common in the comedies of Shakespeare’s time, including Twelfth Night, in which the structure follows the aforementioned stereotypical scenarios. Therefore, there is some ambiguity in the portrayal of the characters, particularly, Viola. As the main character in the play, she may simply be interpreted as a comic character, relative to the genre, however, her actions can also make the audience perceive her as a strong, female role model, as shown by the difficult obstacles that she is forced to undergo, throughout the play.

Another factor which supports this interpretation is that critics argue that she highly differs from the other known heroines in Shakespeare’s plays, who, unlike Viola, are unafraid to go forward and pursue their love. Reminiscent of this is the character of Olivia who mistakingly falls in love for...