Cesario (Viola) in Twelfth Night: Character Traits & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Introduction to Twelfth Night
  • 1:33 Viola's Wit
  • 2:30 Viola's Familial Affection
  • 3:20 Viola's Compassion
  • 3:57 Viola in Love
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Leslie McMurtry
'Twelfth Night' is one of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. While it has many sets of lovers, its main protagonist is Viola, an aristocratic woman shipwrecked and forced to take up the disguise of a man, causing romantic mayhem. Viola is one of Shakespeare's most endearing female characters.

Introduction to Twelfth Night

We don't know exactly when Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, though it was likely written around 1601. It is a romantic comedy of mistaken identities and love triangles. The play begins when Viola is shipwrecked far from home in the land of Illyria. Her twin brother Sebastian was similarly lost in the storm, and Viola is unsure whether he has survived. Until she finds him, she takes the precaution of dressing in men's clothing and disguises herself as Cesario. She gains employment as a page in the household of Count Orsino, an illustrious leader of the land, who is trying to win the heart of Countess Olivia.

Orsino quickly comes to depend on Cesario and asks his page to help him win Olivia's love. This backfires, as Olivia quickly becomes attracted to Cesario. This is complicated by the fact that Cesario (Viola) has fallen in love with Orsino. Olivia's relative Sir Toby Belch has a friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is also trying to win Olivia's heart, but he is the least successful of all. However, he challenges Cesario to a duel.

Meanwhile, Sebastian has survived and has become friends with Antonio, a lord in a nearby kingdom. When Sebastian and Antonio end up in Illyria, Sebastian is naturally mistaken for Cesario. In the end, the mistaken identities are revealed, and everyone lives happily ever after; Viola with Orsino, and Olivia with Sebastian.

Viola's Wit

Viola is a delightful character not because of her physical beauty, she only appears in women's clothes at the very end, but because of her keen wit and verbal reflexes. In the person of Cesario, she charms Orsino to the point she is his right-hand man within three days. Olivia meets her once and is immediately struck by her cleverness, feeling an immediate attraction. Viola seems to charm everyone she meets.

For example, in Act I, Scene 5, the first time Viola meets Olivia, she gives a prepared speech to pass on Orsino's message of love. She changes it to one of spontaneous elegance and persistence when Olivia unveils, creating extended metaphors regarding portraiture. ' 'Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white / Nature's own sweet and cunning hand laid on,' she says, by which she means that Olivia's beauty is natural and far more flattering than any painting.

Viola's Familial Affection

For story purposes, Viola and Sebastian don't share many scenes. Nevertheless, Viola establishes that the bond between the twins is strong. 'And what should I do in Illyria?' she asks in her very first scene, immediately after the shipwreck. 'My brother he is in Elysium. / Perchance he is not drown'd.' These two lines reveal both Viola's deeply felt sadness if her brother has drowned but also her cheerful hope that he may yet be found alive.

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