Viola's Monologue in Twelfth Night

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson explores Viola's monologue in Act 2,2 of 'Twelfth Night,' in which she considers Olivia's attraction to her. Viola is serving in Orsino's court as the young man Cesario, a role that brings with it more complications than she bargained for.

Twelfth Night: Mistaken Identities and Unrequited Love


In Act 2,2 of Twelfth Night, we find Viola on her way back to Orsino's court, having paid her first visit to the Countess Olivia. Her monologue acts in part as a recap of her interactions with Olivia. In telling Olivia about Orsino's unrequited love for her a couple of scenes earlier, Viola used a lot of courtly and figurative language. This was very impressive to the countess, but Viola's monologue also serves to provide a useful summary for readers of what's happened so far, and what the implications of the complicated romantic and social entanglements are for the rest of the play.

We're reminded that Olivia is loved by Orsino. Viola is a confidential servant of his, disguised as a man named Cesario, and passionately in love with him. Orsino sends Viola to tell Olivia all about his feelings. Olivia promptly falls in love with Viola. This is so emotionally complicated that poor Viola needs a monologue to process the whole thing.

Viola's Monologue: Context and Analytic Summary

In Act 2,2, Olivia's servant Malvolio comes after Viola (disguised as Cesario, remember) on a mission. Characteristically, he is rude about it. He tells Viola/Cesario to take back the ring he (she) left with the countess. Malvolio adds that Orsino should be given 'a desperate assurance she [Olivia] will none of him,' and that Viola/Cesario should most emphatically not return with further messages of Orsino's love. Viola/Cesario may, however, return to tell Olivia how Orsino takes the news. This, as the audience knows, is Olivia's pretext to get to see Orsino's hot servant - Viola/Cesario - again. Malvolio throws the ring down and leaves in a huff.


Viola is left alone and very confused. Freed of the responsibility to be Cesario, she can process her thoughts and feelings. She starts with a very basic question: 'what means this lady?' The exchange or gift of rings was a common indication of love in Shakespeare's time, so it's not improbable that Orsino might have sent Olivia a ring. But he didn't. And since Viola left no ring with the countess, why on earth is it claimed that she did? The probability that Olivia has fallen - suddenly and hard - for 'Cesario' alarms Viola. 'Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her!' she exclaims. She then spends a full 8 lines processing the likelihood of this. The countess, unfortunately for Viola's peace of mind, exhibited timeless indications of having a giant crush. She couldn't take her eyes off Viola/Cesario, and spoke 'in starts, distractedly.' In concluding that Olivia must have tried to conceal her feelings by telling Malvolio to be rude ('She loves me, sure: the cunning of her passion / Invites me in this churlish messenger') Viola is actually giving Olivia too much credit. Malvolio was, as always, rude on his own initiative.

As the full truth dawns on Viola, her own language becomes broken. Shakespeare's syntax shows us her thoughts darting madly from one upsetting truth to another: 'None of my lord's ring! Why, he sent her none! / I am the man. If it be so - as 'tis - / Poor lady, she were better love a dream.' Viola concludes that disguise is a wicked tool of the devil. This would have been hilarious to Shakespeare's audience because the Puritans' belief that disguise was a wicked tool of the devil had led to all theatre performances being banned for years.

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