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Shakespeare's Characters: Viola (Twelfth Night)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 16. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

As the innate dignity of Perdita pierces through her rustic disguise, so the exquisite refinement of Viola triumphs over her masculine attire. Viola is, perhaps, in a degree less elevated and ideal than Perdita, but with a touch of sentiment more profound and heart-stirring; she is "deep-learned in the lore of love" — at least theoretically — and speaks as masterly on the subject as Perdita does of flowers.

The situation and the character of Viola have been censured for their want of consistency and probability; it is therefore worth while to examine how far this criticism is true. As for her situation in the drama (of which she is properly the heroine) it is shortly this: She is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria: she is alone and without protection in a strange country. She wishes to enter into the service of the Countess Olivia; but she is assured that this is impossible; "for the lady, having recently lost an only and beloved brother, has abjured the sight of men, has shut herself up in her palace, and will admit no kind of suit." In this perplexity Viola remembers to have heard her father speak with praise and admiration of Orsino, the Duke of the country; and having ascertained that he is not married, and that therefore his court is not a proper asylum for her in her feminine character, she attires herself in the disguise of a page, as the best protection against uncivil comments, till she can gain some tidings of her brother.

If we carry our thoughts back to a romantic and chivalrous age, there is surely sufficient probability here for all the purposes of poetry. To pursue the thread of Viola's destiny; — she is engaged in the service of the Duke, whom she finds "fancy-sick" for the love of Olivia. We are left to infer (for so it is hinted in the first scene) that this Duke — who, with his accomplishments and his personal attractions, his taste for music, his chivalrous tenderness, and his unrequited love, is really a very fascinating and poetical personage, though a little passionate and fantastic — had already made some impression on Viola's imagination; and, when she comes to play the confidante, and to be loaded with favours and kindness in her assumed character, that she should be touched by a passion made up of pity, admiration, gratitude, and tenderness, does not, I think, in any way detract from the genuine sweetness and delicacy of her character, for "she never told her love."

Now all this, as the critic wisely observes, may not present a very just picture of life; and it may also fail to impart any moral lesson for the especial profit of well-bred young ladies: but is it not in truth and in nature? Did it ever fail to charm or to interest, to seize on the coldest fancy, to touch the most insensible heart?

Viola then is the chosen favourite of the enamoured Duke, and becomes his messenger to Olivia, and the interpreter of his sufferings to that inaccessible beauty. In her character of a youthful page, she attracts the favour of Olivia, and excites the jealousy of her lord. The situation is critical and delicate; but how exquisitely is the character of Viola fitted to her part, carrying her through the ordeal with all the inward and spiritual grace of modesty! What beautiful propriety in the distinction drawn between Rosalind and Viola! The wild sweetness, the frolic humour which sports free and unblamed amid the shades of Ardennes, would ill become Viola, whose playfulness is assumed as part of her disguise as a court-page, and is guarded by the strictest delicacy. She has not, like Rosalind, a saucy enjoyment in her own incognito; her disguise does not sit so easily upon her; her heart does not beat freely under it. As in the old ballad, where "Sweet William" is detected weeping in secret over her "man's array," so in Viola, a sweet consciousness of her feminine nature is forever breaking through her masquerade: —

"And on her cheek is ready with a blush
Modest as morning, when she coldly eyes
The youthful Phoebus."
. . . The feminine cowardice of Viola, which will not allow her even to affect a courage becoming her attire — her horror at the idea of drawing a sword, is very natural and characteristic; and produces a most humorous effect, even at the very moment it charms and interests us.

Contrasted with the deep, silent, patient love of Viola for the Duke, we have the lady-like wilfulness of Olivia; and her sudden passion, or rather fancy, for the disguised page, takes so beautiful a colouring of poetry and sentiment, that we do not think her forward. Olivia is like a princess of romance, and has all the privileges of one; she is, like Portia, high-bom and high-bred, mistress over her servants — but not like Portia, "queen o'er herself." She has never in her life been opposed; the first contradiction, therefore, rouses all the woman in her, and turns a caprice into a headlong passion; yet she apologizes for herself: —

"I have said too much unto a heart of stone.
And laid mine honour too unchary out;
There 's something in me that reproves my fault;
But such a headstrong potent fault it is,
That it but mocks reproof!"
And in the midst of her self-abandonment never allows us to contemn, even while we pity her: —
"What shall you ask of me that I'll deny,
That honour, sav'd may upon asking give?"
The distance of rank which separates the Countess from the youthful page — the real sex of Viola — the dignified elegance of Olivia's deportment, except where passion gets the better of her pride — her consistent coldness towards the Duke — the description of that "smooth, discreet, and stable bearing" with which she rules her household — her generous care for her steward Malvolio, in the midst of her own distress — all these circumstances raise Olivia in our fancy, and render her caprice for the page a source of amusement and interest, not a subject of reproach.

Twelfth Night is a genuine comedy — a perpetual spring of the gayest and the sweetest fancies. In artificial society men and women are divided into castes and classes, and it is rarely that extremes in character or manners can approximate. To blend into one harmonious picture the utmost grace and refinement of sentiment and the broadest effects of humour, the most poignant wit and the most indulgent benignity, in short, to bring before us in the same scene Viola and Olivia, with Malvolio and Sir Toby, belonged only to Nature and to Shakespeare.
Mrs. Jameson: Characteristics of Women.


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