Viola is one of Shakespeare’s most charming and admirable heroines, and certainly the most sympathetic of the major “serious” characters (Orsino, Olivia, and herself) in Twelfth Night. Though she’s forced to disguise herself as a page, for safety’s sake, she’s apparently as well-born as Olivia is – the daughter of Sebastian of Messaline, a highly-placed nobleman in his own land. She’s also very attractive physically – which can be inferred from the fact that even in male attire she’s graceful enough for Orsino to comment on her good looks.
But perhaps the most attractive aspect of Viola – to a modern audience, at least – is her vigorous, good-humored, unpretentious personality. Unlike Olivia, whose counterpart and opposite she is, she makes no melodramatic plans to mourn her brother’s apparent death with extravagant gestures. Instead, her grief is quiet, deep, sincere – and tinged with hope that Sebastian may still be alive. Furthermore, finding herself in a difficult, perhaps compromising position in a strange country, she spends little time bemoaning the harshness of her fate, but immediately sets to work with characteristic practical energy to figure out a way to improve her situation. When she enters Orsino’s service, her talent, wit, and good looks quickly captivate him, just as, soon after, when she’s sent to “woo” Olivia, these qualities also entrance the Countess. Indeed, in almost every scene in which she appears – whether she’s jesting with Feste, quietly philosophizing with Orsino, or gracefully flattering Olivia-Viola’s courtly skill and down-to-earth charm are clearly evident. Most of all, when she herself falls deeply, and apparently hopelessly, in love with Orsino, though she feels very strongly the frustration and pain of her position (disguised as a boy, but perfectly able to love like a woman) her justifiable melancholy is neither extravagant, like Olivia’s, nor egotistical, like Orsino’s. She does her best at all times to conceal it, and we can’t help respecting her for her determination to sit “like Patience on a monument,” always putting the best face on things and always, whenever possible, “smiling at grief.”
Though basically a noble, generous, passionate woman, Olivia has many more faults than Viola has. Indeed, Shakespeare probably meant us to regard the two as emotional opposites, or at least as counterparts of each other, Thus Olivia’s name may be considered an anagram (rearrangement) of Viola’s, since it contains all the same letters (with an extra i), and Olivia’s problems (the loss of a brother, an unwanted courtship, and unrequited love) are also the same as Viola’s. But the Illyrian lady’s reaction to these difficulties is very different from the energetic young “page’s.” Olivia seems to have been much more spoiled than Viola, and as Viola herself points out, she is Vtoo proud,” as well as too extravagant by nature. She melodramatically resolves to mourn her brother’s death for seven years – and in that space of time, never to leave the house.
Viola, on the other hand, reacts more calmly and sensibly, though no less sorrowfully, to the possibility that Sebastian may have been killed. She coldly, and rather unsympathetically rejects Orsino’s proposals of marriage, but Viola is a little more compassionate in her reaction to Olivia’s own avowals of love. Finally, she falls passionately and wholeheartedly in love with “Cesario,” and is unable to restrain herself from impulsively declaring her feelings for the “youth” almost at the first opportunity. (Viola, in contrast, comes close to confessing her love for Orsino, but her iron self-control doesn’t weaken in the end.)
Despite all her faults, however, Olivia has many redeeming good qualities. She’s undeniably beautiful and intelligent. More important, she’s generous and wise in the rule of her household, as her basically kind treatment of both the drunken Toby and the “mad” Malvolio attests. Furthermore, though she herself is essentially serious – and throughout Twelfth Night, melancholy – she has a sense of humor and can appreciate true wit wherever she finds it, whether in the page “Cesario,” or in Feste, the jester. In sum, she’s a real aristocrat: courtly and noble in her bearing; a little self-absorbed, spoiled and proud, because of the importance of her position; but beneath a haughty exterior “generous, guiltless and of free disposition.”
Olivia’s clever, witty servingwoman – really a kind of lady-in-waiting – is supposed to be exceptionally small, and as quick and sharp infher movements as in her ideas. We’re informed about her height and her delicacy by a number of references. For instance, Sir Toby describes her as “the youngest wren of nine,” and as a “little villain.” In another place, he ironically calls her “Penthesilea” (the Queen of the Amazons, and Viola, with the same ironic intention, calls her “giant.”
But besides being small and shrewd, Maria is fun-loving and frolicsome, almost as ready as Sir Toby (on whom she has marital designs) to make merry, though with much more of a regard for the proprieties. Indeed, throughout the play she’s torn between her loyalty to Olivia and her sense of the dignity of the household (the disapproving “By my troth, Sir Toby, you must come in earlier o’ nights!” is her first line in the play) and her fondness for Toby and desire to please him. The latter desire-probably fortified by a keen interest in the jolly knight’s money and social position-wins out, and Maria invents the anti-Malvolio plot, the chief comic action of the play, at least in part to make Toby happy. Of course, the wonderful sport of “gulling” Malvolio (for whom she’s conceived an implacable dislike) makes Maria herself happy too, and in the end, having made her choice between Olivia and Toby, she gets her reward-Olivia’s very mild displeasure, and Toby’s hand in marriage.
Orsino is the only “serious” male character whom we get to know at all well. The others – Sebastian, Antonio, the Sea Captain, etc. – are all rather shadowy. But Orsino is a very real and realistic person, anything but the handsome, idealized monarch of a fairytale kingdom. He is handsome, of course, and as Olivia says “I suppose him virtuous, know him noble,/ Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth;/ In voices – [languages] well divulged [well-educated], free, learned, and valiant; And in dimension and the shape of nature,/ A gracious person.” It is, in fact, these qualities which make it possible for Viola to fall in love with the Duke so quickly and so irrevocably.
Yet even so, they aren’t the most important part of his personality, forF Orsino, more than being a brave man or a handsome or a learned man, is a young, egotistical and rather affected man. In this sense, he’s much like Olivia: just as she nurses her “grief” for her brother, he nurses his infatuation for her. This love of his, of course, is no more true love, like Viola’s than Romeo’s “love” for Rosalind was true love. Romeo had to meet Juliet to feel the real thing, and so Orsino is fated not to know the meaning of love until he really meets his page, “Cesario,” as Viola, her real self. In the meantime, however, like all idle, extravagant, passionate young men, he spends much time sighing windily for an unattainable “beloved,” and again, like Olivia, he’s consumed with the sort of melancholy that was fashionable among aristrocrats in Shakespeare’s day.
Indeed, perhaps even more than Olivia, Orsino is a parody of an aristocrat, with his languid craving for music, his fanciful philosophizing on the nature of love, and even his spiteful, despotic willingness to “sacrifice the lamb that I do love (“Cesario”) to revenge himself on Olivia for rejecting him. All this, like Olivia’s behavior, is meant to contrast with Viola’s true nobility, level-headedness and self-restraint. But at least in the end Orsino, again like Olivia, recovers a kind of balance, and in his dealings with Malvolio and his quick acceptance of Viola as a bride (he’d loved her all along, anyway, in her guise of a page) he shows a basic strain of goodwill and good sense.
Sebastian is essentially a male version of Viola, with all the differences in their personalities stemming from the difference in their sex. For one thing, of course, he’s her twin, and so he’s every bit as physically attractive as she is-which can be seen not only from the fact that Olivia loves him as passionately as she does “Cesario” (thinking, in fact, that he is “Cesario”) but also from the comments Antonio makes about his good looks. Second, and perhaps even more important, he’s just as charming, with as much personal magnetism, as Viola, which can also be seen from his relationship with Antonio. Further, he’s as loyal as she is (both to Antonio and to Olivia, as well as, naturally, to Viola herself), and as practical, energetic and high-spirited, which can be seen from his enthusiastic desire to “do” the town as soon as he arrives in Illyria. As for the differences between sister and brother: Sebastian is, of course, much fiercer and more aggressive-e.g. in his duel with Andrew and Toby. And, naturally, he’s able to respond with wholly masculine delight (as Viola certainly could not) to the beautiful Olivia’s romantic advances. In short, though Sebastian is really a minor character, we learn a good deal about him in the course of the play, partly through his own actions and partly from the way in which his personality reflects Viola’s.
Loyal, generous, impulsive and courageous are the four adjectives which best describe Sebastian’s rescuer, the good-hearted, brawling sea-captain Antonio. He’s loyal throughout to his young friend, Sebastian, and generous, too, in his treatment of the boy-lending him his purse when he thinks he may be in need, besides apparently having maintained the youth at his own expense for several months after rescuing him from drowning. His impulsiveness shows both in the quick and deep affection he conceives for the boy, and in his loyally following Sebastian to Illyria, even against the young man’s wishes. His courage, of course, is clear from the fact that he’d brave such hostile territory to join his friend, as well as from his ready intercession in the duel between Viola and Andrew. Finally, his courage may be inferred from his outstanding feats in the sea-fight against Illyria, even though Orsino accuses him (whether rightly or wrongly we don’t know) of having been a “pirate” and a “saltwater thief,” on that occasion. In any case, we can be sure that because of his kindness to Sebastian – and, even more, because of his (unwitting) generosity to Orsino’s future “Queen,” he’ll be quickly enough forgiven for whatever his past transgressions may have been.
Feste has been called Shakespeare’s “most musical” fool. Less witty than Touchstone in As You Like It and less profound, perhaps, than the fool in King Lear, he’s nevertheless a highly accomplished jester-clever, polished and perceptive enough for Viola to remark of him that “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,/ And to do that well, craves a kind of wit./ He must observe their moods on whom he jests,/ The quality of persons, and the time.” Shakespeare is thought to have written the part for Robert Armin, a famous comedian of the day who’d recently joined the playwright’s acting troupe. Armin was more musical and, in certain respects, more serious than the jester he succeeded, and hence the musical quality of Feste’s part.
Still, Feste’s comic accomplishments are numerous too. His fussy parodies of learning make even the melancholy Olivia laugh, and his talent for mimicry (in the “Sir Topas” scene) convulses Maria and Toby, and completely deceives Malvolio. But besides being musical, shrewd and funny, Feste is shown to have a real personality of his own. His hatred for Malvolio, conceived when the steward insults him in act 1, scene 5, motivates much of the comic subplot, and even by the end of the play he hasn’t quite rid himself of the desire for revenge-as his last taunting words to Malvolio reveal. Indeed, throughout the play, like any good fool, Feste is all things to all men, besides seeming to be, literally, everywhere-singing songs for the Duke, cheering up Olivia when she’s sad, plotting with Toby and his friends, squabbling with Malvolio, and even disinterestedly commenting to the audience, in his final song, on the silliness of it all. Because of this, he acts as a perfect link between the serious characters, Orsino, Olivia and Viola, for whom he performs, and the comic characters, Toby, Andrew and Maria, with whom he carouses.
Sir Toby Belch
Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s riotous relative (really her uncle, though he’s often called “cousin” in the general fashion of the day) is the chief comic character and certainly the chief comic conspirator in Twelfth Night. The Elizabethan Twelfth Night celebration, which corresponded to the feast of the Epiphany, coming twelve days after Christmas, was often organized and dominated by a jolly person called the Lord of Misrule, who was in charge of the frolics and pranks that were so popular at this time of year. Many modern critics have quite naturally seen in Sir Toby Shakespeare’s embodiment, in a play written expressly for the Twelfth Night festivities, of this same Lord of Misrule. Certainly Toby fits all the requirements of the part exactly. Hard-drinking, healthy, strong-willed, jovial and fond of every kind of merrymaking-plots, puns and brawls as well as wine, women and song-he’s equalled among Shakespeare’s own creations only by Sir John Falstaff, that similarly jolly loose-liver who was so popular in the Henry IV plays that Shakespeare wrote another whole play (The Merry Wives of Windsor) just for him. Perhaps, indeed, the playwright was trying once again to recapture his success with Falstaff in “Twelfth Night’s Lord of Misrule. In any case, Toby’s antics are always a hit with audiences, though an Elizabethan audience probably appreciated them even more than we do today.
Of course, Toby has many faults, too. For one thing, his treatment of poor Sir Andrew Aguecheek is notably unscrupulous: he keeps the foolish knight around primarily to have the use of his money, and secondarily to tease and “gull” him (as in the first scene with Maria, or, more, in the duel episode.) Further, he is undoubtedly a “sot” (drunkard) and a noisy, rather boorish individual. He does, as Malvolio accuses him of doing, “make an alehouse” of Olivia’s house, keeping late hours and violating the peace of the establishment with his “tinker’s catches” and drinking songs bawled at the top of his lungs at three in the morning. His feelings for Maria, too, are not very romantic: he’s more pleased by her cleverness as a comic co-worker than by any feminine attractions she may have. Still, he’s a cheerful enough – and certainly an amusing enough-old souse, quite suited, with his high spirits and his conspiratorial energy, to act as Twelfth Night’s Lord of Misrule. And as Mark Van Doren has pointed out, “old households harbor such old men. They are nuisances to be endured because they are symbols of enduringness, signs of the family’s great age.” The aristocratic Olivia would no more turn her boisterous uncle out, as Malvolio threatens she would, than she’d lose the efficient steward himself.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek
Sir Andrew is perhaps the easiest character in Twelfth Night to understand, and the one, indeed, who is most a caricature and least an individualized character. Quite simply, he is a fool-not a “fool” in the sense of jester, like Feste, but a fool in the modern sense of an idiot. He’s attached himself to Sir Toby for various reasons-mainly because he believes in Toby’s unscrupulous encouragement of his hopeless courtship of Olivia. But further, he quite reasonably admires Toby’s high spirits and noisy courage-qualities which he himself emphatically lacks. For besides being stupid, Sir Andrew is a coward: in the duel scene he behaves with every bit as much cowardice as the naturally shrinking, feminine Viola, despite all his boasted training as a knight. Only when he realizes that “Cesario” is a coward too, does he begin to lose some of his fear. Finally, Andrew is an egotist-as much of an egotist, as much deluded by vanity and self-love, as those other notable egotists, Malvolio and Orsino. It is his egotism which lets Toby convince him that Olivia will have him; his vanity which is piqued with jealousy at Viola’s courtly skill; and his shallow self-love which enables him to write his silly, puffed-up challenge to “Cesario.” In short, as Toby at last brutally tells him, he is “an ass-head, and a coxcomb, and a knave; a thin-faced knave, a gull.”
As Maria notes fairly early in the play, Malvolio, Olivia’s coldly efficient steward, is a “kind of Puritan.” Indeed, like the other comic characters, he seems to be rather more closely based on certain Elizabethan social types than any of the serious characters are. Some modern scholars have even conjectured that he was meant as a parody of Queen Elizabeth’s chief Comptroller (steward), Sir William Knollys. At any rate, whatever the case may be, Malvolio’s personality is of such dominating importance to Twelfth Night that King James I is said to have renamed the play Malvolio.
Certainly Malvolio has many of the characteristics of the Puritans, those representatives of the rising middle-class who were so hateful to aristocratic merrymakers like Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, so looked-down-upon by true aristocrats like Olivia, and so disliked by carefree artists like Feste, or even Shakespeare himself. But despite his priggishness and his self-righteous complaints about Sir Toby’s boisterous behavior, Malvolio is not purely a Puritan at all. As Maria, again, notes, he’s basically an “affection’d [affected] ass” – and Olivia, too, sees that he is “sick of [with] self-love.” This egotistical self-love, as well as his vain ambition, makes him very willing to cast off his severe, Puritannical ways at the slightest hint that more raucous behavior might give him a good chance to become Olivia’s lover. Even before he receives the “anonymous” letter Maria plants, Malvolio is deep in luxuriously un-Puritanical daydreams of being married to his mistress; after he finds the letter, of course, he goes off the deep end entirely, crazily cross-gartering his legs, smiling and kissing his hand at the astonished Olivia, in the “mad” belief that he might be a suitable suitor for her. Indeed, in this sense Malvolio’s “madness” is no joke-for such extravagant egotism, even more than his earlier, Puritanical pomposity, is truly a form of madness.
We learn little about Fabian in Twelfth Night, beyond the fact that he’s a quick-witted, good-natured servant, as fond as Toby and Maria of a good joke but rather more restrained in his pursuit of such pleasures. He’s introduced into the action rather late, and for the most part he comments on the plots which others have set in motion, rather than directly participating. He does try to quiet Toby’s and Andrew’s out-of-bounds behavior in the garden scene, however, and he obviously enjoys tormenting poor “Cesario” in the duel scene. In the end, he bravely and responsibly takes much of the blame for the Malvolio plot onto himself-yet we can be sure that Olivia, knowing Toby’s tendencies as a plotter, will not blame the basically innocent Fabian too harshly at all.
All we know of the Sea Captain who rescued Viola is that he was kind and friendly, introducing the girl as a page to Orsino, and keeping both her secret and her clothes for the length of her stay at court as “Cesario.” As for Orsino’s gentlemen, Curio and Valentine, they are the usual courtly servants, elegant, polite and ever anxious for their ruler’s best advantage in the world, as well as for the slightest marks of personal favor from him to themselves.