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Viola (Twelfth Night)

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Title: Viola (Twelfth Night)  
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Language: English
Subject: Feste, Orsino (Twelfth Night), BBC Television Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Twelfth Night (1986 film)
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Viola (Twelfth Night)

Francis Wheatley painted the character Viola preparing to duel, circa 1771
Creator William Shakespeare
Play the Twelfth Night
Source Twelfth Night
Other name(s) Cesario
Family Sebastian (identical twin)
Role Main Character

Viola (pronounced \ˈvaɪoʊlə\) is a fictional character from the play Twelfth Night, written by William Shakespeare.[1]

Viola's actions produce all of the play's momentum. She is a young woman of Messaline, a fictional country invented by Shakespeare, although some believe that this country really did exist.[2] In the beginning Viola is found shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria[2] and separated from her twin brother, not knowing whether he is alive or dead, the Sea Captain that tells her that this place is ruled by the Duke Orsino, who is in love with the Countess Olivia. Viola wants to serve her, but, finding this impossible, she has the Sea Captain dress her up like a eunuch, so she can serve the Duke instead.

Viola chooses the name Cesario, which in Italian means 'little Caesar', and secures a position as a page working for the Duke. He then entrusts Cesario (Viola) to express his love for Olivia.[3] Cesario continues to pass messages back and forth between the Duke and Olivia, but this eventually places her in somewhat of a quandary: she is forced by duty to do her best to plead Orsino’s case to Olivia, but an internal conflict of interest arises when she falls in love with Orsino, and Olivia, believing her to be male, falls in love with her. Upon receiving a ring from Olivia's steward, Viola contemplates the love triangle her disguise has created, admitting only time can solve it.

When Sebastian, Viola's lost twin, arrives alive and well in Illyria with a pirate named Antonio, the chaos of mistaken identity ensues. The absurdity of the identity crisis builds until Sebastian and Viola as Cesario meet for the first time, and eventually recognize one another. Olivia and Sebastian have already been secretly married, as she mistook him for Cesario, and Sebastian, ignorant of the foregoing love triangle, was simply entranced by a beautiful woman. Ultimately then, given what he has witnessed, Orsino admits that he will no longer pursue Olivia, agreeing to love her as his sister, and decides to take Viola as his wife once she quits her disguise.

Although Viola is the play's protagonist, her true name is not spoken by any character--including herself--until the final scene of the play (Act 5, scene 1).

Art and stage depictions

Circa 1771 Francis Wheatley used actress Elizabeth Younge as a model to paint Viola in Act III, Scene 4 after she and Sir Andrew have drawn swords (painting top-right).[4]

Viola (in orange, left) as Cesario; Olivia (in yellow, right). William Hamilton c. 1797

William Hamilton painted the confrontation between Olivia and Viola circa 1797: in Act V, Scene 1 Olivia believes Viola (dressed as Cesario) to be Sebastian (Viola's twin brother) who she has just married. After Viola denies any knowledge, incredulous Olivia asks the priest to confirm they were married just two hours prior.[5]

Walter Howell Deverell used model Elizabeth Siddal in his 1850 painting, showing Viola as Cesario looking longingly at Duke Orsino.[6]

Frederick Richard Pickersgill painting of Orsino and Viola, mid-1800s
Viola and the Countess (F. R. Pickersgill, 1859)

In the mid-19th century Frederick Richard Pickersgill painted a few scenes, including: in Act 1, Scene 4 after the character Viola is shipwrecked, when she cross-dresses as Cesario, enters the service of Duke Orsino as his page and falls in love with him; and in Act 3, Scene 1 when Olivia declares her love for Cesario (1859 painting).[7]

Lucie Höflich as Viola in a German version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in 1907 at the Deutsches Theater

In the 20th century German actress Lucie Höflich played Viola in Was ihr wollt (Twelfth Night in German) at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.[8]

In 2009, Anne Hathaway played Viola in the Shakespeare in the Park's production of "Twelfth Night" in New York's Central Park, directed by David Sullivan.

Connections with other characters

Orsino (the Duke of Illyria) employs Viola as Cesario and she falls in love with him, and eventually marries him.

Olivia (a Countess) mistakenly falls in love with Viola, thinking that she is a man (Cesario). This causes problems for the characters in the play.

Sebastian is the twin brother of Viola.

Film Representations

Twelfth Night (1910) – Directed by Eugene Mullin – Viola: Florence Turner

Twelfth Night (1937) – Director N/A – Viola: Dorothy Black

Twelfth Night (1939) – Directed by Michel Saint Denis – Viola: Peggy Ashcroft

Twelfth Night (1957) [TV] – Directed by David Greene – Viola: Rosemary Harris

Twelfth Night (1957) – Directed by Caspar Wrede – Viola: Dilys Hamlett

Twelfth Night (1969) – Directed by John Sichel – Viola: Joan Plowright

Twelfth Night (1974) – Directed by David Giles – Viola: Janet Suzman

Twelfth Night (1980) [TV] – Directed by John Gorrie – Viola: Felicity Kendal

Twelfth Night (1987) – Directed by Neil Armfield – Viola: Gillian Jones

Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1988)– Directed by Paul Kafno – Viola: Frances Barber

Twelfth Night (1992) - [Animated Tales] – Directed by Mariya Muat – Viola: Fiona Shaw

Twelfth Night (1996) - Directed by Trevor Nunn – Viola: Imogen Stubbs

Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1998) [TV] – Directed by Nicholas Hytner – Viola: Helen Hunt

Shakespeare in Love (1998) – Directed by John Madden – the fictitious biographic story about the creation of Shakespeare´s romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet ends with a reference to Twelfth Night: On the departure of Lady Viola to her marriage with Lord Wessex, Shakespeare declares his eternal love to her which he intends to express in a new drama about a shipwrecked lady called Viola. – Viola: Gwyneth Paltrow

Twelfth Night, or What You Will (2003) – Directed by Tim Supple – Viola: Parminder Nagra

She's the Man (2006) – Directed by Andy Fickman – Viola: Amanda Bynes


  1. ^  
  2. ^ a b Viola (fictional character),, retrieved 2009-05-12 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Shakespeare Illustrated,  
  5. ^ Shakespeare Illustrated,  
  6. ^ Walter Howell Deverell, Twelfth Night (1850),  
  7. ^ Frederick Richard Pickersgill, Viola and the Countess (1859),  
  8. ^ Bundesarchiv - Picture database: Picture archive (in German), retrieved 2009-04-14 

External links

Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

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