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ENGL100A Lecture Notes - Malvolio, Puritans, Melodrama

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Diana Parry

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Analysis of Major Characters
Like most of Shakespeare’s heroines, Viola is a tremendously likable figure. She has no serious faults,
and we can easily discount the peculiarity of her decision to dress as a man, since it sets the entire plot
in motion. She is the character whose love seems the purest. The other characters’ passions are fickle:
Orsino jumps from Olivia to Viola, Olivia jumps from Viola to Sebastian, and Sir Toby and Maria’s
marriage seems more a matter of whim than an expression of deep and abiding passion. Only Viola
seems to be truly, passionately in love as opposed to being self-indulgently lovesick. As she says to
Orsino, describing herself and her love for him:
She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
The audience, like Orsino, can only answer with an emphatic yes.
Viola’s chief problem throughout the play is one of identity. Because of her disguise, she must be both
herself and Cesario. This mounting identity crisis culminates in the final scene, when Viola finds herself
surrounded by people who each have a different idea of who she is and are unaware of who she actually
is. Were Twelfth Night not a comedy, this pressure might cause Viola to break down. Sebastian’s
appearance at this point, however, effectively saves Viola by allowing her to be herself again. Sebastian,
who independent of his sister is not much of a character, takes over the aspects of Viola’s disguise that
she no longer wishes to maintain. Thus liberated by her brother, Viola is free to shed the roles that she
has accumulated throughout the play, and she can return to being Viola, the woman who has loved and
won Orsino.
Orsino and Olivia
Orsino and Olivia are worth discussing together, because they have similar personalities. Both claim to
be buffeted by strong emotions, but both ultimately seem to be self-indulgent individuals who enjoy
melodrama and self-involvement more than anything. When we first meet them, Orsino is pining away
for love of Olivia, while Olivia pines away for her dead brother. They show no interest in relating to the
outside world, preferring to lock themselves up with their sorrows and mope around their homes.
Viola’s arrival begins to break both characters out of their self-involved shells, but neither undergoes a
clear-cut change. Orsino relates to Viola in a way that he never has to Olivia, diminishing his self-
involvement and making him more likable. Yet he persists in his belief that he is in love with Olivia until
the final scene, in spite of the fact that he never once speaks to her during the course of the play. Olivia,
meanwhile, sets aside her grief when Viola (disguised as Cesario) comes to see her. But Olivia takes up
her own fantasy of lovesickness, in which she pines awaywith a self-indulgence that mirrors Orsino’s—
for a man who is really a woman. Ultimately, Orsino and Olivia seem to be out of touch with real
emotion, as demonstrated by the ease with which they shift their affections in the final sceneOrsino
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