Critical Analysis of Soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Hi everyone!  I’m really sorry about this huge gap in posts, sixth form life has not been nice.  Anyway, in the spirit of school I decided to come back with a literature post to help anyone who’s studying this book, since we recently finished doing it in class.  It focuses mainly on Viola’s soliloquy at the end of Act 2, Sc.2 in the play.  Hope this helps.


Viola’s main soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 2 emphasizes her role as a character who occupies a liminal space, in her case the space between being male and female. Viola is a girl who has dressed as a boy in order to find her lost twin from whom she was separated in a shipwreck. She enters service to the Duke Orsino as his page. It is in this occupation, acting in the role of a go-between for him and Olivia that she manages to win the heart of Olivia, Orsino’s beloved. However, Olivia thinks she is falling for Cesario, Viola’s male alter ego. Viola finds this out when she is given a ring by Olivia through Malvolio, under the pretext that Orsino sent it for Olivia. This incident triggers the soliloquy at the end of the scene.

In her soliloquy, Viola laments the fact that she has won the affections of Olivia in her disguise, because she knows Olivia will ultimately be hurt. Her guilt in the soliloquy is evident; she is guilty because Olivia has fallen in love with someone who does not exist and ‘she were better love a dream.’ An element of confusion is also present, since the soliloquy introduces the “love triangle” to the audience. This consists of Orsino who loves Olivia, who loves Cesario/Viola, who has fallen in love with her master Orsino. This element of confusion brings anticipation and intrigue to the audience who is eager to see how this unfortunate situation will play out. Confusion like this is often the result of appearances not being aligned with reality, a common theme in Shakespearean drama. The soliloquy highlights this disparity through Viola’s use of the word “Disguise” since she is disguised to resemble a boy (appearance) though she is a girl (reality). Viola also laments the fact that the “proper false” can easily win the hearts of women and break them. In this case, Viola’s disguise as a handsome youth has won Olivia’s heart, but since the “youth” is actually a girl, nothing can come of Olivia’s feelings. In addition to building excitement in the play, the soliloquy makes the audience aware of Viola’s feelings and the inner turmoil she faces; her guilt at having deceived Olivia and her frustration with the confusion that her disguise has caused. The purpose of a soliloquy is to give insight into the feelings and inner thoughts of characters, and as such this one has fulfilled its purpose quite well.

One device integral to the plot that s featured in this soliloquy is the rhyming couplet at the end of it. This couplet reads “O time, thou must untangle this not I;/ It is too hard a knot for me to untie.“ Rhyming couplets are often used to add a sense of finality to a scene or speech; the inflection of the actor’s voice as they read it implies a closure or ceasure of speech. This couplet features the use of both pun and imagery to further add to the audience’s anticipation of the resolution of the play. The pun is seen in “…untangle this not…” and “…a knot…” which plays on the similar sounding words not and knot. The use of “knot” is particularly effective as it calls to mind a tangled mess, which represents the situation that Viola is in. It is too hard for her to “untie” or rectify, so she hopes out loud that the situation will improve with time.

Many language devices are used to enhance the soliloquy, including imagery and caesura. Imagery is used to highlight the impressionable nature of women’s hearts in the use of “waxen hearts” by Viola. This imagery is effective because wax is a malleable and fragile substance, easily changed and easily destroyed. Viola draws this comparison between wax and a woman’s heart in that Olivia fell in love very quickly with Cesario, much like wax can be easily manipulated, and Olivia’s heart much like wax will be easily broken because she fell in love too quickly with someone who cannot return her feelings. The caesura seen in “As I am woman (now alas the day!)” is effective because the interruption of Viola’s regular speech pattern helps to demonstrate how much her mind is racing due to her conflicting emotions. It helps the audience to sympathize with her predicament, as she is understandably overwhelmed by the confusion created by her disguise.


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