More than any other cross-dressing character, Viola embraces both of her genders.
She also complicates notions of attraction more than other cross-dressing characters.
Yet, she tells us, “I my brother know yet living in my glass”; her reflection in a mirror now looks like her brother.
She makes up for the loss of her brother by taking on a male persona patterned after him—trying to be both, a psychological behavior of a surviving twin which Shakespeare may have even witnessed in his own daughter.
While being a man alone in the world is just more practical, Viola’s choice to shift genders connects to her loss and gives her a much more profound motivation to her cross-dressing than other gender-shifting comic heroines in Shakespeare.
She does not call herself “Sebastian,” after her brother; perhaps that would be too painful.When s/he arrives, Cesario has a set speech, a rehearsed part that s/he plans to deliver to Olivia in an effort to win her love for Orsino.It’s not until Cesario goes off-script, speaking as him/herself that Olivia is moved.She does this by translating her gender, by becoming Cesario.The story takes place in Illyria—a place of emotional disconnection and dysfunction.As dramaturg Alison Carey notes, nearly every scene in this play opens with a question or a comment about wanting or wondering or both. ” “If music be the food of love, play on,” etc.) The question “why can’t you love me back? Questions of desire, love, and loss come from a deep place in this story—and I think that has something to do with Shakespeare’s own experience.Shakespeare was the father of twins, a boy and a girl, and perhaps this is why he embraces notions of twins and twinning so obviously in his plays.As I am a woman…what thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe.” Her ability to be both genders allows her to voice the mixture of joy and anguish that desire provokes in this play.Another echo of unrequited love appears in the pairing of Antonio and Sebastian.Like Olivia, she also mourns her brother, but that loss inspires compassion for Olivia.Viola’s emotional energy does not isolate her but rather actively connects her to other people—so perhaps it’s not surprising that she inspires friendship in one and love in the other. As Cesario, she can be Orsino’s confidant but not his wife; she inspires romantic love but from Olivia rather than from Orsino.