Twelfth Night

by

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night: Foil 2 key examples

Read our modern English translation.
Foil
Explanation and Analysis—Viola's Male Foils:

Viola has several foils in Twelfth Night, the majority of whom are men. Numerous scenes throughout the play involve intimate interactions between Viola and Orsino, which serve to highlight their contrasting character traits. Orsino is a stark foil for Viola—where she is feminine, he is masculine; where she is young, he is old; and where she is without family or fortune in a strange country, he is the most influential man in Illyria. Most importantly, while Orsino's love for Olivia is incredibly performative, Viola's love for Orsino is genuine, and while Orsino makes a spectacle of his desire, Viola keeps hers hidden.

Another interesting foil for Viola is Malvolio, as both occupy similar positions in their respective households. Malvolio, as a steward, has more power than any of Olivia's other servants, and Viola, in the role of Cesario, is Orsino's most trusted attendant. Both characters also desire their employers in some way, but while Viola is genuinely in love with Orsino, Malvolio's interest in Olivia is based on a combination of lust and desire to advance his social position. And while Viola despairs of her love for Orsino, which she believes will never be requited, Malvolia requires very little convincing before he becomes extremely confident that Olivia is in love with him. Finally, despite her disguise, Viola is actually Orsino's equal in terms of social class, while Malvolio is merely a servant.

Antonio also serves as a foil for Viola, since he shows the same level of genuine affection and loyalty toward Sebastian as she does toward Orsino. But while Viola's love for Orsino is eventually requited once she reveals herself as a high-born woman, Antonio's homoerotic attraction toward Sebastian cannot be fulfilled.

Act 1, scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Viola's Female Foils:

While the majority of Viola's foils in Twelfth Night are men, she does have two notable female foils. Of the two, the most obvious is Olivia.

At the beginning of the play, both characters have recently lost a brother—Viola to a shipwreck and Olivia to some unspecified cause of death. But while Olivia's mourning for her brother, which she casts aside the moment she falls in love with Cesario, proves to be rather performative, Viola's grief over the loss of Sebastian is more deeply felt. Olivia seems overall more committed to maintaining the appearance of a grieving sister, but Viola's lamenting when she believes her brother to be dead and her hope when she learns that he may be alive are some of the most genuine shows of emotion in the entire play. The characters also differ in their reactions to grief: Viola is proactive and finds a position in Orsino's court, where she plans to stay until she feels ready to officially reenter society, while Olivia chooses to spurn society altogether.

When it comes to romance, Viola and Olivia face similar problems, all of which stem from the fact that Viola has disguised herself as a man. In her Act 2, Scene 2 soliloquy, Viola laments the impossibility of Olivia's love for her, which is just as hopeless as Viola's own love for Orsino:

Viola: My master loves her dearly,

And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,

And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.

What will become of this? As I am man,

My state is desperate for my master’s love.

As I am woman (now, alas the day!),

What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!

But while Viola is aware that her desire for Orsino cannot be consummated, Olivia is blissfully unaware that the man she loves is actually a woman—Viola is the deceiver, Olivia the deceived. As a result, Viola keeps her desire to herself, while Olivia actively pursues hers.

Maria also serves as a foil for Viola. Both women occupy similar positions in their respective households: Maria is Olivia's closest (and only) female companion, while Viola, in the role of Cesario, is Orsino's most trusted male servant. At different points in the play, both these women speak in the voice of their employer and essentially take on the identity of their master/mistress. In Act 1, Scene 5, Viola woos Olivia on Orsino's behalf, reciting declarations of love that Orsino has written:

Olivia: Where lies your text?

Viola: In Orsino's bosom

And in Act 2, Scene 3, Maria devises a plan to trick Malvolio by forging Olivia's handwriting:

Maria: I can write very like my

lady your niece; on a forgotten matter, we can

hardly make distinction of our hands.

But while Viola serves as a true friend to Orsino and genuinely desires his happiness, Maria involves Olivia in her plot without her consent or knowledge.

Maria's intimate relationship with Sir Toby Belch also parallels Viola's relationship with Orsino. Although Maria is merely a servant, Sir Toby views her as a friend and trusts her implicitly, just as Orsino views Viola as a valued confidante. By the end of the play, both women have successfully improved their social position by wedding a man of higher station: Maria marries Sir Toby, a lord, while Viola marries a duke.

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Act 2, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Viola's Female Foils:

While the majority of Viola's foils in Twelfth Night are men, she does have two notable female foils. Of the two, the most obvious is Olivia.

At the beginning of the play, both characters have recently lost a brother—Viola to a shipwreck and Olivia to some unspecified cause of death. But while Olivia's mourning for her brother, which she casts aside the moment she falls in love with Cesario, proves to be rather performative, Viola's grief over the loss of Sebastian is more deeply felt. Olivia seems overall more committed to maintaining the appearance of a grieving sister, but Viola's lamenting when she believes her brother to be dead and her hope when she learns that he may be alive are some of the most genuine shows of emotion in the entire play. The characters also differ in their reactions to grief: Viola is proactive and finds a position in Orsino's court, where she plans to stay until she feels ready to officially reenter society, while Olivia chooses to spurn society altogether.

When it comes to romance, Viola and Olivia face similar problems, all of which stem from the fact that Viola has disguised herself as a man. In her Act 2, Scene 2 soliloquy, Viola laments the impossibility of Olivia's love for her, which is just as hopeless as Viola's own love for Orsino:

Viola: My master loves her dearly,

And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,

And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.

What will become of this? As I am man,

My state is desperate for my master’s love.

As I am woman (now, alas the day!),

What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!

But while Viola is aware that her desire for Orsino cannot be consummated, Olivia is blissfully unaware that the man she loves is actually a woman—Viola is the deceiver, Olivia the deceived. As a result, Viola keeps her desire to herself, while Olivia actively pursues hers.

Maria also serves as a foil for Viola. Both women occupy similar positions in their respective households: Maria is Olivia's closest (and only) female companion, while Viola, in the role of Cesario, is Orsino's most trusted male servant. At different points in the play, both these women speak in the voice of their employer and essentially take on the identity of their master/mistress. In Act 1, Scene 5, Viola woos Olivia on Orsino's behalf, reciting declarations of love that Orsino has written:

Olivia: Where lies your text?

Viola: In Orsino's bosom

And in Act 2, Scene 3, Maria devises a plan to trick Malvolio by forging Olivia's handwriting:

Maria: I can write very like my

lady your niece; on a forgotten matter, we can

hardly make distinction of our hands.

But while Viola serves as a true friend to Orsino and genuinely desires his happiness, Maria involves Olivia in her plot without her consent or knowledge.

Maria's intimate relationship with Sir Toby Belch also parallels Viola's relationship with Orsino. Although Maria is merely a servant, Sir Toby views her as a friend and trusts her implicitly, just as Orsino views Viola as a valued confidante. By the end of the play, both women have successfully improved their social position by wedding a man of higher station: Maria marries Sir Toby, a lord, while Viola marries a duke.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 2, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Viola's Female Foils:

While the majority of Viola's foils in Twelfth Night are men, she does have two notable female foils. Of the two, the most obvious is Olivia.

At the beginning of the play, both characters have recently lost a brother—Viola to a shipwreck and Olivia to some unspecified cause of death. But while Olivia's mourning for her brother, which she casts aside the moment she falls in love with Cesario, proves to be rather performative, Viola's grief over the loss of Sebastian is more deeply felt. Olivia seems overall more committed to maintaining the appearance of a grieving sister, but Viola's lamenting when she believes her brother to be dead and her hope when she learns that he may be alive are some of the most genuine shows of emotion in the entire play. The characters also differ in their reactions to grief: Viola is proactive and finds a position in Orsino's court, where she plans to stay until she feels ready to officially reenter society, while Olivia chooses to spurn society altogether.

When it comes to romance, Viola and Olivia face similar problems, all of which stem from the fact that Viola has disguised herself as a man. In her Act 2, Scene 2 soliloquy, Viola laments the impossibility of Olivia's love for her, which is just as hopeless as Viola's own love for Orsino:

Viola: My master loves her dearly,

And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,

And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.

What will become of this? As I am man,

My state is desperate for my master’s love.

As I am woman (now, alas the day!),

What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!

But while Viola is aware that her desire for Orsino cannot be consummated, Olivia is blissfully unaware that the man she loves is actually a woman—Viola is the deceiver, Olivia the deceived. As a result, Viola keeps her desire to herself, while Olivia actively pursues hers.

Maria also serves as a foil for Viola. Both women occupy similar positions in their respective households: Maria is Olivia's closest (and only) female companion, while Viola, in the role of Cesario, is Orsino's most trusted male servant. At different points in the play, both these women speak in the voice of their employer and essentially take on the identity of their master/mistress. In Act 1, Scene 5, Viola woos Olivia on Orsino's behalf, reciting declarations of love that Orsino has written:

Olivia: Where lies your text?

Viola: In Orsino's bosom

And in Act 2, Scene 3, Maria devises a plan to trick Malvolio by forging Olivia's handwriting:

Maria: I can write very like my

lady your niece; on a forgotten matter, we can

hardly make distinction of our hands.

But while Viola serves as a true friend to Orsino and genuinely desires his happiness, Maria involves Olivia in her plot without her consent or knowledge.

Maria's intimate relationship with Sir Toby Belch also parallels Viola's relationship with Orsino. Although Maria is merely a servant, Sir Toby views her as a friend and trusts her implicitly, just as Orsino views Viola as a valued confidante. By the end of the play, both women have successfully improved their social position by wedding a man of higher station: Maria marries Sir Toby, a lord, while Viola marries a duke.

Unlock with LitCharts A+