Who is Viola? What is She?

  • Gary Taylor


In asking how or by what means a fiction approximates fact, it is necessary to define the real. The art critic, confronting a painting, can bring to bear a number of facts about the nature of the visual world: the law of perspective, the known structure of the human anatomy, the refraction of light through water. In the case of a portrait or a landscape, he may even be able to compare the painting with the place, or with a photograph of the sitter. By such means he can analyse how the image of the painter reflects or distorts known features of the physical world. The literary critic lacks such guidelines. To compare Shakespeare’s Caesar with the Caesar of his sources, or the Caesar of modern historians, does not tell us whether or why the character is dramatically convincing (though it may tell us something about Shakespeare’s interpretation of him). But, even if such comparisons were useful with historical figures, with fictions such as Viola even they are denied us. Where the art critic refers to anatomy, the literary critic, attempting an anatomy of mind, can refer only to the sciences of psychology; however, attempts to make use of psychological models usually, for a variety of reasons, fail.


Natural Speech Lightning Flash Final Scene Moral Disapproval Practical Joke 
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  2. 2.
    As G. E. Bentley points out in Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared, 2 vols (1945) I, 128, neither the romantic comedies nor any of Shakespeare’s female characters attracted much praise later in the seventeenth century: his brand of romantic comedy was considered old-fashioned, and the female roles are usually rather small, easily upstaged by comic characters such as Malvolio. Since the eighteenth century, however, Viola’s theatrical and critical reputation has not been in doubt.Google Scholar
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    John Dover Wilson argued that Viola originally sang the song, and that Feste was substituted in a subsequent revival, in which there was no boy actor available for Viola’s role who could sing: see his New Shakespeare edn (1949) pp. 91–5. Like most recent editors I find this implausible: see the new Arden edn, pp. xvii–xxiii.Google Scholar
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    Dowden defended the character in a similar way, as a ‘piece of higher art’, Shakespeare showing ‘the dramatic inconsistency of his characters’. Granville Barker replied, ‘If this were so the thing would still be very clumsily done. What means is the actor given of showing that this is a dramatic inconsistency?’ — Prefaces to Shakespeare (1958) II, 376.Google Scholar

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© Gary Taylor 1985

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  • Gary Taylor

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