Back to: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Olivia is the major character of the play whose beauty and its effects are described by Orsino in the very beginning scene of the play. She is a countess. Her features in the play are very close to that of Orsino.
Both of them are affected by the courtly nature of love developed in the Elizabethan age. The unreal description of devotion which Orsino gives is almost equal to the pretentious grief shown by Olivia while mourning for the death of her father and brother.
A captain describes her as “a virtuous maid, the daughter of a count.” It tells us of her social reputation. When Viola sees her, she says “I see you what you are, you are too proud: but if you are the devil, you are fair.”
It tells us of the real nature of her beauty. The tradition of courtly love taught people to dwell more in pretention of love than fall in real love. Olivia along with Orsino represents it perfectly.
Olivia values order and responsibility which is the reason that someone like Malvolio is supposed to be “appropriate as a servant” for her. She shows an unlikely kind of grief when she declares that she will mourn for seven years.
She portrays herself as a mute woman which saves her from the advances of Duke Orsino. Yet there is something deep in her that senses the personality of Viola (who is Cesario to her) and falls in love.
Although it is more of infatuation, the way it happens at very first sight yet we come to know that Olivia is not up for all that Orsino offers her but she can choose rather a servant without thinking of any social boundary.
She has wisdom in her. It is clear from the way she judges others who serve in her house. She has a natural sense of humor because she understands and tolerates the outrageous behaviors of Feste.
It is comic the way she finds Sebastian yet we understand that Sebastian and Viola are twins and share the same characteristics.
So, Olivia falling for Viola without knowing that she is a woman tells us that she is looking for essence rather than mere superficiality of Orsino. Yet, the character of Olivia is very much like Orsino when it comes to pretending one’s feelings.