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Act I, Scene 2
The scene shifts to the coast of Illyria where Viola and her brother, Sebastian have been shipwrecked. While Viola has been saved by the Captain of the ship, she can only hope that Sebastian is safe as well. The Captain informs Viola that there is a slim chance that Sebastian has survived since he saw him being borne away at sea. He then tells her that she is in Illyria and discusses Duke Orsino, the ruler of Illyria, his love for Olivia, and Olivia's life of seclusion. Viola has heard of the Duke from her father but she is more intrigued with Olivia. Though she would like to work for Olivia because of their similar recent losses, she decides to disguise herself as a eunuch, and work for Duke Orsino, entertaining him and whatever else to ingratiate herself in his household. The captain helps her in her plan.
In this scene one of Shakespeare’s substantive comedic elements comes into play, that of mistaken identity. The scene introduces Viola - the main character of the play--while also mentioning her brother Sebastian, which prepares the reader for the introduction of him later. Her decision to "conceal what I am" and disguise herself as a pageboy is the basis of the main action of the play and provides much of the wit and double entendres and verbal fireworks of the play.
Viola is a total stranger to Illyria yet she does not lose courage. Her ability to rise above the present tragic circumstances and think clearly about the future reveals a practical and strong character. She is intelligent, talented and above all resourceful. The mention of Olivia creates a mental image of her beauty and virtue. Typical of Shakespeare, he introduces the audience to a main character without actually introducing her in person until later. The audience is thus prepared to meet a beautiful and virtuous lady.
On the surface, there is an element of similarity between Olivia and Viola. Both mourn their brothers' loss, both are alone in the world, and both are virgins. In fact, Viola's disguise and Olivia's self-assumed cloister are their individual ways of coping with loss yet these two women are very different: Viola want to become part of the world again while Olivia’s desire is to distance herself. Viola also needs to survive and her best strategy is to find employment despite her noble background and protect her virtue in an alien environment. Hence, she becomes a boy, using her practicality as well as intelligence to play with her newly acquired gender. On the other hand, Olivia wallows in her grief, isolating herself which can also be a protective measure against the constant overtures of Orsino, whom it is clear she has no interest in. The Captain's role is to introduce her to the Duke and help her in securing a job in his Court.