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Shakespeare & Beyond

Judi Dench's take on Viola in Shakespeare's Twelth Night

Excerpt: Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench and Brendan O’Hea

a young Judi Dench wearing an Elizabethan collar
a young Judi Dench wearing an Elizabethan collar

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the main character, Viola, finding herself in a strange country and believing her brother dead, disguises herself as a man and goes to serve Duke Orsino. He sends her to woo the lady Olivia on his behalf, although Olivia has already rejected him. What’s going through Viola’s head as she talks with Olivia in this scene? In the excerpt below, Dame Judi Dench gives us the inside scoop from an actor’s perspective.

Viola is one of the many Shakespearean roles Dame Judi Dench reflects on in her newly published book, Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent, recalling a seven-decade career through a series of intimate conversations with actor and director Brendan O’Hea.

This excerpt shares a back-and-forth between Judi Dench and Brendan O’Hea about her take on Viola, who she played in the 1969 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Twelth Night. (Brendan O’Hea’s questions and prompts are in italics.)

Judi Dench - Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent


How do you play a ‘breeches’ part? How do you portray a man?

The words do most of the work, the costume is vital, and the audience fill in the gaps as they know who you really are. You think about posture, of course, but you mustn’t push it too far or it becomes cartoonish. Remember the character is undercover and must be careful not to stick out from the crowd. If you start striding about trying to be ‘mannish’ that may give the game away.

What did you wear as Cesario?

I had a ruff, and a doublet and hose, which was olive-green velvet. And a tall Elizabethan hat with a wide brim and an ostrich feather. And also a pair of rather fetching thigh boots.

Before her encounter with Olivia, it’s reported that Viola (now Cesario, but let’s continue to call her Viola) has been ‘saucy at the gates’ and is refusing to leave until she’s met the Countess. She’s tenacious, isn’t she?

She has to be. This is her first big assignment – she can’t go back to Orsino having failed. no matter how many people try to get rid of her, Viola refuses to budge, and in the end Olivia is forced to admit her into her house.

Olivia’s also intrigued – she wants to take a good look at this pushy ‘young fellow’ who stands up to everybody.

Viola bursts in, and there are no niceties. She’s straight in with: ‘The honourable lady of the house, which is she?’ Does Viola know which one Olivia is?

Depends how they’re all dressed. At the RSC, Olivia and her gentlewomen all wore veils, so I had no idea who anybody was.

But regardless of whether Viola recognises Olivia, it is an impertinent question: ‘The honourable lady of the house, which is she?’ It’s very front foot. But then Viola doesn’t want to waste her speech on the wrong person, she’s spent too long learning it. Also, she must be unsettled by the situation. She’s never done this sort of thing before. And whilst waiting outside the gates, she’s been mocked and roughed up by Olivia’s people – her steward, maid and her uncle.

At the end of the previous scene, Viola expressed a wish to be Orsino’s wife. Is there a pang of jealousy on Viola’s part, a feeling of rivalry, perhaps, now that she and Olivia are finally alone together?

She’s certainly curious to see Olivia, and jealousy may be part of it but it’s not uppermost: Viola doesn’t think she’s actually in the running with Orsino.

When Olivia removes her veil, however, something alters: Viola suddenly realises why Orsino is in love with this woman. And the language goes into blank verse, which highlights the change in feeling:

’Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.
Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.

There’s real anger there – anger on Orsino’s behalf. How can the stunningly beautiful Olivia go to her grave without wanting children? (It’s a theme Shakespeare also explores in the sonnets.)

Up until this moment, their scene together has been in prose, but now we’re in blank verse.

Yes, we’ve moved on from the repartee and verbal swordplay, and on to a bit of off-the-cuff truth. The words are no longer considered and rehearsed as they were before, but blurted out. She didn’t prepare that ‘’Tis beauty truly blent’ speech on the way there.

Does blank verse up the ante, increase the stakes?

It somehow focuses you, doesn’t it? It’s a real statement.

Giles Block at Shakespeare’s Globe says that blank verse is the sound of sincerity.

Oh, that’s a wonderful observation. Sincerity, yes. It kind of solidifies – it’s plain speaking, straight from the heart, unfiltered.

And Viola’s sincerity forces Olivia to open up. Olivia is unequivocal about her feelings for Orsino: ‘Your lord does know my mind, I cannot love him.’ It’s like a conversation between two women – which it is, of course, but Olivia isn’t aware of that. It seems very honest, as if Olivia’s confiding in a friend. And it’s Viola’s manner that has elicited that from her.

When Olivia asks Viola how she herself would go about wooing, Viola replies:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’

The speech starts by referring to Olivia, but then gradually flips over into Viola’s feelings for Orsino. Viola takes herself to that place – gets caught up in her own yearning for Orsino, which unwittingly bursts out of her. Because how else would you answer in that way? It’s so poetic and passionate, it’s such a ravishing speech.

And is it just a coincidence that Olivia and Orsino begin with the letter ‘O’? When Viola says: ‘And make the babbling gossip of the air / Cry out ’ could Viola be about to say Orsino instead of Olivia?

Could be – I hadn’t thought of that. What’s certain is that by the end of Viola’s speech, Olivia is smitten – so much so that she’s enquiring about Viola’s parentage. Olivia’s obviously weighing up the marriage prospects.

But Viola is ready to leave. Her parting shot to Olivia is pretty savage:

Love make his heart of flint that you shall love,
And let your fervour like my master’s be
Placed in contempt. Farewell, fair cruelty.

Viola is so hurt by the whole situation – because she hasn’t achieved what Orsino sent her out to do. She’s now got to go back and tell him that Olivia doesn’t want anything to do with him, and that’s hardly going to endear him to Viola.

From Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench. Copyright (c) 2024 by the author, and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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