Viola and Beatrice both take on men's roles, Viola that of a manservant and Beatrice that of the perpetual bachelor and the clown: "I was born to speak all mirth and no matter," she says to Don Pedro [II.i.343-4]. They appear to be actors and manipulators, much more so than their female predecessors, who are mostly reactive and manipulated, such as Hermia, Helena, Titania, and Gertrude. None of these women seemed in charge of her own destiny, but tricked by the schemes of men and later scorned or humiliated as a result of male machinations. Viola and Beatrice, although they both seem fiercely independent and comfortable in a man's world, reveal themselves to have only the trappings of manhood, and not its full capacity for action. They are undone by unrequited love, made desperately unhappy by their inability to woo the man of their choosing. In the end, it is only coincidence and the plotting of other characters that bring the true nature of their affections into the open and thus force the plays to their respective matrimonial conclusions.
Beatrice is deceived by Hero and the others, but the nature of deception is not on a par with the scheming of Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Claudius in Hamlet. The supposedly false premise on which Don Pedro's plot against Beatrice is based -- Benedick's passionate love for her -- is later uncovered as truth, and Beatrice is not made to look like a fool for her misapprehensions in the same way that, for example, Titania was. Viola is disconcerted at being confused with Sebastian in Twelfth Night's final acts, but this confusion is not one plotted by men. She and Beatrice remain two of Shakespeare's few undeceived women.
Beatrice lives the jocular life of a bachelor man, but will not take on the "man's office" of killing Claudio. In the same way, Viola wishes to retain the freedom and anonymity that life as a man grants her, but balks when it comes to drawing swords. Both attempt rely on the subtler feminine tools at their disposal instead of steel, but in doing so confine themselves to the frailer role of woman. Beatrice maneuvers Benedick into promising to right Hero, and Viola attempts to talk her way out of a swordfight.
Viola complains of women's frailty [II.ii.32-3] with respect to Olivia, but her own weakness also prevents her from taking direct action to undo the love triangle in which she has become a corner. She concludes the scene with, "O time! thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me to untie!" [41-2] Beatrice and Viola both have a hard time untying the knots they have made, although they are not the victims of manipulation in the same manner that Shakespeare's other women have heretofore been. Viola does not wait for anyone to rescue her at the shipyard, but hatches her own scheme to go underground into the...