Posted by: jordanelassonde | December 3, 2014

Veils and Gazes

Viola (Cesario): Good madam, let me see your face.

Olivia: Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate with my face? You are now out of your text. But we will draw the curtain and show you the picture.

(She unveils)

Look you, sir, such a one I was this present. Is’t not well done?

Viola: Excellently done, if God did all.

I read Twelfth Night for the first time this semester in my Shakespeare class. The above exchange between Olivia and Viola, at the moment dressed as a man, reminded me of our first class when we read Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” We had an interesting discussion about the control of gaze in the unveiling of the Duchess’s portrait. Though it was quite some time ago, I think our discussion centered around the idea of ownership and possession, that the Duke was exerting his power over his dead Duchess by controlling who could see her portrait.

I found the same theme in this scene of Twelfth Night. Olivia, mourning her brother’s death, veiled her face, controlling who could look upon her. As opposed to “My Last Duchess,” here the woman has control of the gaze, control of the veil. Olivia also compares herself with a portrait, asking if the painting was well done. Viola replies that it is, if it was natural. I wonder what it means that Olivia compares herself to a portrait. Is she suggesting that portraits and their subjects are interchangeable? Or is she making some statement, assuming that there is some degree of difference between portraits and their subjects, that she, as a portrait, is somewhat less than her actual self or in some way constructed.

I also find it interesting that though Olivia believes that she unveiling herself to a man, she is in fact unveiling herself to another women. Throughout the semester we have continually returned to the concept of the power of the gaze. I wonder just what it means that Olivia does not reveal herself to her intended audience.

I am curious too, if anyone has any ideas about the meaning of a veil. Here are a few images of the unveiling in Twelfth Night.

olivia1PAD Twelfth Night S14220px-Charles_Robert_Leslie,_Olivia


  1. I’ve never read Twelfth Night, although I have seen it performed, so I can’t really speak confidently about Olivia and Viola/Cesario, but I did want to comment regarding your closing question about veils, Jordan. I’ll have to admit I cheated a little bit, having (as a result of my final paper) a book at hand about symbolism in art which states that veils are “the attribute of medieval chastity personified”. While I’m sure that’s to a certain degree true – and certainly interesting given that Olivia raises her veils and subsequently falls in love with Cesario – I think there are deeper and perhaps more interesting depths to be explored.
    My first semester here I took a class about modern and classical tragedy, and one of the subjects we touched on was veils and how they obscure the vision, not just the viewer’s but also the wearer’s. They’re a physical boundary between the wearer and the rest of the world and that definitely has connotations about sight and recognition and realization. It’s an interesting point you brought up about Olivia believing she is unveiling herself to a man, especially when you consider the “lifting of the veil” to be symbolic of new clarity of sight. Olivia hasn’t gained new clarity of sight – by lifting the veil she’s in fact just opened the curtain on her immersion in a massive illusion (ie, being in love with Cesario). At the same time, lifting the veil might perhaps symbolizes emergence into a new world view – moving from immersion in death and grief for her brother to interest in life and love for Cesario?

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