cypress, not a bosom, hides my heart”: Olivia’s Veiled Conversions
Amy L. Smith, Kalamazoo College, and Elizabeth Hodgson,
University of British Columbia
Amy L. Smith and Elizabeth Hodgson. '“A cypress, not a bosom, hides my heart”: Olivia’s Veiled Conversions'. Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10). <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/olivveil.htm>.
Figure 1. (Click image for a higher-resolution version).
Figure 2. (Click image for a higher-resolution version).
- These two late
eighteenth/early nineteenth-century artworks
depicting Twelfth Night’s Olivia display Olivia’s self-concealment,
representing her veiling as an act rich with competing meanings. Edmund Blair
Leighton’s portrait (Fig. 1)
makes visible the interpretive challenge Shakespeare’s character poses. In it,
Olivia stands in front of a gold brocade wall hanging; decorated in jewels to
suggest her economic independence, her hands pull back her black veil. Her
right hand, as well as the wall hanging, is visible through its fabric
(cypress?), both hidden and revealed. Olivia’s face is as solemn as her black
gown, but her gaze is direct and unconcealed. Her semi-disguise suggests both
her value and her autonomy.
- The engraving by
Thomas Ryder (Fig. 2),
suggests another cultural reading of Olivia’s veiling. Ryder turns Olivia into
a sexual commodity, implying her seductive value through her flirtatious gaze.
While her hand rests on a skull (a memento mori of sorts), her veil is
white and flowing, as if to suggest a virginal maiden. Simultaneously, though,
her tightly corseted dress and slightly spread legs suggest a certain
uncontainable sexuality. A curtain is pulled back above her, revealing not
only the panoramic outdoor view of her garden, but also Olivia herself—she is
her own portrait.
- These turn of the twentieth century works reiterate particular
cultural notions of how female characters should be displayed or hidden, clothed
or unclothed. They also illustrate specific early modern anxieties about the
veiled woman, with her (in)visibility, her hidden sexuality, her social
containment or lack thereof, and her uneasy associations with mourning’s erotic
potential. While the Renaissance Englishwoman (nun, maiden, widow) is
repeatedly adjured to dress chastely, her very hiddenness and seclusion also
seem to make her a frequent object of intense suspicion and the subject of
excited amorous pursuit.
- This cultural
fascination with the veiled female face is evident in Vives’s popular conduct
book The Instruction of a Christen Woman
which is replete with images (literal and metaphoric) of veiling: “She can
not be chaste that is not ashamed: for that is as a cover and a vaylle of her
face. For when nature had ordyned that our faces shulde be covered and that
for a great commendation, that who so dyd loke upon it shulde understande some
great vertue to be under that cover” (51). Veiling herself in shame is the
only way for a woman to assure onlookers of her chastity—virtue can exist only
under cover. Vives, however, is equally adamant that “going under cover” can
suggest only a lack of virtue: “Let women use no faynyng nor clokyng, to seme
good with all: nor let them nat think that they can cloke, or els change the
nature of things: the couterfete is not lyke the very thynge, the covered and
shadowed is feble and unsure, and shal be at laste open and knowen” (50).
Vives vacillates between the desire for women to be veiled and for them to be
uncloaked because he is caught in this ambivalent cultural ideology of la
femme couverte and la femme découverte.
- Given the
complex valences of a covered woman, it is not surprising that the veiled nun,
widow, or maiden is a common figure not only in conduct-books like Vives’s, but
also in early modern drama. This figure has subsequently been imagined much of
late in the critical realm.
But her characterization (innocence and shame coexist even in the covered
woman) offers competing narratives that serve both to confirm and challenge her currency. This is particularly true in Twelfth
Night. All of the comedy’s deliberate plays with the sartorial markers of
widowhood and/or chaste seclusion suggest that Shakespeare’s drama appears to
be taking some issue with the fascinatingly contradictory cultural narrative of
untouchability, especially through the character of the Lady Olivia who is so
complicatedly marked as a veiled object of desire. For despite her
associations, Shakespeare’s Olivia avoids becoming either a representative of
the lusty widow as figured in multiple widow hunt dramas of the early
seventeenth century or the equally conventional chaste vowess of maidenhood;
rather, Twelfth Night engages in some quite
startling play of its own, making Olivia a nun, a widow, and a maiden in
ways which authorize her to veil and unveil her desires for economic and erotic
independence. When Olivia veils herself, her character invokes the power of
conventional seclusion for women of the period and the English past. When her
grief converts to amorous desire, but without the usual reprisals or subjection
to masculine authority, Shakespeare remakes the lusty-widow narrative. And
when she stage-manages her own marriage-choices, Shakespeare’s Olivia remodels
the economic exchange of maidenhood. In moving Olivia among these roles
without comment or narrative punishment, in replacing one veil with an
unveiling and then with another veiling and unveiling, Shakespeare makes Olivia
into a figure unexpectedly clothed with more than her picture might suggest.
- Olivia is,
unlike Riche’s original Juliana, a “virtuous maid” who “hath abjured the sight and
company of men” (1.2.36-7).
Olivia’s seclusion thus involves an active withdrawal from the world of men—a
world where perhaps her status leaves her vulnerable. Her veiling, and her
seclusion, suggest to others in the play that she is a kind of “cloistress,”
not least because veiling was so clearly associated with nuns; the veil is
defined as a “a piece of linen or other material forming part of the
distinctive head-dress of a nun.” “To take the veil” is shorthand for to
“become a nun/ to enter a convent or nunnery” (OED). Taking the veil was
a material symbol of a spiritual and bodily change—“the transition of that body
from abject tissue to a clean and empty vessel to be filled with spiritual
power. To take the veil was, in a way, to disappear . . . [it] screens the
body from others and from itself, attempting to make it vanish from view.” 
Certainly some women did not take the veil of their own volition but were
pressured into monastic life as a way of “defending” family property against
the “fertility of excess daughters.”
Such pressure is evinced by Theseus’s and Egeus’s view in A Midsummer Night’s
Dream: “yield . . . to your father’s choice, . . . or endure the livery of
a nun” (1.1), both choices implying subservience of the daughter’s fertility to
the father’s will (“yield” or “endure . . . livery”). As Margaret King
suggests, “nunneries fulfilled for prudently managed families, the role for
which they were intended: to house females for whom there was no other
convenient role.” 
In this scenario, nunneries provide women with a role chosen for them by male
“vanishing,” however, often seems beneficial to the women themselves. Hermia
certainly prefers chastity to a forced marriage:
Hermia deliberately confuses her “lords”
(husband? father?), resisting them both in explicitly political language
“patent”). She prefers not to be patent—shown or revealed—to whom she does not
choose. Perhaps for Hermia, as for some of the early modern women King
studies, the convents were, “of those settings available, the one most
favorable to female autonomy.”
It is possible then to read veiling as a choice that allowed some women to
remove themselves, to vanish from sexual circulation/marriage.
Veiling, like the cloistering it resonates with, implies “freedom not
When Viola longs to “serve that lady” in her self-created convent, she too
responds to this desire for private autonomy: “O that I . . . might not be
delivered to the world / Till I had made mine own occasion mellow, / What my
estate is!” (1.2). Viola, like her proposed mistress Olivia, seeks to delay and
manage her “deliver[y] to the world.”
So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord,
Ere I will yield my virgin patent up
Unto his lordship, whose unwished yoke
My soul consents not to give sovereignty. (1.1.79-82)
- Twelfth Night makes Olivia a rather unconventionally autonomous nun: her
seclusion is self-appointed, with a “terminus” of seven years rather than a
lifetime, in a lavishly appointed and rather unascetic convent. Much criticism
on Olivia suggests that her nun-like veiling is a passive “indifference to the
outside world”; her isolation, A.B. Taylor imagines, is that of a “bored,”
“proud,” “vain,” “self-centered” woman.
This oddly and tellingly judgmental reading of Olivia’s character seems
deliberately to ignore the functional character of her veiled isolation, the
control Shakespeare allows this character over her relationship with the rather
obvious pressures of the outside world and the protection and autonomy he
grants her within it.
- Indeed, within
the context of veiling as an alternative to marriage—either through celibacy or
rule of one’s own household as a ‘widow’—Olivia’s veiled absence specifically
manages the many overt masculine attempts at “sovereignty” over her in the play.
Clothing, Susan Vincent argues, could play a role in communicating one’s
desires: “The sartorial project, although begun in private, generated most
meaning when viewed by others”;
Olivia’s veiling is just such a public “sartorial project” that specifically
allows her to limit Orsino’s access to her, and many of the descriptions of
Olivia’s isolation are aligned with her rejection of him. Tellingly, it is
when Orsino asks Valentine what news he has from Olivia that Olivia is
described as a nun:
itself till seven years’ heat
Shall not behold
her face at ample view,
But like a
cloistress she will veiled walk
And water once a
day her chamber round
eye-offending brine—all this to season
A brother’s dead
- This image of Olivia’s veiling suggests her
seclusion in a religious community, a cloistering which offers explicit
reprieve from her status as eligible single woman pursued by Orsino. Olivia
has managed to perform the role of a “veiled” “cloistress”—a role which
protects her chastity, isolating her from Orsino’s self-absorbed desires and
enclosing her in a cloister of her own making. And while the fool ironically
tells her that “cucullus non facit monachum” (1.5.48-9), in her case the
“cucullus” signals just that.
- The image of Olivia seasoning “a dead
brother’s love” also suggests of course Olivia’s association with widowhood,
especially widowhood as a site where the “uncovered woman’s” sorrows and
desires intersect. The fascinating contradiction in the above passage between
Olivia’s “eye-offending” saltiness, which would wither her beauty, and the
“watering” of her sorrow, suggests that what she might “preserve” (her
brother’s memory, her own privacy and singleness) through salting is also her
means to remain “fresh” (“fresh in murmur”; “fresh in love”). Twelfth Night
as a whole is replete with the slippage between mourning and desire: when
Orsino thinks threnodies inspire desire (“Come away, come away death”); when
Viola emerges in clothes reminiscent of her brother’s (her own version of a
mourning garment perhaps) only to become “sick” for a beard—but not her
brother’s; when Feste’s love-song invokes the morbid carpe diem trope
(“youth’s a stuff will not endure”); when the romances are concluded with a
song about falling rain; and, most dramatically, when Olivia abandons her
veiled sorrow to choose her own love-object. Stephen Greenblatt, Valerie
Traub, Casey Charles and others have identified the malleability of desire
within the play in terms of hetero- or homosexual normativity (the “bias of nature”). They
have charted the interchangeability of masculine and feminine love-objects in
the play and read these as either a challenge to or a restatement of
masculinist or heterosexual norms.
But the play considers the malleability not of desire in a general sense but
specifically, as it engenders and is engendered by grief and mourning. The
gendered ideologies linking hiddenness, desire, and mourning in the play are
fundamental to the cultural work of Twelfth Night.
- It is in this
particular context that Olivia appears in the role of “lady widow.” Orsino
triggers this identity early in Twelfth Night with his fantasy of her
Melancholy actually breeding desire is as
major a dynamic in the play as Orsino’s own melancholic eroticism, filling the
play with sorrow’s lusts and suggesting that Olivia is herself the paradigmatic
figure of this Galenic mode, the lusty widow. Orsino’s phrase “debt of love”
suggests both a widow’s debt to her dead husband (in this case “but a brother”)
and a marriage debt to a subsequent husband, hinting at the link between past
and future loves which was associated with widows.
O, she that hath
a heart of that fine frame
To pay this debt
of love but to a brother,
How will she
love when the rich golden shaft
Hath killed the
flock of all affections else
That live in her
. . . ? (1.1.32-6)
- Consider for
instance the fantastically popular “Widow of Ephesus” story, in which a tearful
widow locks herself in her husband’s tomb and vows to weep herself to death,
only to emerge a few days later as the lover to a soldier she meets in the
The tale in medieval and Renaissance Europe was interpreted both as a
condemnation of the Widow’s extreme lust and, less frequently, as a
condemnation of her extreme grief-induced seclusion. The presence of such
divergent readings draws attention to the cultural complexity of Renaissance
ideals of widowhood that vacillated on the key issues of remarriage, chastity,
and marital availability. The overlapping of grief and desire, especially for
women, is captured vividly in one description of the Ephesian Widow: “that very
night in the morning of her passion, in the grave of her husband, in the pompes
of mourning, and in her funeral garments, [she] married her new and stranger Guest.” The
“mourning” garments and the “morning” of her “pompes” and “passion” are
suggestively elided in this passage and in the cultural myth to which it
- Olivia, in her dress, her
seclusion, her disavowal of courtship, and her “uncovered” role as mistress of
her household and her fortunes, is in every sense recognizable as an exemplar
of the cultural archetype of the widow. Olivia in many respects is more a widow
than a mourner of a dead brother: she remains secluded and resists suitors as a
sign of her grief; she maintains authority over her domestic realm and her
dependents; she is the object of particularly conventional attempts at
consolation; and she is clearly equally concerned for her reputation, her
desires, and her estate. It is perhaps not surprising then that John
Manningham’s famous diary entry on a 1602 performance of Twelfth Night
suggests that Olivia’s veiling/mourning marked her as a widow, seeing “a good
practice in it to make the steward believe his lady-widow was in love with him.”
Jennifer Panek suggests that “Manningham’s mistaken assumption that the maiden
heiress Olivia, in mourning for her brother, is in fact a remarrying widow
shows a mind already moving along paths that would become even more well
trodden over the next two decades.”
Similarly, in Stephen Greenblatt’s reading, the mistake suggests that “the lady
richly left was a major male wish-fulfillment fantasy in a culture where the
pursuit of wealth through marriage was an avowed and reputable preoccupation.” Olivia’s
widowhood, however, has cultural and dramatic registers beyond male fantasy.
The lady richly left is not only an object of desire, but also an independent
and desiring subject.
- The empowering
seclusion of widowhood, within the house and within the protection of a widow’s
weeds, did occur to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Early modern Venetian
printmaker and social commentator Cesare Vecellio describes how mourning-attire
itself can be a powerful tool: “They are always dressed in black. If they wish to
remarry, they may, without incurring blame, wear a few ornaments, and uncover
slightly their hair. This makes known their intentions to those who see them.”
Veiling then, could offer women a means of control—it ironically makes the
mourning and the intentions of the wearer visible. Yet many scholars see
Olivia’s veiling as a mark of withdrawal from the social rather than a managing
of her appearance in it. Indeed, rather than seeing her as choosing this
“costume,” they clothe her in passivity, claiming that she merely fosters the
male “widow fantasy,” forswears men due to an impractical youthful idealism, or
is simply stuck in the role of grieving sister. We
argue, though, that Shakespeare makes Olivia’s veiling (and unveiling) of
herself more calculated and performative. Susan Vincent suggests that such
calculations occurred in the culture itself:
For those women
who continued in mourning garb after the funeral rites, their dress proclaimed
their removal from normal society. Revealing their special status, it marked
out a liminal time during which they were freed from the rules of polite social
interaction. Widows in particular might use their mourning weeds as a way of
permanently redefining their status, signaling their removal to a position independent
of further marital transactions.
The wearing of a mourning veil, like the
wearing of a nun’s veil, provides a way to redefine a woman’s status and remove
her from “marital transactions.”
- Writers like
Vives concur that mourning clothes mark a woman as unavailable: “Therefore let
them go covered and shewe in dede, what theyr name meaneth. For the name of
wyddowe in Greke and latine is as moche to say, as desolate and destitute”
(173). Yet wearing mourning clothes was also represented as rife with
emotional dangers, including hypocrisy and showiness (not wholly unlike Vives’s
concerns about “faynyng” and openness). Thomas Cartwright objects to wearing
mourning: “seeing therefore, if there be no sorrow, it is hypocritical to
pretend it, and if there be, it is very dangerous to provoke it, . . . it
appeareth that the use of this mourning apparel were much better laid away than
Women, the Separatist Henry Barrow implies, are especially susceptible to both
dangers because they care so deeply about fashion and “have their mourneries
fitted at an haire breadth.”
Thus neither the wearing of mourning attire nor the eschewal of it frees women
from suspicion of hypocrisy, extreme emotion, or even the lusty widow
- Yet Twelfth
Night dwells less on the dangers (“What a plague means my niece to take the
death of her brother thus?” (1.3.1-2)) than on Olivia’s ability to negotiate
them—as not only a “widow” but also a “nun” and a maid who is alternately
covered and uncovered. Olivia maintains her single/eligible status as a
“virtuous maid” pursued by Orsino (“twas fresh in murmur . . . that he did seek
the love of fair Olivia” (1.2.28-30)) while she denies that role--as one who
“hath abjured the sight and company of men” for the love of her dead brother
(1.2.36-7). As Hunter suggests, “Olivia’s mourning . . . seems to be a sort of
theatrical game . . . Olivia ostentatiously mourns the death of her father and
brother, partly it seems to evade Orsino’s marriage proposal.” This
curiously paradoxical “ostentatious” and “theatrical” game of veiled seclusion
is precisely what Shakepeare’s Olivia engages in.
- Olivia is of
course also a very odd widow: one who is at the same time a distinctively
marriageable maiden. She has the amorous cachet and independence of both
roles, simultaneously and congruently. Judith M. Bennett and Amy Froide
suggest that as for wealthy widows, “among elites, it . . . seems that wealthy
heiresses who controlled their own destinies were better able than other women
to forgo marriage.”
Shakespeare’s character’s uniquely virginal independence allows her to retain
single autonomy and negotiate the anxieties surrounding it. It is of interest
then with regard to Twelfth Night that Froide suggests that age and
social status allowed a small number of single women to achieve what she calls
widow-like status: “An older single woman who had neither a parent’s nor a
husband’s household to live in, may now have resembled a widow and like a widow
now had the privilege of living on her own.”
If a single woman could achieve widow-like status, she would not be under male
control on the marriage market and could take her place as an independent head
of household. Such single women may have been able to attain a certain level
of social, economic and even sexual autonomy not usually available to them.
- As Shakespeare constructs Olivia, the ostensible reason for her
veiling and vows associates her with loss and death, making her into a widow of
sorts, but the veil—that which covers, protects, conceals—suggests that
Olivia’s choice has equally strong implications for her as an autonomous single
heiress. As the Widow of Ephesus story suggests, any mourning-costume could
mask desire as well as loss. If single heiresses were often vulnerable as
changing pieces on the marriage market, Olivia’s fatherless/brotherless
position seems to allow (perhaps require?) her to protect herself from
the Orsino match. In fact, Olivia’s veiling suggests a second performance of
sorts—one which allows her to play the role of a (virtual) nun/widow/Petrarchan
love object, preserving her chastity, her estate, and the use-value of her own
beauty in the process. In making Olivia a veiled single woman, Shakespeare
makes a character who chooses who can “negotiate with [her] face” (1.5.204).
- Olivia is
explicitly introduced through her role as marriageable maiden; she is first
“seen” in the play as veiled precisely from those who
would woo her. Sir Andrew tells Sir Toby, “Your niece will not be seen,
or if she be, it’s four to one she’ll none of me. The count Himself here hard
by woos her” (1.3.87-89). Both the betting language “four to one” and the
suggestion that the count “hard by woos her” suggest Olivia’s position as an
oddly private public commodity. Sir Andrew’s inability to see Olivia is
juxtaposed with Sir Toby’s “triangular manipulation for wealth, ease and power
through the exchange of the body of his niece.” So
when Toby criticizes Olivia’s widow-like seclusion, “what a plague means my niece
to take the death of her brother thus?,” we see both her power to withhold and
his desire to trade on her value; it is ironically death to him (“a plague”) if
she refuses to be sold.
likewise reveals Olivia’s complicated role as an unavailable and yet available
woman. While Malvolio often affirms Olivia’s position as head of her own
house, “My lady bade me tell you that although she harbours you on as her
kinsman, she’s nothing allied to your disorders,” perhaps because of the power
it gives him as her servant, he too serves as a reminder of just how marketable
she is (2.3.86-87). His desire for Olivia also rests on the exchange of her
body for wealth and status, an exchange which he tellingly figures in terms of
prestigious array: “Having been three months married to her, sitting in my
state . . . Calling my officers about me, in my branched velvet gown, having
come from a day-bed where I have left Olivia sleeping . . .” (2.5.39-44).
Malvolio here no longer reinforces Olivia’s status as head of household;
rather, he imagines himself as the usurper of her power and money—“my state,” “my
officers,” “my branched velvet gown.” His fantasied dress particularly
embodies “abstract signifiers of authority . . . [and] status in an intensely
It is also significant that Malvolio leaves Olivia behind as he gathers the
signs of her status around him; in his dream, he has taken her place as head of
household. In both cases, Olivia is perceived as an object of advancement
that will enable Malvolio to be cloaked in authority: “M.A.O.I. doth sway my
life”; “some have greatness thrust upon them” (2.5.100, 127). Here another
male character, like Toby, like Sir Andrew, and like Orsino, fantasizes about
sexual and economic control, but the play resists the fulfillment of such
fantasies by having them enacted by unsuccessful wooers. Rather than easing
cultural anxieties by representing Olivia as subject to such desires, it
represents her as capable of negotiating them through her enactments of
maidenhood. It is telling that Malvolio’s fantasies actually clothe him in
ridicule, both literally and metaphorically.
- Orsino, a count in his own right, claims not to be drawn to Olivia’s
Yet his attention to her “dirty lands,” his
repeated use of the word “fortune” and his insistence on the nobility of his
love, all focus our attention on her object-value. Indeed even in denying his
interest in wealth, he commodifies her as “queen of gems" (2.4.83). Orsino’s language in act 1 scene 1 also suggests
his desire to sexually (and economically?) dominate Olivia with his “golden
shaft” and rule her emotions as a “king,” though her “affections” do not submit
to him. He thus unconvincingly codes her economic independence as something of
no interest to him while simultaneously objectifying her with it. Might he wish to wear her literal gems? Olivia,
after all, frequently does offer such gifts, giving Viola/Cesario a ring and
jeweled portrait, and Sebastian a pearl, distributing her wealth to whom she
Tell her my love, more noble than the world,
Prizes not quantity of dirty lands.
The parts that fortune hath bestowed upon her
Tell her I hold as giddily as fortune. (2.4.79-82)
- Olivia is
objectified further by Orsino’s attempts to place her in the untouchable role
of his sonnet mistress “sovereign cruelty” (2.4.78). As René Girard suggests,
Orsino’s object is to make Olivia his “eternal
prisoner” through his desire for her. Critics like Jami Ake
have suggested that it is not until Olivia meets Viola/Cesario that she is
freed from “her own scripted role as inaccessible sonnet mistress—one she has
seemed to passively accept."
There is, however, evidence that Olivia’s acceptance of this role is more
active and socially motivated than such readings suggest. In fact, Toby claims
that status is key to Olivia’s decision not to allow Orsino access to her:
“She’ll none o’ th’ Count. She’ll not match above her degree, neither in
estate, years, nor wit; I have heard her swear’t” (1.2.105-7). Olivia seems
insistent not to marry up in status or age or even wit. Her inaccessibility
and “sovereign cruelty” allow her to maintain the sovereignty of her household.
- Indeed, Olivia
dons her veil specifically when Orsino’s messenger is announced: “Give me my
veil. Come, throw it o’er my face. / We’ll once more hear Orsino’s embassy,”
thus again linking her veiling with his wooing in particular (1.5.147-8). In
doing so, she also associates her face/identity with portraiture. And while
this might serve as evidence of Olivia’s static nature, we
might also consider this veiling as another type of measured protection and
preservation. If as Cavallaro and Warwick argue, “the costumed body in
Renaissance England was a site of mediation between real life, the visual arts,
and the art of theatre,”
Olivia here is agent, portrait and actor.
When Olivia says, “we will draw the curtain and show you the picture,” she
marks her face as a painting that veils or curtains were used to protect
(1.5.202-03). Olivia imitates Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” which shows a veiled
Madonna as if the curtains had been pulled to either side to reveal her holding
the Christ Child (Fig. 3).
This image suggests the symbolic weight of Olivia’s own self-revelation, a
weightiness echoed when Feste calls her “my lady . . . Madonna.” Here too,
Raphael and Shakespeare both play against commentators like Vives who insist
that virgins remain covered: “for that reason she is called alma in Hebrew,
which means ‘hidden virgin” and “vergin closed in” (113). Uncovering herself,
like the Madonna, Olivia reveals a sexual and economic subject.
Figure 3. (Click image for a higher-resolution version).
unveiling also differs starkly from Cressida’s (Troilus and Cressida was
of course first performed in the same year as Twelfth Night). When
Pandarus presents Cressida to Troilus, he echoes the language of Olivia’s
unveiling: “Come, come what need you blush? Shame’s a baby. . . . Come draw
this curtain and let’s see your picture. [He unveils her] Alas the day!
How loath you are to offend daylight! An’t were dark, you’d close sooner”
(3.2.38-47). Here, though, Cressida is unveiled rather than unveiling herself,
and Cressida feels betrayed by her revelation: “Who shall be true to us, when
we are so unsecret to ourselves?” (3.2.213-14). Both Cressida’s veiling and
her unveiling are associated with shame and crudely lecherous jokes about hawk
taming and target-games; she is in effect undressed for sexual consumption when
she is unveiled.
- Viola attempts
to voice such masculinist protocols, picking up not only on Olivia’s
portrait/imprinting metaphors but also on the language of sexual ownership used
by Olivia’s other suitors: “If you are she you do usurp yourself, for what is
yours to bestow is not yours to reserve” (1.5.167-68), and then more forcefully:
Lady, you are
the cruell’st she alive
If you will
lead these graces to the grave
And leave the
world no copy. (1.5.211-13)
- That these moments center on Olivia’s unveiling
suggest a critique of her veiling. But if this veil is one that Olivia has
erected between herself and erotic overtures,
it has given her great autonomy. When Viola/Cesario suggests that Olivia leave
the world a copy, meaning child, Olivia wittily reshapes the debate by taking
her to mean "inventory," actively reframing the procreative
metaphor. Viola’s plea for unveiling is too much like Sir Toby’s mocking
exhortation to Sir Andrew: “Wherefore are these things hid? Wherefore have
these gifts a curtain before ‘em? Are they like to take dust, like Mistress
Mall’s picture?” (1.3.105-07); echoing the ridiculous hardly makes Viola’s plea
more weighty. Sir Toby says to Sir Andrew, “Is it a world to hide virtues in?”
(1.3.110) and the right answer is of course, in Sir Andrew’s case, “Yes!” After
all, his “virtues” amount only to “kickshawses” and “caper[s]” (1.3.96,101).
If Viola/Cesario is to convince Olivia that the right answer in her case is
“No,” it will require quite a conversion, and one in which Olivia actively
- Even after
unveiling, Olivia wittily rejects the reproductive imperative by making her
face rather than a child her means of reproduction. She shifts Viola’s
Petrarchan insistence that the opposite of procreation is death by providing
her beauty as a living text which she will “impress,” one in which she is the
printer and the inventory (like the inventory of widows in their wills) that only she can bestow: “I will give out
divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried and every particle and
utensil labelled to my will, as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item,
two grey eyes, with lids to them; item one neck, one chin, and so forth”
(1.5.214-18). Her face thus becomes almost a veil itself—one which is another
cover, not an entrance to her subjectivity. She can only “usurp” herself, not
be usurped by others.
- When she does
fall in love, she simply restructures her own conditions. Olivia has
previously veiled her face and “watered her room” over her dead brother, but
Viola/Cesario incites in her a similar kind of melancholy (which Maria notes). She
shuts the garden door to all men so that she may mourn, but she later shuts
that same door so that she may have a private interlude with Viola/Cesario
(3.1.90). She declares her love-suit by confessing that “a cypress” hides her
heart, in a doubly ironic reference to her previous mourning and her newly
unveiled desire. Indeed, the fabric of cypress itself (often used for veils
and as an added layer over rich and beautiful fabrics) was known for its
ability to “lend [what lay underneath] a charm through partial concealment.” Like
the Widow of Ephesus, Olivia woos her new lover in her mourning garments.
- This potential
betrayal of her brother and of the rules of feminine subjectivity is, however,
significantly mitigated in the play by the ubiquity of this humoural convention
of amorous sorrow. Because she is both widow and maiden, the continual play
on hidden spaces and faces (the “soul within the house,” the veiled painting,
the darkened room, the secret worm i’th’bud) in the text are all reminders of
the congruencies between Olivia’s widow-like mourning and the love-melancholy,
the solitude, the tears, and the masking, of her startling volte-face into
amorous desire. Shakespeare grants Olivia both a public and a private space
from which to reveal and conceal her desiring self. Outhwaite has argued that
what made single women an anomaly was not their rarity but rather what Ruth
Kelso has termed their lack of “social space or identity.” What
seems most significant about Olivia’s shift to desire is that it does not
result in either the loss of her social space or her identity as the head of
her household. Nor is her desire strongly condemned. If the cultural fear of
transferred desire and the cultural anxiety over an unmanned woman coalesced
around the figure of the desirous widow (of Ephesus or of Illyria), such
anxieties are neither uniformly felt or supported in a text like Twelfth
Night. Shakespeare’s Olivia chooses her own seclusion, her own secrets,
and is paradoxically free to own the spaces she chooses. She has one brief
speech of rueful self-mockery, and some doubtful moments in her wooing, but her
newly unveiled desires are like those of all the other amorous characters in
- It’s clear how
striking Olivia’s autonomous social space is when it is compared to the veiled
Mariana’s in Measure for Measure. Mariana is initially discovered in
her house, “probably by drawing back a curtain,” and the boy’s song, not unlike
Feste’s, is melancholy, connecting desire with loss: “But my kisses bring again
bring again, / Seals of love, though sealed in vain, sealed in vain” (4.1.5-6).
Yet any representation of Mariana’s desires is subordinate to the play’s
insistence on the completion of her betrothal by trading her body “i’th’dark” (
4.1.40). When she appears veiled at the end of the play, what is emphasized is
her lack of a clear role rather than any negotiation of the liminal spaces
between maid, widow, and wife: “Why you are nothing then” (5.1.176 ). Mariana’s
veiling protects her during the unmasking of Angelo’s actions, but she
simultaneously uses it as a marker of subordination: “I will not show my face /
Until my husband bids me” (5.1.168-9). Only when Angelo commands, “Let’s see
thy face,” does Mariana unveil herself (5.1.200). It is Angelo’s desires that
are fulfilled (“This is the body / That . . . did supply thee at thy garden
house” (5.1.205-07)) and his dominance that is suggested by her unveiling.
- Olivia, in
contrast, unveils herself and begins actively wooing Viola/Cesario. She becomes
the Petrarchan seeker, giving Cesario his own “five-fold blazon” (1.5.297).
Nor should we ignore to whom she unveils herself or her methods of pursuit—both
of which suggest that Olivia seeks to maintain her social and economic autonomy
in this courtship.
It is only when Olivia is assured of the messenger’s youth that she agrees to
see him. She inquires, “of what personage and years is he?” And Malvolio
assures her, “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy . . . .
[O]ne would think his mother’s milk were scarce out of him” (1.5.138-44).
Cesario/Viola’s precarious positioning between boy and man and his association
with mother’s milk suggest that Olivia’s autonomous position might be
maintained in an encounter with him. Olivia also assures herself of his
parentage, "Above my fortunes, yet my state is well” (1.5.248),
immediately offering her purse in recompense for his "service" and
later offering the wealth and status she can offer, “Fear not, Cesario, take
thy fortune up” (5.1.144), thus repeatedly placing herself in the superior
position of economic independence. She seems able to proceed because “the man”
is not actually “the master” (1.5.298).
- While Olivia’s
capacity to generate soldier-suitors who are semi-emasculated by their desires
for her is clear, the exaggerated comic effect of these suitors further
diffuses any cultural condemnation of her economically powerful and unmanned
status. Sir Andrew Aguecheek is the most obvious example of this with his
drooping sword, his inability to act, and his incapacity to “dally nicely with
words” to “make them wanton” (3.1.13-4). Like the soldier in the Widow of
Ephesus tale, he attempts to follow protocol and woo the maid as a preliminary
to the mistress, but Maria, not he, is the sexual aggressor, Mistress Accost
who “leads him to the butt’ry bar” (1.3.40,66). Sir Toby encourages him to
perform a manhood he knows him not to have: “swear horrible, for . . . a
terrible oath . . . gives manhood more approbation than ever proof itself would
have earned him” (3.4.173-5). He is a “virago,” according to Toby (3.4.265),
and in his duel with Viola, their comically matched lack of masculinity
indicates just how feminized Sir Andrew himself has become.
- Sebastian, whose masculinity may seem less subvertable than Sir
Andrew’s, is introduced in a state of mourning that associates him with womanly
grief: “I am yet so near the manners of my mother that upon the least occasion
more mine eyes will tell tales of me” (2.1.34-6). Like Olivia, he is drowning
the remembrance of his sibling with “salt water” (2.1). Later, Sebastian is
likewise rendered “both a man and a maid” in his dealings with Olivia.
Olivia says to him, at their first meeting, “Go with me to my house, . . . thou
shalt not choose but go” (4.1.52,55), and Sebastian willingly complies. Olivia
wishes him to “be ruled” by her, and he is, uttering a version of the
marriage-vows before the priest has even been mentioned: “Madam, I will”
(4.1.63). Olivia describes their marriage as “this act of mine” (4.3.35), and
it would be hard to disagree with her. Certainly Sebastian does not.
- Olivia and
Sebastian’s marriage resignifies the supposedly conservative roles of early
modern marriage. The wooing comes solely from Olivia, and while her "forwardness"
surprises Sebastian, he also seems attracted to her status and power, to her
ability to “sway her house, command her followers, / Take and give back affairs
and their dispatch” (4.3.17-9). By bringing together a powerful and propertied
woman of high status and a recently shipwrecked man currently without
resources, this wooing questions marriage’s function as an institution which
places men as the head of the household with their wives firmly beneath them.
- What is
crucially distinctive about Twelfth Night’s Olivia, though, is that
unlike other Shakespearean comic heroines, she does not lose her voice after
marriage. She continues to command “Cesario,” to rule as judge in Malvolio’s
grievance and to assure Orsino that the double marriage ceremony shall be “here
at my house and at my proper cost” (5.1.308). “The Lady Olivia has no folly,”
says Feste, as a testament to her power; he goes on to explain mockingly that
“she will keep no fool, sir, till she be married” (3.1.33-4), as if she will own or “keep” her husband, rather
than be kept by him.
- The betrothal ceremony itself
further highlights Olivia’s agency and reinforces her powerful social status.
Her description of it emphasizes her role in bringing about the marriage and
shaping the ceremony:
Now go with me
and with this holy man
Into the chantry
by . . . .
Plight me the
full assurance of your faith
That my most
jealous and too doubtful soul
May live at
peace. He shall conceal it
Whiles you are
willing it shall come to note,
What time we will
our celebration keep
According to my
birth . . . (4.3.22-35)
- Olivia proposes the
betrothal ceremony, orders a priest, chooses its secret location (a chapel on
her grounds), requires that Sebastian pledge to her the “full assurance” of his
faith so that she can “live at peace,” proposes that when they publicly
celebrate their marriage it will be according to her birth, and, finally,
declares it her act. This betrothal speech by Olivia instigates the wedding
ceremony performed by a priest. Early modern wedding ceremonies are often
viewed as a ritualized containment of women, but this one is initiated to
resignify the purpose of such a ceremony, highlighting its satisfaction of
Olivia’s needs and desires and her manipulation and control of the desires of
others. She reinvents her own chosen cloistering; now she will go to the
chantry knowing that the priest will keep not her face but her new status
“concealed” at her command.
- All of the
critical arguments which read Olivia’s marriage as a re-containment of her
independent energies, either as the fulfillment of male economic fantasy or as
a correction of her transgressive homoeroticism, fail to recognize the extent
to which Olivia is allowed to remain the mistress of the play. Nor does Twelfth
Night take the route of so many widow-hunt plays and turn Olivia into a
man-hunter, the widow-tyrant;
her power and her value appear equally great and equally undisguised—she is
“madonna” and “princess” (5.1.297-8) in the play’s final moments, and alliances
with her are welcomed by Viola, her new “sister,” and the duke himself. She
does not betray the rich widow’s proverbially “perverse and crabbed nature”
and the play mocks not Sebastian for his loss of power but only Malvolio for
his overt fantasies of control.
- The character
Olivia thus enacts a marriage which retains much of her single
autonomy—unveiled but “confirmed by mutual joinder,” she has rejected the
marriage market in which multiple suitors sought to usurp her status/money for
themselves. Olivia’s marriage is “her act” in accordance with her estate, and
she will, it seems, continue to dress herself in power. Indeed, the suitor to
whom she unveils herself enjoys his passivity: “Let fancy still my sense in
Lethe steep. / If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep” (4.1.58-9). What
this waking dream allows the audience to imagine is not only the stock fantasy
of male enrichment but also a reinvestigation of the veiled woman. Twelfth
Night’s Olivia reveals (while she hides) a complex negotiation of the
economic and sexual anxieties surrounding single maidens, widows, nuns, and
even wives. The play allows Sebastian to “take up [his] fortunes” and Olivia
to continue to “sway her house.” We can only imagine what she’ll wear to the
1 According to Laurie Osborne, there are, in
fact, “several dozen engravings done in the nineteenth century to record
Olivia’s relationship to Viola. . . . [The] moment when Olivia unveils is the
most often represented.” “Intermingling illustration and text:
hyper-illuminated criticism of Shakespeare’s works,” <http://www.colby.edu/personal/l/leosborn/illumin.html>, no date.
2 Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922) was
commissioned by the Graphic magazine to produce this painting of Olivia
as part of a series of portraits of Shakespearean heroines by several
well-known artists of the time. According to Georgianna Ziegler, “The
paintings were displayed in a London gallery around 1888 and reproduced as
double-page centerfolds purchased with the magazine. They were also sold in
portfolio editions that could be viewed on a table or individually framed.” (Georgianna Ziegler, Frances E. Dolan and Jeanne Addison Roberts. Shakespeare’s Unruly
Women (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1997), 32. The
portfolio editions were published as The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare’s
3 Thomas Ryder produced his engraving of Johann
Heinrich Ramberg’s painting of “Olivia, Maria, and Malvolio,” which was
commissioned by John Boydell as part of his project to “publish a National
edition of Shakespeare, illustrated by the first artists of the country.”
(Josiah Boydell, Preface to the Original Edition, in The Gallery of
Illustrations for Shakespeare’s Dramatic Works Originally Projected and
Published by John Boydell, Ed. J. Parker Norris (Philadelphia: Gebbie and
Barrie, 1874) v. The engravings were published in Boydell’s 1802 Dramatic
Works of Shakspeare and 1803 Collection of Prints, from Pictures Painted
for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare.
4 Juan Luis Vives, The Instruction of a
Christen Woman, ed. Virginia Walcott Beauchamp et al. (Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2002). This edition uses Richard Hyrde’s sixteenth-century translation of
Vives’s Latin work. All Vives citations are from this edition and will be
cited parenthetically in the text. Jennifer Panek argues that Vives is “not
English” (9) and therefore not as relevant a source for English culture. Widows
and Suitors in Early Modern English Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004).
We would argue, though, that the fact that his Instruction of a Christen
Woman was written for an English queen and published in several editions in
England through the sixteenth century suggests otherwise.
5 See for instance Barbara J. Todd, “The Virtuous
Widow in Protestant England,” Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,
eds. Sandra Cavallo & Lyndan Warner (Harlow: Longman, 1999), 66-84;
Jennifer Panek, “‘My Naked Weapon’: Male Anxiety and the Violent Courtship of
the Jacobean Stage Widow,” Comparative Drama 34, no. 3 (2000);
Judith M. Bennett, “Widows in the Medieval English Countryside,” Upon my
Husband’s Death: Widows in the Literature and Histories of Medieval Europe,
ed. Louise Mirrer (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992), 69-115; Widowhood in
Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Sandra Cavallo & Lyndan Warner (
Harlow, Essex: Pearson, 1999). Kathryn Jacobs, Marriage Contracts from
Chaucer to the Renaissance Stage (Gainesville: U of Florida P, 2001);
Jennifer Panek, Widows and Suitors in Early Modern English Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004).
6 See “Of Apolonius and Silla,” in Thomas Riche,
Riche His Farewell to Militarie Profession (1581), Ed. Thomas Mabry
Cranfill (Austin: U of Texas P, 1959), 74-78.
7 William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night or What
you Will, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New
York: Norton, 1997). All Shakespeare citations are from this edition and will
be cited parenthetically in the text.
8 Dani Cavallaro and Alexandra Warwick, Fashioning
the Frame: Boundaries, Dress, and the Body (Oxford: Berg, 1998), 7.
9 Margaret L. King, Women of the Renaissance
(Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991) 83.
10 King 84.
11 King 95.
12 King gives Francesco Barbaro’s daughters as an
example of women who seem to have been using the convent to avoid marriage: “No
shortage of funds could explain the rejection of marriage opportunities by
three of four daughters . . . . Costanza (the eldest daughter), at least, and
likely her two sisters as well, were nuns by choice” (96).
13 King 101.
14 A.B. Taylor, “Shakespeare Rewriting Ovid:
Olivia’s Interview with Viola and the Narcissus Myth,” Shakespeare Survey
50 (1997): 81-9, 82, 88.
15 Jonathan Crewe argues that “extended mourning
for [Olivia’s] brother may well be a convenient way to keep decorous control over
her unruly household and keep unwanted suitors at bay.” “In the Field of
Dreams: Transvestism in Twelfth Night and The Crying Game,” Representations
50 (1995): 101-121, 105.
16 Susan Vincent, Dressing the Elite (Oxford: Berg, 2003), 9.
17 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean
Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. (Berkley: U of California P, 1988); Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety:
Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London: Routledge, 1992);
Casey Charles, “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night,” Theatre Journal
49.2 (1997): 121-42.
18 Lorna Hutson offers a powerful critique of the
Traub/Greenblatt turn, though she also imagines it impossible for a character
like Olivia to be sexually independent, given how “in sixteenth century
society, a woman’s sexual behavior was perceived to affect the honor and
therefore the ecred and economic power of her kinsmen” (146). Hutson argues
that Shakespeare “displac[es] deep into his depiction of female ‘character’ . .
. an inclination toward sexual betrayal” (151). "On Not Being Deceived:
Rhetoric and the Body in Twelfth Night," Texas Studies in
Literature and Language 38:2 (1996): 140-74.
19 The Ephesian Widow story was taught to European
schoolchildren from Caxton on through the Stuart era. The classical fable was
also reworked in a wide array of French and Italian romances and novellas in
the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and included in the popular Seven
Sages collections in Latin, French, and English, among other languages,
which date back to 1493 and appear in ballad-form, in editions annotated by
Erasmus, and in James I’s schoolbooks. Hans R. Runte, J. Keith Wikley, Anthony
J. Farrell, eds., The Seven Sages of Rome and the Book of Sinbad: An
Analytical Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1984) 38ff.; Johanna H.
Stuckey, “Petronius the ‘Ancient’: His Reputation and Influence in Seventeenth
Century England,” Rivista di Studi Crociani 20 (1972): 145-53.
Vernacular versions of the Ephesian Widow story date back to Caxton, forward to
lost play-texts by Dekker in 1600, and on through the seventeenth century, with
the first English translation of the Satyricon appearing in 1694. Hans
R. Runte, “Translatio Viduae: The Matron of Ephesus in Four Languages,”
RLA: Romance Languages Annual 9 (1997):114; Runte, Wikley, Farrell, Seven
Sages; Gaselee, “Bibliography of Petronius,” 180–1.
20 Shakespeare’s transformation of Olivia in
particular from “widow” to wooer is far more restrained in certain respects
than of Juliana (in Riche’s story) or of the Ephesian Widow. Olivia’s sexual
morality is more correctly conventional, in particular. Her rapid shift from
sorrow to amorous desire, alongside her function as a master-mistress, though,
mark her affiliations with the figure of the lusty widow.
21 Many readings of Twelfth Night debate
the extent to which it is just such an enacted cultural “fantasy.” “In the
current text-critical literature, we seem to be told both that these are texts
of sexual fantasy, disturbing and transgressive, and that these texts record
some ‘actual’ possibility for individualized, subversive affirmation of
sexuality” (28). Lisa Jardine, “Twins and Travesties: Gender, Dependency, and
Sexual Availability in Twelfth Night,” Erotic Politics: Desire on
the Renaissance Stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman (New York: Routledge, 1992)
27-38. Historians of widowhood, for example, often try to discern the slippage
between the fantasies of widowhood prevalent in particular cultures and the
lived experience of widows, as if those are distinct categories. More
sophisticated analyses study how such narratives are continually remade,
whether in public texts or in private records.
22 Bruce R. Smith, Introduction, Twelfth Night:
Texts and Contexts (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001). Manningham is attentive
to clothing throughout his diary and his “mistake” is revealing.
23 Panek 10.
24 Greenblatt 69.
25 See Kathryn Jacobs, Marriage Contracts from
Chaucer to the Renaissance Stage (Gainesville: U of Florida P, 2001) who
argues that Olivia is more widow-like and her independence greater than other
Shakespearean heroines like Portia whose vows to a dead father limit her
freedom. She also argues that perhaps early modern audiences “were more
accustomed to seeing independent widows around them than independent virgins”
26 Cesare Vecellio's Degli abiti antichi et
moderni di diverse parti del mondo (1590). Qtd. in H. K. Morse, Elizabethan
Pageantry: A Pictorial survey of Costume and its Commentators from 1560-1620 (New
York: Benjamin Blom, 1934) 118.
27 See Dianne Hunter’s ”Shakespeare’s Continuity
through the Daughter,” Literature and Psychology 48:3 (2002), 38-55; Jon
S. Lawry, “Twelfth Night and ‘Salt Waves Fresh in Love,” Shakespeare
Studies (1972), 89-108; John Hollander, “Twelfth Night and the
Morality of Indulgence,” Twentieth century Interpretations of “Twelfth
Night,”ed. Walter N. King (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 79.
28 Vincent 70.
29 Qtd. in Vincent 67.
30 Qtd. in Vincent 67.
31 Hunter 49.
32 Douglas H. Parker makes a similar argument:
“Her vow of seven years’ mourning is as much an attempt to discourage Orsino’s
love pleas as it is an outward sign of grief” (25). “Shakespeare’s Female
Twins in Twelfth Night: In Defense of Olivia,” English Studies in
Canada 13:1 (1987): 23-31.
33 Judith M. Bennet and Amy M. Froide, “A Singular
Past,” Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800, ed. Bennett and
Froide (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999): 1-37, 6.
34 Amy M. Froide, “Marital Status as a Category of
Difference. Singlewomen and Widows in Early Modern England,” Singlewomen in
the European Past, 1250-1800. 236-69, 242.
35 Traub 134.
36 Cavallaro and Warwick 70.
37 In the Trevor Nunn film, Malvolio even loses
his toupée by the end—a final unveiling of his own. Twelfth Night: Or What
You Will, dir. Trevor Nunn, Renaissance Films, 1996.
38 René Girard, “‘Tis Not so Sweet as it was
Before’: Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night,” Stanford Literature
Review 7 (1990): 123-32, 131.
39 Jami Ake, “Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in Twelfth
Night,” Studies in English Literature 43 (2003): 375-94, 2.
40 A. B. Taylor offers a reading of Olivia’s
static nature here, aligning Shakespeare with Cesario/Viola’s call to
procreation and Olivia’s refusal with death: “. . . it is in ‘warm life’ that
salvation lies, not in any ‘poor image’ or ‘cold stone,’ or ‘curtained’ ‘oily
painting’. . . . Olivia’s catalogue has an immediate air of death about it”
(84). Taylor’s remarks echo Sir Toby’s acquisitive view of female sexuality.
Likewise Edmund M. Taft argues that Olivia must be liberated from her “cloister”
to achieve sexual health. “Love and Death in Twelfth Night,” Iowa State Journal of Research 60 (1986): 407-16, 407.
41 Cavallaro and Warwick 143.
42 Olivia again associates herself with
portraiture when she gives Cesario a miniature portrait, actively offering an
image of herself (albeit a silent one): “Here wear this jewel for me, ‘tis my
picture--/ Refuse it not, it hath no tongue to vex you” (3.4.184-85).
43 The formality and symmetry of Edmund Blair
Leighton’s portrait (Fig. 1) echoes the solemn symmetry of the Sistine Madonna.
Many arguments have been made about the significance of the curtain in that
painting but it seems surely to have been related to the curtain that
symbolized God, then Christ, then the Madonna as the vessel of Christ.
44 See David Schalkwyk, “‘She never told her
love’: Embodiment, Textuality, and Silence in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Plays,”
Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 381-407 who argues that it is
Cesario/Viola’s “fearlessness in her allotted role which breaks through the
veil, literal and metaphorical, that Olivia has erected between herself and
erotic overtures” (393).
45 Jami Ake interestingly argues that Viola
creates a pastoral space in her “willow cabin” speech which provides Olivia
“with the linguistic material with which to conceive of her own role
differently—as more initiatory, more erotic” (384).
46 Jonathan Goldberg suggests that Olivia’s
comment “ourselves we do not owe” refers even more aptly to Viola than to
Olivia herself. “Textual Properties,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986):
47 M. Channing Linthicum, Costume in the Drama
of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (New York: Russell and Russell,
1963). This contrasts the other use of the word "cypress" in the play
which appears in Feste’s song, “Come away, come away death, / And in sad
cypress let me be laid” (2.4.52-3). Here, the cypress is a cypress wood
coffin. Cypress is still emblematic of mourning, but here it completely
encloses the would-be mourner. Desire leads to thoughts of death rather than
thoughts of mourning leading to desire. Orsino’s lover’s melancholy thus seems
more stultifying than Olivia’s.
48 Ed. R.B.
Outhwaite. Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage (New York: St. Martin's P, 1982).
49 Jean Howard argues that Olivia is “a figure
whose sexual and economic independence is ironically reined in by means of the
cross-dressed Viola” (431), despite the evidence that Olivia seems at least as
autonomous at the end of the play as she does at the beginning.
“Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 418-40.
50 Panek argues that this is a typical risk for
the fortune-hunter husband: that he is “reduced to the traditional status of a
wife” (56) in relation to the father/widow he has married. If this is the
case, Sebastian and the play both seem unconcerned. Perhaps if Olivia cannot
be pinned down, neither can Sebastian.
51 See Jennifer Panek’s intelligent discussion of
this dramatic convention (Chapter 2 in her Widows and Suitors in Early
Modern English Comedy).
52 The Bachelor’s Banquet (1603), Qtd. in Panek 54.