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.
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.