A veil, or being veiled, has many meanings and as many effects. In Twelfth Night, or What You Will Shakespeare shows veils to be double-edged cloth that impact each character and the action in unique ways, depending on how they’re worn.
In fact, the play itself wears two ‘veils.’ It is the only of his plays to which he assigned two titles. Thus, he not only gives the reader/audience the choice of title, but with the second one, even further latitude to interpret the title, characters, and their actions.
Even the characters’ names sound like veiled versions of each other: Viola and Olivia; Orsinio and Cesario.
Shakespeare often uses disguised and cross-dressing as plot devices. In this play, some such veils are obvious. Some are more subtle. They can provide the freedom to act in anonymity, or impose restrictions, and, in some cases, both. Lifting these veils can prove liberating or disastrous, but ultimately reveal truths in which the characters can live more honestly and move forward in their lives.
- Olivia: She, grieving for her father and brother has sequestered herself at home as well as beneath a black veil of mourning. She intends to maintain this posture for seven years. In the 1996 film version Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) covers not only herself, but her entire estate with heavy drapery, living like a vampire who cringes at daylight. But I would argue that she hides not so much from sadness as from intimacy: “she hath abjur’d the [company] and [sight] of men.” (I,ii,40) Orsinio has pursued her doggedly and relentlessly. She rejects his company and advances as much as anything with her veils. For when she meets ‘Cesario’ (Viola in disguise) and develops feelings for ‘him’, she lifts her veil as readily as a happy bride awaiting her first married kiss. In the film, she ditches the veil and black garb and appears henceforth in bright, jewel-toned, low cut gowns. Her veils drop away once she feels true love.
- Viola: Not only does this play feature twin titles, but twin main characters as well. Having survived a shipwreck and believing her twin brother lost to the sea, Viola disguises herself as a boy so she can work for Duke Orsinio as she works out her future. “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid/For such disguise as haply shall become/The form of my intent.” (I,ii,53-5) This veil of a faux sex change allows her to experience life from a male perspective and get to know Orsinio in a way she could not have if she’d approached him as a female orphan. In her camouflage she also serves as the key that unlocks Olivia’s hidden heart. While her disguise initially restricts her, it ultimately frees her and serves as a catalyst to unleash Olivia’s, Orsinio’s, and her own true emotions.
- Malvolio: Olivia’s miserable steward veils his love for his boss under a mask of stiff upper lip sternness. It makes him efficient but mean. Olivia herself notes: “O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio and/taste with a distemper’d appetite.” (I,v,90) The others in the household tease him out of his repressed dourness with a subterfuge of their own: they trick him into believing that Olivia requites his affections. Believing it will please her, he festoons himself in bright yellow stockings and twisted garters, and an even brighter stuck on smile, which is most out of character for him. While he trusts that this absurd display with further his cause, it cannot – it is only another veil. This facade obscures who he truly is even further so cannot help but fail, and humiliate him considerably in the process. Ultimately, he is “hoist with his own petar” (Hamlet, III,iv,207). Both his veil of repression and veil of frivolity, backfire.
- Sir Toby Belch: The aptly named Belch uses alcohol to veil his feelings of loneliness and neediness. Staying out late and staying drunk whislt a guest in his cousin Olivia’s home, tries her patience: “Go, then and seek the crowner, and let him sit/O’ my coz; for he’s in the third degree of drink, he’s/drown’d.” (I,v,134-6) He acts the doppleganger to Malvolio, acting with lighthearted, wisecracking, alcohol-fueled irresponsibility to avoid the fact that he has no one, nothing, and nowhere to go. Love, for him, too, lifts his liquid veil, in the person of Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria. In the film, the director Trevor Nunn shows his transformation. Initially, we see a sloppily dressed, unkempt Sir Toby. Once in love, and “He hath married her” (V,i,364) he is coiffed and groomed for his new role as groom.
- Feste: A fool who served Olivia and her father appears, as fools often do in Shakespeare, to help untangle the messes the characters create for themselves. Interestingly, in the film, he (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) is bald – completely free of covering, even in the form of hair. He is honest and genuine and thus helps the others to shed their veils and reveal their true character. He shares his wisdom in tongue-twisting missives. To Olivia: “bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest.” (I,v,44-5) He prepares to leave as soon as the others’ veils have dropped away, but only after they all leave the stage, each in the truest versions of themselves.
In the double-titled Twelfth Night, Shakespeare allows us to see two versions of most characters: both veiled and unveiled. In some cases the cover allows a certain level of freedom and protection. But ultimately, each character experiences true liberty only when they lift the various veils.