“Conceal me what I am”: Shakespeare’s Disguised Heroines

TWELFTH NIGHT’s Viola is one of many Shakespearean heroines who become more themselves when in disguise


A black and white 1904 photograph of two actors in matching costumes as TWELTH NIGHT’s Viola and Sebastian
Viola Allen and James Young as the twins, 1904 (Source: Folger Library)

In Twelfth Night — onstage at Lantern Theater Company now through June 18, 2023 — one of William Shakespeare’s greatest heroines hatches a plan. Washed ashore in a new land with no family or authority in sight, Viola enlists her doomed ship’s captain to help her dress as a pageboy and enter the service of Illyria’s noble duke. With this choice, she opens herself up to a world of complications as well as joy — something she has in common with a number of her Shakespearean sisters who find freedom, love, and themselves when they put on a pair of breeches.

In Shakespeare’s time, women were not permitted to act onstage. Therefore, the great Shakespearean roles in which we are now accustomed to seeing women were, at the time, played instead by boys and young men. So, in Twelfth Night, when we watch Viola disguise herself as Cesario, we would actually have been watching a boy play a woman playing a boy. This is a construction Shakespeare returns to many times across his plays, delighting in playing with his audience’s expectations and the irony built into this kind of layering. When Viola tells Olivia cryptically “I am not what I am,” contemporaneous audiences would have reveled in the joke that, in fact, the actor playing Viola was exactly what the character claimed not to be.

Viola was not the first of this character type on Shakespeare’s stage, nor would she be the last. Rosalind becomes Ganymede for her exiled trip to the forest in As You Like It. Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Imogen in Cymbeline disguise themselves as men to go on a journey to either be with or hide from their lovers in far-off lands. And in The Merchant of Venice, Portia disguises herself as a young male lawyer to win the freedom of her beloved’s best friend.

A blonde woman with wearing a red scarf is smiling and gesturing to her right, while another woman disguised as a man in a hat and leather jacket is holding out a bag of money
Ruby Wolf as Celia and Liz Filios as Rosalind in her Ganymede disguise in Lantern Theater Company’s 2016 production of AS YOU LIKE IT (Photo by Mark Garvin)

In each of these instances, what drives the female characters to put on men’s clothing is the notion of freedom: freedom to travel, freedom from fear of assault, freedom to speak their minds and exercise their intelligence in ways society would not have permitted a woman to do. Each of these women are given the chance to display their quick wit, ingenuity, and bravery, both in undertaking the task for which they are disguised and in getting themselves out of the web of complications that arise. And in many instances, the disguise also gives them cause to test the devotion of their duped lovers — and to go into the resulting unions with more knowledge and clearer eyes.

Twelfth Night’s disguising may bring about the most complications for its heroine and for its plot. Viola isn’t just dressing up as a random boy; in doing so, she looks just like her fraternal twin, who she thinks has drowned but who is in fact also wandering around Illyria, resulting in multiple instances of mistaken identity. The unrequited-love triangle between her, Orsino, and Olivia becomes a quadrangle when Sebastian enters the picture.

Viola is also stuck in her disguise in a way that the others may not be. The Merchant of Venice’s Portia took on her disguise entirely of her own free will and for only a short while. Though revealing themselves might open them up to physical danger, As You Like It’s Rosalind, Two Gents’ Julia, and Cymbeline’s Imogen all choose their disguises in order to leave home, while Viola chooses hers once she’s already found herself stranded and without options. The other three have a close and trusted co-conspirator, while Viola is mostly on her own in her ruse, save for the captain who introduces her to Orsino’s court. Viola is also dependent upon Orsino believing she is a man for employment and shelter, in a land where she is alone and has no means of escape. And her favor with Orsino depends specifically upon her keeping up her disguise with Olivia. While Julia faces a similar employment scenario, she could go home anytime she wished; Viola does not have that option.

An actress with short black hair in a green jacket holds her heart and looks to the left
Joanna Liao as Viola/Cesario in the Lantern’s TWELFTH NIGHT (Photo by Mark Garvin)

But while Viola’s disguise gives her both freedom and trouble, it also helps her — and those around her — become someone different than who they were when the curtain rose. In each instance of a Shakespearean heroine disguising and then revealing themselves, they are possessed of greater self-knowledge, deeper insight into their beloveds (for good and for ill), and the ability to choose their own happy ending. But while Viola also earns these benefits, her disguise also helps those around her to do the same. As Cesario, she can help teach Orsino what it means to really find intimacy with someone, and to appreciate the deeper love that blooms from true understanding rather than infatuation. In her disguise, she is also able to spring Olivia from the prison of her suffocating grief, showing her that life and love can both go on after her loss.

By becoming someone else, Viola can let loose her wit, wisdom, and empathy, making herself and those who love her into truer versions of themselves. Olivia tells Viola-as-Cesario “I would you were as I would have you be!” The lesson of Viola’s disguise, and of the disguises of her sisters-in-pants, is that we cannot change someone into what they’re not, but we can change ourselves into who we want to be if we have the humility, courage, and openness to grow — no matter what we’re wearing.

More reading: Shipwrecks and Strangers — In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare returns to some of his favorite plot devices: storms, shipwrecks, and new worlds

Lantern Theater Company’s production of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is onstage May 18 through June 18, 2023, at St. Stephen’s Theater. Visit our website for tickets and information.