Viola is a character in Shakespeare's play 'Twelfth Night'. Two of the central themes in the play are gender identity and how appearances can be deceptive. Viola assumes the identity of a male servant, or more specifically a eunuch, named Cesario. Whilst inhabiting this role she falls in love with her employer, Duke Orsino. She also attracts the romantic attention of another woman, Olivia. Viola's character is intended to challenge the audience's assumptions about gender. Her character highlights how maleness and femaleness are qualities that are learned culturally, rather than simply fixed physical traits.
Shakespeare also uses Viola's character to explore the idea that all people possess both male and female qualities. Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are presented as so physically and emotionally similar that their characters can seamlessly interchange. They are repeatedly mistaken for each other. The character Antonio declares upon seeing the twins standing side by side for the first time: "Have you made division of yourself? An apple cleft in two is not more twin than these two creatures". With this Shakespeare makes explicit reference to the Androgynus, of Greek mythology (hermaphrodites that possessed a perfect balance of male and female traits) who were ordered by the God Zeus to be split in half like an apple. The indication is that Viola and Sebastian are not two distinct people at all, but rather two sides – feminine and masculine – of the same self.
The fact that in Shakespeare's day all female roles were played by boys, adds to the audience’s disorientation about the gender and sexuality of each of the principle characters. In this case a male actor is playing a female character (Viola) who presents herself as a boy (Cesario).
In this painting, Sandys unconventionally depicts Viola in female clothes to emphasise her identity as a woman. The frame bears the following lines from Act II Scene IV of the play: ‘Duke: And what’s her history? Viola: A blank, my Lord, She never told her love’. Her mournful look suggests an inner turmoil, perhaps about being unable to reveal her female identity, and therefore her love, to the Duke. That her hand firmly grips a closed closet door, may indicate this unprofessed love or the enforced concealment of what was apparently same-sex love. Sandys’ use of the mirror in the scene is even more unusual. Viola is shown in Elizabethan dress within a medieval context, consistent with the time of the play’s production. However, the mirror reflects a Victorian domestic interior. This may have been intended to parallel the idea central to ‘Twelfth Night’ that dress and physical appearance do not always reflect reality.
Sandys was taught by her father, a jobbing painter, but her chief advisor was her brother, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederick Sandys (1829 - 1904). Emma spent time in his London studio, and similarly focused on painting portraits and female heads, often inspired by literature.
This painting was bequeathed to the Walker Art Gallery by Mrs Constance Emily Warr on behalf of her husband the late Professor George Warr, in 1908.