"An Improbable Fiction":
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
in Sources and Performance
by Joseph L. Lockett
for Dr. Meredith Skura
A final paper for
September 12, 1991
Plays are one of the most subtle forms of literature: while a novel
reveals almost everything in its text and description, much of a play
depends on the matter between the lines, or the behavior and interpretation
of the actors who play the roles. And these influences are invisible,
unless we examine the context of the play: its sources, the circumstances
of its composition and performance. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
is one such play: in examining the works Shakespeare drew on to write the
play and evidence about his audience, we can reconstruct many of his
intentions in this variegated comedy.
Shakespeare's main source, and certainly his most accessible, is
the prose tale of "Apolonius and Silla" in Barnabe Riche's
Riche his Farewell to Militarie Profession (1581). Yet
"Apolonius and Silla" itself has sources which Shakespeare may
have been able to peruse. The earliest (apart from the Plautine
Menaechmi, the origin of many a mistaken-identity plot,
including Shakespeare's own Comedy of Errors) is the Italian
Gl'Ingannati ("The Deceived Ones"), written and
performed at Siena by the Academy of the Intronati in 1531. Shakespeare
may well have read that plot (he knew some Latin, after all, so Italian
would not have been too much of a stretch), or at least its French
incarnation, in the author Pierre de Belleforest's Histoires
Tragiques (part IV, no. 59) (1570). (Henry V III.iv
certainly proves a passing acquaintance with French.) But Shakespeare's
reading list is far less important than what he did with his discoveries.
Gl'Ingannati is quite a different work from Twelfth
Night: more Plautine farce than romantic comedy. But the
similarities and differences between the two do much to reveal the aims of
Shakespeare's play. The siblings Fabrizio and Lelia are separated during
the sack of Rome in 1527, when Lelia is thirteen years old (a likely
source for Viola's father, who died "that day that made my sister
thirteen years" (TéNé V.i.240)). Three years later, when the play
occurs, Lelia's father Virginio confines her to a convent, and her
beloved, Flaminio, shifts his affections to the indifferent Isabella,
daughter of Gherardo, the man whom Lelia's father intends her to marry.
The love relationships are certainly a bit more complex in this version
than in Shakespeare's play!
Lelia, after escaping from the convent where her father has placed
her, disguises herself as a boy, takes the name Fabio, and serves Flaminio,
who sends him/her to woo Isabella. Isabella falls in love with Fabio, who
receives her affection so long as she repulses Flaminio in return. When
Fabrizio returns to town, the old men think he is the escaped Lelia and
lock him in a room with the comely Isabella. The inevitable occurs, and
Fabrizio and Isabella are betrothed. Flaminio, after being persuaded
from revenge on "Fabio," marries Lelia. The basic love-plot
thus vaguely resembles Shakespeare's, though "much more of the play
is taken up with the old men's folly, the nurse's resourcefulness [prime
source material for Romeo and Juliet], the servants' jealousy
of their new fellow the page, the rivalry of two innkeepers for Fabrizio's
custom, the mutual abuse of the Pedant and Fabrizio's servant, the comic
greed of the latter, and the maidservant's tricking of the Spaniard."
(Lothian & Craik, pp. xxxvi-xxxvii) The whole treatment is also much
bawdier than Twelfth Night's.
Riche's "Apolonius and Silla" changes all of the names,
and alters the plot substantially as well. A noble duke of Constantinople,
Apolonius, lays over on Cyprus while returning home from his wars against
the Turk, and attracts the attentions of Silla, daughter of the Duke of
Cyprus. After Apolonius' departure, Silla pines so for him that she
secretly boards ship with her trusty servant Pedro (the two disguised as
brother and sister) to visit him. The captain of the vessel threatens to
rape Silla, she prays to God, and the ship is wrecked with all hands lost
but Silla, who floats to shore with a chest of the captain's clothes.
Silla dresses herself in male clothing, assumes the name of her brother
Silvio (shades of Menaechmi again), and enters Apolonius'
service. For him she woos the wealthy widow Julina who, as we would
expect with this plot, falls in love with him/her. Silla suffers and does
not requite Julina's affections.
At this point the real Silvio, travelling in search of his sister,
arrives at Constantinople, where he encounters Julina in a park. She
hails him by his proper name (mistaking him for the count's page) and
invites him to supper. He and Julina dine, and subsequently go to bed
together, where Julina conceives a child. Silvio, afraid he has been
mistaken for someone else, leaves town in haste the next morning. Julina,
realizing her growing condition, goes to plead before Duke Apolonius, who
has thrown his "Silvio" in prison after hearing from the gossip
of servants his page's greater success in love. A series of angry
recriminations follows, until Apolonius draws his sword and threatens to
kill "Silvio" unless "he" marries Julina. Silla is
forced to reveal herself, and Apolonius, taken with her faithfulness,
marries her. Silvio hears tales of these strange events, and eventually
returns to Constantinople, where he marries the grieving Julina and all,
as the chroniclers say, ends happily ever after.
The most notable differences between these earlier versions of the
tale and Shakespeare's lie, obviously, in the Viola character. Shakespeare's
heroine has no previous relationship with her love Orsino; she has only
"heard [her] father name him" (I.ii.28). This lack of prior
attachment certainly removes much of the opportunity for bitterness that
Lelia has in wooing the woman who has supplanted her. And Lelia's
political maneuvering, inappropriate for a romantic heroine, vanishes too:
she no longer bargains "Perhaps I may love you, if you dismiss
Flaminio" (Luce, p. 10), accepts, indeed returns, Isabella's kisses
("I am yours," Luce, p.19), and lies to Flaminio "I have
delayed, because I waited to speak with Isabella," (Luce, p.20) after
kissing his beloved. Viola is much closer to Riche's Silla, who,
"altogether desirous to please her master, cared nothing at all to
offend herself, [and] followed his business with so good a will as if it
had been in her own preferment" (Luce, p. 64). Those critics who
paint Twelfth Night as a darker, almost "problem"
play often question Viola's motives, pointing to the theme of social
advancement typified by Viola's marriage to Orsino, Sebastian's to Olivia,
Maria's to Sir Toby Belch, and Malvolio's attempt at achieving a "Lady
of the Strachy" situation for himself. Yet Viola's spontaneous and
selfless love for Orsino, in marked contrast to Lelia's hidden maneuverings
to get Flaminio back, sets her firmly in the position of romantic heroine:
the actress playing Viola need have no fear of being a conniver in disguise.
Shakespeare cleans up Viola's character in other ways as well.
Sebastian's sudden appearance in Act V removes the need for Viola's
unpleasantness in Riche's story -- charges of "foolish indiscretion
of a woman, that yieldeth herself to her own desires... [to] the execution
of her filthiness." (Luce, p. 77). The only such hideous rejection
Shakespeare shows is Sir Toby's spurning of "asshead, coxcomb, and
knave" Sir Andrew. Moreover, as audience members we respect the
independent Viola more than the disobedient Lelia or Silla. Lelia's
father is admittedly horrid, as is old Gherardo, her intended match, but
her escape from the convent her father placed her in still casts her in
the role of rebellious daughter. Riche's Silla leaves home and family
with her trusty servant Pedro, causing them no little worry. Indeed, she
does it for true love, but we still must look askance at her callousness
to her unknowing father and brother. Shipwrecked Viola has no father, and
thinks she has lost her brother, so we must admire her brave attempts to
make her own way in the world.
The infamous sexual ambiguity of Shakespeare's disguised heroines
makes its appearance in his sources as well. Rosalind is famous for her
saucy mannerisms in courting Orlando, and Viola, though somewhat more
romantic and melancholy, also is known as a "peevish messenger"
and saucy youth. And indeed, once Silla takes on her "Silvio"
disguise in Riche's tale, she is ever after referred to as "he,"
even when the pronoun produces such odd lines as "Hearing an oath
sworn so divinely that he had gotten a woman with child, [Silvio] was
like to believe that it had been true in very deed; but remembering his
own impediment, thought it impossible that he should commit such an
act...." (Luce, p.77). Only when Apolonius discovers her true sex
does Silvio-"he" return to Silla-"she": this is a
pre-Freudian world where gender is determined by clothing and attitudes.
This easy shifting of sex perhaps helps to explain the mysterious "Thou
shalt present me as an eunuch to him" passage (I.ii.56), argued over
by critics as evidence of carelessness or partial revision: as often in
Shakespeare, gender boundaries are matters of society and attitude, not
Fabrizio and Silvio are both vaguely defined characters, but Shakespeare
gives more detail to his Sebastian. Indeed, Viola and Sebastian only enhance
the sexual ambiguity, for each is a mix of traditional sex characteristics,
part of the eerie mingling yet separation of twins that fascinated Shakespeare.
We first see Viola as a bedraggled shipwreck survivor, unsure of her location,
let alone her place in the world ("What country, friends, is this...?
And what should I do in Illyria?" I.ii.1-3). Yet she soon establishes
herself, gathers information, and lays her plans, rapidly dispensing with
her grief over her brother in what we might describe as a brisk, business-like,
"masculine" fashion. Sebastian, on the other hand, displays much
of the feminine in his first appearance: he weeps ("She is drowned
already, sir, with salt water, though I seem to drown her remembrance
again with more." (II.i.26-8)), describes himself as "near the
manners of my mother" (II.i.36), and spends much of the scene bewailing
his sister's fate. Yet he proves a competent fighter -- "the very
devil incardinate" (V.i.174) -- often even quarrelsome, as when he
threatens Feste ("If you tarry longer, I shall give worse payment."
(IV.i.18-9)) and lashes out at Andrew's incompetent attack. The actors
playing Viola and Sebastian need to imitate each other, obviously, and
their roles match this mingling of genders. The two go together, "an
apple cleft in two" (V.i.215), shipwrecked together, unlike Silla in
Cyprus and Silvio in Africa, or Lelia in Modena and Flaminio from out of
The character of Olivia, too, undergoes radical changes from source
to Shakespeare. Gl'Ingannati has the young Isabella, a pretty
daughter (probably of Lelia's own age) of the old widower Gherardo (himself
the intended husband of Lelia). She falls in love with Fabio, but gains
the object of her affections only when Lelia's father Virginio mistakenly
locks Flaminio in her room (with consequences bawdily described by Cittina
the maid). Riche's Julina is older, and a widow, and it is this version of
the character that Shakespeare adapts for his countess. Yet once again
Shakespeare paints a purer character: Olivia does not, like Julina, invite
Sebastian/Silvio to dinner, to an overnight stay, and then to amorous
dalliance. Instead she marries him directly (a useful country household
that contains a priest on call!). Julina blurts out her love directly
("from henceforth either speak for yourself, or say nothing at
all" (Luce, p.65) mirrors Olivia's "I bade you never speak again
of him; But, would you undertake another suit...." (III.i.104-5)),
but Olivia begins more subtly, with the ring she sends via Malvolio. The
eventual impassioned pleas lead to another verbal echo, for "Seeing
my good will and friendly love hath been the only cause to make me so
prodigal to offer that I see is so lightly rejected, it maketh me to think
that men be of this condition, rather to desire those things which they
cannot come by, than to esteem or value of that which both largely and
liberally is offered to them." (Luce, p. 66) leads to "I love
thee so that, maugre all thy pride, / nor wit nor reason can my passion
hide. Do not extort thy reason from this clause, / For that I woo, thou
therefore hast no cause; / But rather reason thus with reason fetter,
/ Love sought it good, but given unsought is better." (III.i.148-153)
Shakespeare's Olivia, too, is an idealized romantic heroine: perhaps
young, though probably older than Viola, and competent in managing her own
affairs, though eventually overcome by the power of love.
Duke Orsino remains fairly constant from source to stage, though
Shakespeare amplifies his love-sickness. Riche includes a fairly elaborate
paragraphs describing Apolonius' new-found zeal in romance, but Shakespeare's
moonish Duke, listening to sad music and "best when least in company,"
is a definite refinement of the theme. Flaminio in Gl'Ingannati
is love-sick but not as dangerous at the resolution (no death-threats
here), and possibly supplies the inspiration for some of Orsino and Viola's
debates with passages such as "You are a child, Fabio. You do not
know the force of love. I cannot help myself. I must love and adore
Isabella. I cannot, may not, will not think of any but her. Therefore,
go to her again; speak with her; and try to draw dexterously from her
what is the cause that she will not see me." (Luce, p. 17)
Shakespeare's Orsino, unlike Riche's Apolonius, does not need to hurl his
offending page into prison, for Olivia's greater care and Sebastian's
hastier appearance allow a swifter denouement with fewer harsh words on
Even Shakespeare's minor characters have their shadows in the sources.
Lelia's brother Fabrizio comes to town with his pedantic tutor Piero to
see the "remarkable places," though this seems the only connection
of the arrogant, avaricious teacher with generous, loving Antonio, the
sort of man who can enhance the comic plot by running afoul of mistaken
identities and getting involved in a duel. Perhaps Piero's avarice, and
scraps of his learning, found their way through Shakespeare's hands to
Feste, helping to explain that Clown's habit of begging. Piero may also
supply some ideas for Malvolio, however, particularly in some of his
exchanges with the wastrel servant Stragualcia, "a knave, a rogue, a
rascal, a sluggard, a coward, a drunkard." (Luce, p. 22) The scene
between the two of them also contains the phrases "set his foot on
every man's neck" (reminiscent of Toby's offer to Maria in II.v),
"He has no more courage than a rabbit," (a common enough image,
but still suggestive of Toby's description of Cesario as "more a
coward than a hare" (III.iv.365)) and "when I brave him, he is
soon silenced" (a possible echo of Fabian's "you should have
banged the youth into dumbness" (III.ii.21)).
Another of Riche's collected stories ("Of Two Brethren and
their Wives," the fifth in the volume) has a madhouse scene somewhat
reminiscent of the gulling of Malvolio in III.iv and IV.ii. A man binds
and dishevels his wife, ties her "in a dark house," and pretends
she is a lunatic. He and his friends gather and pray for her, much as
Maria pleads for Malvolio, "Good neighbor, forget these idle speeches,
which do much distemper you, and call upon God, and he will surely help
you." (Luce, p. 85) The wife "showed herself in her conditions
to be a right Bedlam: she used no other words but cursings and bannings,
crying for the plague and the pestilence, and that the devil would tear
her husband in pieces" (ibid), much unlike Malvolio. Very possibly
we are meant to feel more pity for the poor steward, who sounds more like
an oppressed gentleman and Renaissance humanist philosopher ("I think
nobly of the soul") than the fierce housewife.
The older men of Gl'Ingannati -- Virginio, Gherardo,
and the "fantastical Spaniard" Giglio -- may prefigure Toby and
Sir Andrew Aguecheek. It is the old men who shut Fabrizio in Isabella's
room when they think "she" has run mad, and Gherardo's attempt
to marry Lelia supplies much of her motivation. Andrew could easily be
played as an old man: his concern for his hair (I.iii) could be fear of
baldness, his forgetfulness and general bewilderment can be signs of
senility, his money can be the result of a lifetime's savings (and perhaps
helped buy his knighthood "with unhatched rapier on carpet
consideration"). An older Sir Andrew also fits well with Sir Toby,
who must be one of Olivia's older relatives (an uncle, the text implies,
though that is a general term in the period). Perhaps the traditional old
man of Roman comedy -- drunk, riotous, searching for his lost youth, and
invariably pursuing the younger woman who will marry the hero -- has made
his way into Shakespeare's play under a new disguise.
Shakespeare's sources can do much to describe his intent in writing
a play, but knowledge of his intended audience would add all the more
certainty. And, for Twelfth Night, we seem to have that
knowledge. Leslie Hotson, in his book The First Night of "Twelfth
Night", uncovers historical evidence that the play was commissioned
and first performed at court on Twelfth Night, January 6, 1600/1 (recall
that the medieval year began in March), a day when Queen Elizabeth entertained
a visiting Italian, the Duke of Bracciano, Don Virginio Orsino! Hotson
occasionally waxes too enthusiastic in his theories, and some of his
interpretations of how the play first appeared seem to strain belief, but
his book makes some reasonable assertions, and aids in dramatic interpretation.
For if the play was to be performed before an Orsino, we cannot, like some
modern critics, read him as a ludicrous, self-inflated, overly sentimental
lover, a vision of idle uselessness and emotional ennui. Instead,
Shakespeare's Duke Orsino is a Continental courtier, the vision of courtly
Some critics scoff at the short time available between news of Don
Orsino's visit and his arrival -- some ten or eleven days -- but
Shakespeare's company were, after all professional actors and, what is
more, speaking in their contemporary language, not the four-hundred-year-old
dialect we moderns struggle with. If the Rice Players can cast, rehearse,
and perform Twelfth Night in three weeks using only evening
rehearsals, assuredly Shakespeare could write it and the Lord Chamberlain's
men rehearse it for a performance at Queen Elizabeth's very court. In
further support, tradition has it that Shakespeare wrote The Merry
Wives of Windsor at Queen Elizabeth's request in the space of ten days.
Moreover, the performance date and Queen Elizabeth's request, "to
make choyse of the play that shalbe best furnished with rich apparell,
have greate variety and change of Musicke and daunces, and of a Subiect
that may be most pleasing to her Maiestie," (Hotson, p. 15), illuminate
Shakespeare's choice of title. For Twelfth Night is the Roman Saturnalia,
the feast of topsy-turveydom, when masters become servants, servants
masters, and dreams come true. And Twelfth Night is a play
of reversals and wish fulfillment. In the words of J.D. Salingar, this is
a play of "Sir Toby turning night into day... scenes of mock wooing,
a mock sword fight, and the gulling of an unpopular member of the household....
A girl and a coward are given out to be ferocious duellists; a steward
imagines that he can marry his lady; and finally a fool pretends to assure
a wise man that darkness is light.... In the main plot, sister is
mistaken for brother, and brother for sister. Viola tells Olivia `That
you do think you are not what you are' -- and admits the same holds true
of herself. The women take the initiative in wooing, both in appearance,
and in fact; the heroine performs love-service for the lover. The Duke
makes his servant `your master's mistress' and the lady who has withdrawn
from the sight of men embraces a stranger." (Salingar, p. 26) And
wishes are fulfilled, even in the most topsy-turvy fashion: Toby's
"firago" duellist appears in the person of Sebastian, and Feste,
who "lives by the church" appears in the curate's gown of Sir Topas.
Hotson makes one additional suggestion of dubious truth but great
interest: that the character of Malvolio was based, at least in part, on
Sir William Knollys, Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household. Knollys came
from Banbury, the home of many Puritans, and strongly supported their sect
-- and Banbury was famous for its "cakes and ale." He had
recently tried to dye his beard, but produced only an odd striped effect:
white at the roots, yellow in the middle, and black at the point, earning
him the nickname of "Party Beard" and, perhaps, Maria's
reference to "the color of his beard." Moreover, Knollys lived
very near the bear-baiting ring at the royal lodging at Whitehall, and
might well have been annoyed at such sport (shades of Fabian's disgrace?).
And he had recently been "gulled" in a farcical romantic
relationship with one of Queen Elizabeth's Maids of Honour, Mistress Mary
"Mall" Fitton -- perhaps at last an explanation for Sir Toby's
mystical "Are they like to take dust, like Mistress Mall's
Possibly Malvolio is the result of a sort of Elizabethan Press Club
Roast, though the barbs and hatred thrown his way seem overly harsh for a
Twelfth Night send-up of a member of the Queen's household. But the
option reminds us that Malvolio should not, perhaps, be merely a figure of
ridicule: as more and more actors have found, the "dark house"
scene can be a turning point for the audience, creating pity for the
haplessly deceived steward and growing resentment at the Sir Toby who will
repulse Sir Andrew so virulently in his last appearance.
The part of an actor is hard: to create a new person, fitting
within both one's own capabilities and the play's demands. But that
process of character construction is made all the easier by accurate
signposts as to the playwright's intentions. And Shakespeare shows,
perhaps most clearly of all English playwrights, the directions he wishes
his plays to take, through the alterations and enhancements he makes to
his sources. Research into the originals of the plot, or even to the
intended audience, "the quality of persons, and the time"
(III.i.61) can help produce a fuller-flowering production. And with that
aid, Twelfth Night can more fully realize Feste's parting
"And we'll strive to please you every day." (V.i.397)
- Hotson, Leslie.
- The First Night of "Twelfth Night".
Rupert Hart-David (London), 1954.
- Lothian, J.M. & T.W. Craik.
- Twelfth Night (Arden Edition).
Methuen & Co., Ltd. (London), 1975.
- Luce, Morton.
- Riche's "Appolonius & Silla," an Original of
Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" Oxford University Press, 1923.
- Salingar, L.G.
- "The Design of Twelfth Night," in
Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Twelfth Night".
Prentice-Hall, Inc. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), 1968.
- Shakespeare, William.
- Twelfth Night.
Penguin Books (New York), 1972.