"An Improbable Fiction":

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
in Sources and Performance

by Joseph L. Lockett
for Dr. Meredith Skura

A final paper for
"Shakespeare's Sources"
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 inborn equipment.

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 town.

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 all sides.

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 love.

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 picture?" (I.iii.113)

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 claim,

"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.