Twelfth Night
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Dr Will Tosh

Hunting for Shakespeare’s sources

Where did Shakespeare get his ideas for Twelfth Night from?

It’s rare to have an eyewitness audience account of an early performance of a play by Shakespeare, but we have one for Twelfth Night. The performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men wasn’t at the Globe, although the play was certainly staged there, but at one of London’s legal societies, Middle Temple, as part of a celebration on 2 February 1602. The witness was a young law student called John Manningham, who wrote a short review of the play in his diary:

At our feast we had a play called Twelfth Night or What You Will; much like The Comedy of Errors, or Menaechmi in Plautus, but most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practice in it to make the steward believe his lady was in love with him, by counterfeiting a letter as from his lady in general terms, telling him what she liked best in him, and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparel etc. And then when he came to practise, making him believe they took him to be mad.

This contemporary report is hugely valuable because it gives us a sense of how a seventeenth-century person understood the play by highlighting what seemed to him the most striking parts of the story. It also gives us an indication of the other plays and texts that Shakespeare consulted when he wrote Twelfth Night.

The first thing John Manningahm says about the play is that it reminds him of another work by Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, which he rightly suggests is an adaptation of the Latin farce The Menaechmi by the Roman dramatist Plautus (254-184 BCE). Manningham was thinking about the dramatic value of identicality – how comic chaos could be created by the unexpected arrival of twins who look exactly alike. Shakespeare uses this premise at various points in Twelfth Night. Think of Act 3 Scene 4 in which Viola (disguised as Caesario) is ordered to fight by adversaries who think she is her brother Sebastian, or the pain and confusion felt by the sea-captain Antonio when the person he thinks is Sebastian rejects him. These moments are very similar in structure to The Comedy of Errors,  as the entire play revolves around a set of mistaken identity scenarios of increasing complexity.  

But Manningham was more struck by Twelfth Night’s resemblance to another work, an Italian play which he titles Inganni. He means an old comic drama called Gl’Ingannati (The Deceived), and although Manningham might have read the play in an Italian language edition he was more likely to have known the story by reading various prose adaptations published in the 1570s and 1580s. One of these, a short story called Apolonius and Silla by the writer Barnaby Rich, provides the outline of the Viola-Orsino-Olivia-Sebastian tangle and is probably the version of the story consulted by Shakespeare: a shipwrecked young woman disguises herself as a boy, enters service with a handsome duke with whom she falls in love, and is sent by him to woo a neighbouring widow. The widow falls in love with the disguised young woman herself, and then seduces her twin brother, having mistaken the boy for his sister. Utter confusion reigns before everything is resolved in an orderly way.

On a surface level, then, Twelfth Night resembles Shakespeare’s earlier twin-caper The Comedy of Errors, but the issues that he was dealing with in the later comedy were more to do with service, courtship and gender – themes which were explored in Apolonius and Silla. In developing his source material into a play, Shakespeare would also have been aware that the context of theatrical peformance added an extra twist to the gender-play in the story. Shakespeare’s plays were performed by all-male companies, with teenage boys taking the female roles. Shakespeare incorporated this convention into his plays, finding ways to turn what might be regarded as a disadvantage into a dramatic strength. In Twelfth Night, Viola isn’t just a girl dressing as a boy. She’s a boy playing a girl who pretends to be a boy, pursued by a boy playing a woman (Olivia) who ends up seducing a boy playing a boy (Sebastian). Part of the joke is that Viola-as-Caesario looks attractively feminine and irresistibly masculine depending on who is doing the looking: Orsino observes approvingly of his new pageboy’s appearance that ‘all is semblative a woman’s part’ (1.4.33), while Olivia compliments Viola on being ‘a proper man’ (3.1.125).

Let’s go back to thinking about John Manningham’s 1602 review.  Most of it is concerned with describing the Malvolio plot, which suggests that it was the aspect of the play that the law student found most memorable. Many theatregoers and readers agree with him. Even King Charles I (ruled 1625–1649) thought that Malvolio’s story was the heart of the play – in his copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, he re-named Twelfth Night ‘Malvolio’ by inscribing the new title on the contents page.

Shakespeare didn’t have a direct source for the Malvolio-Maria-Belch-Aguecheek plot. In other words, scholars and Shakespeare experts have not identified any published work that Shakespeare could have read which includes the story of a self-important butler who is punished for his humourlessness in the cruel way suffered by Malvolio. The story is therefore Shakespeare’s invention. What inspired the character of the judgemental steward? The answer lies in something Maria says, after Malvolio has interrupted a late-night party in Olivia’s house. ‘Sometimes he is a kind of puritan,’ she remarks (2.3.125). Today we use the term ‘puritan’ to mean someone who is excessively strict about issues of personal and sexual morality, but it had a more specific meaning in the early seventeenth century. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, to call someone a ‘puritan’ was to use a disrespectful term for someone with radical religious views. England’s ‘puritans’ were various groups of zealous Protestants who condemned anything that resembled Catholic ritual or tradition. They had many targets for their disapproval: singing, dancing, festive games, rich food, gaudy clothes, long hair – and theatre. Throughout his career, Shakespeare had to contend with extremists who regarded drama as an offence against religion and morality. So to an extent, Malvolio is his revenge: he’s a mean-spirited puritan who turns out to be a hypocrite with an embarrassing fantasy life in which he dreams of being married to Olivia. But Shakespeare’s depiction of Malvolio is not as simple as that. He is ungenerous to Toby Belch, Maria and Andrew Aguecheek, but their response is brutal: Malvolio is incarcerated, mistreated and made to believe he is mad. As Olivia says, ‘he hath been most notoriously abused’ (5.1.366). For all that Malvolio is small-minded and repressive, Shakespeare doesn’t let us forget that he is a human who feels pain, and as he leaves the stage with the pledge to ‘be revenged on the whole pack of you’ (5.1.365), we can’t help but feel sympathy for him. Perhaps it was this ambiguous ending that stuck with John Manningham. It certainly continues to fascinate us today. 

Dr Will Tosh
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Shakespeare's Globe