Shakespeare’s Sources – Twelfth Night

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The next in this series on Shakespeare’s sources has been written by Rachel Parks who is doing her work experience with me the week this was written.

This blog will focus on Shakespeare’s inspiration for his classic cross dressing comedy play Twelfth Night.  There are numerous plays written before Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that are centred around the comical plot of a female twin taking service as a page with the man she loves, but the ones Shakespeare might have been familiar  with seem to be adaptations or translations of the original work by the academy of Intronati at Siena and their play Gl’Igannati (published 1537). There is an extensive list of similarities between Gl’Igannati and Twelfth Night , even both following almost the exact same plot line of a female twin disguising herself as her brother after he is presumed dead, to become a man servant for the gentlemen she loves.

The most significant difference between the plays is the opening scenes. Twelfth Night starts dramatically with a ship wreck, where as Gl’Igannati introduces an entire backs story which explains  Lelia’s love (in Shakespeare’s version Viola)  for Flamminio (the Orsino character in Shakespeare’s version). It is possible that Shakespeare considered the back story difficult to portray on stage and a hindrance to the flow and speed of the story line, so chose not to include it. The basic synopsis of the back story in Gl’Igannati is as follows, a rich man Virginio loses his wealth and his young son Fabrizio in the sack of Rome but saves his 13 year old daughter Lelia, after they both escape to a different city. There Lelia falls in love with a young cavalier, Flamminio who returns her affection until her father and she leave the city for a while. Whilst they are gone Flamminio falls madly in love with Isabella, who is indifferent to him. When Lelia returns she discovers Flamminio has forgotten her so she decides to disguise herself as a boy called Fabio and take service as Flamminio’s page.

It is not just the significant changes that make Twelfth night more than just an adaptation of Gl’Igannati but an entirely separate play . The small alterations to the plot give a different feel to the play such as the reversal of characters in scenes like when the servants of Flamminio/Orsino   express their resentment and jealousy towards  Lelia/Viola because of the sudden affection and trust  bestowed upon her from their master.

Here is this scene in the Gl’Igannati version:

Flamminio – Believe me, I have no servant in my house who is worth his salt save Fabio. God give me grace to reward him as he deserves! What are you muttering? What do you say fool?

Criv – What do you want me to say? I say Yes. Fabio is good; Fabio is wonderful, Fabio serves well; – Fabio with you,-Fabio with your lady…. Fabio is everything; Fabio does everything. But –

Flamminio – What do you mean by ‘But’?

Criv – It may not always be a good thing –

Flamminio – Go on

Criv – Not a good thing to trust everything you have to him. For he is a stranger to Modena and might well one day make off with it.

Flamminio  – I wish you others were as trustworthy

Where as in Shakespeare’s version the servants address their concern for Viola and Orsino’s closeness, to Viola.

Valentine – If the Duke continue these favours towards you, Cesario, you are like to be much advanced. He hath known you but three days, and already you are no stranger.

Viola – You either fear his humor or my negligence, that you call in question the continuance of his love. Is he inconstant, sir, in his favours?

Valentine – No, believe me…

Although both scenes  show the servants’ jealousy and suspicion of Lelia/ Viola, I believe Shakespeare used the  role reversal as a tool to fill in the gap left by not including the back story. By swapping Orsino/Flamminio with Viola/Lelia it allows the audience to interpret the obvious affection Viola has for Orsino without having to include the back story. This back story would have slowed down the story and elongated the time frame making it less entertaining. Also by bringing into question the master rather the servants’  loyalty it is  possible that Shakespeare is mocking the aristocracy that ruled in his  day.

Furthermore Shakespeare changes the tone of the comedy by adding in the cruel trick played on Malvolio by the drunken members of Olivia’s household. I believe this makes the comedy darker and adds a bit of a sour note to the happy ending.





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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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