I venture to believe that we are too much accustomed to regard Shakespeare as a writer of impulse rather than premeditation; the fact is that almost throughout the whole period of his authorship he combined a marvellous spontaneity with an equally marvellous discipline of thought and command of material. And this fact is not less true of the sources of his dramas; he spares no pains in his research; he disdains no authority, and no hint in any authority.
To these preliminary considerations two other facts may be added. Shakespeare usually avoided the trouble--not, of course, of elaborating--but of inventing a story; he preferred to adapt the plot of some existing novel or drama; and rightly, as I think; for a glance at almost any one of the great literatures of the world will convince us that to originate in the matter of myth or episode or narrative has been more often the frolic of a nation in its youth, or the task of mere ingenuity, and that the higher creative genius has displayed itself by its power of transmuting the crude metal of popular fable or story into the fine gold of drama and epic. But the remaining fact has yet to be stated; for this power of transmuting was possessed by Shakespeare in a far greater degree than by any other literary alchemist.
We are now prepared to discover the narrative or dramatic literature which preceded Twelfth Night some original--or more probably some originals--that suggested to Shakespeare the leading incidents of his drama; and we must further expect to trace back to minor sources not a little of its material generally.
The stream of story that flows through the main plot of Twelfth Night, as apart from the less serious underplay, had its source in a remote past; for the chief incidents of the drama turn on the confusions arising from the likeness of twins, which is the motive of the Menaechmi of Plautus, and had, moreover been derived by him from a Greek play; and this comedy of Plautus had already been adapted by Shakespeare when writing his Comedy of Errors. But as it pursued its course through the centuries of letters, this earlier stream of story was enriched by tributaries, and among those was the fable so well represented in Twelfth Night, and shadowed forth already in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; it is that of a woman disguised as a page who falls in love with her master, yet pleads his cause with another woman, who in turn falls in love with her. This twofold story in one form or another became popular, and it was told many times by dramatists or novelists, especially in the sixteenth century.
First to be mentioned among these productions or reproductions of the story is the Italian play Gl' Ingannati ("The Deceived, Cheated, Dupes"), which was acted at Siena in 1531 and printed at Venice in 1537; this Shakespeare almost certainly consulted; and in the poetical Induction Il Sacrificio, which preceded the play, he doubtless found the name Malevolti, and changed it, as I believe to Aguecheek.
If not familiar with Italian literature, Shakespeare certainly had some means of access to it; this must be evident to all who study his works, and I see no reason to doubt that Gl' Ingannati contributed, and that materially, to the development of Twelfth Night.
It is to Hunter that we are indebted for the discovery of this Italian play, and the title of the volume containing it is Il Sacrificio, Comedia de gl' Intronati.
But Hunter was led on to this discovery by the following passage in the Diary of John Manningham, which was first published by Collier in 1831. Manningham was a barrister of the Middle Temple, and his Diary extends with certain breaks and digressions from Christmas 1601 to the 14th of April 1603. The passage runs thus:
"Feb. 2.--At our feast wee had a play called 'Twelve Night, or What you Will,' much like the Commedy of Errores, or Menechmi in Plautus, but most like and neere to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practise in it to make the steward beleeue his Lady widdowe was in love with him, by counterfayting a lettre as from his Lady in generall termes, telling him what shee liked best in him, and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparraile, etc., and then when he came to practise making him beleeue they tooke him to be mad."
To Hunter the discovery of this important Diary may be partly due; it was he at least who identified its author. Moreover, its mention of the Italian play Inganni prompted those researches which led him to the earlier and far more important Gl' Ingannati. As to the Inganni of Manningham, there were two plays with that title, one was printed at Florence in 1562, and--so we read on the title-page--"Recitata in Milano l'anno 1547"; and the author was one Nicolo Secchi; but compared with Gl' Ingannati, its resemblance to Twelfth Night is not by any means striking; and although Shakespeare may have glanced at its pages, they do not appear to have laid him under any serious obligation.
Somewhat more deserving of mention is another Italian play, another Inganni, which followed the former after an interval of thirty years. This was the work of Curzio Gonzaga, and it was printed in Venice in 1592. Like that of the earlier Inganni, its plot turned on the pivot of a resemblance between a brother and a sister, the latter being dressed in man's attire; but, as in the former instance, the play itself affords no very material proof of having been used by Shakespeare. In this case, however, we have to note one item of evidence which is almost convincing (especially in connection with Hunter's volume of five plays which is described below), and reminds us of the probable origin of the name "Malvolio," and the possible origin of "Fabian"; for in Gonzaga's play the name assumed by the lady in disguise is "Cesare"; and when we remember the many other occasions on which Shakespeare borrowed only a name or two from a whole play or a whole book, we may well believe that he was indebted for his "Cesario" to this Inganni by Gonzaga. Further, it is at least a remarkable coincidence that Hunter should have found Gonzaga's Inganni of 1592 and Gl' Ingannati of 1585 bound up in a volume with three other Italian plays, in one of which, Il Viluppo, di M.G. Parabosco, 1547, Orsino innamorato appears among the Dramatis Personæ. No wonder that Hunter should imagine that the volume must have been used by Shakespeare. Of the poet's indebtedness to Gl' Ingannati, and the "Sacrificio" of the Intronati," I have spoken already.
There is yet to be mentioned a third Inganni, that of Cornaccini, also printed at Venice, and dated 1604; but apart from the date, which, as we shall see further on, is too late for Twelfth Night, this Inganni is less important for our purpose than either of the others.
It is customary to assume that Shakespeare gained access to Italian books through English or perhaps French (and we might add Latin) translations, and we know that a French version of Gl' Ingannati appeared as early as 1543, and that a Latin version, Laelia, of which the MS. is preserved at Lambeth Palace, was performed at Queen's College, Cambridge, in 1590 and 1598; and further, that a Spanish translation was made in 1556 by Lope de Rueda, entitled Los Engaños or (edition of 1567) Comedia de los Engañados.
Of such renderings it is likely enough that Shakespeare glanced at the Latin, but again I prefer to think that he had some access to the Italian; and, as we shall see below, he appears to have read Bandello in the original, and if so, why not Gl' Ingannati as well?
From these Italian plays we now turn to other probable sources of Twelfth Night. The story which is woven into the plot of Gl' Ingannati is told also in Bandello's Novelle, 1554, and in Belleforest's Histoires Traguiques, 1570, where we have a French version of the former. That Shakespeare had Bandello before him when he wrote Twelfth Night is in my opinion much more than possible; the resemblances of thought and phrase are almost incontestable evidence. Belleforest he may also have used, but I incline to believe that he consulted Bandello.
From Bandello, or from Bandello through Belleforest, was derived, as we may suppose, the Apolonius and Silla of Barnabe Riche, which is the last to be mentioned among these possible sources of _Twelfth Night_. The story is one of eight, and the title of the containing volume is Riche, his Farewell to Militarie Profession: conteining verie pleasaunt discourses fit for a peaceable time, etc. etc. Imprinted at London by Robert Walley, 1581.
Again the incidents of the oft told tale are repeated in their main outlines, and the influence of Belleforest, though Riche has changed the name of every character in the story, is quite evident. It was long supposed that this version by Riche was the "indisputable source of Twelfth Night; but although written in English, and therefore more presumably within Shakespeare's reach, its claim to such a distinction is hardly worth considering. And I must here repeat my conviction that Shakespeare was indebted to no one of the authorities I have mentioned, but that he derived material or suggestion (it may have been a mere word) from most of them, if not from all.
In their list of originals for Twelfth Night, some critics have included the English Novel of the Fifth Decade of Cinthio's Hecatommithi, 1565; for here we have also many of the well-known incidents--twins, a shipwreck, a girl disguised as a boy, and so forth.
Also in the second book of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, the story of the "faire zelmane" is that of a woman disguised as a page who loves her master to death; and Peele, in his Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes, 1599, gives us a similar incident. But these examples might be multiplied and they need not be dwelt upon except so far as they remind us of the popularity which the story adopted by Shakespeare enjoyed in the sixteenth century.
At this point I should repeat that we are investigating the origins of the main plot of Twelfth Night, in which Viola is the central figure; but the "Interlude," as the Clown styles it, or the "Befooling of Malvolio," as we perhaps may style it, this, like most of Shakespeare's underplots, would appear to be of his own invention. For one other suggestion, however, he may be indebted to the same Bandello, for the Italian novelist tells how the widowed Duchess of Amalfi falls in love with and marries her steward Ulrico. With this we may compare the passage in Twelfth Night, II. v. 41, 42, "There is example for't; the lady of the Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe"; and it is possible, as I may repeat later, that this "lady of the Strachy" is the Lady of Malphey.
In this quest of origins may now be included a consideration of the title of the play. Knowing Shakespeare's addiction to an authority, I like to place first among suggestions the Italian phrase, "la Notte di Beffana" (i.e. Befania or Epifania--Epiphany or Twelfth Night), which he should have found in his Gl' Ingannati. It occurs in the prologue to the play, in a passage given by Hunter as follows: "The story is new, never seen or read, and only dipped for and taken out of their own industrious noddles as your prize-tickets are dipped for and taken out on Twelfth Night (la Notte di Beffana), by which it appears to you that the Intronati might have answered you so much upon this part of the declaration," etc. For my part, I am quite content with the foregoing explanation of the title Twelfth Night; certainly with less confidence I pass on to suggest that, like The Winter's Tale or the Midsummer Night's Dream, this play was something that a poet's fancy might find appropriate to a time or a season--a festival for example--and that Twelfth Night in our "old and antique" England was a time of feasting and mirth. And it is with still greater hesitation that I bring forward a third conjecture which would derive the title in question from the fact that the play was first performed on Twelfth Night, 1602. Nor is the conjecture made less doubtful because the drama was sometimes acted on Twelfth Night, as Pepys, for instance, saw it on the 6th of January 1662-63.
We have yet to notice the alternative title, "What You Will"; this should first remind us of the similar title in Shakespeare, namely, As You Like It; and we should also remember that both titles were prefixed to plays by other writers. They meant little more than "You may call my play what you please." When Shakespeare added to Twelfth Night this alternative of "What You Will," he merely wished to say to us, "If that first title does not meet with your approval, then call my play what you will." It was not his intention to avail himself of a petty artifice adopted from time to time by slighter men; he at least would not descend, by the means of a heading of mock-modest disparagement, to apologize for the demerits of his work, or even to leave open the question as to whether it was "purely poetic or purely comic," or as to whether it was "comedy or romance," and so forth. In spite of his coming Hamlet, these considerations had little weight with him here; less than they had with Marston, when he wrote the following dialogue in the Induction to his What You Will (1607):
Atte. What's the play's name?
Phi. What You Will.
Dor. Is't comedy, tragedy, pastoral, moral, nocturnal, or history?
Phi. Faith, perfectly neither, but even What You Will--a slight toy, lightly composed, too swiftly finish'd, ill plotted, worse written, I fear me worst acted, and indeed What You Will.
In other words, we interpret Marston, "Criticize my work at your pleasure, but be lenient, for I hasten to allow its imperfections"; whereas Shakespeare says merely, and he says it bluntly, "Call my Play what you will." And sometimes he was taken at his word; for during the twenty years that followed his first production, his Twelfth Night was often known as Malvolio, and Charles I. in his copy of the second edition, altered the title to that name.
Nor did Shakespeare--though this was more plausible--affect in his second title an indifference to the superb creation of his own genius; nor, lastly, did he imply, as some would discover, a careless farewell to comedy, and a new devotion to the sterner business of tragedy; at least I regret that a suggestion so full of interest is unsupported by any direct evidence.
Also bound up with this subject of backward links is the question as to whence Shakespeare derived the names of the principle characters in Twelfth Night. As a fact, most of them may be traced to some earlier literary source; and we have already pointed to the most probable origin of Aguecheek, Malvolio, Cesario, and Orsino. And again, before continuing our search, we assume the poet's habit of appropriating rather than originating even in matters of the smallest detail. As we have see, it was in Il Sacrificio, the fanciful Introduction to Gl' Ingannati, that "Maleuolti" presented itself as a significant name for after adoption by some alert dramatist; and from the play itself Shakespeare must have selected Fabio, the name assumed by Lelia in her disguise, from which to form his Fabian. To those who ask why Shakespeare did not adopt more of the names in the Italian play before him, I should answer readily enought, that although he almost always preferred names, titles, and phrases that were already made literary, he was nevertheless careful in most cases to avoid any manifest obligation to a pre-existing authority.
We next discover that Olivia was a Queen of Thessaly in Part I. of Emanuel Forde's Parismus, the Renowned Prince of Bohemia, and that Violetta was the name of the lady who followed her lover in the disguise of a page, and like Viola was shipwrecked. The date of Parismus is 1598.
It happened that two of the leading characters in The Tempest corresponded in name to well-known personages among the contemporaries of Shakespeare, one of whom was connected with the court; so in the case of Twelfth Night, the Duke Orsino, who was an ambassador to England, and was entertained by Elizabeth, may possibly be identified with Duke (otherwise Count) Orsino in our play; nor does the date 1600-01, which is assigned to the visit of the ambassador, make the assumption unjustifiable; Shakespeare's knowledge of the court of Elizabeth and its foreign relations was as ample as that of a professed courtier. Antonio and Sebastian--names also to be found in The Tempest--occur in Eden's History of Travaile, 1577, an authority most undeniably respected by Shakespeare. Valentine and Curio are the "Gentlemen attending," and need not detain us here; they loiter, mostly in conventional pairs, through drama after drama of the period, and are puppets rather than characters. Not such is the versatile, the inimitable Feste, who bears a name in harmony with the play and its title, as the poet doubtless intended. Nor is it a matter of much consequence whether we derive the suggestive syllables (we pronounce Fes-të) from the festeggiante translated by Florio, or from the equally accessible Latin Festus; but the former is more likely.
We have left to mention Sir Toby Belch; compare also Aguecheek and Malvolio; such names of crude significance are common enough in all drama, but we may class them with the coarser devices of Shakespeare's comic period. As to the appellation Sir, it is without some effect of humorous incongruity.