Exploring the Sources and Duration of Shakespeare’s Classic Play Twelfth Night

The play epitomizes a splendid fusion of two storylines: a profound romantic plot and a comedic underplot that revolves around the trick played on Malvolio, infusing romance in the former and humor in the latter. Shakespeare appears to have drawn inspiration from various sources, primarily of Italian origin, for the main storyline. Notably, three works come to mind in this regard.

Firstly, the notion of a woman serving her lover disguised as a page and advocating for his cause while becoming the object of affection for her rival appears to have been a popular theme among novelists and playwrights of the 16th century. It can be traced back to renowned collections of tales such as Bandello’s Novelle (1554), Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1565), and Belleforest’s French adaptation of Bandello titled ‘Histories Tragiques’ (1576). Plautus’ ‘Menaechmi’ also contributed to this narrative.

Secondly, there is the Italian comedy ‘Gl’ingannati’ (The Mistaken), which was first performed in Siena as early as 1531 and subsequently reprinted on numerous occasions.

Lastly, we have ‘Inganni’ (Mistakes), a play staged in Milan in 1547 and reprinted several times before 1602.

Shakespeare transformed the enigmatic figures of Italian romance into consistent and relatable characters while staying true to their origins, imbuing them with rich imagination and sensitivity. Alongside these, he introduced a contrasting group of individuals with a coarser nature, representing the realistic temperament of the English stock. The comedic elements are entirely Shakespeare’s own creation.

Furthermore, whenever Shakespeare borrowed incidents, he consistently improved upon the original material. He infused his own exquisite imagination and elevated the conduct of the heroines, transforming what was once a dull and tedious account into a delightful blend of humor and wit. In these moments, the highest form of poetry is wielded with intense fun, showcasing Shakespeare’s ability to present the loftiest and most ludicrous aspects of human affairs through his unique perspective—an eagle’s eye view unattainable to ordinary individuals.

According to Mr. P. A. Daniel, the play’s timeline spans three days, with a three-day interval between the first and second days. Let’s examine the chronology:

Day 1: Act 1, scene I introduces us to Orsino and his pursuit of Olivia. In scene II, Viola, recently rescued from a shipwreck, decides to disguise herself as a boy and enter the Duke’s service. Scene III introduces us to Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria. All these scenes take place on the same day.

(Interval of three days)

Day 2: Act I, scene IV portrays Viola (as Cesario) already in high favor with the Duke, as indicated by Valentine’s comment: “He hath known you but three days, and already you are no stranger.” This implies a three-day interval between these scenes. In Scene V, at Olivia’s house, Olivia invites Cesario to return the next day. In Act II, scene I, Sebastian arrives, and his speeches indicate he is still grieving for his lost sister. Scene II depicts Malvolio delivering the ring to Viola, while Scene III showcases Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and the Clown, Feste, enjoying themselves. Maria persuades Sir Toby to be patient for the night, as Olivia has been disturbed since “the youth of the Count’s was today with my lady.” The day concludes with Sir Toby retiring to drink sack, saying it is too late to go to bed.

Also Read : 


Day 3: From Act II, scene IV until the end of the play, all events unfold in a single May morning. Hence, the play’s timeline covers three days with a three-day interval between the first and second days.

The precise location of the action remains intentionally ambiguous, as is often the case in romantic comedies. This vagueness serves the purpose of romance. Although Illyria bears some resemblance to modern-day Dalmatia and was likely considered Italian by the Elizabethans, the play exhibits more English spirit than Shakespeare’s other Italian-themed works.

Illyria is not tied to any specific district along the Adriatic coast; instead, it represents a realm of magic—a name steeped in mystique. Locating Illyria geographically proves as challenging as pinpointing Prospero’s island in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic.

Illyria is depicted as a renowned town, adorned with monuments and remarkable things, featuring broad streets lined with gardens surrounding grand villas of the nobility, bathed in glorious sunlight. It is a fantastical and romantic world of love and dalliance. As J. B. Priestley eloquently describes, by taking a ship from the coast of Bohemia and sailing westward for a day, one would reach Illyria. There, they would encounter the lovesick Duke, the enchanting Countess Olivia, and the vibrant characters that populate the landscape. Whether high or low, sober or drunk, Illyria offers a captivating and diverse company.

The play consists of two distinct groups of characters, as is common in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. The first group comprises young men and women who reside in a world of youth and dreams, crafted with romantic allure. The second group represents the everyday people who keep things in motion. The former belongs to Illyria, while the latter—the world of humorists and peculiar individuals—belongs to England. It is Shakespeare’s ability to navigate and intertwine these two worlds, shifting between Nowhere and England, that distinguishes his romantic comedies from others.

In conclusion, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is a remarkable play that masterfully combines a serious love plot with a comedic underplot, creating a captivating and harmonious theatrical experience. Drawing inspiration from various Italian sources, Shakespeare weaves a tale of romance and humor, infusing it with his own creative genius.

The play unfolds over the course of three days, with a three-day interval between the first and second days. Within this timeline, the audience is introduced to a vibrant cast of characters, ranging from lovesick nobility to mischievous pranksters. Through their interactions and the cleverly intertwined storylines, Shakespeare explores themes of love, mistaken identity, and the complexities of human nature.

While the specific setting of Illyria remains ambiguous, it serves as a mystical backdrop where romance and enchantment flourish. It is a place where the ideals of love and passion come to life, while the comical antics of the English-inspired characters add a touch of relatability and humor.

Thus, “Twelfth Night” remains a timeless masterpiece, demonstrating Shakespeare’s unique insight into the human condition and his unparalleled ability to entertain, engage, and enlighten audiences for generations to come.



Leave a Comment