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The comic scenes of this play appear to have been intirely the production of our author; while the serious part is founded on a story in the fourth volume of Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques, which he took from Bandello. Malone, however, is of opinion that the plot of this comedy was rather derived from The Historie of Apolonius and Silla; which tale is to be found in a collection, by Barnaby Rich, which first appeared in the year 1583. But little doubt can remain of the identity of the story of Bandello with the incidents of Twelfth Night, after a perusal of the comparison of both compositions from the pen of Mrs. Lennox :
'Sebastian and Viola, in the play, are the same with Paolo and Nicuola in the novel: both are twins, and both remarkably like each other. Viola is parted from her brother by a shipwreck, and supposes him to be drowned; Nicuola loses her brother at the sacking of Rome, and for a long time is ignorant whether he is alive or dead. Viola serves the duke, with whom she is in love, in the habit of a page; Nicuola, in the same disguise, attends Lattantio, who had forsaken her for Catella. The duke sends Viola to solicit his mistress in his favor; Lattantio commissions Nicuola to plead for him with Catella. The duke's mistress falls in
love with Viola, supposing her to be a man; and Catella, by the like mistake, is enamored of Nicuola: and, lastly, the two ladies in the play, as well as in the novel, marry their lovers whom they had waited on in disguise, and their brothers wed the ladies who had been enamored of them.'
'This play,' says Dr. Johnson, 'is in the graver part elegant and easy, and in some of the lighter scenes exquisitely humorous. Ague-cheek is drawn with great propriety, but his character is, in a great measure, that of natural fatuity, and is therefore not the proper prey of a satirist. The soliloquy of Malvolio is truly comic: he is betrayed to ridicule merely by his pride. The marriage of Olivia, and the succeeding perplexity, though well enough contrived to divert on the stage, wants credibility, and fails to produce the proper instruction required in the drama, as it exhibits no just picture of life.'
Sebastian and Viola, twin children of a gentleman of Messaline, and remarkable for an exact resemblance of features, being deprived of both their parents, quit their native country they are encountered at sea by a violent tempest, which destroys the vessel and most of the crew, while Viola, the captain, and a few passengers betake themselves to the boat, which conveys them in safety to the sea-coast of Illyria. The lady, thus deprived of her brother, clothes herself in male attire, and enters into the service of Prince Orsino, who is at this time engaged in the unsuccessful pursuit of a neighboring lady, named Olivia. The talents of the disguised page soon render her so great a favorite of her master, that she is selected to intercede with the obdurate Olivia; who, though deaf to the solicitations of the prince, is seised with a sudden passion for the domestic, which meets with a repulse. Viola, on her return home, is waylaid by a foolish suitor of Olivia, favored by her uncle, who persuades him to challenge the youth, in order to beget in his mistress a favorable opinion of his courage. Viola, as may well be supposed, is averse to a rencontre of this description; when she is rescued from her embarrassment by the arrival of a sea captain, who, having saved her brother Sebastian from the wreck, had since supplied him with considerable sums of money for his exigencies; but, in consequence of an unexpected arrest, is compelled to solicit a moiety of the loan: he accordingly applies to Viola, believing that he is addressing his friend; and, when she denies all knowlege of his person, reproaches her with her ingratitude. In the mean time, Sebastian arrives; and the foolish knight, with nis confederate, supposing him to be the page of Orsino, who had before declined the combat, assault him; but their violence is repaid with interest, and the combatants are parted by Olivia, whose advances to the supposed page are now received with mutual affection, and they are married without delay. Viola, arriving soon after with her master at the house of Olivia, is mistaken by the lady for her husband, by whose appearance the mystery is at length cleared up, and Viola is united to the prince.