Twelfth Night borrows many conventions from Commedia dell’Arte, an Italian form of comedy that was often improvised, and therefore could contain more subversive material than other types of theater. Plays of the Commedia tradition were performed by travelling troupes of 10-15 performers, each dedicated to a specific role. Conventional themes in Commedia dell’Arte include jealousy, love and old age, while plot elements typically involve young lovers (innamorati in Italian) kept apart by various influences, such as the objections of an older generation (miserly parents or grandparents) called vechi. The lovers then seek assistance from a clever servant, known as zanni in Italian, who often deploys jokes (lazzi or concetti) and performs slapstick routines (burle). Eventually, after many complications, the conflict is resolved through the happy marriages of the innamorati. By the mid-sixteenth century, Commedia dell’Arte troupes performed regularly in England, so Shakespeare would have been familiar with the genre and its conventions. In fact, several of Shakespeare’s comedies draw quite overtly from the Commedia tradition.
In Twelfth Night specifically, Feste can be seen as a direct reference to Arlecchino (Harlequin in English), a zanni character, who despite being dismissed by others as a fool, is quite shrewd and wise. Similarly, Maria is drawn from the character of Columbina, a female zanni (in some cases the wife of Arlecchino), who is comparably clever and witty. Maria’s plan to trick Malvolio with a forged letter exemplifies the kind of mischief Columbina would have instigated in a Commedia play. Sir Andrew resembles the stock-character Il Capitano (the captain), a second-rate soldier and braggart who lacks any self-awareness. Sir Andrew’s delusional conviction that he is an ideal match for Olivia closely parallels the misguided bravado of Il Capitano. Similarly, Malvolio is drawn from the vechio Il Dottore (the doctor) who is portrayed as a pedantic snob, or parody of the educated elite. Malvolio’s conceited, straight-laced demeanor perfectly fits this mold, as does his hidden ambition to get ahead.
Post-Shakespeare, the genre was adopted numerous times in later works of drama, especially during the Enlightenment. The comedies of Moliere, Carlo Goldoni, and the Figaro plays of Pierre Beaumarchais are all examples of works heavily influenced by the Commedia tradition, adopting its colorful cast of stock characters, while at the same time departing from the improvised gags that were once an integral component of the genre. In the following centuries, many well-known operas and ballets continued to make use of Commedia characters. In the eighteenth century, Mozart wrote many examples of Italian opera buffa, or comic operas, that borrowed characters and situations from Commedia traditions. For example, the characters of Susana in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Zerlina in Don Giovani, and Despina in Cosi fan tutte are all clear iterations of Columbina. In the nineteenth century, Stravinsky’s famous ballets Petrushka and Pulcinella both borrow conspicuously from several Commedia scenarios and characters.