Gl’Ingannati, an Italian play about twins and mistaken identity


This book is an Italian edition of a play which has much in common with the mistaken identity plot in Twelfth Night. Though there is no concrete evidence Shakespeare saw the play, the contemporary diarist John Manningham noted similarities in his diary record of a performance in 1602. It was, he wrote, ‘most like and neere to that Italian called Inganni’.

Deception and Reception

There are three roughly contemporary Italian plays on the theme of ‘Inganni’, or ‘Deceits’. The one pictured here was the most popular. It was first performed in Siena by a company called the Accademia degli Intronati (‘The Academy of the Thunderstruck’) in 1533, and first published in 1537. It went through eight editions, was translated into French several times, and performed in Latin, in Cambridge in 1595.

Both Twelfth Night and Gl’Ingannati are part of a tradition of plots about confusion between twins which goes back at least to Menaechmi by the Ancient Roman comic dramatist Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254—184 BC). Plautus himself is drawing on older ancient Greek comedy. Menaechmi also has a ‘parasite’ figure, leeching off a wealthy household: an ancestor of Sir Toby Belch.

Twinning and separation

In Plautus, the twins are both male and represent opposed playful and serious sides of the same character. In Gl’Ingannati, they are differently gendered. Shakespeare may have been drawn to the plot as he himself was the father of twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585; Hamnet died in 1596, five years before the first performance of the play. Critics such as Jonathan Bate have drawn attention to the poignancy this gives the story of a twin sister searching for her lost brother.

The plotting differences between Twelfth Night and Gl’Ingannati draw attention particularly to themes of gender and cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s play. The first is that on the Italian stage, women would have been played by women. On Shakespeare’s English stage, laws regulating the theatre meant that these parts had to be played by male actors, adding a further layer of deception and complexity.

Full title:
[Gl'Ingannati.] Comedia del Sacrificio degli Intronati celebrato nei giuochi dun carnouale in Siena
c.1540, Venetia
Book / Octavo / Illustration / Image
 Accademia degli Intronati (SIENA)
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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