I've heard that Shakespeare borrowed ideas from the events and other literary works from the time. He uses cross-dressing as a major plot device in several plays. Where did this come from?
Among Shakespeare's contemporaries, the motif of a woman disguising as a man had been used before, for example by George Peele in his play Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes, which was written around 1570 and by John Lyly in his play Gallathea (around 1588). (See my related question.)
In his diary, John Manningham had noted similarities between Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and the Italian play Gl'ingannati / The Deceived Ones, which dates from 1531, predating Peele's and Lily's plays. (There is no hard evidence that Shakespeare knew this play, though.) The play introduces Lelia, dressed as a boy. According to Yasuo TAMAIZUMI, Gl' Ingannati contains the earliest example of a female page.
However, the motif of cross-dressing is much older than the Renaissance. For example, Achilles on Skyros is a story available in Publius Papinius Statius's unfinished Achilleid in which Achilles disguises himself as a girl.
In summary, Shakespeare may have found inspiration in sources from Antiquity, from the Italian Renaissance or from contemporary works.
- Accademia degli Intronati: Gl'Ingannati / The Deceived
- Gl’Ingannati, an Italian play about twins and mistaken identity, British Library.
- The festival of Twelfth Night in John Manningham's diary, British Library.
- Yasuo TAMAIZUMI: On Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Transactions of the Japan Academy, Volume 74 (2020) Issue 3.