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Shakespeare and Renaissance

Literary Theories
Anglo-Italian Renaissance Studies Series
Series Editors

General Editor: Michele Marrapodi, University of Palermo, Italy

Advisory Editors: Keir Elam, University of Bologna, Italy
Robert Henke, Washington University, USA

This series aims to place early modern English drama within the context of the
European Renaissance and, more specifically, within the context of Italian cultural,
dramatic, and literary traditions, with reference to the impact and influence of both
classical and contemporary culture. Among the various forms of influence, the
series considers early modern Italian novellas, theatre, and discourses as direct or
indirect sources, analogues and paralogues for the construction of Shakespeare’s
drama, particularly in the comedies, romances, and other Italianate plays. Critical
analysis focusing on other cultural transactions, such as travel and courtesy books,
the arts, fencing, dancing, and fashion, will also be encompassed within the scope
of the series. Special attention is paid to the manner in which early modern English
dramatists adapted Italian materials to suit their theatrical agendas, creating new
forms, and stretching the Renaissance practice of contaminatio to achieve, even
if unconsciously, a process of rewriting, remaking, and refashioning of ‘alien’
cultures. The series welcomes both single-author studies and collections of essays
and invites proposals that take into account the transition of cultures between the
two countries as a bilateral process, paying attention also to the penetration of
early modern English culture into the Italian world.


Visions of Venice in Shakespeare

Edited by Laura Tosi and Shaul Bassi

Shakespeare and Venice

Graham Holderness

Pollastra and the Origins of Twelfth Night

Parthenio, commedia (1516) with an English Translation
Louise George Clubb

Translating Women in Early Modern England

Gender in the Elizabethan Versions of Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso
Selene Scarsi

Machiavelli in the British Isles

Two Early Modern Translations of The Prince
Alessandra Petrina
Shakespeare and Renaissance
Literary Theories
Anglo-Italian Transactions

Edited by
Michele Marrapodi
University of Palermo, Italy
© The editor and contributors 2011

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise
without the prior permission of the publisher.

The contributors have asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be
identified as the authors of this work.

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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Shakespeare and Renaissance literary theories : Anglo-Italian transactions. – (Anglo-Italian
Renaissance studies)
1. Shakespeare, William, 1564–1616 – Criticism and interpretation. 2. Shakespeare, William,
1564–1616 – Knowledge – Italy. 3. English drama – Early modern and Elizabethan, 1500–1600
– History and criticism. 4. English drama – 17th century – History and criticism. 5. English
drama – Italian influences. 6. Comparative literature – English and Italian. 7. Comparative
literature – Italian and English. 8. Renaissance – England.
I. Series

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Shakespeare and Renaissance literary theories : Anglo-Italian transactions / [edited by]
Michele Marrapodi.
p. cm. – (Anglo-Italian Renaissance studies)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978–1–4094–2149–8 (hardback : alk. paper) – ISBN 978–1–4094–2150–4 (ebook)
1. Shakespeare, William, 1564–1616 – Knowledge – Italy. 2. English drama – Italian influences.
3. English drama – Early modern and Elizabethan, 1500–1600 – History and criticism – Theory,
etc. 4. Influence (Literary, artistic, etc.) – History – 16th century. 5. Influence (Literary, artistic,
etc.) – History – 17th century. 6. Comparative literature – English and Italian. 7. Comparative
literature – Italian and English. 8. Renaissance – England. 9. Italy – In literature.
I. Marrapodi, Michele.
PR3069.I8S495 2010
822.3’3–dc22 2010038093

ISBN 9781409421498 (hbk)

ISBN 9781409421504 (ebk) III

Printed and bound in Great Britain by

TJ International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall.
In memory of
Giorgio Melchiori (1920–2009)
Teacher, Scholar, Friend

‘A was a man, take him for all in all:

I shall not look upon his like again.’
(Hamlet, 1.2.187–8)
This page has been left blank intentionally

List of Figures   ix
Notes on Contributors   xi
Acknowledgements   xv

Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres   1

Michele Marrapodi

Part I: Art, Rhetoric, Style

1 Shakespeare and the Art of Forgetting   25

Stephen Orgel

2 Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist

Poetics   37
Robin Headlam Wells

3 Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes   57

John Roe

4 Shakespearean Outdoings: Titus Andronicus and Italian

Renaissance Tragedy   75
Mariangela Tempera

5 Transalpine Wonders: Shakespeare’s Marvelous Aesthetics   89

Adam Max Cohen

Part II: Genres, Models, Forms

6 Hamlet versus Commedia dell’Arte   105

Frances K. Barasch

7 The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment: Julius

Caesar, Shakespeare’s Historiography, and Dramatic Form   119
Hugh Grady

8 The Problem of Old Age: Anticomedy in As You Like It and

Ruzante’s L’Anconitana   137
Anthony Ellis
viii Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

9 Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study   153

Robert Henke

10 The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope: From Commedia Grave to

Shakespeare’s Pericles and the Last Plays   175
Michele Marrapodi

Part III: Spectacle, Aesthetics, Representation

11 Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival: Venice and Verona Revisited   203

François Laroque

12 (Re)fracted Art and Ordered Nature: Italian Renaissance

Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s Richard II   221
Susan Payne

13 ’Tis Pity She’s Italian: Performing the Courtesan on the Early

Seventeenth-Century English Stage   235
Keir Elam

14 Silence, Seeing, and Performativity: Shakespeare and the

Paragone   247
Duncan Salkeld

15 Italian Spectacle and the Worlds of James VI/I   265

Michael Wyatt

Part IV: Coda

16 How Do We Know When Worlds Meet?   281

Louise George Clubb

Bibliography   287
Index   305
List of Figures

I.1 Title-page of The Workes of Beniamin Jonson (1616),

engraved by William Hole. By courtesy of the Rare Book
Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections,
Princeton University Library.   9

1.1 Girolamo Graziani, Il Cromuele (1671), plate to Act 1.   28

1.2 Girolamo Graziani, Il Cromuele (1671), plate to Act 4.   28

6.1 Pantalone spying on Harlequin and Francisquina. By courtesy

of the Statens Konstmuseer, Stockholm (Frossard: NM G 2202/
1904).   111

10.1 A Catalogve, from Mr William Shakespeares Comedies,

Histories & Tragedies (1623). By courtesy of the Rare Book
Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections,
Princeton University Library.    176

13.1 Thomas Coryate’s encounter with the Venetian courtesan

Margarita Emiliana, from Coryats Crudities, 1611. By
courtesy of the University of Bologna Library.   245
This page has been left blank intentionally
Notes on Contributors

Frances K. Barasch is Professor Emerita at Baruch College, The City University

of New York, and author or editor of numerous studies of the Grotesque, Romantic
Poets, and Commedia dell’Arte. She has published extensively on Shakespeare
and Renaissance comparative literature.

Louise George Clubb is Professor Emerita of Italian Studies and Comparative

Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and founding editor of the
University of California Press series ‘Biblioteca italiana’. She has published
extensively on early modern Italian and English literature and drama. Her
books include Giambattista Della Porta, Dramatist (1965), Italian Plays in the
Folger Library (1968), Italian Drama in Shakespeare’s Time (1989), and with
Robert Black, Romance and Aretine Humaninsm in Sienese Comedy (1993).
She is currently publishing a new volume on the Italian origins of Twelfth Night

Adam Max Cohen was Associate Professor of English at the University of

Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he specialised in Shakespeare, early modern
literature and early modern cultural studies. He explored the intersections between
early modern literature and the history of science and technology. He is the author
of Shakespeare and Technology: Dramatizing Early Modern Technological
Revolutions (2006) and Technology and the Early Modern Self (2009). Debbie
Cohen <>

Keir Elam is Professor of English Drama at the University of Bologna and

Advisory Editor of ‘Anglo-Italian Renaissance Studies’ (Ashgate). His books
include The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (1980) and Shakespeare’s Universe
of Discourse (1984). His edited volumes include Shakespeare’s Today (1984) and
La grande festa del linguaggio (1986). He is the editor of Twelfth Night for Arden

Anthony Ellis is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Western

Michigan University. He is the author of Old Age, Masculinity, and Early Modern
Drama: Comic Elders on the Italian and Shakespearean Stage (2009). He has
co-edited, with Rachel Poulsen, the essay collection Shifting Borders, Negotiating
Places: Cultural Studies and the Mutation(s) of Value (2006). His articles on
Renaissance drama have appeared recently in Forum Italicum, Studi veneziani,
Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, and Ben Jonson Journal. He serves as
associate editor of Comparative Drama.
xii Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Hugh Grady is Professor of English at Arcadia University in Glenside,

Pennsylvania. His books include The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in
a Material World (1991), Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Essays in Early Modern
Reification (1996), Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and
Subjectivity from ‘Richard II’ to ‘Hamlet’ (2002) and, most recently, Shakespeare
and Impure Aesthetics (2009). He is the editor of the critical anthology Shakespeare
and Modernity: From Early Modern to Millennium (2000) and co-editor with
Terence Hawkes of Presentist Shakespeares (2007).

Robert Henke is Professor of Comparative Literature and Drama at Washington

University in St Louis, where he is Chair of the Performing Arts Department. He
is Advisory Editor of ‘Anglo-Italian Renaissance Studies’ (Ashgate) and author
of Pastoral Transformations: Italian Tragicomedy and Shakespeare’s Late Plays
(1997) and Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell’Arte (2002). He
is the co-editor, along with Eric Nicholson, of Transnational Exchange in Early
Modern Theater (2008).

François Laroque is Professor of English literature at the University of Paris,

Sorbonne Nouvelle. He is the author of Shakespeare’s Festive World (1991)
and Court, Crowd and Playhouse (1996). He has also edited several volumes of
conference proceedings at Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle and published new
editions of Renaissance plays and translations. He is the co-author of King Lear.
L’Oeuvre au noir, jointly written with Pierre Iselin and Josée Nuyts-Giornal and
of And that’s true too. New Essays on King Lear, co-edited with Pierre Iselin and
Sophie Alatorre (2009). He co-edited with Jean-Marie Maguin and Line Cottegnies
two editions of non-Shakespearean drama (1490–1642), Théâtre Élisabéthain

Michele Marrapodi is Professor of English Literature at the University of Palermo.

He is General Editor of ‘Anglo-Italian Renaissance Studies’ (Ashgate), Associate
Editor of Cahiers Elisabéthains and Seventeenth-Century News, Co-Editor of
Shakespeare Yearbook and Italian Correspondent of Shakespeare Quarterly.
His books include ‘The Great Image’ (1984), La Sicilia nella drammaturgia
giacomiana e carolina (1989), and L’Odissea di Pericles (1999). His edited volumes
include Shakespeare’s Italy (1993), The Italian World of English Renaissance
Drama (1998), Italian Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (1999),
Shakespeare and Intertextuality (2000), Intertestualità shakespeariane (2003),
Shakespeare, Italy, and Intertextuality (2004), and Italian Culture in the Drama of
Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (2007).

Stephen Orgel is the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor in the Humanities at Stanford.
His most recent books are The Authentic Shakespeare (2002) and Imagining
Shakespeare (2003). He has edited Ben Jonson’s masques, Christopher Marlowe’s
poems and translations, the Oxford Authors John Milton, The Tempest and The
Notes on Contributors xiii

Winter’s Tale in The Oxford Shakespeare, Macbeth, King Lear, The Taming of
the Shrew, Pericles, and the Sonnets in the New Pelican Shakespeare. He is the
General Editor of ‘Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture’ and
of the New Pelican Shakespeare.

Susan Payne is Professor of English Literature at the University of Florence. Her

research fields include English drama of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, the
novel in the nineteenth century, and poetry from the seventeenth to the twentieth
century. She has published extensively on Victorian fiction, Shakespearian and
Jonsonian drama and women’s poetry. She is at present editing Richard II for
Marsilio and preparing a volume on Early Modern women’s poetry. susan.payne@

John Roe is Reader in English and Related Literature, University of York. Author
of Shakespeare and Machiavelli (2002), editor of Shakespeare: The Poems
(2006), and Inspiration and Technique: Ancient to Modern Views on Beauty and
Art (with Michele Stanco, 2007). He is currently writing ‘John Berryman as a
Shakespearean’ for the Great Shakespeareans series (Continuum Press). jar10@

Duncan Salkeld is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Chichester

and author of Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1993). His recent
publications include chapters, articles, and notes on Aretino, Shakespeare’s ‘Dark
Lady’, microhistory, presentism and new historicism, prostitutes, ‘straungers’
and ‘blackamores’ in London, Christopher Beeston, playgoers and Rose theatre
personnel, the texts of Henry V, and the sharpness of Falstaff’s nose. He is currently
completing a book entitled Shakespeare Among the Courtesans (Ashgate).

Mariangela Tempera is Professor of English Literature at the University of

Ferrara and Director of the Ferrara ‘Shakespeare Centre’. She is editor of the series
‘Shakespeare dal testo alla scena’ and co-editor of the series ‘The Renaissance
Revisited’. She has published widely on Renaissance drama, Shakespeare
in performance, and Shakespeare in popular culture. Her books include: The
Lancashire Witches: lo stereotipo della strega fra scrittura giuridica e scrittura
letteraria (1981) and Feasting with Centaurs: Titus Andronicus from stage to text

Robin Headlam Wells is Professor Emeritus at Roehampton University London

and author of many works and edited volumes on Shakespeare and Renaissance
Drama. His most recent book is Shakespeare’s Humanism (2005). He is currently
writing a Short History of Human Nature.
xiv Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Michael Wyatt works on the cultural histories of Italy, England, and France in the
early modern period. He holds a PhD in Italian Studies from Stanford University
and is a former fellow of the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance
Studies, Villa I Tatti, Florence. He is the author of The Italian Encounter with
Tudor England: A Cultural Politics of Translation (2005). He is currently editing
the interdisciplinary Cambridge Companion Guide to the Italian Renaissance, co-
editing a further volume of essays, ‘Devils Incarnate or Saints Angelifide?’ Anglo-
Italian Transactions in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, and working on a
second monograph, John Florio and the Circulation of Stranger Cultures in Stuart
England. He is the Associate Director of the Stanford Center for Medieval and
Early Modern

Earlier versions of some of the chapters in this volume were presented at the
Fourth International Shakespeare Conference held at the University of Palermo
in June 2006. Since then, the entire project has undergone extensive revision and
change, which have also broadened the original theme with the acquisition of new
contributions. As in any edited collection of essays by different hands, the editorial
work has profited from the fruitful assistance of a number of colleagues, friends,
and scholars, whose supportive encouragement I wish to acknowledge here. My
first debt is to the contributors to the volume themselves, who have shown acumen,
a spirit of collaboration, and patience throughout the lengthy phases of the editing
process. Keir Elam and Robert Henke have been generous with suggestions and
advice, providing impeccable critical guidance much more than their actual status
of Advisory Editors would have required. My old friend and colleague, Peter
Dawson, has checked or taken personal responsibility for the numerous translations
from Italian texts. Michael Redmond provided his expertise in Jacobean treatises
and drama with useful comments on some of the chapters. Maurizio Farina helped
me with his vast knowledge of Latin texts. The late Giorgio Melchiori graced
me with his friendship and humanity, sharing his erudite scholarship in a number
of discussions both private and academic. What I have learned from him and,
among many others, Alessandro Serpieri and Louise George Clubb, is enormous
and cannot be acknowledged in just a few words. My final thanks go the Press’s
anonymous readers for their constructive reports and to Erika Gaffney, senior
editor for Humanities at Ashgate, for her positive appreciation and continuing,
energetic enthusiasm for the ‘Anglo-Italian Renaissance Studies’ series.
As ever, my wife Maria and especially my two little daughters, Lavinia
and Virginia, have been the real sources of inspiration throughout the years,
accompanying my research work with constant love, faith, and tenderness.

Michele Marrapodi
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Shakespeare against Genres
Michele Marrapodi

‘The best actors in the world’, boasts Polonius in Hamlet, ‘either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical,
tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca
cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ, and the liberty, these
are the only men.’ This notoriously controversial passage would appear to reflect
the Elizabethan variety of dramatic kinds as well as the common players’ liberty
from the fixity of classical rules. For a number of commentators, it also distinguishes
the Aristotelian observance of the unity of place and time (‘scene individable’)
from the unruly practice of neglecting the unities altogether (‘poem unlimited’).
Other scholars have not ignored the comical hurly-burly of an extempore actor
and would-be perfect courtier, by pointing to Polonius’s mixed catalogue of forms
and genres as evidence of his humorous pretence of theatrical expertise. In spite of
his clownish role, Polonius proves to be, at least, an accomplished theatregoer. He
praises the generic promiscuity of drama, extols the players’ legacy from Roman
New Comedy and Senecan tragedy, and acknowledges the regular use of written
scripts and improvised scenarios. In Italian Culture in the Drama of Shakespeare
and His Contemporaries, Louise George Clubb and Robert Henke referred to
Polonius’s declamation and pointed out Shakespeare’s awareness of differing
Italian theatrical models, distinguishing scripted five-act drama, following the neo-
Aristotelian rules (‘the law of writ’), from improvised play-acting (‘the liberty’),
inspired by the comici of the Commedia dell’arte. Polonius’s linguistic bravura
is in itself an example of improvisatory technique and an imitation of the special
virtuosity of the buffone, whose tags and gags reproduce the lazzi of the zanni. For
Henke, Polonius’s tendency towards virtuosic impersonation is ironically reversed
in Hamlet’s performance of the antic disposition, licensing a breach of mimesis
and decorum, and demonstrating the natural hybridism of Shakespeare’s canon.
In the words of Louise George Clubb, the emergence of pastoral tragicomedy and
its appearance in improvised scenarios, as alluded to by Polonius, are included

  Hamlet, 2.2.392–8. The Arden Shakespeare, Harold Jenkins (ed.) (London: Methuen,
1982). Subsequent quotations are taken from this edition.

  Louise G. Clubb, ‘Pastoral Jazz from the Writ to the Liberty’; Robert Henke,
‘Virtuosity and Mimesis in the Commedia dell’arte and Hamlet’, in Italian Culture in the
Drama of Shakespeare & His Contemporaries: Rewriting, Remaking, Refashioning, M.
Marrapodi (ed.) (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 15–26 and 69–82 respectively.
 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

in the mixed and improvisatory techniques of Shakespearean drama, revealing

the jazz-like quality of the dramatist. The present collection of essays addresses,
investigates, and supplements the route traced by Clubb and the other contributors
to the aforementioned volume on the varied appropriation of Italian culture at
large in Shakespearean and early modern English drama.
Aristotle rated tragedy as the noblest form of art and distinguished between,
on the one hand, the true and the particular in history and, on the other, the
verisimilitude and universality of dramatic poetry. For him, comedy was an
‘imitation of vile subjects’, suitable for representing ugly and low characters in
order to ridicule men’s vices. His opinion was unopposed for centuries until the
rediscovery of Plautus, the opening of the humanist debate on Aristotle’s Poetics,
and the use of new comedic experiments in Renaissance Italy. Despite the defence
of classicism in the early Cinquecento, Italian theorists challenged the classical
rules by inventing new kinds and models. Aristotelian imitatio became more
complicated owing to the more revolutionary concept of contaminatio, which
made it possible to experiment with a subtler hybridism of dramatic structures and
a combination of diverse theatregrams taken up by countless playwrights.
In his prologue to I Suppositi (1509), Ariosto claimed to be the father of nova
comedia through a contaminatio of several plays by Plautus and Terence but in
such a modest proportion that ‘Terenzio e Plauto medesimi, risapendolo, non
l’arebbono a male, e di poetica imitazione, più presto che di furto, li darebbono
nome’. In Orbecche (1541), Giraldi Cinthio created his tragedia nova through
the theorisation of a didactic form of moral catharsis, setting up an ideology of
horror as a means of cleansing the passions of the spectator’s mind by the crude
exposure of scelus. Later on in his career, he advanced the theatrical necessity of
a third mixed genre, la tragedia a fin lieto, more consonant with the spirit of the
Counter-Reformation and the changing tastes of the audience and the courts. This
form was founded on intricacy of action, impeded love, providential design, and
peripeteia, opening the path to Guarini’s pastoral tragicomedy and its fortunes on

  Aristotle, Dell’arte poetica, Carlo Gallavotti (ed.) (Milan: Mondadori, 1974),
pp. 16–17 (my translation).

  On the various interpretations of Aristotle’s Poetica in the Renaissance, see Joel E.
Spingarn, A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance (London: Macmillan, 1899),
pp. 60–106; Vernon Hall, Jr., Renaissance Literary Criticism. A Study of Its Social Content
(Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959), pp. 37–45 and 174–89.

  L. Ariosto, I Suppositi, in Tutte le opere, Cesare Segre (ed.), 5 vols. (Milan:
Mondadori,), 4, p. 198. (‘the self-same Terence and Plautus, this known, would not get
angry, and would call it not theft but poetic imitation’). Cf. M. Marrapodi, ‘Prologue’, in
The Italian World of English Renaissance Drama: Cultural Exchange and Intertextuality
(Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998), pp. 9–19.

  See M. Marrapodi, ‘Retaliation as an Italian Vice in English Renaissance Drama:
Narrative and Theatrical Exchanges’, in The Italian World of English Renaissance Drama,
pp. 190–207.
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 

the continent. In Il pastor fido (1590), Guarini presented the tragic pathos of the
great Giraldian characters side by side with the passions tormenting the minds
of his rustic shepherds, and imitated ‘a feigned and mixed action comprising
all the tragic and comic parts that plausibly and decorously may stand together,
corrected to a single dramatic form, in order to purge with delight the sadness of
the spectators’.
The impact of commedia dell’arte touring companies determined the use of
improvisation techniques and favoured the frequent reliance on impromptu acting
based on fixed parts or stock characters. Owing to the natural hybridism innate in
this form constructed on fixed types, commedia all’improvviso became the most
important vehicle for the diffusion throughout Europe of the vast repertoire of late
Cinquecento theatregrams. There is no doubt that all these modes and practices
of commedia, discussed at length in Louise George Clubb’s seminal monograph
and referred to in the coda to the present volume, influenced the English stage
and were assimilated by Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, especially in the
second part of the early modern period under the Stuart monarchs.
The third genre, called tragicomedy, was the rubric under which this notable
production of mixed drama flourished in England. Tragicomedy takes diverse lines
of development, ranging from the romantic and pastoral expression – more akin to
the Italian mode created by Giraldi, Tasso, and Guarini – to its satirical evolution
anglicised with Puritan ingredients by Jacobean and Caroline dramatists. John
Fletcher’s Prologue to The Faithful Shepherdess (1610) provided a definition of
the genre:

A tragie-comedie is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect

it wants deaths, which is inough to make it no tragedie, yet brings some neere
it, which is inough to make it no comedie: which must be a representation of

  B. Guarini, Il Pastor fido (Bari: Laterza, 1914), p. 246. Both Tasso’s Aminta
and Guarini’s Il Pastor fido were published for the first time in London in 1591. On the
influence of Tasso’s and Guarini’s pastoral tragicomedies on the English stage, see G.K.
Hunter, ‘Italian Tragicomedy on the English Stage’, included in his still helpful collection
Dramatic Identities and Cultural Traditions (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1978),
pp. 133–56. Tasso’s contribution to the genre-theory is discussed in Grosser Hermann, La
sottigliezza del disputare: teorie degli stili e teorie dei generi in età rinascimentale e nel
Tasso (Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1992). For a recent reassessment of the subject-matter,
see Forme del tragicomico nel teatro tardo elisabettiano, Vittoria Intonti (ed.) (Naples:
Liguori, 2004), Introduction, pp. 5–33; and Early Modern Tragicomedy, Subha Mukherji
and Raphael Lyne (eds) (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2007).

  See R. Henke, ‘Border-Crossing in the Commedia dell’Arte’, in Transnational
Exchange in Early Modern Theater, R. Henke and E. Nicholson (eds) (Aldershot: Ashgate,
2008), pp. 19–34.

  Louise G. Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare’s Time (New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 1989).
 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

familiar people, which such kinde of trouble as no life be questioned, so that a

God is as lawfull in this as in a tragedie, and meane people as in a comedie.10

The contention of this book on early modern literary theories, influences, and
practices is also, in part, to highlight Shakespeare’s exploitation of mixed drama in
the context of the period’s widespread resistance to any aspects of generic virtuosity
imported from abroad and from Italy in particular. Despite their notorious sense
of insularity, English theorists admired the ancients but disliked passive imitation
per se, which led to aping foreign customs in a totally submissive appreciation of
the past. Roger Ascham was probably the first to identify this bias with the ‘mery
bookes of Italie’, which reached England both in the original and by imitation
and translation. As he claimed in The Schoolmaster (1570), the ‘inchantements
of Circes, brought out of Italie … by preceptes of fonde bookes, of late translated
out of Italian’, were amongst the main causes of the corruption of English poetry
and the moral integrity of Protestant England.11 It was Stephen Gosson’s The
School of Abuse (1579) that located in the theatre the most pernicious vehicle
for introducing Italian vices into English society: ‘Compare London to Rome,
and England to Italy, you shall finde the Theaters of the one, the abuses of the
other, to be rife among us.’12 He condemned the Italian generic confusion, the
indiscriminate mingle-mangle of good and evil, and the lewd treatment of amorous
themes and characters, cunningly introduced to confound the morality, attitude
towards gender, and propriety of the English nation. In his later work, Playes
Confuted in Five Actions (1581), Gosson railed against Italian customs altogether,
despising the use of promiscuous acting and disguise which violated the tenets of
gender identity assigned by God to dress and decorum.
In this war against corrupt theatrical models produced abroad, George
Whetstone’s dedication to his Promos and Cassandra (1578) epitomises what
must have been the most complete account of commonplaces about foreign drama
and the absurd anachronisms of English tragicomedy imported from Italy:

the Italian is so lasciuious in his comedies that honest hearers are greeued at
his actions: the Frenchman and Spaniarde folowes the Italians humor: the
Germaine is too holye, for he presentes on euerye common Stage what Preachers
should pronounce in Pulpets. The Englishman in this quallitie is most vaine,
indiscreete, and out of order: he first groundes his worke on impossibilities;
then in three howers ronnes he throwe the worlde, marries, gets Children, makes

  J. Fletcher, The Faithful Shepherdess, in The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont
and Fletcher Canon, F. Bowers (ed.), 10 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1966–96), vol. 3, p. 497.
  Roger Ascham, The Schoolmaster, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, G. Gregory
Smith (ed.), vol. I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1904), p. 2.
  Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, reprinted for the Shakespeare Society
(London, 1841), p. 24.
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 

Children men, men to conquer kingdoms, murder Monsters, and bringeth Gods
from Heauen, and fetcheth Diuels from Hel.13

In addition to this, Whetstone strongly condemned the social promiscuity of

characters in current English drama, mostly inspired by the Italian mixed genre:

Manye tymes (to make myrthe) they make a Clowne companion with a Kinge;
in their graue Counsels they allow the aduise of fooles; yea, they vse one order
of speech for all persons: a grose Indecorum, for a Crowe wyll yll counterfeit
the Nightingale’s sweete voice; euen so affected speeche doth misbecome a

What appeared particularly indecorous was the mingling of clowns and kings as
well as the failure to make a clear-cut distinction between the two acting roles.
Royal figures were always expected to speak in verse, using language matching
their authority and degree that was totally distinct from that of the clowns and the
low characters.
The most celebrated of the English theorists, Philip Sidney, tried to set things
aright, insisting on the rules of consistency, decorum, and just proportion through
which the didactic aim of poetry could be achieved ‘not speaking … words as
they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peizing each syllable of each word by
just proportion according to the dignity of the subject’.15 As prescribed by Aristotle,
Horace, and the later Italian post-Tridentine theorists, Sidney discerned in the theatre
– in comedy and especially in the nature of tragedy – the moral value of poetry:

Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life, which he (the player)
representeth in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is
impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one. … So that the
right use of Comedy will (I think) by nobody be blamed, and much less of the
high and excellent Tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth
the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that maketh kings fear to be tyrants,
and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humours; that, with stirring the affects of
admiration and commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon
how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded.16

  George Whetstone, The Dedication to Promos and Cassandra, in Elizabethan
Critical Essays, p. 59.
  Ibid., p. 60.
  Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, Geoffrey Shepherd (ed.), rev. and expanded
by R.W. Maslen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 87.
  Ibid., p. 98. In ‘Theories of Literary Kinds’, A Companion to English Renaissance
Literature and Culture, Michael Hattaway (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 287–97,
John Roe emphasises the Italian derivation of Sidney’s argument for the moral value
 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

A great number of Elizabethan poets contributed to the generic debate and to

the war between ancients and moderns, including classicists like Gascoigne,
Harvey, and Jonson, and more innovative authors like Harington, Lodge, and
Lily. However, Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, or the Defence of Poesy (1595) is
considered by the majority of critics the period’s most influential treatise. What is
perhaps less well known is that Sidney’s deep source was not only, as is generally
assumed, Aristotle’s Poetics or Horace’s Ars poetica but also a much closer
author of Cinquecento Italy, himself a careful interpreter of Aristotle, G.B. Giraldi
Cinthio. While in the actual staging of his nova tragedia, Orbecche, Giraldi’s well-
defined ideology of horror outdid Seneca’s use of sensational carnage by the crude
exposure of scelus, and the rejection of the fabulous, unnaturalistic world of the
classical theatre, his subsequent conversion to the third, mixed genre led the way
to Guarinian tragicomedy in Italy, England, and other European countries. In the
celebrated Discorso intorno al comporre delle commedie e delle tragedie (1543),
Giraldi argued in the same manner as Sidney, refashioning Aristotle to suit his own
moral vision of dramatic poetry and didactic theatre.

Perché la tragedia coll’orrore e colla compassione mostrando quello che debbiam

fuggire, ci purga dalle perturbazioni nelle quali sono incorse le persone tragiche.
Ma la comedia, col proporci quello che si dee imitare con passioni, con affetti
temperati, mescolati con giuochi, con risa e con scherzevoli motti, ne chiama al
buon modo di vivere.

quel parlare della tragedia vuole esser grande, reale, e magnifico, e figurato:
quello della comedia semplice, puro, famigliare, e convenevole alle persone del

There can be little doubt that Shakespeare read Sidney’s Apology and admired
his prose and style. Indirect allusion to Sidney is evident in Hamlet’s reference to
‘the table of my memory’ (1.5.98), which echoes Sidney’s metaphorical expression
almost verbatim.18 However, Shakespeare’s perception of genre-theory, as is manifest
in his theatrical practice, seems in many cases more akin to that shown by Giraldi

of poetry especially from Benedetto Varchi’s Lezzioni della Poesia (1549) and Antonio
Minturno’s De Poeta (1559, 1563).
  G.B. Giraldi Cinzio, Discorso intorno al comporre delle commedie e delle tragedie
(1543), in Scritti critici, C. Guerrieri Crocetti (ed.) (Milano: Marzorati, 1973), pp. 183 and
211. ‘For the horror and compassion engendered by tragedy show us that which we must
shun, purging us of the torments that these tragic figures have been prey to. Comedy, on
the other hand, presenting to us that which we must emulate, tells us, through tempered
passions and affections, together with games, laughter, and jesting banter, the good way to
live.… the language of tragedy seeks to be grandiose, kingly, magnificent, and figurative,
while that of comedy is simple, unadorned, customary, and suited to ordinary people.’
  An Apology for Poetry, G. Shepherd (ed.), p. 99.
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 

than to that debated by his contemporary English poet. Indeed, as Pauline Kiernan
has pointed out, the dramatist reverses Sidney’s aesthetic prejudice in which the
‘golden’ world of poetry outdoes the ‘brazen’ world of nature, since ‘Shakespeare’s
drama privileges the living human body, the organic matter on which it is created’.19
In reconstituting Shakespeare’s defence of drama through his plays and poems,
Kiernan singles out in the canon a nearly anti-Aristotelian dramaturgy based on
the repudiation of a mimetic concept of art, the primacy of the actors’ bodies, the
fictitious status of drama, the inevitable anachronism of historical time, and the
dramatic necessity of accommodating temporality and change:

Shakespearean drama does not attempt to represent the original subject or

original moment in history, nor does it seek to deliver a Sidneyan ‘golden world’
in which art attempts to outdo nature in the timeless perfection of artifice, but
is concerned with finding ways of creating an art which can exist within the
mutable, ‘brazen world’ of nature.20

This peculiar attitude turns out to be a refutation of mimetic art as well as a

subversion of conventional dramatic theories, which were largely maintained
by many classicists among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Sidney
and Jonson.21 As he claimed in a notorious critique of The Winter’s Tale, Jonson
attacked the improbability of the setting and the lack of geographical exactitude,
urging greater accuracy in stage topography and more reliance on the precepts of
Aristotle and Horace.22 From the oft-quoted engraved title-page of Jonson’s Workes
(1616), we have a clear evidence of the distinction and propriety, in emblematic

  P. Kiernan, Shakespeare’s Theory of Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1996), p. 11.
  Ibid., p. 11.
  Ibid., p. 123 : ‘Shakespeare’s drama does not pretend to represent truth; all it wants
to do, and does, in reality, in truth, is seem, and it goes to inordinate lengths to ensure that
this seeming is seen to be … seeming. We must not mistake it for the mimetic seeming
which asks to be taken for reality, and cheapens life by the presumptuous act of imitating
it. Such neoclassical verisimilitude, as the Poet of the Sonnets never tires of reiterating, is
practised by “others” who “would give life and bring a tomb”, because in seeking to imitate
an inimitable, original presence, they destroy the very life they are purporting to re-present
(Sonnet 83.12).’
  ‘Shakespear in a play brought in a number of men saying they had suffered
Shipwrack in Bohemia, wher ther is no Sea near by some 100 Miles’ in C.H. Herford and
P. Simpson (eds), Ben Jonson, 10 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925–52, ‘Conversation
with William Drummond of Hawthornden’, 1, p. 138. On Jonson’s criticism of Shakespeare,
see E.A.J. Honigmann, Shakespeare’s Impact on his Contemporaries (London: Macmillan,
1982), pp. 40–45 and pp. 91–103. For an interesting attempt to bridge the separation
between the two playwrights’ work, see Russ McDonald, Shakespeare and Jonson/
Jonson and Shakespeare (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), especially Chap.
2, pp. 31–55.
 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

terms, of the dramatic kinds as inspired by Horace’s Poetica (Figure I.1). The
personified figures of Tragedy and Comedy are placed in pillared archways,
separated in both artistic prominence and poetic value by their firm position on
opposite sides and by wearing divergent costumes to distinguish their different
social status. Yet tragicomedy stands precariously at the top of the arch, between
satire and pastoral poetry, a perched figure wearing a crown like Tragedy and plain
gown and socks like Comedy, representing the hybrid form Philip Sidney called
‘mongrel tragi-comedy’.23 The engraved representation of kinds, ingeniously
mixing the costumes to illustrate the hybrid nature of tragicomedy, adheres to
the Horatian Poetica, as the Latin motto quoted at the top of the picture clearly
indicates: ‘That each genre maintain its own appropriate style’ (Singula quaeque
locum teneant sortita decenter).24 However, for all Jonson’s classicism, what
Elizabethan theorists generally regarded as rigid rules, including the observance
of the unity of place and time, the need to separate royal figures from the common
people, to keep the king’s and the clown’s language apart, and to distinguish
between comic and serious actions, were never firmly observed by the drama of
the period. Indeed, as Madeleine Doran pointed out, ‘English dramatists never
were slaves of decorum’.25 George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie closely
associated the idea of decorum with the very propriety of nature:

This louely conformitie, or proportion, or conueniencie, between the sence and

the sensible hath nature her selfe first most carefully obserued in all her owne
works, then also by kinde graft it in the appetites of euery creature working by
intelligence to couet and desire, and in their actions to imitate & performe; and
of man chiefly before any other creature aswell in his speaches as in euery other
part of his behauiour. And this in generalitie and by an vsuall terme is that which
the Latines call decorum.26

It is this natural predisposition that characterises Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Developing

the newly-acquired theatrical sensitivity merely hinted at by Giraldi, Shakespeare
perceived the unity between word and action as the only aesthetic principle for

  For detailed commentary on the engraved title-page of The Works of Benjamin
Jonson (1616), see R. Henke, Pastoral Transformations: Italian Tragicomedy and
Shakespeare’s Late Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997); Lawrence Danson,
Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Vittoria Intonti
(ed.), Forme del tragicomico nel teatro tardo elisabettiano e giacomiano, Intr., pp. 26–8.
  Horace, Ars Poetica, l. 92 (my translation). Line references are taken from the
critical edition of the ‘Bibliotheca Oxoniensis’ E.C. Wickham-H W. Garrod, Epistulae
(Oxonii: ETypographeo Clarendoniano, 1912).
  M. Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison:
The University of Wisconsin Press, 1954), p. 246.
  G. Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, G.
Gregory Smith (ed.), vol. II, p. 174.
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 

Figure I.1 Title-page of The Workes of Beniamin Jonson (1616), engraved by

William Hole.
10 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

his own theory of drama. One of the most convincing metatheatrical references
occurs in Hamlet’s famous lecture on the natural actio of the performance to the
troupe of players:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to

you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as
many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier
spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with
your hand, thus, but use all gently.. (3.2.1–5)

Consistency between language and gesture, between word and action, is the
necessary dramatic coherence which serves to accompany the performer’s role,
to guide his rhetoric and diction, and to suggest kinesic and proxemic movements
on the stage:

... Suit the action to the word,

the word to the action, with this special observance,
that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For any-
thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing,
whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to
hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature. (3.2.17–22)

It is worth comparing Hamlet’s oft-quoted theatrical instructions with Giraldi

Cinthio’s prescriptions to both performers and directors, supplementing Aristotle’s
remarks on tragedy:

Ora passando dal lieto al lacrimevole, questa medesima considerazione si dee

avere nei pianti e nei lamenti della tragedia; perché anco questi debbono essere
non sforzati, ma nati dalla natura della cosa; … bisogna usar gran cura intorno
alla scelta degli istrioni, i quali abbiano gesti, movimenti, voce, e finalmente
azione atta a quella parte ch’egli sostiene e ch’egli rappresenta, perché ogni
persona non è atta a fare ogni parte. Avviene sovente, a chi non usa in ciò gran
diligenza, che la poca grazia e la inezia dell’istrione, ove doveria mover pianto,
muove riso, e fa rimanere quella parte senza il suo decoro.27

  Discorso intorno al comporre delle comedie e delle tragedie, in Scritti Critici,


C. Guerrieri Crocetti (ed.), p. 222: ‘And now, passing from the joyful to the tearful, the
selfsame consideration holds for weeping and lamentations in tragedy, for these too must
not be forced, but rather come out of the nature of things; … great care must be taken in
the choice of the players, whose gestures, movements, voice, and action must be suited
to the part they are playing, for not every man can play every part. It often comes about,
if insufficient care is taken in this respect, that a player’s gracelessness and want of skill,
instead of moving tears, give rise to laughter and deprive the part of all its dignity.’
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 11

If the mingling of kings and clowns was accounted a great breach of nature, the
promiscuity of language in the royal or princely figures, confounding the authority
and prerogatives of the king with the ignorance of the common people, was
considered the greatest fault of all. Shakespeare contravenes both rules throughout
the canon in many of his paired characters, from Prince Hal and Falstaff, Lear
and his fool, Hamlet and the gravedigger, to cite only the best known examples,
his royal figures constantly neglect the norm and indulge in simple, albeit deeply
significant, discourse with their humble and base partners. Apart from breaking
with customary social distinctions, the observance of generic distinctions is
equally eschewed. Indeed, it never ranked high in the drama of the period, despite
Jonson’s notorious criticism. Shakespeare alludes to it ironically in a number
of plays, foregrounding aspects of self-reflexivity and self-representation, as in
Falstaff’s parodic play extempore imitating the king’s role in 1 Henry IV (2.5), in
Jaques’s discourse on man’s life as a stage-play with seven age or act divisions
in As You Like It (2.7), or in the parody of the comedic form in the mechanicals’
rehearsal and actual performance of the ‘very tragical mirth’ of Pyramus and
Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.1). As Lawrence Danson has succinctly
captured it,

The apparently perverse refusal of English playwrights, Shakespeare included,

to keep the kinds decently separate from one another was a commonplace of
Elizabethan criticism. Rather than follow the exclusive decorums of style,
subject, and character, they would, as Sir Philip Sidney complained, mingle
‘kings and clowns, not because the matter so carrieth it, but thrust in clown by
head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters, with neither decency
nor discretion’.
… Shakespeare is breaking an ideal of decorum as surely as are his rude
mechanicals, and his joke depends on our knowing it. And throughout the
canon he challenges the decorum of social separation: Hamlet has his clownish
gravedigger, Lear his Fool, and the monstrous Caliban can on occasion speak (to
his sorrow) with an eloquence equal to that of the courtly Europeans who have
washed up on his island.28

From this critical perspective, Giorgio Melchiori advanced on several occasions

an imaginative yet thought-provoking theory that recognised a common matrix in
all the late romances, the most hybrid form of Shakespeare’s theatrical works. In
spite of their formal and generic innovations, these late works represent a variation
on the generational theme already used in King Lear, a play whose articulated
narrative construction foregrounds the characteristic motifs of the last plays. The
tragedy would provide the thematic and stylistic features for the tragicomedic
transformation of the same narrative lines into the late plot-writing, as exemplified
in Lear’s famous speech:

  L. Danson, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres, pp. 18–19.
12 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Come, let’s away to prison;

We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were Gods’ spies. (5.3.8–17)29

‘The romances’, Melchiori contended, ‘are in fact the “old tales” that the reconciled
father and daughter propose to tell each other in their earthly prison, thus becoming
spies of the celestial world intent on exploring the mysteries of things’.30 By taking
the story-telling and the father-daughter relationship in King Lear as a generative
topos, Melchiori provided a convincing hypothesis regarding the writer’s art
in his late theatrical production, suggesting further evidence of Shakespeare’s
subversion of any inherited, pre-constituted dramatic convention or established
fixed category. The most recurrent norm in Shakespeare’s idea of theatre is his
natural predisposition for hybrid forms of generic experimentation.31
The dispute over literary and dramatic theory has always played an important
role in the field of Anglo-Italian Renaissance studies. Elizabethan poets and
playwrights debated the question of theory in both private and public circles,
seeking the response of dramatic art in the war between classicists and moderns
and in light of the anti-theatricalist attack led by the Puritans. However, anti-
Italian tracts and nationalistic propaganda did not prevent theorists and writers of
the Italian Renaissance from being regarded as model-makers for the formation
of mainstream rules in Cinquecento literary production and their works were
frequently ransacked to suit the English dramatists’ individual agenda. Even the
most English of the comedic theories considered peculiar to Elizabethan drama,

  King Lear, Arden Edition, Kenneth Muir (ed.) (London: Methuen, 1972).

  G. Melchiori, ‘Note sul problema di Pericles’, English Miscellany, X (1959),


pp. 135–55; ‘Introduzione’, in I drammi romanzeschi, G. Melchiori (ed.) (Milano:

Mondadori, 1981), p. xxxix; ‘Romance into Drama’, Atti del V Congresso Nazionale
della Associazione Italiana di Anglistica, M.P. De Angelis, V. Fortunati and V. Poggi
(eds) (Bologna: CLUEB, 1983), pp. 15–29; Shakespeare: genesi e struttura delle opere
(Bari: Laterza, 1994), p. 564.
  Writing before the critical debate on the Quarto and Folio texts of King Lear of the
mid 1980s, Melchiori produced interesting hypotheses on the idea of late writing which are
not in contrast with past and recent scholarship. For a detailed investigation into the theory
of late dramatic writing from a modernist perspective, see Gordon McMullan, Shakespeare
and the Idea of Late Writing. Authorship in the Proximity of Death (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2007), pp. 294–313.
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 13

Jonson’s conception of ‘humours’, which the dramatist refers to in the Induction to

Every Man Out of His Humour, may have derived from Italian aesthetic literature.
In Lionardo Salviati’s Del Trattato della Poetica, written in mid Cinquecento
Italy, we find a definition of humour very close to Jonson’s as ‘a peculiar quality
of nature according to which every one is inclined to some special thing more than
to any other’.32
The primary aim of this collection of essays is to place the presence of Italian
literary theories against and alongside the background of English dramatic traditions
and to assess this influence in the emergence of Elizabethan theatrical conventions
and the innovative dramatic practices under the early Stuarts. Despite the intense
critical attention devoted to the topic in the past, no specific contribution has been
published in recent years. Without any claim to constituting a reconsideration
of genre theory, the kind of scholarship gathered in this book responds anew to
the process of cultural exchange, cultural transaction, and generic intertextuality
involved in the dispute on dramatic theory and literary kinds in the Renaissance,
aiming to explore, with special emphasis on Shakespeare’s works, the level of
cultural appropriation, contamination, revision, and subversion characterising
early modern English drama. This newly edited collection intends to throw fresh
light on a much discussed but still controversial field, offering a wide range of
approaches and critical perspectives of leading international scholars regarding
questions which are still open to debate and which may pave the way to further
groundbreaking analyses on Shakespeare’s strategy of dramatic construction and
that of his contemporaries.

Art, Rhetoric, Style

The volume’s three-part structure corresponds to distinct but interrelated areas of

research, each explored from varied and independent critical viewpoints. In Part
One, devoted to artistic features and formal structures, Stephen Orgel illustrates
a number of examples from Italian and Shakespearean drama which delineate the
recurrence of missing elements in the narrative lines of the plays, pointing to a
common strategy deliberately emphasising the dramatist’s art of forgetting, i.e. the
suppression or subversion of memory. Ars Memoriae was indeed seen in the theory

  Cod. Magliabechiano, vii. 7, 715. Cit. in Joel E. Spingarn, A History of Literary
Criticism, p. 88. The Induction scene to Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), acted by
the presenter Asper, Cordatus and Mitis, reads: ‘So in euery humane body / The choller,
melancholy, flegme, and bloud, / By reason that they flow continually / In some one part,
and are not continent, / Receiue the name of Humours. Now thus farre / It may, by Metaphor,
apply it self / Vnto the generall disposition: / As when some one peculiar quality / Doth so
possesse a man, that it doth draw / All his effects, his spirits, and his powers, / In their
confluctions, all to runne one way, / This may be truly said to be a Humour.’ (98–109), in
Ben Jonson, C.H. Herford and P. Simpson (eds), Vol. III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927).
14 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

and practice of drama as a fundamental creative act, the key to the act of creation,
representing the essence of drama itself and revealing Shakespeare’s creative
process. In his discussion of Girolamo Graziani’s historical tragedy Il Cromuele
on the imprisonment and condemnation of Charles I, written in 1671, when
many of the figures were still alive, and of Graziani’s polemical preface asserting
that his tragedy is revolutionary in that it dramatises the stuff of contemporary
history, Orgel contends that the theory of history implicit in this work illuminates
Shakespeare’s theory of dramatic construction and his art of forgetting.
As has been argued by recent scholarship, the idea of a literary text expressing its
author’s mind would have been unfamiliar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries,
who were more naturally inclined towards collaborative forms of dramatic
production. For this body of criticism, the question of authorship must take into
account the idea of a collaborative dramatic corpus, where individual contribution
is often overshadowed by the common theatrical practice at the time. A fine essay
by Giorgio Melchiori, for instance, equates the activity of young artists working in
the master’s bottega in Renaissance Italy with the writing conditions of dramatists
in early modern England.33 In Robin Headlam Wells’s thought-provoking chapter,
humanist poetics, revaluating the mystic gift of poetry, is seen to be instead at
the very heart of Shakespearean and early modern drama. According to Wells,
authorship was indeed an important principle in the spirit of the age. Not only was
it a commonplace that poetry was inspired by the poet’s mind and soul, becoming
in Samuel Daniel’s expression ‘the speaking picture of the mind’, but the greatest
writers were thought to be blessed with innate powers and regarded their work
as a noble calling, essential to a civilised society. Humanist defenders of poetry
thus shared Milton’s sense of the poet’s spiritual mission. The idea that the arts
of civilisation could go some way towards repairing the defects of a fallen human
nature was rooted in a radically essentialist view of humankind.
The importance of classical and humanist influence in the poetic practice of
the early modern period is also reconsidered by John Roe, whose chapter aims
to promote the values of pleasure and sensibility in Renaissance poetry over
those of political or cultural emphasis, which have recently become dominant. He
aligns himself with those critics of literary language who draw our attention to the
formal and material attributes of words. Focusing on the advantages of rhetoric in
Shakespeare’s narrative poems and sonnets, Roe reassesses the application of the
tenets of Aristotle and the early Renaissance stylistic theory such as the Erasmian
rhetorical device of ‘copia’ and its assistant category ‘division’. If we recover and
broaden our understanding of the art of rhetoric, we are in a better position to assess
the motives of the poem and to avoid misrepresenting its concerns. This may also
explain the dramatic function of rhetoric in Shakespeare and how it provides cues

  G. Melchiori, ‘Shakespeare in the bottega: art works, apocrypha, and the stage’,
in Shakespeare, Italy, and Intertextuality, M. Marrapodi (ed.) (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2004), pp. 239–52.
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 15

for individual characterisation, performing its natural task in the delivery of both
speech and actio.
The essay by Mariangela Tempera focuses on the refashioning of Italian
tragic modes in the early Titus Andronicus, a play that experiments with a form
of revenge tragedy by outdoing Senecan and Italianate theatregrams and models.
She examines the theory and practice of declaring and then outdoing a source
in Italian sixteenth-century tragedy, delving into Shakespeare’s appropriation of
generic intertextuality outside and within his own plays. She then explores how
the dramatist sets out to outdo the classics and his predecessors in his earliest
tragedies and how he imitates and outdoes his own work in the late tragedies.
This common practice functions also as a rhetoric of character construction and
differentiation from the earlier Elizabethan poets and drama.
Shakespeare’s adoption of aesthetics is examined by Adam Max Cohen in
the dramatist’s use of wonder. Cohen charts the generic expansion of wonder
both in Shakespeare’s playwriting and in early modern Italian literary discourse.
Initially considered appropriate only for tragedy and epic, wonder came to be
considered paramount as an organising principle in comedy, tragicomedy, novella,
and other forms of discourse. Shakespeare selected subject matter and literary
styles to generate wonder in his tragedies, history plays, and comedies. Cohen
notes that it is reasonable to consider whether the pursuit of the marvellous served
as an overarching aesthetic for Shakespeare. Overall, this chapter shows that
Italian Renaissance authors wrote very advanced essays about wonder and that
Shakespeare shared many literary traits regarding the dramatic use of wonder with
contemporary Italian theorists and playwrights.

Genres, Models, Forms

The group of essays included in Part II deals with the use (often promiscuous) of
genres, models, and forms. Frances K. Barasch charts the creative role in Hamlet
of commedia dell’arte solutions, whose increasing popularity on continental
Europe, inevitably, attracted attention in England. Elizabethans both succumbed
to and complained of its influence on popular taste. Hamlet, perhaps more clearly
than any of the other plays, reveals the Italianate roots of Shakespeare’s creativity.
With commedia dell’arte as his intertext, Barasch contends, Shakespeare modelled
Polonius and his family on the comic figures of Pantalone, his rash son, and his
marriageable daughter to portray characters who are incapable of reflection, think
and speak in clichés, and are susceptible to maltreatment by perverse authority.
Moreover, by situating the commedia family in the tragic world of the play, he
deviated radically from the Italian scenarios that commonly featured these well-
known stereotypes, imbuing them with new meaning. Ironically, the tragic action
of the play gains impetus from the fixed commedia types. In the interactions of the
commedia and the royal families, both subjected to Hamlet’s contempt, Shakespeare
created a metaphoric equivalence between the moral vacuity of the former and the
16 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

conscious evil of the latter. Replete with metatheatrical references to the sorry
state of popular theatre, the dramatist undermined the comedic value of his Italian
models: Pantalone the meddler who should be merely chastised is murdered; the
avenging son who should be heroic turns coward; by association with the actress
as whore, the virtue of Ophelia is challenged, and the usual happy outcome of the
popular commedia mad scene is fatally reversed. In his exploitation of commedia
dell’arte, Shakespeare found a way to question ironically the mindless theatre of
the masses while exploring the ‘banality of evil’ long before that concept gained
currency in the past century.
In his book on Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne, Hugh Grady
identified a five-year period (1595–1600) in Shakespeare’s career in which a
series of political plays left behind the more moralistic framework of the early
English histories in favour of a dispassionate, distanced analysis of political
power in five history plays and in Julius Caesar and Hamlet.34 This framework
can rightly by called a Machiavellian one in that it draws on the humanist, secular
worldview famously instantiated in Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses,
which abandoned earlier Providential historiography in favour of a secular,
analytic approach to politics. Of course, Machiavelli was a Janus-like cultural
icon of the English Renaissance who had had two competing images. The first and
the best known of these – Machiavelli as a conniving schemer and intriguer – was
represented in the ‘Machiavel’ figure of the English drama initiated by Marlowe
and Kyd and continued in Shakespeare in Aaron of Titus Andronicus and Richard
III in one stage and Edmund of King Lear and Iago of Othello in another. This
figure lived on after Shakespeare in plays by Marston, Webster, and others. But the
second face of Machiavelli in England – and the one Grady’s chapter is primarily
concerned with – was the humanist Machiavelli who invented political science
as such by creating a completely non-Providential, secular approach to history.
Shakespeare may have adopted this Machiavellian analytic framework through
direct or indirect knowledge, but there is no doubt that this secular humanist
discourse circulated prominently in the Elizabethan political class and had also
entered the theatrical world in several dramas of Shakespeare’s great predecessor
Christopher Marlowe. Grady extends his view to Julius Caesar as a Machiavellian
drama par excellence. In its bracketing of issues of moral right and wrong and in
its concentration on the analysis of actual, non-ideal political behaviour, the play
is Machiavellian in the specific sense implied by the many commentators who
have credited Machiavelli as the world’s first social scientist, the first to employ
scientific objectivity of a sort in the analysis of history.
Anthony Ellis discusses the stock figure of the senex in Shakespeare’s As You
Like It and Ruzante’s last comedy L’Anconitana, producing a cultural trajectory
of significant parallel situations and analogues revolving around the character
of Sier Tomao, ‘the miserly and lecherous old man, loaded with diseases and

  Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity
from Richard II to Hamlet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 17

afflictions but also with sexual velleities’.35 The essay focuses on the use of the
conventional characterisation of the comic old man in two comedies that employ
intergenerational conflict in the service of wider social and economic critiques.
The comedic senex, as to be expected, always demonstrates some tell-tale,
infinitely repeatable characteristics straddling geographic boundaries, as he does
in Cinquecento Italy and Elizabethan England. At the same time, however, distinct
personal and moral traits vary from region to region, for reasons that reflect a
mix of environmental factors and artistic purpose. When these peculiarities (both
linguistic and behavioural) are analysed in the context of social norms and theatrical
convention, not only can they illustrate much about a society’s dominant attitudes
towards senescence, but they also reveal traces of a given dramatist’s singular aims.
The problem of old age pushes both plays under consideration towards the domain
of anticomedy. Ruzante, born in the Paduan countryside and a lifelong witness to
the ravages of war and poverty that Venetian policy has wrought in the territories
of the Republic, displays an animus towards his old male Venetian character that
is class-based, geographically oriented, and ultimately ineradicable by the generic
apparatus available to him. Although Shakespeare would not have been directly
familiar with Ruzante’s work, the two playwrights are likely to have been exposed
to many of the same theatregrams enlivening early sixteenth-century Italian erudite
comedy. Shakespeare also shares with his predecessor a tendency to explore the
nature of economic hardship and the problem of old age in comedies that contain
putatively happy endings. In As You Like It, while Shakespeare’s multilayered
juxtapositions of senex and puer lead him to probe the vicissitudes of old age more
philosophically (and charitably) than Ruzante, they afford him just as penetrating a
critique of latent causes of social unrest in turn-of-the-century England.
Unlike writers such as Ariosto and Bibbiena, who deploy the system of
commedia erudita theatregrams that Louise George Clubb and others have shown
to be cognate with the structural system of Shakespeare’s plays, Ruzante – with his
persistent attachment to Venetian popular dramatic forms such as the bulesca, the
villanesca, and the buffonesca – might be thought to be located somewhere outside
this international system of genres, topoi, plots, and character structures. Pursuing
the same intertextual route as Ellis, Robert Henke’s chapter makes clear a number
of striking thematic and structural affinities with Shakespeare. Both playwrights
test the generic limits of comedy, especially when set against contemporary
dramatists in Italy and England. The similarities regard the theatre and a profound
experience with rural life. They were both working actors throughout the course
of their playwriting careers, both insiders and outsiders in relationship to centres
of power and culture with a restless habit of formal experimentation, especially
in negotiating ‘popular’ and ‘learned’ strains and an unusual interest in the mode
of pastoral. The second part of the essay compares the playwrights’ representation

  Roberto Alonge, ‘La riscoperta rinascimentale del teatro’, in Storia del teatro
moderno e contemporaneo, R. Alonge and G. Davico Bonino (eds), Vol. I (Turin: Einaudi,
2000), p. 43.
18 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

of poverty, hunger, and charity in the context of certain economic and social
homologies between early modern Venice and London, with particular regard to
the playwrights’ responses to, respectively, the great Venetian famine of 1527–28
and the Midlands famine of 1595–96. Early modern poverty derived in large part
from agricultural crises in the early stages of capitalism, and therefore Ruzante
and Shakespeare, probably because of their backgrounds, are more attentive to
represent rural and provincial poverty (and the ways that it quickly generates
urban poverty) than their fellow dramatists. Alongside a discussion of the early
play La pastoral, Henke examines Ruzante’s ‘famine plays’ written in the late
1520s, including Dialogo facetissimo, Parlamento, and Bilora, in comparison to
the representation of hunger and poverty in several Shakespearean plays written
in the aftermath of the Midlands famine: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV,
part 1, and As You Like It. The chapter concludes with a short discussion of the
scene staging the citizens’ riot at the beginning of Coriolanus (written shortly after
another Midlands uprising), strikingly evocative of Ruzante’s earlier critiques of
grain hoarding, usury, and unfair poor laws.
Even in various mature comedies, from All’s Well That Ends Well to Measure
for Measure, it is possible to notice some typical traits of the emerging third kind,
identified with satire and tragicomedy ever since the first humanist debate. These
traits entered into English culture by way of translations, rewritings, imitations,
and direct and indirect borrowings from the early practices of ‘regular’ sixteenth-
century theatre to the bucolic poetry and the pastoral scenarios of the commedia
dell’arte. Thanks to the natural hybridism innate in this genre constructed on
fixed types, the commedia all’improvviso became the most popular model for the
diffusion throughout Europe of the vast repertoire of late Cinquecento theatregrams,
a phenomenon favoured by the transnational and itinerant nature of the most
important professional troupes of players. In Pericles and the late Romances, a
group of plays governed by ethical considerations of reconciliation and forgiveness,
Michele Marrapodi argues that the representation of contemporary Italian culture
becomes an ideological appropriation of its mythological and literary heritage,
in which ‘Italian vices’ are often set against ‘English virtues’ and replaced with
the post-Tridentine values of patience, constancy, and endurance characteristic
of moral education. The presence of these theatregrams in Shakespeare’s early
comedies, as suggested by Louise George Clubb, could be explained by the
impact on the English stage of commedia grave, with its Counter-Reformation
inspiration. The explicit didactic intent, conveyed in the decisive action of the
female figures, justifies an even greater influence that extends to Shakespearean
romances and Jacobean and Caroline tragicomedies. The theme of Providence
thwarting the supremacy of fortune, as worked out in the various elaborations
of the woman as wonder, can be found in Pericles and the late Anglo-Italian
portrayals of women subjected to judgement or trial by the arrogance of male
power. The wondrous woman trope that emerges from these characterisations is
often represented as a ‘saint-like’ figure, modelled on the Christian principles of
renunciation and endurance through the use of images and religious metaphors, a
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 19

figure that nevertheless, with her exemplary behaviour, denounces the patriarchal
and authoritarian structure of the stage court or society, expressing a positive
symbolism of eros directed at man’s recovery and salvation. Elevated to the rank
of promoter of the process of family reunion and reconciliation, this redeeming
role is coherently included in the process of feminisation of the iconic modes,
myths, rites, and symbols on which the romances’ entire ideological construction
is based.

Spectacle, Aesthetics, Representation

The idea of spectacle, the actual staging, and the aesthetics of performance
inherent in any form of theatre are considered in a number of chapters gathered
in Part III. François Laroque revisits the Venice and Verona plays in the light
of Shakespeare’s idea of carnival in Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice,
and Othello. In these plays, Shakespeare proposes a vision of the carnivalesque
as a form of subversion, intolerant of strangers, in which violence, albeit mostly
verbal, conjures up grotesque images and rough music meant to demonise the
Other. As opposed to the rites of mumming, which welcomed masks and music,
Shakespeare’s Italian carnival is still close to the May Day riots against foreign
merchants in 1517 London. Laroque’s interest is basically of an anthropological
nature, and his discussion of the carnivalesque form in Shakespeare’s Italian plays
gives rise to the question of hybridity and tragicomedy in relation to Guarini and
the use of Italian theatregrams.
Susan Payne discusses the theme of refracted art and rhetoric in Richard II,
claiming the influence of Italian Renaissance aesthetics in the language of drama.
The relationship between Richard II and Italian aesthetics is hardly cited at all by the
play’s editors on the conjunction between the Italian and the English Renaissance.
Payne examines the aesthetic matrix of two short but significant scenes and attempts
to trace the ideas back to their undoubtedly Italian sources. The first scene is 2.2,
that between Bushy and the Queen, a scene which has already been the object
of scholarly examination by Alessandro Serpieri and Sergio Rufini, who analyse
Bushy’s speech on the Queen’s tears with reference to the artistic theory and practice
of anamorphosis, or the deliberate use of a distorting and outgoing perspective to
generate a sidelong point of view or ‘looking awry’. Only from a single viewpoint
is it possible to obtain a correct vision of the image. This theory originates in the
works and study of the great artists of perspective, Ghiberti, Alberti, Piero della
Francesca, and Leonardo, and first emerges in studies on the extreme consequences
of perspective by Leonardo himself and then continues in other Italian studies
of perspective (Vignola, Danti, Barbaro). Bushy’s speech, as Peter Ure’s Arden
edition points out, includes a reference to another optical phenomenon, that caused
by the use of ‘multiplying glasses’ which are cut into a number of facets, each
producing a separate image. Webster and other Elizabethan and Jacobean writers
refer to these glasses and use their effect as a basis for metaphor, but Shakespeare
20 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

would seem to be the first, and in a fairly early play. Shakespeare deliberately used
his knowledge of these two contradictory theories as the palimpsest upon which
he then developed the play, and especially the character of Richard himself. The
second scene, apparently totally opposed as far as aesthetic content is concerned,
is 3.4, the scene in which the gardeners compare the right and proper cultivation of
a garden with Richard’s corrupt administration of the Commonwealth. The garden
in Richard II is the symbol of order and household economy, but also refers, with its
mentioning of neat trimming of enclosing hedges, of knots or formal flowerbeds,
and of ‘law and form and due proportion’ to the Italian gardens of the Renaissance,
i.e. to gardens of Theobalds, Wollaton, and Wimbledon, but – originally – of Villa
Lante and Villa D’Este. Again, the idea of enclosure, of ‘sea-walled’ England, is
a direct reference to the Virgin Queen in her hortus conclusus and thus to a whole
tradition of Italian art depicting the Madonna.
In what may be labelled as courtesan drama, that peculiar theatrical subgenre
associated with so-called wanton women as leading or titular characters, Keir Elam’s
chapter discusses the highly variegated and performative role of the prostitute in
early modern Italian and English drama. Interestingly enough, notwithstanding the
lexical choices in the titles of plays like ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Honest Whore,
and The Costlier Whore, there are significant sociolinguistic differences between
terms whore and courtesan in the period. Not unlike the cortegiano of Castiglione,
the Venetian courtesan functions as a symbol of Renaissance refinement associated
with the exotic customs of a distant locale. Even in a play with as English a title
as Blurt, Master Constable, the object of fascination for Dekker is the luxury
and sophistication of the Venetian courtesan Imperia and her high end bordello.
The nexus between the Venetian sex trade and high culture, Elam argues, made
such female characters the ideal figures for exploring the social position of the
London theatre. For although the London brothels may have lacked the presumed
refinement of Venice, there was little physical or social distance between the actors
and sex workers of the English capital.
Duncan Salkeld’s comparative approach emphasises the presence of a common
background uniting Italian aesthetic principles with Shakespeare’s performative
language, especially in such late plays as Timon of Athens and Pericles, in which
the question is debated of which appears to be the more excellent art (poetry or
painting). He argues that Shakespeare took an unusual interest in visual culture.
Silence, in Shakespeare’s plays and poems, has powerful, transformative and
performative effects, especially in passages of ekphrasis where visual images
are interpreted. Shakespeare refers to such effects as ‘dumb discourse’, ‘dumb
action’, ‘dumb presagers’ or, in Thomas Heywood’s words, ‘dumb oratory’. These
terms draw on a key sixteenth-century aesthetic debate known as the paragone
or ‘contest of the arts’, derived via Sir Philip Sidney and Leonardo da Vinci from
the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos. Simonides is credited with having coined
the phrase, ‘Painting is dumb poetry, and poetry is speaking painting’. In the
sixteenth century, Leonardo’s Paragone (c.1500–1505) argued for the excellence
of painting, whereas Sidney’s Defence of Poesy (published in 1595) urged the
Introduction: Shakespeare against Genres 21

supremacy of poems as ‘speaking pictures’. Sidney drew on visual metaphors to

make this case yet remained notably silent about both Leonardo and the painter’s
art. Shakespeare was aware of this debate. Unusually for a poet, he dwells on
the relative inadequacies of words as compared to the performative qualities of
images. For Shakespeare, visual images have power to bring about personal change,
creating illusory performative effects. There were also practical reasons, Salkeld
contends, why Shakespeare took such an interest in pictures: the dramatist worked
and collaborated with a painter (Richard Burbage) and theirs was a partnership
of creative vocations. That the paragone informed Shakespeare’s uses of silence
is signalled also by a simple change of name in Pericles from King Artestrates to
‘the good Simonides’.
Italianate spectacle in James VI/I’s political writings and public apparitions
is the topic of Michael Wyatt’s final chapter. Apart from his native Scots, the
vernacular parameters of the Stuart king’s personal culture were overwhelmingly
French, although the monarch and his Danish-born queen Anna studied Italian (with
Giacomo Castelvetro) in the 1590s, and significant figures in the court cultures that
James promoted in both Scotland and England took many of their cues from Italian
literary tradition. Wyatt examines the role of Italian-related spectacle within the
Scottish and English courts, looking briefly at three emblematic examples. The first,
the anonymous drama Philotus, written and performed in Edinburgh in the early
1580s, was informed both by the Italian novella and by elements of the commedia
erudita; and the treatise on poetics that James published shortly thereafter appears
to be addressed in part as a response to the play’s innovations. The festivities
staged in March 1604, following James’s ascent to the English throne, provide
Wyatt’s second point of reference in that one of the seven arches erected for what
came to be designated by Thomas Dekker as the Magnificent Entertainment was
financed by the Italian community in London. The significant part Italians had
played throughout the Tudor period, culturally and economically, easily explains
why they should have been invited to participate, and is highly suggestive of the
defining role foreign cultures had already played in the construction of England’s
nascent sense of national identity. Wyatt’s final example comes from a small book
of Rime composed by Antimo Galli, an agent of the Tuscan Grand-Duke in England
during the early years of James I’s reign, and published in London in 1609. Apart
from the volume’s poems dedicated to and dealing with prominent figures of the
early Jacobean period, among them John Florio, its principal interest lies in its
first-hand report of the Epiphany 1608 performance of the Masque of Beauty, one
of the earliest surviving such accounts but absolutely unique in telling its story in
Italian, in 124 elegant ottave.


Louise George Clubb’s afterword rounds off the question of the relationship
between early modern Italian and English drama and particularly how Italian
22 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

dramatic theories and practices were used and exploited by Shakespeare and his
fellow dramatists. The specific contacts that generated the unmistakable kinship
and influences, Clubb contends, are not discernible with absolute certainty since
the routes and countries the actual matrices have travelled are multiple, often
indirect, and countless. Apart from the Italians who settled in London and were
in close contact with the court, such as diplomats, musicians, and men of letters,
among the frequent visitors to England there were troupes of Italian players,
the comici of the commedia dell’arte, and other performers of Italian commedie
regolari and favole pastorali. Also, a great number of Italian plays and literary
works were printed in Italian at the London press of John Wolfe, who shared John
Florio’s widely known activity as a promoter of Italian culture. Most contacts and
theatregrams stem indirectly from an infinite series of theatrical forms, modes,
topoi, and models which were appropriated from and assimilated in the English
scene without a recognisable precise source through the natural migration and
contamination of cultures. This painstaking research represents some of the work
of our best younger and no longer quite so young scholars, thereby complementing
and supplementing the intertextual evidence of the construction of early modern
Italian-based English drama.
Part I
Art, Rhetoric, Style
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Chapter 1
Shakespeare and the Art of Forgetting
Stephen Orgel

This is a talk about forgetting, or the suppression or subversion of memory, as the

essential creative principle – we memorise in order to forget. My primary example
is Shakespeare, but he is only the example I know best: Shakespeare in this can
hardly be unique. I have in mind both really big creative acts like forgetting that the
Lear story has a happy ending, or forgetting the deaths of Mamillius and Antigonus
in constructing the transcendently happy ending of The Winter’s Tale; and really
small but even more baffling creative acts such as in As You Like It introducing
a character named Jaques and forgetting that there is already a character named
Jaques in the play, or in the second part of Henry IV introducing a character named
Lord Bardolph when there is already a character named Bardolph in the play, or
in The Comedy of Errors calling Adriana’s servant Luce the first time she appears,
and in the next scene calling her Nell; or at the beginning of Othello describing
Cassio as ‘almost damned in a fair wife’ and then having him unmarried for the rest
of the play, or in The Tempest listing Antonio’s son as one of the shipwreck victims
and then never mentioning him again – there are many more such examples in
Shakespeare. And (how could it be otherwise?) the process of constructing the
Shakespeare we want has for the most part also been a process of forgetting about
these elements of Shakespeare’s creative process. Such examples, however, are
surely keys to the act of creation – this is the essential Shakespeare, the essence
of drama itself. Anthropology tells us that drama begins as ritual, but ritual is an
act of memory; it only becomes drama when it forgets and revises, when plots
become unexpected, when the end forgets the beginning, when every performance
forgets the previous one, and forgets the text it purports to follow, when every
text emends the last, hoping to consign to oblivion all except the forgotten but
endlessly restored original.
My main example will be the case of King Lear, but I begin with an Italian
example, which is especially germane because it has to do with the imagination
of history – what history conceived as drama remembers, and what, in order to
become drama, it forgets. In May 1671, a remarkable tragedy set in an England that
was almost contemporary was performed in Modena. Girolamo Graziani’s drama
about the English Civil War, Il Cromuele, was published in the same year, with a
lavish dedication to Louis XIV and a preface declaring the playwright’s intention of
transforming the practice of the stage. The book is a manifesto, and was published
with illustrations, five engravings of settings for each of the five acts.
26 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

The polemical preface is more notable for its lacunae than for its argument.
Graziani points out that his villainous protagonist, ‘Cromuele, Tiranno
d’Inghilterra’, hardly requires a justification, given such classic models as Medea
and Thyestes. The novel element, Graziani says, is the choice of a contemporary
subject – Charles I had been beheaded only 22 years earlier; Cromwell had been
dead for little more than a decade; and both Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth and the
Earl of Clarendon, who are characters in the play, were still alive in 1671. The
issues of the tragedy were the stuff of current European politics. This is what
Graziani claims as revolutionary in his dramaturgy: the fact that its pity and terror
are contemporary.
However, there are in fact several notable precedents in Italian drama. The most
influential was Federico della Valle’s La Reina di Scozia of 1595, written less than
a decade after Mary Stuart’s beheading; the play was revised and revived several
times in the seventeenth century as Maria Stuarda. There were, in addition, two
other plays with the same title, both produced as recently as 1665 – Mary Stuart
offered an obvious parallel to the subject of Cromuele, especially given the fact
that she was Charles I’s grandmother. In fact, considering the number of Maria
Stuarda plays, the only really surprising thing about Graziani’s choice of subject is
his apparent ignorance of them. In the English theatre, moreover, the use of modern
history as a subject, especially current events in France, was almost normative.
Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, Chapman’s Conspiracy and Tragedy of Byron
and the two Bussy d’Ambois plays, enlisted the stage in the emergent cause of
Protestantism and warned of the dangers of the rampant aristocratic ego – the
particular dangers dramatised were recent, and ongoing. Even Shakespearean
histories like Richard II and Henry VIII were felt to be dangerously contemporary
in their relevance. Graziani, for all his invocation of British history, clearly knows
none of this – the greatest lacuna in his argument is the dramatic tradition itself,
both English and Italian.
The play is a rich amalgam of high romance and heavy rhetoric, with an
elaborate multiple disguise plot. The language is operatic – indeed, much of it is
intended to be sung. Though the background is the Civil War and the characters
are based on – or at least bear the names of – real people, the drama in fact has
nothing to do with history. Two young men, Edmondo and Henrico, have arrived
in England from the continent to rescue King Charles, who is imprisoned in the
Tower of London (in fact, the king was incarcerated first on the Isle of Wight
and then in Windsor Castle). They enlist the help of Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth,
who is secretly in love with the king, of her confidante Orinda, mother of the
governor of the Tower of London, and of Anna, daughter of the Earl of Clarendon.
Both young men are women in disguise: we learn immediately that Henrico is
Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I, and Edmondo is revealed at the very
end as Cromwell’s (fictitious) daughter Delmira, a closet royalist also secretly in
love with the king. The elaborate rescue plot falls apart through a combination
of jealousy, bad timing, and – the truly revolutionary element in the play – an
Shakespeare and the Art of Forgetting 27

overheard soliloquy. Edmondo, seeing his plans about to succeed, and believing
himself alone onstage, rejoices:

Già veggo
Libero il Re, schernita Elisabetta,
Confuso Cromuel, delusa Orinda.

And Orinda, the unseen audience, at once precipitates the catastrophe in truly
operatic style: ‘Ah perfido, vendetta!’ … and the jig is up. Edmondo is denounced,
the plot revealed, the king and his fictitious admirer carried off to execution. It is
not revolutionary politics but this violation of dramatic convention, the overheard
soliloquy, that results in the death of the royal martyr.
The only parallel I know to this occurs at a critical moment in Guarini’s Il Pastor
Fido, when the heroine Amarilli laments her forthcoming marriage in a soliloquy
which is overheard by her rival in love, the villainous courtesan Corisca. The
overheard soliloquy becomes the basis of a plot to supplant and destroy Amarilli.
The parallel – or perhaps source – is significant: Il Cromuele is pure romance. The
illustration to Act I shows a stage set as substantial as any palatial salon of the age,
but the three figures are in the fantastic costumes of court masques (Figure 1.1).
The men especially (who are of course cross-dressed women) look like knights
in a ballet de cour of Orlando Furioso, rather than Royalist gentlemen. For all its
contemporary claims, this is the world of epic fantasy. In fact, this scene itself is
a fantasy: the characters in Act 1 are Edmondo, Anna and Orinda; but the second
young man, on the left, can only be Henrico, the cross-dressed Queen, who does not
appear until Act 2 (it looks as if the illustration was originally designed for Act 2).
The setting for Act 2 is a sumptuous London parterre that looks suspiciously
Italian – there are conical cypresses in the background: they don’t do well in the
English climate. The two impassioned figures are Henrico, the disguised queen
Henrietta Maria, and Odoardo, otherwise Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon.
In Act 3 we are finally in the Tower of London in the presence of Arthur, the
governor of the Tower and the king’s jailor, and a shrouded woman, Orinda, his
mother, who is persuading him to take the mysterious Henrico into his service.
The Tower is a majestic baroque invention, half fortress, half palace, exhibiting
overtones of Bibbiena and Piranesi, but not a trace of its Norman origins. Act 4
takes place on the ramparts of the Tower, though we seem to be at sea, or at least
river level, with a lovely view of a very Italianate cityscape with a Palladian
church on the south bank and a bridge that can only be London Bridge, since that
was the only bridge over the Thames. The scene is populated by another group
of court ballet figures – attended, to be sure, by four credibly attired seventeenth-
century guards (the figures with the pikes) (Figure 1.2). And in Act 5 we see
Cromwell, asleep in a chair in the royal bedchamber which he has usurped,
afflicted with very bad dreams.
These images are a good indication of the limits to the imagination of otherness.
Doubtless very few of the Modenese spectators would have visited London, so
28 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Figure 1.1 Girolamo Graziani, Il Cromuele (1671), plate to Act 1.

Figure 1.2 Girolamo Graziani, Il Cromuele (1671), plate to Act 4.

Shakespeare and the Art of Forgetting 29

recreating real buildings would have had little point; but these settings nevertheless
would obviously have been quite recognisable. Graziani’s England, for an Italian
audience of 1671, was a very familiar place, both geographically and theatrically,
and the story itself depends on forgetting the events it purports to depict. If the
play is at all revolutionary, as Graziani claims, it foretells not a drama that brings
history to life, but romance validated by a veneer of history – a thin veneer at
that: its descendants are operas like I Puritani and the novels of Dumas. The most
striking thing about it is surely the most characteristic thing about it: its claim of
authenticity – Shakespeare similarly titled his fantastic romance about Henry VIII
All Is True. But the truth of theatre is always a mass of contingencies, and the stage
always constructs its own reality.
I turn now to a famous emendation, which is germane because it depends on
a case of memorial reconstruction – a case, that is, in which it would appear that
Shakespeare’s genius was both materialised through an act of memory, and at the
same time obscured or even vitiated by it. Here is the account of Falstaff’s death
given by Mistress Quickly in Henry V. ‘… His nose was as sharp as a pen, and a
table of green fields … .’ This was the text from 1623 until 1733, when the editor
Lewis Theobald decided that Shakespeare’s manuscript had been misread: that
‘a table of green fields’, which seems to make no sense, in fact had nothing to do
with the matter, but that rather, in dying, ‘ ’a [=he] babbled of green fields’. This
emendation, indisputably a stroke of editorial genius, seemed to have restored
what Shakespeare must actually have written. Bibliography here communicated
with Shakespeare himself – or at least, with Shakespeare’s manuscript before it
reached the printer.
But let us pause over this editorial watershed. If we agree that Theobald was
correct, and that a compositor setting the type in the printing house was misreading
Shakespeare’s handwriting, what happened before the play got to the compositor?
‘Table’ is the 1623 folio’s reading; so the folio’s printer is the culprit. But the
only other substantive text, from the 1600 quarto, in a passage that bears little
resemblance to the folio text, at this point reads not ‘babbled’ but ‘talk’, and it is
apparent that the folio was not set up from this very garbled quarto, but directly
from Shakespeare’s manuscript. So neither of our two primary sources reads
‘babbled’: ‘babbled’, even if it is impeccably correct, is all Theobald. Q seems to
be a reported text provided by two actors – the creativeness of the ars memoriae in
this case is only an index to its radical fallibility – but if F’s ‘table’ is a misreading
resulting from a visual error in deciphering Shakespeare’s handwriting, so would
Q’s ‘talk’ seem to be. In a reported text, however, the error ought to be an auditory
one. If Q is really a reported text, then, the counter-argument here would have to be
that the reporters heard ‘babbled’ but remembered it as the simpler concept ‘talk’
(or ‘talkd’, as it’s usually emended). This argument would be more persuasive if
‘talkd’ looked less like ‘table’. Moreover, even if we agree that ‘babbled’ was what
Shakespeare wrote, it might also be the case that Shakespeare’s handwriting was

  The text is that of the 1623 folio, in modernised spelling.
30 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

hard to read for everyone, and was misread not only by the folio compositor but
by the scribe who prepared the promptbook, who also would have been working
from Shakespeare’s manuscript – and the promptbook, after all, would have been
the source of the actors’ scripts too, and thereby of what the reporters heard, or
misremembered. Maybe the actors were (incorrectly) saying ‘table’ or ‘talkd’ all
along. For Theobald’s purposes, however, what the actors said, what the reporters
recalled, what all the audiences from 1599 to 1733 heard, was irrelevant; his
communication was with Shakespeare’s mind – or at least, with Shakespeare’s
putative bad handwriting. Theobald’s intuition here effectively abolished both the
performing and the textual tradition, the play’s collective memory.
Perhaps the oddest thing about this sort of puzzle is to decide where the
playwright fits into it. In 1599, Shakespeare was on the spot to see that the
promptbook and the actors got it right – how could ‘table’ (or ‘talkd’) be wrong?
But in fact this is not a very persuasive argument: there are, as I have indicated,
numerous perfectly obvious muddles in the Shakespeare texts. The examples of
Cassio’s fair wife, Antonio’s shipwrecked son, and Adriana’s servant Luce/Nell
are evidence, no doubt, that Shakespeare sometimes changed his mind during the
process of composition, the only puzzling aspect of which is why they remained
a permanent feature of the texts. Didn’t the actors playing Cassio and Antonio
wonder about their missing families? Didn’t the boy cast as Luce or Nell demand
to know, as soon as he got his part, what his name was? (Didn’t Shakespeare
thunder ‘“babbled”, not “table”, idiots’; and why didn’t the embarrassed prompter
then immediately correct the error?). How did the confusion survive the first
rehearsal, to remain a permanent part of the play’s memory?
Here is a different kind of example, involving a complex interplay of memory
and forgetting. The first quarto of Hamlet, published in 1603, purports on its title
page to be the text of the play as it was performed everywhere: at the Globe in
London, at Oxford and Cambridge, ‘and elsewhere’ – the text as all the audiences
who wanted a reading copy of this popular drama would have remembered it.
But two years later Shakespeare’s company issued a second quarto of the play,
this time, according to the title page, ‘enlarged to almost as much again as it was,
according to the true and perfect copy’ – the claim here is that the true and perfect
copy includes a great deal that you could not see in performance, and that in effect
your memory of the performance, even if it was perfect, was misrepresenting
the true and perfect copy. In fact, it is clear that the first quarto itself is an act
of memory, a version of the play put together on the road, in the absence of
the playhouse copy, by a group of actors at least two of whom had been in the
original production, playing Marcellus and Voltimand. And they did produce
something that is certainly more like what a Shakespeare play must have been
on the stage than all but a couple of other surviving texts are, a play that really
can be performed in the two hours that we know was the standard performing
time for plays of the period. Here is their version of the most memorable and
memorised passage in the play, perhaps the crucial document in the whole of the
Shakespearean memorial archive:
Shakespeare and the Art of Forgetting 31

To be, or not to be, ay, there’s the point,

To die, to sleep, is that all? Ay all.
No, to sleep, to dream; ay marry there it goes.
For in that dream of death, when we awake
And borne before an everlasting judge
From whence no passenger ever returned,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursèd damned –
But for this, the joyful hope of this,
Who’d bear the scorns and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor,
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wronged,
The taste of hunger, or a tyrant’s reign,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweat under this weary life,
When that he may his full quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would this endure,
But for a hope of something after death,
Which puzzles the brain and doth confound the sense,
Which makes us rather bear those evils we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Ay, that. O this conscience makes cowards of us all. –
Lady, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.

It is an odd version of the speech, but there are some things right about it: it is faster,
more direct, and significantly shorter than the familiar version – more like a play,
less like a meditation. It also comes earlier in the action than it does in the standard
texts, and thus involves Hamlet in less emotional backtracking. But it also misses
the point of the speech as we know it: for this Hamlet, the undiscovered country
from whose bourn no traveler returns is a joyful hope, not the dread that keeps us
from suicide – is this merely a lapse of the reporter’s memory? Of course, even
‘the true and perfect copy’ is strikingly forgetful in this instance, since the play’s
whole action has been precipitated by a traveler returning from that undiscovered
country, the ghost of Hamlet’s father. How has Hamlet – or Shakespeare, or the rest
of us – forgotten this? Indeed, the whole force of the speech depends on this act
of forgetting, because the conviction that we can never know what happens after
death, which ‘puzzles the will/ And makes us rather bear those ills we have/ Than
fly to others that we know not of’, is the measure of what Hamlet has forgotten:
what happens after death is precisely what his father’s ghost has told him.
I turn now to the famous case of the ending of King Lear. In every other version
of the Lear story, both in the chronicles of early British history and in the earlier

  The First Quarto of Hamlet, Kathleen O. Irace (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1998), 7.114–34 (pp. 58–9).
32 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

play The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters (published
in 1605, a year before the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s play),
Cordelia’s forces are victorious, Lear’s throne is restored to him, he dies in peace,
and she rules after him, to be succeeded by her heirs. Nahum Tate notoriously
returned to this ending in his Restoration adaptation of the play, a change of
which Dr. Johnson notoriously approved. According to the chronicles Cordelia
was some years later deposed and imprisoned by her sons (or in some versions
by her nephews), and committed suicide, but that is part of another story; she has
produced heirs, and both the continuity of Lear’s line and the facts of early British
history are assured. To kill off Cordelia without issue and bestow the kingdom on
Edgar, as Shakespeare does, was both historically perverse and a significant defeat
for any early audience’s expectations – and for their historical memory. It is not
even clear in the play why Edgar should have any claim to the throne at all, to say
nothing of Kent, whom Albany designates as co-ruler with Edgar, though Kent
declines the honour. Of the characters left alive, Albany himself would seem to
have the best claim to succeed Lear, being his son-in-law; but instead he ends the
play by dividing up the kingdom as Lear had done, this time between two people
who have no right to it whatever.
Shakespeare is not especially faithful to history elsewhere, but this is surely
an extreme example, analogous to making Henry V lose the battle of Agincourt,
and installing somebody – anybody – else as king. Modern views of the play
typically ignore – or forget about – the historical absurdity; but is there really
nothing here for critical commentary to take account of? From Tate to Johnson,
a standard element in the defense of the happy ending was that it was true: it
was Shakespeare who had changed the ending, not Tate. The question of why
(and how) Shakespeare changed the ending is not, for us, a serious one – Tate’s
ending, we argue, trivialises the suffering, and therefore must be wrong; though
the subtext of this argument is surely that if Shakespeare did it, it must be right. But
there is nothing normative, even within Shakespeare’s own work, that dictated the
ending. What he added to a very mixed plot was a degree of abjectness and cruelty
unmatched in his drama since Titus Andronicus. It is precisely those elements that
we do not take seriously – Johnson takes them seriously, when he says that ‘I was
many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever
endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them
as an editor.’ Surely it is worth asking what, in a dramaturgy that could produce
tragicomedy like Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale,
all plays whose sufferings are redeemed in a reversal of fortune that we might
even call characteristically Shakespearean, seemed to require so radical an act of
forgetting to produce an outcome at once so bleak and so unexpected.

  Preface to Shakespeare: King Lear. Quotations are taken from the online text of the
University of Adelaide,
Shakespeare and the Art of Forgetting 33

Forgetting is crucial within the play’s action, too: it is a radical act of

forgetting that precipitates Shakespeare’s catastrophe. After the final battle and the
imprisonment of Lear and Cordelia, Kent appears, no longer in disguise, seeking
a reconciliation with his master. The virtuous Albany has finally taken charge and
the villains have disposed of each other. All the elements of a happy ending are
in place; but Kent has to remind the victorious Duke of the absence of his royal
prisoner – ‘Is he not here?’ (5.3.234). Albany’s telling reply, ‘Great thing of us
forgot’, might be a motto for the play as a whole, which begins with Cordelia’s
‘nothing’ and ends with Lear’s five ‘never’s. Forgetting a great thing makes it a
nothing; losing track of time reduces the critical moment to a never. It is in the
space of Albany’s failed memory that the dead Edmund’s order to execute the
prisoners is carried out.
What possessed Shakespeare? The answer to this question may well be
biographical, and therefore beyond the limits of our evidence. Nevertheless, it
is worth recognising as an issue, and insisting that the ending is not one that is
determined by the plot (as, for example, the very bleak endings of Coriolanus and
Timon of Athens are). This is a play in which Shakespeare goes out of his way to
raise expectations only to – perhaps in order to – defeat them.
Possibly, however, we judge the general tone of the play, its exceptional
bleakness, by an anachronistic standard, and this is why the ending seems right to
us. For us, Lear starts out with a spectacular display of bad judgment, and it’s all
downhill from there. Notice, however, that though it’s Kent who initially objects
to Lear’s bad judgment, only the villains believe that it renders him unfit to rule.
In fact, elsewhere he is referred to in the play not as blind, foolish, irascible, self-
centred, mad, incompetent (or as we would sum it up, senile), but as kind – Kent
deplores ‘the hard rein which both of them have borne/ Against the old kind king
…’ (3.1.28). Lear in Act I calling himself ‘So kind a father’ (1.5.34) is presumably
to be taken ironically, but his later protest, ‘Your old kind father, whose frank heart
gave all’ (3.4.20), is, objectively, true, though of course it is not the whole truth.
When Shakespeare’s leading man Richard Burbage died in 1618, his elegy lists the
roles that made him famous

No more young Hamlet, old Hieronymo,

Kind Lear, the grievèd Moor …

Kind Lear. All these examples insist on Lear’s essential goodness; but the play’s
largest point would surely be a firmly monarchical one: that even a bad king is
still the king. This is no doubt why King James liked this play about a monarch
destroyed by his heirs enough to have it performed for him at court in 1606 – this

  Quotations are taken from the New Pelican text, Stephen Orgel (ed.) (New York:
Penguin Books, 2002).

  C.M. Ingleby et al., The Shakespeare Allusion Book, revised edition (London:
Oxford University Press, 1932), vol. 1, p. 272.
34 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

is the first recorded performance, and the only one recorded in Shakespeare’s
lifetime. For us, in so far as Shakespeare’s play is about kingship, it concerns the
responsibilities of the office, not its prerogatives; but we tend to view the play
less as political than as deeply personal. It is about how thoughtless small acts can
have formidably terrible effects, about how little we understand even the people
who are closest to us, above all, about our capacity for suffering, about the fact
that however bad things are, they can always be worse. To Jacobean audiences,
however, the play would have said something deeply admonitory about hierarchy
and history: that ignoring the patriarchal imperatives – whether in the royal family
or in any other – brought chaos to the kingdom, abolished the line of succession,
indeed, consigned history itself, Cordelia’s forgotten heirs, to oblivion. The failure
of deference is a failure of historical memory, with incalculable, unthought of
consequences. Shakespeare’s ending was a surprise, but it was also a warning.
Perhaps our objections to the sentimentalisation of the play that Tate’s version
represents are anachronistic. It was already quite a sentimental play, deploring the
failure to preserve an incompetent king from the effects of his own bad judgment:
in blaming Lear, we have adopted the point of view of the villains. Tate’s version
is sentimental in a different way, but he does understand something about the play
in Shakespeare’s time that we have forgotten.
In this reading, the play anticipates The Winter’s Tale in its focus on the
preservation of the monarch, however perverse or irrational, as the essential
element in the integrity and continuity of the commonwealth. Shakespeare sets
up a powerful tragic momentum reminiscent of Lear in the opening three acts,
only to disarm it at the conclusion with fantasy and magic. Why does Shakespeare
preserve Leontes and ultimately exonerate him – why is he not treated in the
fashion of all those other foolish, headstrong, misguided, tyrannical Shakespearian
kings, who go to their deaths even in those cases where it is acknowledged that
they are more sinned against than sinning? Shakespeare’s source was Robert
Greene’s novel Pandosto, which in fact gave him a strikingly dramatic model: at
the conclusion, the repentant king falls in love with his still unidentified daughter;
and when he learns who she is, kills himself, to be succeeded on the throne by
the unsullied next generation, his daughter and son-in-law. This is an ending that
would be perfectly consistent with the tragedy of royalty as Shakespeare practiced
it, and the preservation of Leontes is as unique in his drama as is the mode by
which it is effected, a statue coming to life. Even the miraculous happy ending
involves as significant a lapse of memory as Albany’s forgetting about Lear and
Cordelia: Mamillius, Leontes’ son and heir, who died of grief at the height of his
mother’s ordeal, and Antigonus, the faithful servant who died preserving the infant
Perdita from Leontes’ threats to burn her, are forgotten among the general wonder
and rejoicing – no statue of Mamillius comes to life; Antigonus does not reappear
in a bear skin. Losses are restored by forgetting them.
This ending is as much a surprise as the ending of King Lear, but what is
most striking in the resolution of The Winter’s Tale is the intensity of its focus on
Leontes, the play’s unwillingness to move beyond him, as if grace and wonder
Shakespeare and the Art of Forgetting 35

inhere only in kingship. If we think about Shakespeare’s attitude towards kings

in his plays of the 1590s, we will see this as a specifically Jacobean vision, and
one that, moreover, involves many major acts of forgetting on Shakespeare’s
part. Throughout his history plays, bad kings, weak kings, usurping kings, are
regularly found invoking the divinity that protects the monarchy, just before they
are assassinated – divine right is a doctrine that the young Shakespeare treats
with considerable irony, as did his monarch Queen Elizabeth. But it was a central
tenet of James I’s political philosophy. King Lear is its negative version, and The
Winter’s Tale anatomises what kind of forgetfulness is required of the playwright
and the commonwealth to produce a happy ending.
This page has been left blank intentionally
Chapter 2
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern
Theory and Humanist Poetics
Robin Headlam Wells

I comici piú che gli altri esprimeno la imagine della vita umana
Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano

In recent decades critical thinking about Renaissance drama has been transformed
by postmodern theory. ‘In Renaissance studies today, theory is everywhere’, write
the editors of a recent anthology of postmodern Renaissance criticism. ‘For the
student entering this field for the first time, theoretically inflected thinking is
impossible to avoid.’
What do students learn about Renaissance poetics when they approach the
subject through theory? There is now an extensive body of ‘theoretically inflected’
criticism devoted to the early modern period, and no summary statement can do
justice to the variety and energy of this work. But when it comes to ideas about
subjectivity, authorship and writing there are certain axiomatic principles that
inform all postmodern thinking about this period. These include the following
assumptions. First, the notion of an ‘unchanging “human condition”’ is thought to
have had little meaning for Renaissance writers (the inverted commas indicate the
spurious nature of the category). Second, the idea of an inner self was present, if it
existed at all, only in the most rudimentary form and certainly hadn’t developed into
that fully fledged, but supposedly illusory, sense of interiority that is said to be one
of the defining characteristics of the modern bourgeois mind (for postmodernists
the ‘self’, conceived of as some sort of autonomous agent capable of generating
original meaning, is ‘now defunct’). Third, since the inner self barely existed in
this period, it follows that any notion of authorial originality would have made
little sense to Shakespeare’s contemporaries; after all, where could original ideas
come from if there was no inner being to generate them? As a consequence, the

 Ewan Fernie and Ramona Wray, Introduction to Reconceiving the Renaissance:
A Critical Reader, Ewan Fernie, Ramona Wray, Mark Thornton Burnett and Clare McManus
(eds) (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 1.

  Fernie and Wray, p. 2.

  Louis Montrose, ‘The Poetics and Politics of Culture’ in H. Aram Veeser (ed), The
New Historicism (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), p. 21.
38 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

author was thus ‘relegated … to a position of relative inconsequence’. Renaissance

writers were, in short, radical anti-essentialists.
A postgraduate student embarking on a new programme of study would
probably have had little time for reading beyond the canonical works that are
usually anthologised in student textbooks and so wouldn’t be in a position to
question these claims. But any experienced scholar will know that they bear little
relationship to what Renaissance writers actually have to say about human nature,
authorship, and the function of poetic drama. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t
deconstruct Renaissance documents or read them against the grain. Deconstruction
involves dismantling conceptual oppositions in such a way as to show how texts
typically contradict their own ostensible meanings; reading against the grain, or
‘creative misreading’ as it’s sometimes called, is a simpler procedure and involves
candid rejection of unwelcome authorial meanings in favour of ones that are more
in line with postmodern thinking.
However, it is not always clear in ‘theoretically inflected’ criticism when texts
are being deconstructed, and when it’s being argued that Renaissance writers were
knowingly adopting anti-essentialist principles. In this essay I will try to be as
clear as possible about what Shakespeare and his contemporaries thought about
the poetics of comedy – as opposed, that is, to what we in the twenty-first century
believe they should have thought on the subject. What you then do with those
ideas is a matter of individual choice. Some believe that the primary aim of the
literary scholar should be to advance the cause of ‘a broader social struggle’ in
the modern world, rewriting the text where necessary in order to promote the
critic’s own political agenda. Others recall what happened when literary criticism
was politicised in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (academics were
required to show how Shakespeare anticipated the key principles of Marxist
thought), and believe that the job of the historical scholar should be confined to
reconstructing the past, with all its contradictions and anomalies, as accurately as
possible. Others again believe that the critic’s job is to evaluate the past from a
modern perspective, not attempting to show how past writers anticipate modern
intellectual principles, but making it clear what the differences are between past and
present. But whether they choose to deconstruct Renaissance texts in the cause of

  Fernie and Wray, p. 4.

  Alan Sinfield defines this kind of reading as ‘rework[ing] the authoritative text so
that it is forced to yield, against the grain, explicitly oppositional kinds of understanding’
(Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1992), p. 22.

  Fernie and Wray, p. 11.

  In his most recent book Alan Sinfield states that ‘the ultimate allegiance of the
cultural materialist is not to the text as such – not to literature – but to the political project’
(Shakespeare, Authority, Sexuality (Abington: Routledge, 2006), p. 198).

  For a discussion of literary historicism and some popular misconceptions about its
history and origins see Robin Headlam Wells, Glenn Burgess and Rowland Wymer (eds),
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist Poetics 39

social struggle or put them to some quite different use, it is important for modern
students to know what it is they are dealing with. Indeed, since deconstruction
works on the assumption that it’s in the very nature of literary texts ‘to embarrass
their own ruling systems of logic’, as Terry Eagleton puts it, it might be supposed
that familiarity with those original systems of logic is an essential precondition for
any work of deconstruction. Reading against the grain similarly presupposes that
you have at least a rough idea which way the grain is pointing in the first place.
So what did early modern critics have to say about the function of drama? I will
begin by reviewing Renaissance ideas of authorship, and the essentialist principles
that underpin those ideas. I will then move on to a consideration of the humanist
ideas that inform Shakespeare’s comedies. Finally I will discuss Shakespeare’s
technique of metadramatic self-commentary. In the speeches, dialogues, and
symbolic scenes in which he refers to the dramatist’s art, Shakespeare gives us
the age’s most sophisticated thoughts on theatre and the question of whether, as
humanists claimed, poetry could really change people’s lives for the better.

Humanist Poetics

First, some modern misconceptions. In the 1960s Roland Barthes and Michel
Foucault set out to overturn conventional thinking about authorship and literary
invention. They argued that the idea of the author as a source of original ideas and
feelings was a comparatively recent invention.10 Before the eighteenth century
creative individuality was an alien notion. Lacking any real sense of interiority,
people placed little value on originality. Literary invention was not so much a
matter of individual writers expressing their idiosyncratic view of the world in
original ways, as a collaborative enterprise involving teams of script writers,
technicians, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs. All the individual writer could do,
according to Barthes, was to mix and combine pre-existing writings.11
These ideas were quickly accepted by the new literary-theoretical establishment
and within a decade or so had become established as orthodox thinking about literary
invention. The editors of a collection of essays on theories of authorship took it as
a generally acknowledged truth that ‘the modern regime of authorship, far from

Introduction to Neo-Historicism: Studies in English Renaissance Literature, History and

Politics (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000), pp. 1–29.

  Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), p. 133.
 Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath
(London: Fontana, 1977), pp. 142–8; Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ Language,
Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. and trans. Donald F.
Bouchard (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), pp. 113–38.
  ‘The Death of the Author’, p. 146.
40 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

being timeless and universal, is a relatively recent formation’.12 The author of a

standard work on Shakespeare’s poetics stated that Renaissance theorists ‘had little
sense of a simultaneity of imagination and delivery’.13 Another critic claimed that
‘In the Renaissance our modern concept of the genius simply did not exist’.14 The
idea that a writer might challenge orthodox thinking or flout conventional rules of
composition was no more than ideological mystification; in reality Shakespeare was
as much the material child of his time as any other writer, with no real possibility
of questioning its discourses or challenging its assumptions.15 Terence Hawkes
explained that the idea of a literary text expressing its author’s mind ‘would have
been unfamiliar to Shakespeare, involved as he was in the collaborative enterprise
of dramatic production’.16 Graham Holderness made much the same point: ‘when
we deconstruct the Shakespeare myth what we discover is not a universal individual
genius … but a collaborative cultural process’.17
Shakespeare would probably have been surprised to learn that authors are of
little consequence. He did, after all, declare in sonnet 55 that his own ‘powerful
rhyme’ would outlive the gilded monuments of princes. His contemporaries
certainly didn’t regard authors as unimportant. When Jonson wrote his elegy on
Shakespeare he took care to spell out in the title of his poem the most important
thing about his subject, namely, that he was an author: ‘To the Memory of My
Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare.’ To describe someone as an
author in this period was higher praise than might at first be supposed. In a long
tradition going back through the Middle Ages to the ancient world, poets were
celebrated as divinely inspired creators. Taking their cue from Plato’s description
in the Timaeus (28C) of the maker of the universe as, in Cristoforo Landino’s
phrase, ‘the supreme poet’ (sommo poeta),18 defenders of poetry claimed that the

  The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature,
Peter Jaszi and Martha Woodmansee (eds) (Durham, NC and London: Duke University
Press, 1994), pp. 2–3.
 Ekbert Faas, Shakespeare’s Poetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1986), p. 24.
 Christine Battersby, Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (London:
Women’s Press, 1989), p. 28.
 Kathleen McLuskie, ‘The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare’ in
Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan
Sinfield (eds) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 88–108.
 Terence Hawkes, That Shakespeherian Rag: Essays on a Critical Process (London:
Methuen, 1986), p. 75. In Shakespeare in the Present (London and New York: Routledge,
2002) Hawkes mocks what he regards as the misguided attempts by some (unnamed) critics
to restore to Shakespeare ‘the genuine monarchy of genius’ (p. 2).
  Graham Holderness, ‘Bardolatry: or, The Cultural Materialist’s Guide to Stratford-
upon-Avon’, The Shakespeare Myth, Graham Holderness (ed.) (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1988), p. 13.
  ‘Et e idio sommo poeta: et e el mondo suo poema’, Cristoforo Landino, Commentary
on Dante’s Divina Commedia (1481), quoted by S.K. Heninger Jr., Touches of Sweet
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist Poetics 41

greatest poets were godlike in their powers of invention. ‘Poetry proceeds from the
bosom of God … and is sublime in its effects: it impels the soul to a longing for
utterance; it brings forth strange and unheard-of creations of the mind’, declared
Boccaccio in his Genealogy of the Pagan Gods (1360–74).19 In a dialogue on
poetry (De poetica, 1555), the sixteenth-century physician and polymath Girolamo
Fracastoro has one of his characters repeat this conventional formula: ‘Rightly
indeed do the poets deserve to be called divine, since they alone have invented
that divine speech by which the gods have condescended to speak in oracles to
Men.’20 These commonplaces were duly echoed by sixteenth-century Italian21 and
English theorists.22
By their very nature, formal defences of the poet’s art were likely to include
conventional elements that readers were expected to recognise as tributes to
classical authority. Does this mean, then, that testimonies to the godlike nature of
the poetic imagination were an empty formality? Were apologists simply repeating
well known formulae as a way of arrogating merit to their own work? That, at
least, was the view of neoclassicists like Lodovico Castelvetro (1505–71). Divine
inspiration, wrote Castelvetro in his influential commentary on Aristotle (Poetica
d’Aristotele, 1570), is a notion that has been fostered by vainglorious poets
‘because it made them the objects of high praise and won them esteem as darlings
of the gods’.23 Shakespeare too seems to have been sceptical of the Platonic idea of
divine frenzy and satirised it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V.i.12–17). So did
Sidney in Astrophil and Stella (74).
In an age when you were expected to endorse your argument with a citation of
ancient authority, there is bound to be an element of mechanical repetition. Yet from
what Renaissance poets say about each other’s work in their treatises, prefaces, and
dedications, it’s clear that they weren’t simply repeating conventional formulae:
the greatest living writers were without question, in their view, men of exceptional

Harmony: Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics (San Marino: Huntington

Library, 1974), p. 292.
  Boccaccio on Poetry, ed. and trans. Charles G. Osgood (Indianapolis and New
York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), p. 39.
  Girolamo Fracastoro, Naugerius, sive de poetica dialogus, trans. Ruth Kelso
(Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 1924), p. 65.
  See Baxter Hathaway, The Age of Criticism: The Late Renaissance in Italy (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1962), pp. 406–10.
  See, for example, George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, Gladys Doidge
Willcock and Alice Walker (eds) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936), 3–4; Sir
Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, Geoffrey Shepherd (ed.) (London: Nelson, 1965),
p. 100.
  Castelvetro on the Art of Poetry: An Abridged Translation of Lodovico Castelvetro’s
Poetica d’Aristotele Vulgarizzata et Sposta, trans. and ed. Andrew Bongiorno (Binghamton,
NY: Medieval Texts and Studies, 1984), p. 37. Castelvetro’s rejection of the idea of divine
poetic inspiration was in turn challenged by a new generation of Platonists in the final three
decades of the sixteenth century (see Hathaway, The Age of Criticism, p. 413).
42 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

genius. It’s true that in England no one actually used the word genius, at least not
in its vernacular form.24 But just because a particular word doesn’t happen to be in
use doesn’t mean that the concept it refers to can’t exist.25 Periphrases, metaphors,
and symbols do just as well. In comparing the greatest poets to the gods and heroes
of classical mythology (especially Apollo and Orpheus)26 and using Olympian
metaphors to describe their work,27 it’s obvious that Renaissance writers saw the
most gifted of their contemporaries as artists blessed with innate powers of such a
magical kind as to defy comprehension.
Renaissance poets had a clearly defined notion of what it meant to be an author.
A poem belonged to its author. It was the ‘true image’ of his mind.28 For Jonson
a poem was, quite simply, ‘the work of the poet’; it was the result of his ‘labour
and study’, and his to alter as he saw fit.29 So too was it for Samuel Daniel. When
Daniel issued a corrected version of some of his poems in 1607 he defended the
right of an author to amend his work on the grounds that poetry is a personal

What I have done, it is mine own, I may

Do whatsoever therewithal I will.
I may pull down, raise, and re-edify:

  The first full line of the Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-
upon-Avon praised him as possessing the genius of Socrates and the art of Virgil (‘IUDICIO
 One of the most striking examples of this belief is the claim, widespread in modern
Shakespeare criticism, that homosexuality couldn’t have existed in Elizabethan England
because the word hadn’t yet been coined. Inspired by Foucault’s claim that homosexuality
was invented in 1870, Bruce Smith writes: ‘No one in England during the sixteenth or
seventeenth centuries would have thought of himself as “gay” or “homosexual” for the
simple reason that those categories of self-definition did not exist’ (Homosexual Desire
in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1991), pp. 11–12). For a rebuttal of such arguments see Joseph Cady, ‘“Masculine Love”,
Renaissance Writing, and the “New Invention” of Homosexuality’, Homosexuality in
Renaissance England: Literary Representations in Historical Context, Claude J. Summers
(ed.) (New York, London and Norwood (Australia): Haworth Press, 1992), pp. 9–40.
 Nashe, for example, compared Sidney with Apollo (prefatory epistle to Syr P.S. His
Astrophel and Stella (London, 1591), sig. A3v). Spenser was described by ‘R.S.’ as ‘this
Britain Orpheus’ (Edmund Spenser, The Poetical Works, J.C. Smith and E. de Selincourt
(eds) (London, New York, and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1912), p. 409).
  Jonson explained that it was divine instinct that ‘the Poets understood by their
Helicon, Pegasus, or Parnassus’ (Discoveries, Ben Jonson, 11 vols, C.H. Herford and Percy
and Evelyn Simpson (eds) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925–52), vol 8 (1947), p. 637).
 In the opening sonnet of Idea Michael Drayton wrote: ‘my verse is the true image of
my mind’ (‘To the Reader’, Idea (1619), The Works of Michael Drayton, 5 vols, J. William
Hebel (Oxford: Blackwell, 1931–41), vol 2 (1932), p. 310).
  Discoveries, Herford and Simpson (eds), p. 636.
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist Poetics 43

It is the building of my life, the fee

Of nature, all the’inheritance that I
Shall leave to those which must come after me;
And all the care I have is but to see
Those lodgings of m’affections neatly dressed.30

In an even more personal metaphor, Margaret Cavendish compared poetry writing to

giving birth. ‘Be it bad, or good, it is my own’, she wrote of her own verse-child, ‘By
motion in my brain ’twas formed, and bred, / By my industrious study it was fed.’31
Writers were also concerned to protect their reputations against false attribution.
In The Duchess of Malfi John Webster added against the song in Act 3: ‘The author
disclaims this ditty to be his’.32 And of course Renaissance writers had just as clear a
sense of stylistic individuality as we do. ‘I know no work from man yet ever came /
But had his mark, and by some error showed / That it was his’, wrote Daniel.33
Renaissance poets knew that they were writing for posterity and that their
words would be read in centuries to come. Though they affected to confer
immortality on their patrons, they knew that in reality it was their own names
that they were preserving for posterity. ‘I know that I shall be read … so long
as men speak English’, wrote Daniel in the introductory epistle to one of his
collections.34 Shakespeare said much the same thing in sonnet 18. For all the self-
deprecation of sonnets like 85 and 86, he knew that it was his eloquence, not the
Friend’s beauty, that would cause his poetry to be read for as long as men could
breathe or eyes could see.
But poetry wasn’t just about producing magical effects or creating enduring
monuments of great aesthetic beauty. No one in this period actually said that a
good book was the precious life blood of a master-spirit,35 but it’s clear enough
that defenders of poetry shared Milton’s sense of the poet’s social mission. For
humanists poetry was essential to any civilised society. In the standard myth of
the origin of civilisation (see ‘Metadrama’ below) it was a magically gifted poet
who first persuaded a nomadic people to abandon their barbaric customs and form
civil communities.36 That’s why training in the art of rhetoric continued to play

  ‘To the Reader’, 17–24, Certaine Small Workes, The Complete Works, Grosart
(ed.), vol 1, pp. 12–13.
  Philosophical Fancies (London, 1653), p. 86.
  The Duchess of Malfi, John Russell Brown (ed.) (London: Methuen, 1964), p. 96.
  ‘To the Reader’, 43–5, Certaine Small Workes, Grosart (ed.), vol 1, p. 13.
  ‘To the Reader’, 60–61, Certaine Small Workes, p. 14.
  John Milton, Areopagitica, The Major Works, Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg
(eds) (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 240.
 On the Orpheus myth in English humanist thought see Kirsty Cochrane, ‘Orpheus
Applied: Some Instances of his Importance in the Humanist View of Language’, Review of
English Studies, 19 (1968): pp. 1–13.
44 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

such an important part in the humanist education that Shakespeare received as an

Elizabethan grammar-school boy.

Renaissance Essentialism

These ideas about the special nature of poets, their responsibilities as writers, and
the civilising potential of poetry were not random, disconnected thoughts. They
formed part of a coherent ‘system of logic’, to use Terry Eagleton’s phrase. That
logic was rooted in a radically essentialist view of humanity. It may not be our
logic, but then it’s not twenty-first century poetics that we’re talking about. In this
period it was generally accepted, as the political historian Janet Coleman reminds
us, that ‘man’s nature does not change over time … In all societies throughout
history men can be observed to have demonstrated through their actions the same
kind of nature, a nature that is specific to humans.’37 Or as John Donne put it,
‘all mankind is of one author, and is one volume’.38 Naturally people argued,
as people have always done, over the question of what human nature was like:
Calvinists believed that human beings are naturally sinful; primitivists thought
that in their primal state human beings were innocent and virtuous. But no one
doubted that there was an essential core of humanity. No one doubted either that
an understanding of that universal humanity was ‘the chief part of wisdom’, as
Erasmus put it.39 The paramount importance of understanding human nature is
something that all the major humanist writers insist on. In the famous essay ‘On
his Own Ignorance’ Petrarch objected that, for all their pseudo-scientific learning,
scholastic theologians ignored the essential question of ‘man’s nature, the purpose
for which we are born, and whence and whereto we travel’.40 Erasmus also
attacked his contemporaries, protesting that scholastics derived their moral norms
from abstract principles rather than human realities.41 Erasmus’ friend More,
too, declared that knowledge of human nature must come first: people may go to
university to study theology, but ‘they do not start with that discipline. They must

  Janet Coleman, ‘Machiavelli’s Via Moderna: Medieval and Renaissance Attitudes
to History’, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince: New Interdisciplinary Essays, Martin Coyle
(ed.) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), p. 50.
  John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Anthony Raspa (ed.) (Montreal
and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1975), p. 86.
 Desiderius Erasmus, Enchiridion militis christiani: An English Version, Anne M.
O’Donnell, SND (ed.) (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1981), p. 59.
  Francesco Petrarca, ‘On his Own Ignorance and that of Many Others’, trans. Hans
Nachod, in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller and
John Hermann Randall, Jr. (eds) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 59.
 Desiderius Erasmus, Praise of Folly, trans. Betty Radice, Collected Works of
Erasmus, 32 vols, Peter D. Bietenholz, Alexander Dalzell, Anthony T. Grafton and others
(eds) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974–89), vol 27 (1986), pp. 126–8.
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist Poetics 45

first study the laws of human nature.’42 Montaigne’s friend Pierre Charron summed
up one of the central tenets of humanist thought when he wrote, ‘The first lesson
and instruction unto wisdom … is the knowledge of our selves and our human
condition.’43 And Montaigne himself? If the whole edifice of natural law now lay
in ruins, that’s in part because Montaigne recognised that an unfounded belief in
our own powers of rationality is something that seems to be indelibly written into
human nature: ‘presumption’, he wrote in the Apology for Raimond Sebond, ‘is
our natural and original infirmity’.44
Coming, as they did, from a humanist intellectual culture, Elizabethan defenders
of poetry took a meliorist view of humankind: though human nature was tainted by
original sin, the arts could help to reform and civilise our fallen nature. This is one of
the founding principles of medieval and Renaissance poetic theory. Dante declared
that the final ‘end’ or purpose of his own poetry was ‘to remove those living in this
life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of happiness’.45 Filtered
through the work of popularisers like Castiglione, this cardinal principle of medieval
and Renaissance poetics is also a commonplace of English humanist theory. ‘The
final end [of poetry] is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate
souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of’, wrote Sidney in
the classic Elizabethan defence of the liberal arts.46 ‘The farthest scope [of poesy
is] to assist and direct nature [in restoring] man to his former state of moral and
civil happiness’, wrote Shakespeare’s contemporary William Scott.47 Defenders of
poetry continued to repeat the point well into the eighteenth century.48
How is poetry supposed to reform our fallen human nature? For humanists it
was all about self-knowledge. ‘It is meet each man know himself, and his own
disposition, and apply himself thereto, and consider what things are meet for him

  St Thomas More, Selected Letters, Elizabeth Frances Rogers (ed.) (New Haven and
London: Yale University Press, 1961), p. 99.
 Pierre Charron, Of Wisdome (1601); trans. Samson Lennard (London, 1606), p. 223.
  The Essays of Montaigne, trans. John Florio, 3 vols (London: David Nutt, 1892–93),
vol 2 (1892), p. 144.
  ‘Letter to Can Grande’, Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, trans. and ed. Robert
S. Haller (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973), pp. 101–2.
  An Apology for Poetry, Shepherd (ed.), p. 104.
  William Scott, The Model of Poesy (c. 1599), quoted by Stanley Wells, Times
Literary Supplement, 26 September 2003, p. 14.
 In 1704 John Dennis wrote: ‘The great design of arts is to restore the decays that
happened to human nature by the Fall, by restoring order’ (The Grounds of Criticism in
Poetry (1704), facsimile edn. (Menston: Scolar Press, 1971), 6). Milton used the same
argument about repairing the defects of the fall in his defence of education (which for him
meant study of the humanae litterae): ‘The end … of learning is to repair the ruins of our
first parents’ (‘Of Education’, Complete Prose Works of John Milton, 8 vols, Douglas Bush
and others (eds) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and Oxford University
Press, 1953–82), vol 2 (1959), pp. 366–7).
46 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

to follow, and what are not’, wrote Castiglione.49 ‘What greater practical wisdom
is there than to know how and what the human passions are: how they are roused,
how quelled?’ asked the Spanish humanist and friend of Erasmus and More, Juan
Luis Vives.50 But it is important to be clear that, by self-knowledge humanists
meant more than just being acquainted with your own personal strengths and
weaknesses. They also meant that it was important to understand the nature of
humankind as a species. Self-knowledge, wrote the Elizabethan psychologist
Thomas Wright, ‘consisteth of a perfect experience every man hath of himself in
particular, and an universal knowledge of men’s inclinations in common’.51
In distinguishing between the particular and the generic aspects of human nature
Wright was echoing that favourite humanist manual of statesmanship, Cicero’s
De officiis.52 For Cicero and his humanist followers knowledge of the nature of
humankind was the basis of all wise action. Only through an understanding of
their human limitations could people be expected to control the baser part of their
nature and live responsible lives that contributed to the public good. Drama could
help you to acquire that knowledge of humankind. The Elizabethan pamphleteer
Stephen Gosson summed up a commonplace of Elizabethan poetics when he
wrote: ‘every man in a play may see his own faults, and learn by this glass, to
amend his manners’.53 Hamlet offers a more sophisticated version of the ancient
idea that literature reflects human nature when he tells the travelling players at
Elsinore castle that ‘the purpose of playing … both at the first, and now, was and
is, to hold the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’ (3.2.22–3).54
Just as Renaissance social philosophers believed that any attempt to define the
nature of the just society must begin with the facts of human nature, so humanist
literary theory is rooted in an essentialist view of humankind. Human nature might

  Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (London:
Dent, 1928), p. 110.
  Juan Luis Vives, On Education: a Translation of the De tradendis disciplinis, trans.
Foster Watson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913), p. 232.
 Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Mind in General (1601), ed. William Webster
Newbold (New York and London: Garland, 1986), pp. 92–3 (my italics).
  ‘We are invested by Nature with two characters: one of these is universal, arising
from the fact of our being all alike endowed with reason and with that superiority which lifts
us above the brute. From this all morality and propriety are derived, and upon it depends the
rational method of ascertaining our duty. The other character is the one that is assigned to
individuals in particular’ (De officiis, trans. Walter Miller, Loeb Classical Library (London:
Heinemann, 1913), p. 109).
  Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse (1579), Edward Arber (ed.) (London:
English Reprints, 1869), p. 31.
  Quotations from Shakespeare are from The Complete Works, Stanley Wells and
Gary Taylor (eds), modern spelling edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). For consistency
I have modernised all other quotations from early modern writers.
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist Poetics 47

be flawed, but for humanists the remedy lay not in puritan self-mortification, but in
cultivating the better side of our nature through the arts of civilisation.55


Shakespeare and his contemporaries inherited a well defined body of comic theory
from the ancient world. This material dealt mainly with such matters as the social
origins of comedy, the rhetorical uses of humour, and questions of genre and
decorum.56 None of it seems particularly useful when it comes to making sense of
Shakespeare. Polonius’ self-parodying parade of generic terms – ‘pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral’ – makes
it clear that Shakespeare had little time for the sort of academic rules beloved by
neoclassical theorists like Julius Caesar Scaliger.57 Biron puts it well when he says
‘Small have continual plodders ever won / Save base authority from others’ books’
(Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1.1.86–7). In his own plays Shakespeare flagrantly violates
decorum, mixes genres, and generally disregards the unities.
More useful for modern students of Shakespeare than Renaissance treatises on the
origins of comedy and its generic divisions and subdivisions58 is what dramatists say
about their own art. Though Puttenham and Sidney echoed Italian poets and theorists
like Boccaccio and Fracastoro in celebrating the Platonic idea of the poet as divinely
inspired maker, dramatists were on the whole more interested in the practical question
of what Hamlet calls ‘the purpose of playing’: what makes a good play? does drama
have an ethical as well as a social function? how does it achieve its effects?
As we have seen, humanists believed that poetry is valuable, above all, for what
it can tell you about human nature. So important is a knowledge of humankind
that, according to Ben Jonson, it is one of the prime qualifications for being a
writer. Knowledge of nature in general is of course important: ‘that is the matter,
and seed-plot; there are the seats of all argument, and invention’. But especially,
said Jonson, ‘you must be cunning in [that is, knowledgeable about] the nature
of man’.59 Because it is now unfashionable in academic circles to talk about
human nature, this central principle of humanist poetics is never dealt with in

  For further discussion of English humanism see Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare’s
Humanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  See David Galbraith, ‘Theories of Comedy’, The Cambridge Companion to
Shakespearean Comedy, Alexander Leggatt (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2002), pp. 3–17. See also Marvin T. Herrick, Comic Theory in the Sixteenth Century
(Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1950).
  See for example Scaliger’s ‘Classification of the Kinds of Poetry’, Poetics, I.3,
Select Translations from Scaliger’s Poetics, trans. Frederick Morgan Padelford (New York:
Henry Holt and Co., 1905), pp. 19–20.
  See for example, Scaliger’s Poetics, trans. Padelford, pp. 33–8; 42–8.
  Discoveries, Herford and Simpson (ed.), p. 565.
48 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

postmodern criticism. Not even in the standard modern works on Shakespeare’s

dramatic theory do you find any discussion of self-knowledge.60 The subject is
simply ignored.61 Yet self-knowledge, in the dual sense I discussed earlier, is the
central issue in all Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. In the very first line of The
Merchant of Venice Antonio confesses that he is a puzzle to himself, and goes
on to admit that he has much ado to know himself (1.1.6). Being ‘cunning in
the nature of man’, to use Jonson’s phrase, is what the comedies are all about.
Naturally the plays touch – some obliquely, others directly – on a number of
social and political topics that were of interest to contemporary audiences:
tyrannical or irresponsible government, abuse of parental authority, religious
fundamentalism, ethnic conflict, and so forth. These were lively topics of debate
in Elizabethan England,62 and Shakespeare’s dramatic treatment of them tells us
much about what Hamlet calls ‘the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure’. But the central interest in all the romantic comedies is courtship, with
all the opportunities that offers for the confusion, the misunderstandings and the
self-deception that seem to be an inescapable part of what Charron called ‘our
human condition’. As the evolutionary psychologist David Buss writes in the
opening sentences of The Evolution of Desire, ‘Human mating behavior delights
and amuses us and galvanises our gossip, but it is also deeply disturbing. Few
domains of human activity generate as much discussion, as many laws, or such
elaborate rituals in all cultures.’63 Little wonder that theatre audiences continue to
find Shakespeare’s comedies so absorbing. Modern theatregoers may not know
much about Elizabethan government, but like all human beings, when it comes
to desire they are experts. Experts we may all be, but courtship is never plain
sailing (to use of one Petrarch’s favourite amatory metaphors). Social pressures
mean, not just that lovers are continually buffeted by winds that prevent them
from reaching the shore of their desires, but that the very integrity of those desires
is often called in question. The temptation to deny the facts of human nature, to
pretend that we are not by nature highly sexual beings driven by the most wild
and unseemly passions, is perennial, though it seems to peak at those times when

  See Faas, Shakespeare’s Poetics; Pauline Kiernan, Shakespeare’s Theory of Drama
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  Before the advent of postmodern theory self-knowledge was a familiar topic in
Shakespeare scholarship. See for example, Rolf Soellner, Shakespeare’s Patterns of
Self-Knowledge (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972). With postmodernism’s
questioning of the notion of internal selfhood, it has largely disappeared from the critical
agenda. One recent exception is John D. Cox, ‘Self-Awareness and Self-Knowledge in Two
Early Comedies’, seminar paper, International Shakespeare Conference, Stratford-upon-
Avon, August 2006.
  For further discussion see Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare’s Politics (London:
Continuum, 2009).
 David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating (New York:
Basic Books, 1994), p. 1.
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist Poetics 49

ideology takes over from common sense. In the sixteenth century it was religious
fundamentalists who believed that sexuality could be shaped and moulded into
socially acceptable forms; in our own time it’s postmodernists who claim that
desire is the malleable product of ideology.64 Though it is unlikely that St Paul
and Foucault would have much to say to each other if they had the misfortune to
meet up in some otherworldly symposium, they would at least be able to agree
that ideology overrides biology. Shakespeare’s romantic comedies remind us of
the folly of supposing that you can change human nature. That’s not to say that
you can’t modify people’s behaviour through education; indeed for humanists the
whole point of studying what Prospero calls ‘the liberal arts’ (The Tempest, 1.2.73)
was to make you a more civilised person.65 But as the example of Caliban seems
designed to illustrate, however hard you may try, you can’t change a person’s
fundamental nature. As Viola puts it, ‘such as we are made of, such we be’ (Twelfth
Night, 2.2.32).
In Shakespeare’s comedies it’s sometimes authority that tries to impose harsh
regulations on sexual behaviour, but more often it’s people’s own misguided
ideals. In his first romantic play a group of Spanish courtiers hits on the laudable
idea of setting up an academy of learning. But the enterprise is flawed from the
start. These aristocratic young philosophers have somehow got it into their heads
that you can’t be a proper scholar without fasting, depriving yourself of sleep,
and avoiding all contact with women. The king and his companions are youthful
idealists who think they can deny human nature. But Biron, the only sensible one in
the group, knows better: ‘these oaths and laws will prove an idle scorn’ (1.1.297).
Within the space of a few scenes he is proved hilariously right as one by one the
king and his fellow academicians betray their promises. Young men (and women)
can no more resist Cupid than they can Morpheus. Biron again: ‘to see no woman
[is] flat treason ’gainst the … state of youth’ (4.3.290–91). If the temptations of
love proved too much for such worthies as Hercules and Samson, as even the most
moth-eaten servant knows (1.2.64–71), what hope is there for Navarre’s callow
young aristocrats? Love’s Labour’s Lost is a courtly comedy. But the song that it
concludes with – one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful – makes it clear through
the simplest of bucolic imagery that the play’s moral is universal and applies just
as much to peasants as it does to aristocrats: plan society on the assumption that
desire can be disciplined like a class of unruly schoolchildren and you will be in

  In his influential History of Sexuality Foucault explained that what we take to be
a biological phenomenon is in reality a discourse through which the state ensures that
we internalise social norms. Common sense might suggest that the state would want to
suppress, or at least moderate, sexuality. But according to Foucault the reverse is true: in
the post-industrial world ‘power delineated [sexuality], aroused it, and employed it as the
proliferating meaning that it had always taken control of lest it escape; it was an effect with
a meaning value’ (The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (London:
Penguin, 1979), p. 148 [Foucault’s italics]).
  See, for example, Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, Shepherd (ed.), p. 104.
50 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

for some nasty surprises. As Biron puts it, ‘We cannot cross the cause why we
were born’ (4.3.216).
Shakespeare’s first romantic comedy is a playful story about the follies of
misguided idealism. Its foolish protagonists cause little inconvenience to anyone
but themselves, and are soon persuaded by their much wittier and more sensible
French lovers that it’s not altogether a good idea to deny your humanity. But
in Measure for Measure denial of human nature takes a more sinister form. In
refusing to admit to their own sexuality, the two obsessive puritans, Angelo and
Isabella, cause great harm to others. As so often seems to happen in public life, it is
those politicians who are most vociferous in defence of sexual purity and ‘family
values’ who turn out to be having secret liaisons.66 It’s that fundamentalist attempt
to deny the facts of human nature that Shakespeare’s duke hopes to correct. Just
as Vincentio had, according to Escalus, ‘contended / especially to know himself’
(3.1.490–91), so his aim is to help his subjects to a better understand of themselves
and their flawed humanity. In Love’s Labour’s Lost it is Biron who speaks for
common sense in a world of misguided idealists. In Measure for Measure it’s
Mariana, another victim of Angelo’s hypocrisy. Most people, she says, are ‘much
more the better / For being a little bad’ (5.1.436–8). In other words, only by
acknowledging our humanity, with all its imperfections, can we hope to avoid the
intolerance, the injustice and the cruelty that inevitably accompany fundamentalist
denial of human nature. The infinitely wise Primo Levi made much the same point
when he wrote:

for life to be lived, impurities are needed. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt
and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s
why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But
immaculate virtue does not exist either, and if it exists it is detestable.67

Levi happened to be talking about fascism rather than puritanism, but the general
point is much the same: do not trust those who deny human nature.
Religious fundamentalists tend to have fixed ideas, usually based on ancient
scripture rather than observation of how people actually behave, about what is
acceptable sexual behaviour. Any deviation from the norm of heterosexual
marriage was as much an anathema to fundamentalists in Elizabethan England as
it is to their counterparts in modern America or Afghanistan. Not content with the
fact that sodomy was already a crime punishable by death, puritans wanted to have

 The modern American evangelical movement has a long history of leaders who
campaign for moral purity in public while conducting elicit sexual affairs in private (see
‘Evangelical leader quits over gay sex allegation’, The Guardian, 4 November 2006, p. 19).
 Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (London and
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 34.
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist Poetics 51

adultery criminalised as well.68 As for transvestism, it hardly needed to be said that

that was an abomination unto the Lord (Deuteronomy 22:5). Or rather, it was said
by religious fundamentalists, as often as possible.69
But you can’t fit human beings into the neat sexual categories demanded
by religious fundamentalists. In the romantic comedies Shakespeare portrays a
variety of sexual types: heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, cross-dressers.
There’s even a suggestion of bestial fantasy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Though most of Shakespeare’s lovers are heterosexuals, some of them seem to
take a closer interest in their cross-dressed companions than might be thought
proper in a respectable comedy. But Shakespeare isn’t respectable.70 One of the
things that worried puritan reformers about the theatre was the way it seemed to
make men effeminate.71 You can see their point. The spectacle of a nicely brought
up young man like Orlando playing love games with an effeminate vagrant of
indeterminate origins would hardly be likely to reassure the puritan mind,
especially when the boy in question decides to name himself (herself?) after Zeus’
catamite, Ganymede. Nor does it seem entirely proper to have the duke of a city
state taking quite so much interest in his pretty young male assistant. The fact that
Orsino’s new best friend is really a girl in drag (played by a boy actor) scarcely
redeems a distinctly dodgy situation. And what about Viola’s brother? The speed
with which Sebastian agrees to marry Olivia is all the more surprising in view of
his former relationship – whatever that was – with Antonio the ardent sea captain.
As for the other Antonio (in The Merchant of Venice), all we can say is that he too
is an enigma. We know that friendship had a special meaning for members of an
aristocratic cult that dreamt of reviving a medieval ideal of blood-brotherhood.72
But Antonio’s self-sacrificing passion (in both senses) for Bassanio seems more
intense even than that described in the great set-piece stories of chivalric love
between brothers-in-arms such as Malory’s tale of Launcelot and Tristram, or
Spenser’s Triamond and Cambell.

 On the puritan campaign to criminalise adultery see Debora Kuller Shuger, Political
Theologies in Shakespeare’s England: The Sacred and the State in ‘Measure for Measure’
(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), p. 30.
  See for example Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall
(London: New Shakespeare Society, 1877–79), p. 73; Anon., Hic Mulier: Or, the Man-
Woman (London, 1620), sig. B2v; William Prynne, Histriomastix (1633), facsimile edn.
with a preface by Arthur Freeman (New York and London: Garland, 1974), p. 171.
  For the latest evidence of Shakespeare’s disreputable imagination see Pauline
Kiernan, Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns (London:
Quercus, 2006).
  See for example, Prynne, Histriomastix, p. 171.
  See Reginald Hyatte, The Arts of Friendship: the Idealization of Friendship in
Medieval and Early Renaissance Literature (Leiden, New York and Cologne: E.J. Brill,
52 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

What are we to make of all this? There’s clearly a lot of unconventional sex
going on between the lines in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. That in itself
is a political statement, a genially provocative riposte to those who rightly saw
the theatre as a breeding ground for unconventional sexual attitudes. But these
plays are not about irregular sex; they don’t set out to champion homosexuality or
bisexuality, neither do they attack them. They are about human desire and the follies
and confusions it drives us to. If they portray sexual lives of an unconventional
kind, that’s because they hold the mirror up to a nature that refuses to submit to
fundamentalist or anti-essentialist notions of human sexuality. The plays show
us, not what human beings should be like, but what they actually are: irrational,
libidinous, prone to self-deception, capable of unthinking cruelty, but capable also
of ‘human gentleness and love’ (The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.24). It is true that
pomposity and self-importance are satirised with little mercy, but on the whole
the plays are striking for their tolerant attitude towards unconventional sexuality.
Above all they treat sex as material for comedy, not condemning people for the
confusions they get themselves into, but laughing at human folly. Puck sums it up
perfectly: ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be’ (3.2.115).


Unlike Jonson, Shakespeare left no record of his critical reading and no

commonplace book setting out his thoughts on the uses of poetic drama.
Nevertheless, the ideas he did leave us are more subtle and complex than anything
you’ll find in an Elizabethan treatise on poetics or contemporary pamphlet on the
theatre. Those ideas are incorporated in the plays themselves. Most of the plays
contain self-referential allusions to the art of drama. But it’s in the comedies and
romances that you find the most sustained thinking on the question of how drama
works and whether the arts can really change our lives for the better, as all the
standard treatises on poetics claimed they could.
Shakespeare’s most explicit metadramatic treatment of poetry is in the brief
exchange at the beginning of the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when
the duke and his bride discuss the four lovers and their adventures in the forest.
Like so many of the plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream sets up two contrasting
symbolic worlds. One is, on the surface at least, a world of order, ‘cool reason’,
and public affairs, the other a realm of exploding emotions, unfettered imagination,
and freedom from the constraints of civilisation. It is sometimes suggested that the
forest stands for some kind of primitivist defence of nature. It’s certainly true that
Athens has a particularly unpleasant way of dealing with disobedient children,
though in finding emotional freedom in the forest, the lovers also discover that
love can be fickle, and that it’s not just parents who can be cruel and unfeeling.
Because Theseus is the play’s central authority figure, you might expect him to
talk about the importance of obedience, or perhaps to offer a warning about the
dangers of impulsive behaviour, as the duke does in the first act of Othello. But
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist Poetics 53

he doesn’t mention these things. Instead he talks about poetry. In doing so he

unconsciously echoes the standard Elizabethan critical defences of imagination.73
Having a bluff military ruler dismiss the realm of creative imagination in such
wonderfully eloquent verse, is a witty way of defending non-illusionist drama. If
there is a lesson in the story of the four lovers and their sylvan adventures, it’s less
to do with finding yourself in nature than finding yourself in drama. In the Apology
for Poetry Philip Sidney defended plays on the grounds that they give you a much
better insight into the way human beings behave than any scholastic treatise could
do.74 Shakespeare hints at something similar in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Dramatists may deal in ‘antique fables’ and ‘fairy toys’, but you’ll probably learn
more about human nature from three hours in the theatre than you will from a
night in the woods.
Theseus’ rejection of poetry is in effect a defence of Shakespeare’s own kind of
non-illusionist poetic drama. In The Merchant of Venice there is a more specifically
humanist apology for poetry. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play is built
on a symbolic contrast between two imaginative worlds. Venice seems to stand
for commerce, puritanical asceticism, and ethnic hatred; Belmont is a world of
poetry, music, moonlight, and love, though as is always the case in Shakespeare,
these symbolic antinomies turn out to be anything but mutually exclusive. To
signal a shift to the mood of harmony that convention requires in the final act of
a comedy, Shakespeare gives Lorenzo a long speech in praise of music. But his
encomium is more than simple mood painting. The story he tells Jessica is one of
humanism’s founding myths. In The Arte of English Poesie George Puttenham
explains how mythographers interpreted the Orpheus story as an allegory of the
birth of civilisation: it was the power of eloquence that first persuaded a nomadic
people to abandon their barbaric life and form civil communities.75
Lorenzo’s speech forms one pole of a symbolic opposition between puritan
self-denial and humanist belief in the civilising power of the liberal arts.
(Shakespeare’s cruel portrait of the self-righteous ascetic who hates music and
merry-making and who subscribes to a retaliatory notion of justice was probably
intended more as an oblique satire on puritans than as an attack on London’s tiny
Jewish community.76) In contrast to the puritan’s Calvinist insistence on human
wickedness is Renaissance humanism with its more kindly view of human nature,
and its belief that the arts can go some way towards repairing what Milton called
‘the ruins of our first parents’.77 It’s that familiar body of ideas which Lorenzo’s
speech invokes. Shakespeare is implicitly defending his own professional practice

  See above note 22.
  An Apology for Poetry, Shepherd (ed.), p. 108.
  The Arte of English Poesie, Willcock and Walker (eds), p. 6.
  As a way of confirming their status as God’s chosen people, some fundamentalist
puritans actually referred to themselves as Israelites. For fuller discussion of this point see
Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare’s Humanism, pp. 51–3.
  See above note 48.
54 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

against the attacks of puritans who wanted to see the playhouses closed. If drama
is wiser than theology, that is because, in holding the mirror up to nature, it offers
a picture of humankind based on observation rather than ideological conviction.
Informing Renaissance humanist interpretations of the Orpheus myth as an
allegory of the birth of civilisation was a belief that, for all its virtues, human
nature has a darker side. Primitivists disputed that belief. They argued that human
beings in their primal state lived innocent, harmonious lives, and that it was
civilisation that had corrupted our natural virtue. Though the contest between
these two rival views of human nature is germane to most of Shakespeare, it is
only in The Winter’s Tale that the topic is addressed directly. The debate on art
and nature in the play’s fourth act is like a miniature humanist dialogue. Polixenes
puts the traditionalist case; Perdita is given the primitivist side of the argument.
Politely rejecting his claim that art can ‘mend nature’ (4.4.96), she says that it
sullies nature’s purity. Because the irascible Polixenes seems to be leading Perdita
into a trap, and because she represents all that is natural and wholesome in this
play of cruel passions, it’s not surprising that her argument should come across as
the more convincing of the two. But there’s a catch. In the very act of appealing to
the Roman goddess Proserpina for spring flowers to give her royal lover, Perdita
unconsciously reminds us that nature has its darker side. The Proserpina story is
another myth-of-origin. In Ovid’s version of the Greek myth, it was an archetypal
act of sexual violence – the rape of Ceres’ daughter by Pluto – that resulted in the
loss of nature’s primal equilibrium. Like Shakespeare’s play, Ovid’s story is in
a real sense a tale of winter. But Perdita seems to have forgotten that part of the
story. Nor does she know that she herself is not a shepherdess by birth, but a noble
foundling, and that the cause of her abandonment was another act of spontaneous,
atavistic violence.
‘Mending nature’ is a central part of The Winter’s Tale’s meaning. Like The
Tempest, this is a play about the reconciliation and eventual union of rival dynastic
powers – a topic that was dear to James I’s heart.78 But it is also about that great
humanist theme: the transforming power of art. In the play’s final act Shakespeare
again alludes to Ovid. This time it’s the story of Pygmalion. In bringing her statue
to life, Paulina is like a magician enchanting her royal audience with the power
of art. Orpheus (it’s he who tells the Pygmalion story in Ovid) was said to have
tamed not just wild beasts, but even rocks and stones, with the magic of his song.
As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Paulina is working with a heart whose stony cruelty
has already been softened by penance. But her humanist magic completes the
civilising of a barbarian.79
Can art really transform tyrants into loving husbands, or is that something that
happens only in the world of fiction? Paulina’s magic is of course an illusion. But
then so is drama itself. Though romance invites us to lose ourselves in miraculous

  See W.B. Patterson, King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  Shakespeare’s Humanism, p. 100.
Shakespearean Comedy: Postmodern Theory and Humanist Poetics 55

worlds peopled by spirits and monsters, its true magic lies in the writer’s ability
to ‘inveigle and appassionate the mind’ (as Puttenham put it) with the power of
words.80 If Orpheus was an enchanter it was because he knew how to move an
audience. The same is true of Shakespeare’s magic. Repeatedly he reminds us that
his play is ‘like an old tale’. But the fact that The Winter’s Tale is another ‘antique
fable’ no more invalidates its message than do the ‘fairy toys’ in A Midsummer
Night’s Dream. If The Winter’s Tale is successful in moving its audiences, then
its humanist message will have done its work. The play asks us to accept, not a
universal truth, but a humanist hypothesis about the power of art to ‘mend nature’.


In recent decades ‘theoretically inflected thinking’ has focused on the politics

of Shakespearean comedy. In doing so it has probably told us more about
postmodernism than it has about the issues that are explicitly addressed in the
plays. Measure for Measure, for example, is probably less to do with the state
using its powers to construct dissident individuals who can be deceived into
internalising a false ideology,81 than it is with the opposite: using self-conscious
make-believe as a way of helping people to a better understanding of themselves
and their unruly sexuality.
While there is no reason why modern criticism shouldn’t deconstruct these
plays or read them against the grain, we do need to be clear about what it is that we
are deconstructing. To tell students that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were
radical anti-essentialists, and to warn them that it is ‘incorrect’ to read this period
through ‘the grid of an essentialist humanism’82 is to give them a false picture
of the age. Samuel Johnson once said, ‘To judge rightly of the present we must
oppose it to the past.’83 The trouble with recruiting leading thinkers from the past as
spokespeople for our own ideas, is that any sense of cultural perspective is lost and
comparative judgement becomes impossible. The ideas that I’ve been sketching
in this essay – in particular the humanist belief in drama as a way of promoting
‘knowledge of our selves and our human condition’ – may not have much to say to

  The Arte of English Poesie, Willcock and Walker (eds), p. 154.
  In an influential article Jonathan Dollimore argued that Vincentio’s Vienna is a
police state in which citizens are placed under covert surveillance, and sexual dissidence
is encouraged as a way of justifying more punitive forms of state control (‘Transgression
and Surveillance in Measure for Measure’, Political Shakespeare, Dollimore and Sinfield
(eds), pp. 72–87).
  Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama
of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 3rd edn. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,
2004), p. 155.
  Rasselas, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 16 vols, Gwin J. Kolb
(ed.) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1958–90), vol 16 (1990), p. 112.
56 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

postmodern sensibilities. But rather than ignoring unpalatable ideas or airbrushing

them out, we would do better to begin by acknowledging them as the starting point
for any modern reading of the period, ‘oppositional’ or otherwise.
One final thought: while granting that these plays address important political
issues, and that in doing so they tell us much about ‘the very age and body of the
time of his form and pressure’, let’s not forget that they are comedies designed to
make us laugh at ourselves, especially when we are foolish enough to believe that
you can deny human nature.
Chapter 3
Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes
John Roe

I would like to start proceedings on a polemical note. My essay will be a defence

of rhetoric and I will argue that in these new-historicist, post-structuralist, agenda-
laden times that it still matters, indeed matters all the more. Such defences are not
new but they do have to be reiterated from time to time. Rhetoric is pleasure and
we must never lose sight of this fact; we do, however, have to ask a little more
particularly how it functions. As I am interested in how rhetoric brings pleasure,
I am also concerned with how it defines the boundaries of its subject, and how it
determines context. In our emphasis on context (which has recently been once
more on the increase) we are as often as not inclined to move outwards from
the poem or play, finding or interpreting something not signalled within the work
itself. The poem becomes the cue for further investigation. We may find something
fruitful and exciting ‘out there’ but we should never abandon internal context or
simply use the work as pretext for other ends. What I am protesting against is what
has become known as the ‘uses’ of an author.
I will not continue in an abstract vein, and I hope that the examples I furnish
will speak for themselves. As Brian Vickers reminds us, following his classical
mentors, rhetoric is strongly bound up with the question of ethics, so that any
argument in favour of the pleasure of the text has to bear that relationship in
mind. This is a tricky question in itself but it makes the overall problem fairly
straightforward, as those who extend context as in the case of new historicism do
so for ethical reasons. There is a link then between old fashioned poetical practice
and more recent developments.
Vickers also reminds us of the important participation of Italian Renaissance
authors in this debate. Italian theorists such as Girolamo Vida (De arte poetica,
1527) or Antonio Minturno (De poeta, 1550) demonstrate the synthesising effect
rhetoric had for poetics; their eclectic practices lead eventually if not directly on
to Sidney’s Apology. Sidney commends Bembo and Bibbiena as churchmen who
lent their eminence to the promotion of poetry, and in his formative years Sidney
himself absorbed a good deal of rhetorical principle in Italy, where he studied for
several months in Padua in 1574. Castiglione is everywhere present as an example

  ‘Rhetoric and Poetics’, in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy,
Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner (eds) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1988), p. 715.

  Vickers, p. 722.
58 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

of how rhetoric can flourish in the vernacular, especially so as he was translated

into English by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561. It is an assumption of this chapter
– as it is largely of the volume – that the recovery and reformulation of ancient
rhetorical method in the English Renaissance finds itself borrowing the method of
Italy, though it is not my purpose to chart such activity in detail.
As is well known, rhetoric functions as persuasion but there is more than one
aspect to this. Naturally we respond to the persuasiveness of a character’s speech
but we also expect that character to behave according to a certain predisposition,
which is established very early. As a result, although we enjoy a bad character’s
eloquence, we are in no doubt as to his behaviour, and we are never persuaded by
that (to the point about ethics); however, speech character, and behaviour must all
seem consistent. The Elizabethan critic of rhetoric John Hoskins insisted on an
important point of decorum: that a character should always behave in character.
An heroic man is always heroic, a fool is always foolish, a wayward wife shows
herself guilty in all her movements. Hoskins takes most of his examples from the
Arcadia of Sidney, and applying his observations we may remark how the princes
Pyrocles and Musidorus, on trial for apparent treachery, show an overpowering
heroism as compared with the wretched Gynecia, the duchess who has imprudently
and improperly sought the attentions of the young Pyrocles:

In this sort, with erected countenances, did these unfortunate princes suffer
themselves to be led, showing aright by the comparison of them and Gynecia
how to diverse persons compassion is diversely to be stirred.

Now if we apply this to any of Shakespeare’s dramatic personages, we appreciate

immediately the importance of a figure speaking and behaving in character. At
a very early point in King Lear, for example, Edmund delivers his notorious
speech in favour of bastardy. He speaks in soliloquy but wills his listeners, the
theatre audience, to accept his proposition that the inheritance is rightfully his
by force of will, virility, etc., arguments characteristic of a stage Machiavel. The
proposals Edmund puts forward carry their own challenge, and they show that the
power of nature, left to itself, is capable of acting arbitrarily, indeed downright
unfavourably to traditional notions of justice and moral law. Edmund is gleeful in
his demonstration of his claim:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess: to thy law

My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me?
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines

  Directions for Speech and Style (1599), H. Hudson (ed.) (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1935), pp. 41–2. Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (The Old
Arcadia), Jean Robertson (ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 377.
Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes 59

Lag of a brother? Why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base’?

When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue? (1.2.1–9) 

This is the face of treachery and an audience – certainly an Elizabethan one –

understands just how far to trust it. Edmund’s assertion comes close on the heels
of Lear’s disregard for what the onlookers would see as natural justice by his
treatment of Cordelia, which in addition stirs calculation in the minds of the two
elder sisters. Although Edmund may speak as if he wishes seriously to legitimise the
unorthodox, he is in fact doing nothing of the sort. Edmund’s appeal to amorality
as a viable law merely reflects the play’s larger rhetoric of abandonment, initiated
by the reckless banishment of first Cordelia and then Kent. What is important from
Hoskins’s point of view is that Edmund is behaving entirely in character and that
while he is capable of fooling other characters on the stage, an audience knows
– or should know – exactly what to expect of him.
Similarly Shakespeare’s more sympathetic characters, as they come to a crisis,
express themselves fundamentally as the persona by which we have best known
them. Accordingly, in Romeo and Juliet the devil-may-care, jocular Mercutio dies
making an off-hand jest: ‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave
man’ (3.1.89–90). However, critics have shown themselves capable of confusing
the issue and erasing the distinction between the utterances and protests of an
insidious figure like Edmund and those of a character of more noble, indeed quite
straightforward disposition. When Othello makes his final declaration of love for
the wife he has killed, and takes his own life in remorse, it is again according to the
stylistic laws of decorum that he should speak in a soldierly, heroic fashion:

And say besides that in Aleppo once,

Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat the Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog,

Because the heroic is currently so unpopular (and has been so ever since the ending
of the First World War), Othello’s style of remorse finds itself repudiated, or at best
misconstrued, by critics, who take their cue variously from T.S. Eliot’s famous
objection, which has held sway in one form or another ever since he expressed
it back in 1927. Generally Othello is found to be suffering from a delusion, the
customary analytical practice being to observe a subtle Jamesian distinction
between author and speaker, so that whatever the critic feels about such vehement
outbursts can safely be ascribed to Shakespeare’s purpose. Eliot, for example,

  Shakespeare, King Lear, Jay L. Halio (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1992).
60 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

observes: ‘I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the
human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.’
Shakespeare would have been amazed at such a declaration, and mystified
that lines as hauntingly poignant and insightful as, ‘of one whose hand, / Like
the base Indian, threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe’ (5.2.355–7), could
be interpreted as an indictment of bourgeois false sentiment. The problem with
Eliot’s appealing tribute to Shakespeare’s artistry is that he misconceives it. The
play is not following a Flaubertian or Jamesian narrative, whereby characters are
revealed by what they suppress rather than by what they claim. The author expects
you to be with Othello when he utters his final speech, not at a guarded, ironic
(albeit sympathetic) distance from him. What the tragedy requires for it to work is
both a release (in the Aristotelian understanding of that term) and an affirmation
– that he truly loved Desdemona. Anything less than that, and the whole ending (to
say nothing of all that has gone before) falls flat. If affirmation is to be achieved, it
must occur plausibly, and the heroic, manly way is what comes most naturally to
this particular hero, whatever reservations we may now, outside our character as
audience, entertain about both the military and the masculine disposition.
We come back now to the question of ethics which we raised at the beginning.
As Vickers observes, rhetoric is closely involved with ethics: speaking well is
speaking true. However, in disputation, which makes the fullest use of rhetoric,
ethical positions tend naturally to be subjective, which increases the element of
persuasion in speech. In Venus and Adonis, for example, we weigh the sense of
Adonis’s attack on lust but we know that that is just one argument among many, and
that several of Venus’s debates, such as her argument for preferring procreativity
over abstinence, can be put forward against it, as indeed happens in the poem
continuously. Unlike the plays, where arguments come to a head, we are never
obliged to choose, or more precisely, face the consequences of choice. On the
contrary, to make a choice would be to destroy the antithetical structure on which
everything in the poem is so finally balanced. The poignancy of the end is a way of
closing the poem on an appropriate note of sorrow, but it does nothing to resolve
the various arguments for and against love, that its speakers advance throughout. It
is quite wrong therefore to read the boar’s killing of Adonis as symbolic of Venus’s
immoderate desire, as many critics have assumed. As a way of interpreting the
poem such readings completely ignore stylistic imperative. If, as according to
John Hoskins everything must be in character, it is entirely in Venus’s character,
as the principle of love, that she cannot imagine the boar’s attentions to Adonis as
being other than amorous:

  T.S. Eliot, ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, in Selected Essays (London:
Faber, 1932), pp. 130–31.

  Vickers, p. 722.

  Muriel Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (London: Chatto and
Windus, 1951), p. 63.
Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes 61

’Tis, true, ’tis true, thus was Adonis slain:

He ran upon the boar with his sharp spear,
Who did not whet his teeth at him again,
But by a kiss thought to persuade him there;
And nuzzling in his flank, the loving swine
Sheathed unaware the tusk in his soft groin. (ll. 1111–16)

Need we point out that at this moment Venus’s feelings are not immoderately
sexual, even if sex markedly defines them, but tender and maternal, and prepare
us subtly for the poem’s final transition to a vision of Venus as mother-figure at
the close?
At present a number of critics are reluctant to observe the lessons of rhetoric
and seek interpretation of various kinds. In his chapter on ‘Sexual Poetry’, for
example, Jonathan Bate makes much of the issue of incest in Shakespeare’s
Ovidian source and sees the fate of Myrrha, whose illicit desire for her own father
resulted in the birth of Adonis, as ‘an ironic darkening pre-text’ for all that is
transgressive in Venus and Adonis. This is to set great store by a motif that hardly
finds acknowledgment in Shakespeare’s poem. More than that, if we were to insist
on this reading, then it would throw out the carefully poised rhetorical structure
whereby everything begets its opposite according to antithetical principle: in terms
of movement, fast and slow, in feeling, impetuous and resistant, in colour red and
white, in tone, dark and light.
In Elizabethan poetry mythology is malleable. Think of the famous myth of
Diana and Actaeon – which could not in origin be darker and crueller – and how
it adapts itself to a mood of essentially insouciant suffering in the duke’s speech at
the beginning of Twelfth Night:

O, when my eyes did see Olivia first

Methought she purged the air of pestilence;
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’er since pursue me. (1.1.18–22)

In other words, it is rhetoric’s habit to adapt any subject-matter to the tone, so

that the darkest, most disturbing possibilities can be converted into the opposite
of themselves. This is especially true in the epyllion tradition. Take, for example
the great rival poem to Venus and Adonis, Hero and Leander, where Marlowe
speaks of Hero’s gown sporting ‘the wretched blood of lovers slain’, when we
know that these must be Petrarchan lovers and as such they never die. None the
less, the word ‘mother’ does have a resonance in Venus and Adonis, and it is one
that ironically Venus never comprehends until the end. She pursues him as a lover

  Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 55.
62 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

but her relationship is ultimately maternal. Whether she now understands it is not
entirely clear:

‘Poor flower’, quoth she, this was thy father’s guise…’ (l.1177)

Of course the flower is Adonis transformed. He didn’t actually beget it. But
emphasising in Venus the maternal instinct that underlies the promiscuous one
(as Adonis sees it) the poem brings out a fuller, comprehensive picture of the
goddess as Venus Anadyomene. We don’t need to reach beyond for some sinister,
‘transgressive’ meaning, as if the poem was a literary precursor of a calculatedly
subversive movie, such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Following the rhetoric,
according to which everything balances out, stops us making the mistake of seizing
on or exaggerating just one aspect, which is the constant error of criticism that tries
to invoke the wider cultural context. Or which puts external context over internal.
I would like now to examine a number of readings of poems and passages, which
either have been influential in themselves or at least demonstrate an influential
tendency, but which I think are questionable. The question of context comes up again
in a reading of the celebrated sonnet 29, ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s
eyes.’ John Barrell takes issue with Stephen Booth’s interpretation of the sonnet,
accusing him of dwelling in vague, humanistic impressions instead of concentrating
on its clear material points of reference, the key to which is patronage. Barrel picks his
way carefully through the poem’s argument and terminology with a particular end in
mind, which as he says in his introduction is ‘to understand it, precisely, as discourse,
as the embodiment of a partial view of the world in competition with other partial
views: as political, and not as universal’. The word ‘discourse’ aims determinedly,
as the words quoted make clear, to reduce the scope of poetic expression and deprive
it of its traditionally assumed superiority over all other forms of language. Barrell is
using the term in a characteristically Foucauldian way, which is to imbue it with a
sense of ideology. Language is determined, indeed limited by highly particularised
circumstances of an historic and above all political nature. Stephen Booth, in Barrell’s
view, belongs to the ‘universalizing’ school of interpretation, whereby poetic
expression enables the imagination to transcend all limits. Interestingly, Booth would
probably not assent to this version of himself, as he too would opt for the material
importance of language over more traditional views of its favouring the imagination,
though not along Barrell’s lines. For Booth, language is dense, pluralistic, and the
more fascinating for being so. There are too many rich possibilities in the verbal play
of any one sonnet for a reader to want, or be able, to select a single all-consuming
utterance. This too has its limitations, for rhetoric as normally understood consumes
all particulars in an overwhelming affirmation.
I will however limit myself to contesting Barrell’s approach, which is the more
challenging one, in reaffirming my argument in favour of rhetorical expression. What

  John Barrell, Poetry, Language and Politics (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1988), p. 12.
Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes 63

is the ‘partial view of the world’, which the ‘discourse’ of the sonnet embodies? Barrell
identifies this as patronage. Fully aware of, indeed happy with, the limiting nature of
language as discourse, Barrell comments that words in the sonnet that are normally
wide-ranging (‘rich in hope’ ‘friends’, ‘scope’, ‘even love’ – his phrase, my italics):

will be narrowed considerably when we consider them in the context of each

other, and perceive that they can be seen to signal … the presence of a specific
discourse, in terms of which they cohere and co-operate to define the historical
moment of their utterance, and to specify, within that moment, the social position
of the narrator who utters them. That discourse is the discourse of patronage.10

Barrell then analyses the sonnet demonstrating how the various words cited above
knit together and produce ‘patronage’ both as its compelling theme and fundamental
point of reference. Beyond patronage, he will conclude, the poem cannot go.11
Strong and binding as the patronage theme is, however, it is not alone in serving
to give the poem its life. And this incidentally is a point worth insisting on: it serves
the poem and gives it life. The sonnet derives vitality and momentum from a number
of different sources, including the discourses of literature and mythology. A glance
at the notes to the New Cambridge edition of the sonnets, for example, will help
remind us that another figure who significantly ‘trouble(d) deaf heaven with …
bootless cries’ was Job. In addition, the image of envying another’s scope derives
from Horace’s first book of Satires, and was opportunely rendered into English by
John Weever, in Faunus and Melliflora (1600).12 Both these echoes have the effect
of mixing up the supposedly fixed and limiting discourse that Barrell identifies
exclusively as patronage, and of giving it greater imaginative reach – ‘reach’ being
the operative word, when we consider the sonnet’s culminating claim. There is also
the question of the rhetorical effect of the hendiadys of the famous and original
phrase ‘fortune and men’s eyes’, the expansiveness of which can have no place in
Barrel’s discursive model, as rhetorically it opens out in defiance of the constriction
and limitations to which – and for which apparently – it speaks. In doing so, it
prepares even so early for the triumphant denouement of the final couplet:

For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings. (ll.13–14)

John Barrell insists on the contrary that the speaker’s affirmation fails, and for
him, curiously, the value of the poem lies not in the happy conviction of the
world well lost (or at least disregarded) but in the ‘pathos which arises from the
narrator’s attempt to claim a transcendence he cannot achieve’. We may of course

  Barrell, p. 21.
  See his conclusion, p. 42.
  The Sonnets, G. Blakemore Evans (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1996), p. 141.
64 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

complain that poetry can never do what it sets out to do, and that the world is there
to give poets a hard, salutary knock on head. But it is one thing to deny poetry its
effectiveness and another to say that it is precisely its failure to do what it claims
that makes poetry effective. That’s rather like pitying the man who tries to leap a
fence and comes a cropper – normally the subject of laughter not tears. I contend
that the only way to read the poem as a success is to see it as a man taking the fence
triumphantly. If I am right, then there must be something wrong with Barrell’s
discursive model. Barrell knows that everything turns on the leap, or ‘flight’, to
keep the sonnet’s own term, and deliberates along with Booth over the punctuation
of ll.10 to 12. The Quarto reads (with typographical modification):

Haplye I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the Larke at breake of day arising)
From sullen earth sings hymns at Heavens gate,

whereas Booth (whom Barrell calculatedly lines up in his sights) amends as


Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

G. Blakemore Evans, in the Cambridge text, leaves out the comma but expands the
brackets: ‘(Like to the lark at break of day arising / from sullen earth)’, and this
gets closest to what the sonnet wants to say. Barrell argues that the interpretation
of ‘state’ depends on the punctuation following ‘earth’ (l.12). Is there a comma or
is there not? According to Q, no, but according to Booth, yes. Barrell who prefers
Q’s reading tells us why: everything hinges on the meaning of the word ‘state’,
which occurs first in line 2 and then again at the end of line 10. Booth’s reading
(see above) means that the speaker’s ‘state’ arises like the lark and is able to sing
its hymns at heaven’s gate. But if we retain Q’s punctuation it is rather harder to
argue this; Barrell would insist impossible. If ‘state’ means ‘state of mind’, which
for Booth (Barrell protesting) it does, then Barrell’s argument for the discourse
of patronage suffers. As he tells us, ‘once the discourse is established, then when
the word re-occurs in line 10 of the quarto text, those [Boothian, i.e.universalist]
meanings are pushed aside, and the meanings ‘social and economic state’, ‘status
or rank’, become the primary meanings available to us (Barrell, p. 35). What he
means fundamentally is that the state of the speaker remains earthbound in its
material, patronage-ridden circumstances, and cannot ascend like the lark, so
that the happy-sounding affirmation at the close is lamentable and untrue. Q’s
punctuation supports this reading, according to Barrell.
Now it is unusual in Shakespeare for any line of meaning to be so ‘primary’
as not to be subject to modification at any time: primary, yes, but not exclusive.
And as even Barrell describes the process as establishing ‘primary’ and not sole
Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes 65

or unique readings, then he surely should not object so firmly to Booth’s more
inclusive interpretation. As for the punctuation and its effect, this is anybody’s
guess. If we are going to take a materialist line, which is certainly relevant as
far as printing and production go, then we should heed the words of the sonnets’
most recent editor, Colin Burrow, who reminds us that the sonnets as published in
Q were at the mercy of copyists and typesetters, and that its punctuation ‘is very
unlikely consistently to reflect anything that issued from Shakespeare’s hand’.13
Since (as the majority of scholars continue to argue) the poems were probably
not authorised, their punctuation was even further from Shakespeare’s control. Q
cannot be relied upon.
However, more to the point, we should not be making fine discriminations
so much as seeing how things run inseparably together, which is the way of
Shakespeare’s rhetoric, and in so far as he detects this process in the multiple
meanings conveyed in the sonnet, Booth is certainly right. In illustration, take this
famous speech from Macbeth:

If it were done when ‘tis done, then ’twere well

It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequences and catch
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all – here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (1.7.1–7)14

The thinking is remarkably quick, as befits a mind operating under extraordinarily

emotional pressure and in a state of urgency. It is very difficult to distinguish one
thought from another, but that doesn’t mean that the speech is merely garbled
or that it is designed to represent a speaker’s confusion. On the contrary, the
words clearly express that the opposing tendencies to which Macbeth is prey are
impossible to distinguish from one another. Will the killing of Duncan be fatal
to Macbeth in terms of his immortal soul or is there a possibility that he might
escape with it? Can he afford to think only in terms of temporal ‘success’ with
Duncan’s death (‘surcease’) or does the immortal ‘consequence’ impinge also?
The two words ‘surcease’ and ‘success’ sound tantalizingly alike, and yet they
mean the opposite of each other. Does ‘jump’ the life to come mean hazard it,
or does it mean give it up altogether? Since Macbeth does not – cannot – know
the consequences of his action, there is no way of choosing with confidence. The
hero is continuing in this uncertain vein, and would apparently go on in it forever,
were he not interrupted by the entrance of his wife. Although the language may

  Colin Burrow, ‘Editing the Sonnets’, in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets,
Michael Schoenfeldt (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 207), p. 156.
  A.R. Braunmuller (ed.) Macbeth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
66 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

seem elliptical, it represents effectively the impossibility of clear choice, which is

its theme, and therefore could not state the matter more effectively. It illustrates
Shakespeare’s capacity with words of ambivalence, and shows with particular
vividness that (in contrast to what Barrell claims) his language is seldom if ever
reducible to a single, unvarying discourse.
Interestingly, in refuting Booth’s reading, which is perhaps unnecessarily taken
up with the details of punctuation (though one can see why this should be so),15
Barrell reveals himself to be very much alive and sensitive to the rhetorical force of
the sonnet at precisely the point of ‘flight’, for he salutes the qualities of ‘euphony
… rhythm and pitch’ that characterise the line, ‘From sullen earth sings hymns at
Heavens gate’, as well as of course the lines leading up to it in the quarto version.
The absence of the comma, as Barrell agrees, gives the expression its vital lift, and
that is all that is necessary. Rhetoric is persuasion, and in love poetry the object
is to persuade the reader of the intensity of the emotion. It hardly matters that the
love may be circumscribed by inimical conditions, such as the disadvantageous
patronage system; indeed, in poetic terms that is an advantage. Rhetoric seeks
an adversity against which to make its protest, and the stronger the challenge the
more it seeks to prove itself.
As for the ‘discourse of patronage’ being unanswerable, or impossible to
transcend, one need only to look at the terms of 29’s twin sonnet, ‘When to the
sessions of sweet silent thought’ (no. 30) to see how arbitrary and replaceable it is.
There the thematic discourse is time and its depredations, as experienced through

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste. (ll.3–4)

The speaker feels just as helpless as he does in no. 29 but now the opposition to his
happiness and sense of well-being is not the constraining nature of his social status
but those irrefutable universals time and death;

Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan th’expense of many a vanished sight. (ll.5–8)

None the less, exactly the same formula is adopted as in 29: thoughts of the friend
dispel the gloom and raise the spirits against all previous expectation:

But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)

All losses are restored, and sorrows end. (ll.13–14)

  See Stephen Booth, An Essay on Shakespeare’ Sonnets (New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 1969), p. 181.
Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes 67

What is the difference in the terminology governing each poem? One addresses
questions, as John Barrell must surely concede, that constitute universals, whereas
the other seems anchored in a particular, historically definable condition, patronage.
But is there such a difference between the two? In each sonnet the speaker affirms
his love, and finds obstacles to triumph over. As we see, in one poem the set of
obstacles is of the universal kind, time, death, etc., whereas in the other they are
of a more circumstantial, historically locatable nature. However, each set of terms
serves the same purpose, as is reflected in Elizabethan poetry generally. Instead of
being a prisoner to his circumstances in no. 29, the speaker is only seeking out new
material to illustrate a universal idea, and one that – I agree with Barrell – threatens
to become banal, but only if it is not stylistically renewed. For the discourse of
patronage is, in effect, one of style. Another, representative Elizabethan sonnet
writer gives an example of how to innovate stylistically. Michael Drayton, in his
second Idea sonnet, reinvigorates the old idea of the mistress’s cruelty to her lover
by deploying the terminology of a trial (the law being every bit as circumstantial
and historically definable as patronage):

Mine heart was slaine, and none but you and I:

Who should I thinke the Murther should commit?
Since, but your selfe, there was no Creature by,
But onely I, guiltless of murth’ring it.
It slew itselfe: the Verdict on the view
Doe quit the dead, and me not accessarie:
Well, well, I feare it will be prov’d by you,
Th’evidence so great a proofe doth carrie.16

The final evidence is the ‘blood’ on the lady’s lips, i.e. a tribute to their intolerably
beautiful redness. The rhetorical principle that effects this metaphor is no different
from that which establishes ‘wealth’ in Sonnet 29 as ‘richness of feeling’ and not as
a doomed attempt to free itself from the constraints of a specific, literal meaning.
Drayton’s exaggerated metaphor (how can the heart be ‘slaine’ if its owner is still
protesting?) confirms in turn the metaphoric nature of Shakespeare’s language of
patronage, which Barrell insists on taking only literally.
On the matter of taking a line and exposing it to external context, consider this
example from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Duke Theseus in preparation for the
court entertainment (which is to be the Mechanicals’ play), assigning the assembly
to their seats, says specifically,

Go bring them in; and take your places, ladies. (5.1.84)

  Elizabethan Sonnets, Maurice Evans (ed.) (London: Dent, 1977; rpt, rev. R. Booth,
2003), p. 88.
68 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Dympna Callaghan points reasonably enough to this line as an example of

patriarchal power enforcing itself on women, who have no choice but to acquiesce
in silence.17 Certainly an obvious and relevant example of exploring the cultural
context beyond the play. Of course it is true that in the hierarchy that the play’s
construction reflects Theseus’ male voice will be dominant; but it is also possible,
especially bearing rhetorical function in mind, to hold a different view of the
nature and tone of his command. Allowing for the hierarchical point, audiences
would note first of all the accent of politeness and attitude of concession, even
if we object that in this society (and that includes this society), every little act of
concession conceals a larger attitude of condescension. A command is not always
a command as such; when it functions as an invitation it may signal a gesture
of self-withdrawal rather than self-advancement: ‘You go first.’ We can debate
the larger context endlessly; and I am certainly not denying its existence and its
relevance to the poems and plays. Of course the internal context of the poem’s
literary composition must stand in relation to the context outside. This very half-
line signals that, which is why the critic is right to insist on it. But if we see the
line as resonant with patriarchy, we should also see that it points to something
very deep in the play’s motivation. These ladies include most prominently Hermia
and Helena, who at the beginning are significantly displaced, dispossessed, and
as a result feel that their only recourse is to embark on a path of exile (further
displacement), in the course of which they encounter such merry ‘wanderers’ of
the night as Puck and co. Therefore Theseus’ injunction to them is not just an
invitation to sit down; it is also a statement of acceptance. He is saying to them,
‘you have come home’. If you lift the veil on phrases or expressions in order to
investigate what lies beneath them, then you have to recognise that this is one of
the truths (one of the play’s rhetorical truths) that is being disclosed.
Another critic has offered the observation regarding the play’s resolution that
‘this diagrammatic settling of affairs sits uncomfortably with all that the lovers
have experienced in the woods’.18 But what have they experienced that cannot be
ignored, or that remains to challenge Demetrius’s fulsome apology in his speech
offering reconciliation in Theseus’ court? He says:

My lord, fair Helen told me of their stealth,

Of this their purpose hither to this wood,
And I in fury hither followed them,
Fair Helena in fancy following me.
But, my good lord, I wot not by what power –
But by some power it is – my love to Hermia,
Melted as the snow, seems to me now

  Dympna Callaghan, Shakespeare without Women: Representing Gender and Race
on the Renaissance Stage (London: Routledge, 2000).
  Stephen Greenblatt, Introduction to the play in the Norton Shakespeare (New
York: Norton, 1997), p. 810.
Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes 69

As the remembrance of an idle gaud

Which in my childhood I did dote upon,
And all the faith, the virtue of my heart,
The object and the pleasure of mine eye
Is only Helena. To her, my lord,
Was I betrothed ere I saw Hermia,
But like in sickness did I loathe this food;
But as in health come to my natural taste,
Now do I wish it, love it, long for it,
And will for evermore be true to it. (4.1.157–73)

What have the lovers experienced that resists such a statement? Where is the
evidence that division and alienation persist? It is to disregard entirely the power
and effectiveness of such utterance if you simply declare the play’s resolution to
be ‘diagrammatic’, as if all we were expected to consider is various permutations
of two into two. In other words, you can only protest, as Stephen Greenblatt does,
if you ignore completely the play’s rhetoric, as if it were all disjoined and the fifth
act merely swept under the carpet everything that has gone before. It doesn’t work
at all, the play simply breaks down, if the rhetoric doesn’t manage to bring them
home, that is, bring them through. The rhythm of the language, not just the sense,
is constantly pointing the direction in which it has to go. Rhetoric functions in a
large and comprehensive way, to say nothing of tonal particularity.
Harley Granville-Barker, reflecting on the kind of music that ought to
accompany dramatic performance, found himself musing on the appropriate
musicality of the language itself:

The verse has the virtues of chamber music. It is never robustly declamatory; it
asks constantly for a quiet clarity of utterance; it offers chance after chance for
the most delicate phrasing.19

This description fits perfectly the quiet authority that runs through Demetrius’s
speech, turning apology into affirmation, and showing that the persuasiveness of
rhetoric lies as much in the uninsistent and unobtrusive as it does in the loud and
forceful. In contradiction to critical assumptions that would privilege the idea of a
worryingly unresolved disharmony, the uncomfortable is constantly given harmonious
utterance. An example of this, earlier in the play is Helena’s protest: ‘You draw me,
you hard-hearted adamant’ (2.1.195), which because of the comic tempo emphasises
the laughter in love’s difficulties rather than any real pain. Peter Brook’s imaginative
1970 production, which radically challenged contemporary stage practice, far from
disagreeing with the interpretation I am advancing here, completely concurs with it,
in that it brought out the energy inherent in the play’s rhetoric.

  Prefaces to Shakespeare, VI (1914; rpt London: Batsford, 1974), p. 103.
70 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

How dark is dark in the rhetoric of comedy? Mozart’s Così fan Tutte may be
relevant to this debate, as it deals with two pairs of lovers who swear eternal love
and then, following a rather obvious trick, find themselves switching affections.
Unlike Shakespeare’s comedy of moonlit lovers, the ending of Così, it is sometimes
claimed, does not make it clear whether the two women who have fallen in love
with each other’s disguised fiancé go back to their original betrothed partner or not.
The libretto does not make that an issue, perhaps concentrating more on the proof of
Don Alfonso’s wager that he could establish the women’s disloyalty. Here we have
a ‘diagrammatic’ situation which the plot may not properly resolve. Does it matter?
If it does, can we find any help in the music rather than in the words? In one of the
last essays he published the late Edward Said joins the throng of ‘dark’ interpreters,
arguing that there is a disturbing complexity about Mozart’s theme: ‘What affects
us about Così is of course the music, which often seems so incongruously more
interesting than the situation Mozart uses it for.’20 Said is right to insist on this but his
way of interpreting the effect of the music is different from how I would see it. Da
Ponte’s libretto follows the overall idea of the opera that Don Alfonso should make
fools of the men by showing that women are incapable of fidelity. ‘Cuckoldry’ is
done lightly, however, in order to maintain an easy comic spirit, and there are clear
limits as to what the women are permitted to do in the way of disloyalty. Despite
the evidence of betrayal, there is to be no fierce or angry reckoning, and the libretto
keeps up a farcical tone of ‘I told you so’.
In his music Mozart goes along with the pranks that the libretto delivers
visually (for example, the ridiculous ‘Albanian’ disguises) or as verbal jokes. The
most famous instance comes in Fiordiligi’s desperate aria, ‘Come scoglio’, with
its dizzying leaps between registers that make nonsense of her attempt to remain
steadfast.21 At the same time, the richness of the music’s harmonic texture works in
precisely the opposite manner and delivers the character from the plight of moral
self-exposure, which the libretto itself merely indicates and does nothing to redeem.
Her poignancy, delicacy of feeling, which in themselves confer redemption, only the
music can assure us of; and this it does so in profusion. Whatever is discordant in
the experience receives the capacious, healing touch of the aria, which unifies and
harmonises in an effortless fashion. The point is well established, as any number of
explorations into the nature of truth in art confirms: ‘[a] voice may well sing true,
even as it is singing falsehoods’.22 The problem lies with the jejune nature of the
libretto which on its own is incapable of resolving the dilemma in any way that feels
satisfying. Even so, the libretto’s few words ought to make it clear that the lovers go
back to their original pairings, otherwise the ladies resolve to be faithful and their
offer to compensate their lovers for their pains make no sense:

  On Late Style (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p. 71.


  See Bruce Alan Brown, W.A. Mozart: Così fan tutte (Cambridge Opera Handbooks:

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 128–9.

  Douglas N. Morgan, ‘Must Art Tell the Truth?’, in Introductory Readings in
Aesthetics, J. Hospers (ed.) (New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1969), p. 233.
Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes 71

Idol mio se questo è vero

Colla fede e coll’amore
Compensar saprò il tuo core,
Adorarti ognor saprò.

(My love, if this is true,

with fidelity and with love
I will make good what I have done
and adore you evermore.)23

The music’s rhetoric performs the necessary reconciliation. In the case of the opera the
words lag behind; in a play such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Shakespeare
controls every aspect of expression, such problems ought not to arise – though of
course many productions see to it that they do. Edward Said joins those who feel
that there is no proof that the lovers in Così honour their original pairings (Said, p.
68), and he goes on to quote, unwisely I think, Foucault in one of the latter’s wilder
‘cultural-moment’, assertions according to which stability is henceforth permanently
disturbed: ‘“our thought is so brief, our freedom so enslaved, our discourse so
repetitive … we must face the fact that that expanse of shade below is really a
bottomless sea”’.24 Said then comments, ‘[i]t is against this rather dreadful vista that
Mozart permits only one character, Guglielmo, to rage openly’ (Said, p. 68).
Now although we can heartily agree with Said’s statement (see above) that
the music is more interesting than the situation it serves, we may none the less
modify his particular conclusion and limit its application. How can a vista really
be described as ‘dreadful’ when its vision is mediated by the opera’s intoxicating
harmony (its rhetoric)? And in what sense does Guglielmo truly ‘rage’? The music
manages so much more than the libretto to redeem a situation to which the words
seem able to give only shallow expression. At one level the women are revealed
as being too fond of coquettishness for their own, or their lovers’, good – a point
on which Don Alfonso insists. But the music also brings out the pathos inherent in
such exposure, in a way that Da Ponte’s words cannot (and certainly do not care
to try). One smiles doubtless at the futility of Fiordiligi’s effort to appease her
conscience, or at both women’s resolve to do better next time, but one is equally
moved by their plight, and all this is due to the composer’s orchestration. The
music ‘incongruously’, to apply Said’s important word, deepens and harmonises
contradictions which left only to the words may appear disquietingly stark
and superficial. It brings completeness to what would otherwise be discordant

  W. A. Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro-Così fan tutte (Cassell Opera Guides: London:
Cassell, 1971), pp. 232–3.
  The reference is to The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1971), pp. 209–10,
but it is the kind of argument – one might as well call it fantasy – that Foucault promotes
72 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

or inchoate. And it facilitates a transcendence of unpromising matter, just as

the rhythm and imagery of sonnet 29 enables the speaker to overcome the
intractability posed by the discourse of patronage. What Mozart gives us is the
rhetoric of music, without which Così fan tutte could not begin to beg comparison
with Shakespeare.
I will conclude with one of the most controversial of all Shakespearean
speeches, and that is Katherina’s appeal to the ladies to do obeisance to their lords
and husbands in The Taming of the Shrew – a seemingly turncoat speech if ever
there was one. I need hardly rehearse the objections that have been levelled at this
injunction, but the chief of them is that here lamentably is the final evidence that
the spirited, feisty Katherina, who has been fighting to maintain her independence,
is now broken, passive, and subservient. Interestingly, this kind of objection has
been around for a good deal longer than modern feminism, and indeed found
expression as soon as the question of the woman’s role began to be raised. A good
example would be the following statement, delivered as long ago as 1859:

But [Katherina] gets off her little speech, with which, by the way, no one out of
the dangerous circle of Woman’s Rights can possibly find fault; and she receives
her reward – a kiss from her husband, whom we are sure, for all her fine talk,
she hates cordially.25

If that’s the impression the play leaves us with, then it has failed. Rhetorically
the energy that sustains it early on has to be there in some sense or form at the
denouement because that energy is positive and the feeling has to be positive at
the close. How does the playwright get round the objections that Katherina has
merely been broken down? He gets round them by going inside: inside the speech
and persuading the audience to follow him through it. Katherina may have adopted
a subservient role but she speaks with authority, male authority. Those opening
lines borrow from martial imagery and equip her as speaker with an impressive
forcefulness of expression. The authoritative confidence she acquires is every bit
as commanding as that of the speaker of the line, ‘ladies, take your places’.
Perhaps something else is going on as well. The language of the opening lines,
and that of the speech in general, emphasises the wayward, scornful character
not so much of women in the round but of the Petrarchan woman in particular.
‘Scornful glances’ are shot from the eyes of Laura imitators: it is a precise and
particular image with clear associations. The poet has seized upon a convenient
target, given that his audience, including his female audience, would have few
illusions about the self-serving nature of the aloof and uncooperative Petrarchan
lady. There’s a clever rhetorical trick, if you like. In Shakespeare’s accomplished
Ovidian-erotic poem, Venus, though it does her little good, seeks to distance herself

  Henrietta Lee Palmer, quoted in Women Reading Shakespeare, 1600–1900, Ann
Thomson and Sasha Roberts (eds) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997),
p. 114.
Shakespeare: What Rhetoric Accomplishes 73

from such a woman, and wins the reader’s sympathy, if not that of Adonis. In the
chastity of Petrarchan love ultimately lies barrenness. But the Petrarchan lover is
characterised by suffering: suffering, you might say, thinking of Duke Orsino or
the ‘wretched lovers slain’ in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, that is superficial.
Here, though, such suffering is deliberately transformed and turned to rhetorical
account. Note the surprise of the caesura in the passage that follows:

The husband is thy Lord, thy life, they keeper,

Thy head, thy sovereign: one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land:
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience –
Too little payment for so great a debt. (5.2.146–54)

The lord is converted into the Petrarchan sufferer, with the advantageous
difference that the suffering is real; what is being expressed is not a visionary but
an actual sea, where men risk drowning in reality. This brings us back interestingly
to John Barrell’s insistence on the materiality of patronage in sonnet 29, but the
point is that in each case making the image literal only serves to invigorate the
poetic statement, or strengthen the rhetoric. As John Kerrigan aptly points out
on Shakespeare’s overall use of poetic language, ‘the subversive energies of
Shakespearian drama are more intimately and potently active in dialogue and its
on-stage performance than in social contexts’.26 I would apply this in illustration
of the fact that the subverting of style in the act of speech serves principally, if
not exclusively, to renew and refresh that style. To take another image, in which
conventional expression undergoes radical change: the lord does not exact tribute,
which is the usual terminology, he ‘craves’ it in a characteristic, yet unexpected,
Petrarchan oxymoronic fashion. The speech deploys the Petrarchan antithetical
structure to effect a reversal, so that the traditional authority of the lady is now
given to the man, but in such a way as to make their two roles seem mutual and
complementary rather than subordinating the one to the other. You may suspect
the poet of practising a contrivance, and decide on reflection that all is not what it
seems, but while the speech is being pronounced, as long as the rhythm signalled
by the verse is followed, I defy anyone to resist it.

  On Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2001), p. vii.
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Chapter 4
Shakespearean Outdoings: Titus Andronicus
and Italian Renaissance Tragedy
Mariangela Tempera

Horror, Tragedy, and Aemulatio

Far from being a pot-boiler hastily put together to exploit the success of The
Spanish Tragedy, Titus Andronicus is a deliberate and sophisticate exercise in
aemulatio which targets both Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights and the classics.
On the one hand, as R.A. Foakes notes, ‘[i]n the most famous scenes of violence
… Shakespeare seems to be deliberately outdoing the effects other dramatists had
created’. On the other, the play is steeped in classical culture and openly declares
the principal models it is trying to emulate both in plot and diction. Jonathan Bate
maintains that ‘[t]he play’s classical allusiveness is deep, not wide’ and identifies
Ovid as Shakespeare’s model. On the contrary, Robert Miola believes that
Seneca’s Thyestes ‘lies behind the action of Titus Andronicus, a deep source of its
energy and its aesthetic of violence’. In fact, both classics are equally relevant,
because, in the composition of Thyestes, Seneca’s model is Ovid. The theoretical
foundations for Shakespeare’s exercise in aemulatio had been laid by sixteenth-
century Italian scholars.

  William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, Jonathan Bate (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare
(London: Routledge, 1995). All quotations are taken from this edition. Brian Vickers has made
a compelling case for the co-authorship of George Peele, assigning him full responsibility
for Act I and Act IV scene I in his Shakespeare, Co-Author (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2002), pp. 148–243. He does, however, acknowledge that Peele’s scenes in TA are far
more effective than anything else we have in his name. The merit, he says, is Shakespeare’s
who helped his co-author ‘to create a plot far more coherent than anything else we have in
his name..’ (p. 232). Since the extent of Shakespeare’s revision of Peele’s scenes remains
unclear, I will maintain the traditional attribution of the play to Shakespeare.

 R.A. Foakes, Shakespeare & Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2003), p. 54.

  Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 103.

 Robert Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992),
p. 23.

  See Concetto Marchesi, ‘Le fonti e la composizione del Thyestes di L.A. Seneca
(1908)’, in Seneca: Letture critiche, Alfonso Traina (ed.) (Milan: Mursia, 1976), pp. 164–93.
76 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Thomas Greene warns us that ‘for the reader-critic to seek to distinguish, ex

post facto, emulative texts from imitative may lead to a wasteful multiplication of
categories’. If imitatio of the classics was considered an essential component of a
good education, aemulatio was less universally appreciated because any attempt at
outdoing the classics could be perceived as a challenge to their authority. Bernard
Weinberg’s monumental survey of Italian Renaissance criticism tells us that, in
his De imitatione libri tres (1541), Bartolomeo Ricci insisted ‘that the moderns
can equal the ancients, that Nature has been as generous to us as to men of the
classical past’. In his Hercolano (around 1560), Benedetto Varchi triggered one
of the quarrels that Italian intellectuals loved so much by declaring ‘that Dante
might be considered not only an equal of Homer’s, but his superior’. It was an
opinion widely held, though few would have expressed it as bluntly as Gioseppe
Malatesta. In his dialogue Della nuova poesia (1589), a participant maintains:

And certainly it is a thing worthy of the greatest astonishment that men being
made all free in their thought and in their reason, nevertheless, these same men,
as if ungrateful for this great gift that God has given them, should have gone
about pawning and selling into slavery this liberty of theirs to some vain name
of the authority of the ancient writers. …. they think that we are held in less
obligation to the light of our own thought and of our reason itself, than to the
authority of Vergil, of Homer, and of the others.

Once the classics had been reverently studied and imitated, they could be emulated
and outdone and Renaissance Italy was the place where this was going to happen.
The Italians positioned themselves as the new models, without much fear that
they, too, could in turn be outdone. They certainly did not expect it to happen any
time soon and certainly not in Elizabethan England. And yet, as early as 1580,
Gabriel Harvey was writing to Edmund Spenser that his recent works ‘come not
nearer ARIOSTOES COMOEDIES … than that the ELUISH QUEENE doth to
his ORLANDO FURIOSO, which, notwithstanding, you will needes seeme to
emulate and hope to ouergo, as you flatly professed your self in one of your last
Letters’.10 The Elizabethans felt that the Italians who had challenged the stronghold
of the classics on Western culture could in turn be superseded – once they had
been studied and imitated along with their classical models. And the London stage,
rather than the scholar’s page, was the place where this was going to happen.

 Thomas Greene, The Light in Troy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 59.

  Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance, 2
Vols., 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 104.

 Ibid., vol. 2 of 2, p. 829.

 Ibid., vol. 1 of 2, p. 662.
  Gabriel Harvey ‘Letter IV’ in G. Gregory Smith (ed.), Elizabethan Critical Essays,
2 Vols., 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1904), 12–13.
Shakespearean Outdoings: Titus Andronicus and Italian Renaissance Tragedy 77

Referring to such authors as Ariosto, Bibbiena and Machiavelli, Robert Miola

notes that ‘Shakespeare may have read none of these dramatists in Italian or in
translation yet he could no more have escaped them in the practice of his craft than
moderns can escape Freud or Marx, though only a relatively small percentage of
people have actually had direct contact with those seminal thinkers.’11 While the
connection between Italian and Elizabethan comedy has been widely recognised
and explored, the connection between Italian and Elizabethan tragedy is not
easily established. The Italians adhered to the Aristotelian rules as they were
interpreted in the theoretical debate which flourished in sixteenth-century Italy;
they also respected Horace’s veto against staging violent deaths. Taking as their
model Senecan tragedy that was not meant for the stage, they too wrote to be
read and any stagings of their tragedies were for the benefit of a court audience.
Last but not least, they operated in Counter-Reformation Italy, a place far less
tolerant of theatrical excess than Elizabethan England. But the Italians created
an internationally acclaimed body of horror tragedies for which they could find
theoretical justification only by engaging in subtle and deliberate misinterpretations
of Aristotle’s poetics, by pushing the Senecan model towards stageability as far as
it would go, and even by occasionally, very occasionally, flaunting Horace’s veto
against stage violence.
The trail-blazer of horror Italian-style was Giovan Battista Giraldi Cinthio
whose Orbecche was first performed in Ferrara in 1541 and printed in 1543.12
Reprinted at least ten times and repeatedly performed, it was successful both in
Italy and abroad. For its cavalier approach to some of Aristotle’s and Horace’s
rules, it was also widely criticised. The spectators loved what the scholars hated:
the passionate delivery of the Messenger, the moment when Orbecche inflicts the
first wound on her father while still on stage, her lamentations over her family’s
remains and her suicide in full view of the audience. Giraldi himself sided with
the audience. About Sebastiano da Montefalco’s performance, he writes: ‘Mi pare
di sentirmi ancora tremare la terra sotto i piedi, come mi parve sentirla allora che
egli rappresentò quel messo con tanto orrore di ognuno, che parve che ... tutti
rimanessero come attoniti.’ (‘I feel as if the earth is still trembling under my feet, as
I thought I felt it tremble at the time when his portrayal of the messenger inspired

 Robert Miola, ‘Seven Types of Intertextuality’, in Shakespeare, Italy, and
Intertextuality, Michele Marrapodi (ed.) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004),
p. 21.
  G.B. Giraldi Cinthio, Orbecche in Teatro del Cinquecento, vol. 1, Renzo Cremante
(ed.) (Milan-Naples: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1988), pp. 287–448. King Sulmone wants his
daughter Orbecche to marry the king of the Parthians. She is already secretly married to
Oronte and has given him two children. On finding it out, Sulmone swears revenge. He
fakes forgiveness, lures Oronte and the children into a cave, cuts off Oronte’s hands and
butchers the children in front of him before eventually killing him. He then shows his
daughter Oronte’s head and hands and the children’s corpses on a platter. Crazed with grief,
she kills him before committing suicide.
78 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

such horror in everyone that … all remained as if stunned.’)13 For a moment it

looked as if Italian tragedy could start moving towards English-style theatrical
action, but unfortunately the scholars won.
In 1542 Sperone Speroni wrote his Canace.14 His staging suggestions show
that he did not disdain special effects to provoke wonder: ‘L’ombra vegna che
paia che nasca di sotto il palco a poco a poco con fumi di rocchette e fuogo e
qualche scoppio sì che paia che vegna dallo inferno.’ (‘Let the Shadow appear as
if it materialised little by little from under the stage amidst smoke of flares and
fire and some cracking sounds, so that it may look as if it came from Hell.’)15
The author kept most of the standard Senecan features (a Shadow from Hell, a
premonitory dream, an immoderate ruler) but substituted the gory details that had
made Orbecche famous with subtle touches of Ovidian eroticism. The shock of
Orbecche’s stage death was so long lasting that as late as 1565 Ludovico Dolce
found it necessary to reiterate, in his Marianna16 that Greeks and Romans vetoed
‘ch’innanzi a’ riguardanti / Omicidio d’altrui si commettesse’ (Prologue I, 16–17:
‘that murder be committed in front of the audience’). He too, however, found
strict adherence to Aristotle’s rules unnecessary: ‘Che se ben fu Filosofo di tanto
/ Sonoro grido, egli non fu Poeta; E chi vuol por le poesie di quanti / Tragici fur
dentro le sue bilancie / Non sarà degno di tal nome alcuno’ (Prologue I, 28–32:
‘Although he was a philosopher of outstanding fame, he was not a poet, and those
who weigh tragedies on his scales are unworthy of the name of poets.’) Dolce’s
Marianna is one of the best rounded characters in Italian tragedy. As Marvin T.
Herrick remarks, ‘[i]f Dolce had enjoyed the same freedom of movement on the
stage that the Elizabethan Webster had enjoyed in his Duchess of Malfi, if the

  G.G. Giraldi Cinzio, ‘Discorso intorno al comporre delle commedie e delle tragedie’
in ID., Scritti critici, Camillo Guerrieri Crocetti (ed.) (Milan: Marzorati, 1973), p. 220.
  Sperone Speroni, La Canace e altri scritti in sua difesa; G.B. Giraldi, Scritti contro
la ‘Canace’, Cristina Roaf (ed.) (Bologna: Commissione per i testi di lingua, 1982), pp.
3–94. The shadow of an infant opens the play and informs the spectators that he is the
offspring of the incestuous love between Canace and Macareo, the twin children of Eolo,
god of the winds. While the house is full of guests celebrating the twins’ birthday, Canace,
in her rooms gives birth to her child. Her nurse tries to smuggle the baby out of the palace
in a basketful of flowers. Having discovered the baby, Eolo has it strangled and thrown to
the dogs. He sends a knife and a jug of poisoned wine up to his daughter’s rooms. She kills
herself and so does her brother. Too late does Eolo repent his wrath.
 Cristina Roaf (ed.), La Canace e altri scritti in sua difesa; G.B. Giraldi, Scritti
contro la ‘Canace’, p. 293.
  Ludovico Dolce, Marianna in Renzo Cremante (ed.), pp. 731–877. Crazed with
jealousy, Erode wrongly accuses his captain Soemo of adultery with the queen. Soemo is
publicly executed. His head, his heart and both hands are presented to Marianna by Erode,
who tells her she can choose how she will die. Her children implore their father to spare her;
he disowns them as Soemo’s bastards and orders that they too, along with his mother-in-law
be executed. Marianna is made to watch the strangling of her children and the beheading of
her mother before being herself beheaded. Erode now regrets his own cruelty.
Shakespearean Outdoings: Titus Andronicus and Italian Renaissance Tragedy 79

Italian had not been restrained by Horace … from showing the actual death scene
of the heroine …, Marianna would indeed be comparable to the great Duchess’.17
Provoking the horrified reaction of both readers and audiences appears to
override any other purpose in Luigi Groto’s La Dalida (published in 1572 but
apparently written at a much earlier date).18 While proclaiming his tragedy
unworthy of such famous precedents as Orbecche and Canace, the author clearly
aims at producing an Act IV more gruesome than anything that had been written
before. To enhance the reality effect of his tale, his Messenger makes extensive
use of direct quotes from the characters involved in the torture scene. A blind man
himself, Groto was helping his audience transform words into mental images of
horror. La Dalida was very much appreciated both in Italy and abroad. William
Alabaster’s Roxana – a Latin play which was performed at Trinity College,
Cambridge in the early 1990s – is a rather faithful adaptation of Groto’s tragedy.
Alabaster does, however, tune down the horrific details of the original, deeming
them unsuitable for his scholarly audience. The 1590s also saw the publication
of Antonio Decio’s Acripanda (1592)19 which exceeded even Dalida in cruelty.
The detailed descriptions of tortured bodies belong to the same cultural climate of
Caravaggio’s paintings, while the dialogues between Ussimano and his counsellor
testify to the author’s stern adherence to the religious concerns of the Counter-
Reformation. Like Groto, Decio compensates for the restrictions on staging
violence by introducing long stretches of ‘dialogue-within-monologue’. In true
mannerist fashion, he also draws attention to the conventions of the genre. On the
verge of death, Orselia embarks in a long monologue. On hearing the story from
the Nurse, Acripanda responds with a sensible question ‘Con la mortal percossa/
formar ella potea / tante parole adunque?’ (2485–7: ‘Having been wounded to
death, could she still manage such a lengthy speech?’)

  Marvin T. Herrick, Italian Tragedy in the Renaissance (Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1965), p. 177.
  Luigi Groto, La Dalida, Dana F. Sutton (ed.), ‘The Philological Museum’ www. Having killed his uncle Moleonte, king of Bactria, Candaule
marries his daughter Dalida, although he is already married to Berenice queen of India.
Candaule’s secretary, Besso, secretly in love with Berenice tells her the truth. The Queen
invites Dalida and her two children to the palace, where she tortures her to death having first
forced her to take part in the killing of the children. She then chops up the bodies and serves
them to Candaule, along with poison. About to die, Candaule informs Berenice that she too
is doomed. Suspecting an affair with Besso, he has poisoned her.
 Antonio Decio, Acripanda in Due regine rinascimentali, Grazia Distaso (ed.)
(Taranto: Lisi, 2001), pp. 119–245. Ussimano, king of Egypt, is married to Acripanda.
They have two children. In the past, he killed his first wife, Orselia, and had their infant
son exposed to the elements. Saved by a servant, the son becomes king of Arabia, defeats
Ussimano, offers peace and demands his children as hostages. He then hacks them to pieces
and returns them to Acripanda, who tries to reconstruct the bodies. She dies by jumping into
their grave.
80 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

The Italian tragedians who made their bold verbal forays into theatrical horror
were well versed in the classics. Their sophisticated intertextuality drew upon a
vast range of contemporary and past Italian authors. Rather than to the general
public, they were answerable to a highly educated audience of peers capable of
catching every allusion and ready to pound upon any mistake. Their theoretical
writings and the texts of their plays were widely circulated in continental Europe.
The gist of their work was certainly familiar to those Elizabethan scholars who,
like Seneca, followed ‘the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers
that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all
that they have brought in …’.20 A comparison between some of their plays and
TA centred on such key notions as Horatian decorum, Aristotelian admiratio and
Senecan scelus novum will show that, although Italian horror tragedies were not
a direct source for Shakespeare’s play, they were one of the many flowers culled
by him. Today, they are all but forgotten not only because Shakespeare’s poetic
and dramatic skills were incomparably superior to the Italian tragedians’, but also
because he worked in a cultural climate far more open to experimentation with
staging conventions than Counter-Reformation Italy.

Childbirth and Decorum

The Italians evaluated tragedies according to Horace’s guidelines as well as

Aristotle. Both in style and plot, decorum (appropriateness) was considered of
vital importance. Like most Elizabethan plays, TA would not have passed muster.
Along with the stage violence and the combination of comic and dramatic scenes,
characterisation would have been an obvious target for continental contempt: no
matter how stressed out he may be, a Roman general should not ‘[e]nter … like
a cook, placing the dishes’ ( Had they foreseen it, even the black baby
subplot, one of Shakespeare’s most imaginative exercises in Senecan emulation,
would have been faulted by the same Italian scholars who fuelled the quarrel over
Speroni’s Canace.
One of the many oddities of TA is that the protagonist is not the Emperor but
a general in disgrace. And yet, the love triangle centred on Tamora could have
provided ample matter for a tragedy. When we think of stuprum in connection with
TA, we think of Lavinia’s rape. But according to Latin law, stuprum is any illicit
sexual activity – including the adulterous liaison between the Roman Empress and
Aaron, which could have disastrous consequences for the empire. In Act IV, we
hear that the Empress is in labour and then that she is delivered – of a black baby.
The story of the unfaithful wife of the ruler who endangers the survival of the state
by tainting the line of succession is a favourite topic in tragedy, one that speaks
to the anxieties of the male spectators yearning for the kind of physical evidence

  Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae morales, 3 Vols., 2, Epistle LXXXIV, Trans. by
Richard M. Gummere (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 277.
Shakespearean Outdoings: Titus Andronicus and Italian Renaissance Tragedy 81

of parenthood that nature grants to women. Dolce’s Erode makes hyperbolic use
of this anxiety when he rejects his legitimate sons by saying ‘E se di questo corpo
usciti foste, / Ancor non crederei mi foste figli’ (Marianna, 2642–3: ‘And even if
you had come out of my own body, I still would not believe you were my sons.’)
Uncertainty about fatherhood is at the root of Seneca’s Thyestes. In Roman times
paternity could be legally established through physical resemblance between
the children and their father. Unfortunately, Atreus’ rival was his own brother,
which ruled out physical resemblance as proof of paternity. Hence his fury and
the need for devastating revenge. By the end of the sixteenth century, methods for
proving paternity had not really improved. Ussimano’s first wife, falsely accused
of adultery, pleads for the life of her child by telling her husband ‘mira come il
tuo volto / è nel suo volto espresso, come mirando lui, miri te stesso’ (Acripanda,
2376–78: ‘see how your face is imprinted in his face, how by looking at him you
look at yourself’.) Even when blood ties are not in question, resemblance remains
all important as a token of male immortality. Sulmone’s counsellor pleads for the
lives of the king’s grandchildren by showing him that in their faces ‘sì scolpito
sete / Che vedervi mi par ringiovenire/ Felicemente nel bel viso loro’ (Orbecche,
1843–45: ‘you are so perfectly sculpted that I can almost see you getting younger
in their lovely faces’.) Sulmone agrees: ‘Oh quanto bene / Conosco in voi il mio
medesimo aspetto’ (1896–97: ‘O how well I see in both of you my own looks.’)
The reiterated acknowledgment of blood ties suits Sulmone’s purpose to shock his
subjects with the magnitude of his revenge. Shakespeare’s subplot should be read
against this background of the importance of patrilineal resemblance.
Since Tamora’s baby is black, Aaron, the former prisoner, is spared the doubts
that triggered Atreus’ madness and can rejoice in the certainty of fatherhood
that comes from holding a baby that unquestionably bears ‘[his] stamp, [his]
seal’ (4.2.71). After a resounding ‘black is beautiful’ speech that leaves Chiron
and Demetrius utterly unimpressed, he suggests to them an astonishing way of
saving both his son’s life and Tamora’s honour. The white wife of another moor
has just been delivered of a baby ‘as fair as [they] are’ (4.2.156). They should
pay off his parents and place it in the imperial nursery. This curious excursion
into interracial genetics tells us that Tamora’s and Aaron’s baby could have been
white. It is black because of an authorial choice. As the father himself tells his
son, ‘Had nature lent thee but thy mother’s look, / Villain, thou mightst have been
an emperor. / But where the bull and cow are both milk-white, / They never do
beget a coal-black calf’ (5.1.29–32). Having taken as his literary precedent a play
where the protagonist’s guilt could not be proved on the grounds of resemblance,
Shakespeare has given the plot a twist that makes such doubts impossible. It is
only in Act IV that his reason for introducing a Moor in Act I becomes clear. Aaron
is needed to father a child whose skin colour could make Tamora’s guilt, unlike
Thyestes’, immediately obvious.
The birth of the illegitimate offspring precedes the opening of the play in
Thyestes. Shakespeare makes it more dramatically effective by having it take place
during the play. So did Speroni in his Canace. Giraldi, who was anything but a
82 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

prude when it came to staging shocking scenes, finds his rival’s handling of the
baby’s birth an intolerable breach of decorum. In his scathing Giudizio, he writes:
‘Io, per me, non mi ricordo mai aver letto che nascano figliuoli nelle Tragedie
perché sopra essi nasca il terrore e la compassione .... Ho bene letto che sovra i nati
s’usa crudeltade, come nel Tieste, nella Medea, nell’Ercole furente, ma non che
s’aspetti che nascano per incrudelire poi contra il parto.’ (‘I can’t remember having
ever read that children may be born in tragedies so that they may generate pity and
terror …. I read that one deals cruelly with those who have already been born, as in
Thyestes, Medea, Herakles furens, but not that one waits for them to be born so that
one may act ferociously towards them.’)21 Decio is obviously aware of the terms
of the quarrel when his Orselia, heavily pregnant when her husband kills her, tries
to convince her baby to come quickly out of her womb, otherwise ‘farà il morto /
(meraviglia inaudita!) che il vivo esca di vita’ (Acripanda, 2438–40: ‘the dead will
take the life of the living – wonder unheard of’.) However, he finally chooses to let
the baby die in his mother’s womb, thus avoiding Speroni’s faux pas.
The black baby in TA is born during the play so that he can die during the play, in
defiance of decorum, but does he? ‘Behold the child’ says Marcus at the end of Act
V. If Lucius has kept his promise, he has spared the ‘growing image of [Aaron’s]
fiend-like face’ (5.1.45) – and Marcus is pointing at a live baby. But many directors,
hostile to Lucius, show a dead baby. The baby’s presence is powerfully felt in Act
IV and V. He is a catalyst for the most surprising development of his father’s
character, from black devil to devoted father and eulogiser of his own race. He
also highlights Tamora’s unnatural cruelty in wanting him dead and prepares the
audience to thoroughly enjoy her downfall. Although Saturninus remains unaware
of it to the very end,22 the baby represents ‘Our empress’ shame and stately Rome’s
disgrace’ (4.2.61). Like Thyestes’, Tamora’s adulterous relationship is not a private

Body Parts and Admiratio

At the beginning of Act III, Shakespeare lulls his spectators into believing that they
will be witnessing a study in supreme misery rather than a revenge play. On seeing
his martyred daughter, Titus suggests ‘Let us that have our tongues / Plot some
device of further misery / To make us wondered at in times to come’ (3.1.134–6).
The character mirrors the role of the author as inventor of extreme situations whose
theatrical effectiveness is measured by the degree of admiratio (wonder) they
provoke in the spectators. As T.G. Bishop reminds us, in the Renaissance ‘[w]onder

 Christina Roaf (ed.), La Canace e altri scritti in sua difesa; G.B. Giraldi, Scritti
contro la ‘Canace’, pp. 106–7.
 In his 1989 production, Daniel Mesguish shows Saturninus happily cradling a
white baby (a clear implication that the swap has actually been completed). Most directors,
however, simply ignore Aaron’s ruse.
Shakespearean Outdoings: Titus Andronicus and Italian Renaissance Tragedy 83

was sought after, deployed and cultivated all through the period, variously and to
various ends’.23 Its definition had engaged the best Italian minds.
In his theoretical writings, Cinthio aligns himself with Aristotle: ‘mi son
risoluto che la tragedia ha anco il suo diletto, e in quel pianto si scuopre un nascoso
piacere che il fa dilettevole a chi l’ascolta e tragge li animi all’attenzione e gli
empie di maraviglia, la quale gli fa bramosi di apparare, col mezzo dell’orrore
e della compassione, quello che non sanno, cioè di fuggire il vizio e di seguir
la virtù’ (Discorso, 223–4: ‘I have come to the conclusion that tragedy too can
be pleasurable and that a hidden pleasure can be discovered among the tears.
It makes tragedy enjoyable to the listeners and encourages their souls to pay
attention and fills them with wonder, which makes them keen to learn, through
horror and compassion, what they do not know, that is to avoid vice and follow
virtue.’) In some Italian tragedies, wonder does serve a moral and didactic purpose
which would have met with the approval not only of Aristotle, but of the princes
in the audience and, even more importantly, of an increasingly stern Church.
Ludovico Dolce’s Messenger, for example, offers Erode a detailed account of
the reaction of the crowd to Soemo’s execution: ‘Condotto in piazza fu, legato e
stretto, / Seguitandogli dietro il popol tutto, / Pieno di meraviglia e di pietade: / Di
meraviglia, che dannato a morte / Fosse quell’uom che vi fu tanto grato/ E dopo
voi temuto era da tutti; / Di pietà, non sapendo qual cagione / Lo conducesse a far
sì brutto fine’ (Marianna, 2216–23: ‘He was taken to the square, tightly bound
with ropes and the whole city followed him, full of wonder and pity: wonder
because a man whom you loved so much and who after you was dreaded by all
was condemned to death; pity because they did not know the reason that brought
him to such a terrible end.’) This is the proper reaction that Dolce expects from
those who read his play or attend its performance. They should feel at one with the
awe-struck crowd that witnesses the spectacle of Soemo’s execution. As the once
powerful Titus spirals down into misery, Shakespeare’s spectators should respond
like Dolce’s.
Other Italian theorists placed greater emphasis on pleasure than a reading of
Aristotle would have warranted. As Weinberg reminds us, Giason Denores, in
his Discorso (1586) maintains that ‘[e]ach of the devices used in the poem must
be capable of causing wonder and admiration in the audience’. ‘Therefore every
poem is founded on the marvelous. For if this were not so, it would not engender in
our minds that pleasure which the audience desires.’24 In the passage from theory
to practice, however, wonder often becomes an end in itself, to be pursued by
outdoing the horrific elements of Senecan tragedies. The international success of
Giraldi’s Orbecche was there to prove that the audiences and readers wanted to
be pleasantly shocked by sudden outbursts of violence and morbid descriptions of
lingering deaths.

 T.G. Bishop, Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1996), p. 37.
  Weinberg, vol. 1, p. 622.
84 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Just when Shakespeare’s spectators expect to be morally educated by wondering

at the Andronici’s downfall, Aaron tricks Titus into cutting off his hand in exchange
for his sons’ lives and rewards him by returning the hand and his sons’ heads.
If wonder is triggered by unexpected accidents, few scenes are more wondrous
than this one. The comic violence of the amputation and the shocking sight of the
severed heads jolt the play out of its maudlin mood and turn Titus into an avenger.
The scene is firmly rooted in that mixture of comic and tragic elements which is
typical of Elizabethan tragedy. However, as Michele Marrapodi has argued, ‘the
grotesque irony of the beffa on the victims provides a strong Italianate coloring
which echoes that kind of didactic horror theorised by Giraldi’.25 The very practical
need to remove the body parts from the stage prompts the extraordinary exit of the
Andronici. Marcus and Titus carry one head each, while Lavinia holds her father’s
severed hand between her teeth. Beheadings are tragic but body parts tend to be
awkward if not downright funny.
On the Elizabethan stage, where horrid laughter was allowed, Shakespeare
may have managed to avoid alienating his audience with the Andronici’s exit. On
the Italian stage, Giraldi took a much bigger risk when his Orbecche lamented
her husband’s death while juggling two sets of severed heads and hands. Just as
daring was Groto, when he made Candaule mourn Dalida and the children while
holding their heads on a platter in full view of the audience. Decio tried to outdo
them all and went right over the top in a scene that had as its classical precedent
Hippolytus’ dismemberment in Seneca’s Phaedra. Having received the chopped
up bodies of her children, Acripanda painstakingly tries to put them back together.
At line 3605 she bemoans the fact that she cannot tell whether she is kissing bits of
her son or her daughter. Two hundred lines later, with a real sense of achievement,
she informs the reader that ‘già son le mani / riunite a i lor bracci, e i bracci
sono / ricongiunti a le spalle, / ed a le spalle i colli, a i colli i visi’ (Acripanda,
3802–5: ‘Now the hands are reunited with the arms, the arms are reunited with the
shoulders, with the shoulders – the necks, with the necks – the faces.’)
Prevented from showing violent deaths, the Italians made the most of the body
parts crafted by renowned artisans and produced on stage on covered platters.
They titillated the audience by delaying the uncovering as long as possible and
by shamelessly resorting to ‘do not look now’, a strategy widely used today by
directors of splatter movies. The Messenger who carries the remains of Acripanda’s
children is really teasing the audience when he pleads with the Queen: ‘più oltre
non cercar, basti aver visto / questo vermiglio lino, il qual del sangue / de’ tuoi
figliuoli ancora / par che gocce e stille’ (3499–502: ‘do not go further. Make
do with the sight of this vermillion napkin which almost oozes drops of your
children’s blood.’) Through internal stage directions the tragedians made sure that
the spectators had as good a view of the body parts as the victim. In Marianna,

  Michele Marrapodi, ‘Retaliation as an Italian Vice in English Renaissance Drama’,
in Michele Marrapodi (ed.), The Italian World of the English Renaissance Drama: Cultural
Exchange and Intertextuality (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998), p. 198.
Shakespearean Outdoings: Titus Andronicus and Italian Renaissance Tragedy 85

Erode gives very detailed instructions: ‘Tu, Nunzio, or ben solleva alta la testa /
... / Solleva in alto ancora ambe le mani. … / Prendi anco in mano e le dimostra il
core’ (2352–59: ‘You, Messenger, now lift the head well high. … And also both
the hands. … And grab also the heart and show it to her.’) Such morbid scenes
were certainly effective in provoking admiratio. It is, however, hard to believe that
it was the kind that fulfilled a moral purpose.

Classical Precedents and Scelus Novum

In Seneca’s Thyestes, Atreus crisply sums up the basic rule of revenge: ‘You
cannot say you have avenged a crime / Unless you better it.’26 The rule is very
popular with all kinds of audiences, but is not easily reconciled with the teachings
of Christianity, as the Italian tragedians knew only too well. At the very least, the
avenger should repent at great length and deplore the magnitude of his crime,
like Speroni’s Eolo and Dolce’s Erode do – although not very convincingly. But
audiences and readers wanted to be scared in Act IV rather than uplifted in Act V.
Along with exercises in emulation of classic tales, could the authors entertain them
with new stories? Giraldi thought so, as long as the new plot was ‘non lontana da
quello che puote e suole avvenire’ (‘not far removed from what can and usually
does happen’.)27 In the wake of Orbecche, Groto’s Dalida is proudly presented in
the Prologue as her author’s daughter ‘Nouellamente dal capo del padre / Nata,
come già Pallade da Gioue’ (116–17: ‘Born just now from her father’s head, like
Pallas from Jupiter.’) A scelus novum was easier to invent if one was not retelling
a well-known tale, but classical precedents were always invoked, and the pride
of the avengers at having outdone their models was shared by the authors. In
Orbecche, Nemesis plans to put between Sulmone and his descendants ‘Non
pur tanto furor quanto fu mai / In Tantalo, in Tieste, in Atamante, / Ma quanto
mai non fu veduto in terra’ (192–4: ‘not such fury as was ever seen in Tantalus,
Tyestes and Atamante, but such fury as was ever seen on earth’.) Giraldi accepts
the emulation game, places himself at the top of the line for the time being, but
does not glance into the future, when somebody might still outdo his invention.
Groto is more ambitious and presumes that his creation will remain unsurpassed.
His Berenice first expresses a desire to join, on equal footing, the wife of the
King of the Lydii, Clitemnestra and Rosamunda (ll. 1493–520). But when the
Chorus asks her why she found it necessary to add poison to the cannibal meal,
she raves: ‘Perche le mense / Di Tantalo, di Tereo, e di Thieste, / Rispetto à
questa dispietata cena, / Possan quei, che uerran, nomar pietose’ (3623–6: ‘So that
future generations may call merciful the tables of Tantalus, Tereus and Thyestes,
compared to this ruthless banquet.’)

  Seneca, Thyestes, II.195–6. Trans. and edited by E.F. Watling (Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books, 1966).
  G.B. Giraldi Cinzio, Scritti critici, p. 177.
86 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Shakespeare very carefully weaves his classical precedents into the plot.
Demetrius hopes that the gods who helped Hecuba avenge Polydorus ‘[m]ay
favour Tamora … / To quit the bloody wrongs upon her foes’ (1.1.142–4). No
sooner has the myth been evoked that Titus appears to have been metaphorically
blinded. Having refused the crown, he fails to see that Saturninus is a poor
choice, that Bassianus will reclaim Lavinia’s and her brothers will side with
him. By 1.1.295, the victorious general has become an outcast who, in a fit of
Senecan fury, kills one of his sons. Marcus cries: ‘O Titus see! O see what thou
hast done!’ (1.1.346). But ‘seeing’ is what Titus has become incapable of doing,
a flaw that turns him into the ‘middling’ sort of character, neither completely
bad nor completely good, that Renaissance theorists saw as the only proper
protagonist of tragedy. As the play progresses, Tamora will indeed outdo Hecuba
in revenge. According to Ovid, the Queen’s attack on Polymnestor’s eyes is so
vicious that, her good cause notwithstanding, she loses her foothold on humanity
and metamorphoses into a howling bitch. When Tamora re-enters as Empress
of Rome, she assures Saturninus (and the audience) that she will ‘find a day
to massacre them all’ (1.1.450). The eloquently sorrowful mother has ceased
to exist.
When the mysterious blackamoor takes centre stage and tells us more about
Tamora, a new classical precedent is introduced – the redoubtable Semiramis,
with her penchant for illicit affairs. Discovered in the woods with her lover,
Tamora demands to take active part in the killing of Lavinia, and when her
sons suggest rape, she quickly agrees: ‘But when ye have the honey we desire,
/ Let not this wasp outlive us both to sting’ (2.2.131–2). The phrasing is so
shocking that many editors follow F2 in emending ‘we’ to ‘you desire’. And
yet an audience familiar with the source would have applauded this exercise
in aemulatio. Tereus is outdone by a woman who vicariously engages in an
act of brutal rape. The learned Lavinia cannot find, in the whole of classical
culture, a fitting parallel for Tamora. Like Aaron, she tries out ‘Semiramis’,
but then admits defeat: ‘Ay, come, Semiramis, nay, barbarous Tamora, / For
no name fits thy nature but thy own’ (2.2.118–19). Becoming the only possible
term of comparison for one’s cruelty is the ultimate accolade for Senecan
avengers. Lavinia is here expressing her horror in words similar to those of
the Messenger in Dalida, who had been unable to find a suitable precedent for
Berenice’s revenge: ‘Berenice crudel, com’ella stessa / (Ch’io non saprei più
proprio essempio darne)’ (3343–4: ‘Berenice as cruel as herself – since I cannot
find a more appropriate example.’)
Saturninus, too, makes a half-hearted attempt at inventing a scelus novum
when he demands that Titus’ sons be imprisoned ‘until we have devised / Some
never-heard-of torturing pain for them’ (2.2.284–5), but he is clearly outclassed
by both Tamora and Titus. The spectators know that, to get even with her, Titus
needs to choose his classical precedent very carefully. And he does. It is only
fitting that a woman who imitates the sins of Thyestes, through adultery, and
of Tereus, through her participation in rape, should be the guest of honour at a
Shakespearean Outdoings: Titus Andronicus and Italian Renaissance Tragedy 87

cannibal banquet. As I have noted elsewhere,28 Titus sets himself an impossible

task when he assures Chiron and Demetrius that since they have treated his
daughter worse than Philomel, he will be revenged ‘worse than Procne’ (5.2.195).
Not even a connoisseur of horrors like Groto makes a similar claim. Moleonte’s
shadow wishes that his daughter ‘Progne imitasse, ch’il figliolo spense / Per
lo già spento honor de la sorella’ (Dalida, 104–5: ‘would imitate Progne, who
undid her child for the undone honour of her sister’). Imitate, not do worse
(which could only be a mother who knowingly partakes of the cannibal meal).
Titus will, however, keep his other promise of a banquet ‘More stern and bloody
than the Centaurs’ feast.’(5.2.203) – with enough violence, that is, to keep his
audience fully entertained.
Starting with 5.2, Shakespeare outdoes Seneca and his Italian emulators by
exploiting the potential of Elizabethan dramatic conventions. He introduces
the typical Senecan impersonations of Revenge, Rape, and Murder. They are,
however, empty shells because not only the audience but also Titus sees through
the disguise. Convinced of being in a Senecan tragedy, Tamora and her sons do not
fear their victim. It is the same mistake that cost Sulmone his life. Having destroyed
Orbecche’s family, he offers reconciliation, but she stabs him. As Gordon Braden
comments ‘No victim in Seneca strikes back like that. Sulmone was assuming
that he was in a Senecan tragedy … and is unprepared for a burst of decisive
strength that, by his conception of human nature, comes out of nowhere.’29 In
TA, the burst of decisive energy comes from the sudden breakthrough that Titus
makes in reading Lavinia’s ‘martyred signs’ in 4.1. From that moment onwards,
the victim becomes an avenger with a clear target in his sights.
Once the rapists are tied and gagged, Titus tells them, and the audience, what
is going to happen next. Again, this is standard procedure in the plays of Seneca
and his imitators. Foretelling mayhem is what Ghosts and Shadows enjoy most.
Unfortunately, their Shadefreude undercuts suspense, as Nicolò Rossi remarked
in 1590 à propos Orbecche ‘dovendo la tragedia essere maravigliosa e nascendo
la maraviglia da quelli effetti le cui cagioni sono incognite, come averà quella
tal favola la maraviglia se gli spettatori già sapranno e le cagioni e gli effetti pria
che avengano?’ (‘since tragedy must be wondrous and wonder is provoked by
those effects whose causes are unknown, how can a story cause wonder if the
spectators already know both causes and effects before they happen?’).30 Through
theatrical action, would be Shakespeare’s reply in the light of his treatment of the
banquet scene. When Titus sets the table and serves the food at the beginning of
5.3, the spectators have eyes only for the pies. After saying ‘Please you, eat of it!’

  Mariangela Tempera, Feasting with Centaurs: Titus Andronicus from Stage to Text
(Bologna: Clueb, 1999), p. 99.
  Gordon Braden, Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1985), p. 120.
 Nicolò Rossi, Discorsi intorno alla tragedia, in Bernard Weinberg (ed.), Trattati di
poetica e retorica del ’500, 4 Vols., 4 (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1974), p. 108.
88 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

(5.3.29), he watches Tamora, but they watch everybody on stage: do the Andronici
unknowingly partake of the cannibal meal? Even worse, does Titus? The answer
cannot be found in the text, but only in performance, where Shakespeare uses the
spectators’ foreknowledge to create suspense. He is so successful that Lavinia’s
death comes as a complete surprise that only momentarily distracts them. He
refocuses their attention on the pies with Titus’ ‘Will’t please your highness feed?’
(53). Then they hear what they have known all along, that Chiron and Demetrius
are ‘both baked in this pie / Whereof their mother daintily hath fed’ (59–60). And
within the next five lines, Tamora, Saturninus, and Titus are dead. No comparison
is possible between this supremely economical scene and the lofty monologues
created by the Italian tragedians. Even in TA, still frequently dismissed as the
worst of Shakespeare’s plays, they have been truly outdone.
Chapter 5
Transalpine Wonders: Shakespeare’s
Marvelous Aesthetics
Adam Max Cohen

In the penultimate scene of The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare denies his audience
the chance to witness the wondrous reunion between Perdita and Leontes in order
to highlight the wonder of Hermione’s resurrection in the final scene. Though we
never see Perdita’s reunion with Leontes, we hear secondhand that it astounds
Leontes and Camillo. The first gentleman reports that when Perdita’s identity is
revealed ‘the changes seen in Leontes and Camillo were very notes of admiration.
A notable passion of wonder appeared in them, but the wisest beholder, that knew
no more but seeing, could not say if th’importance were joy or sorrow’ (5.2.9–
10, 13–16). The third gentleman then relates that the nobles are on their way to
Paulina’s house to view a marvelous statue of Hermione. He describes the statue as
‘a piece many years in doing, and now newly performed by that rare Italian master
Giulio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work,
would beguile nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape’ (5.2.86–90).
Shakespeare scholars have long been both baffled and intrigued by this
reference to Giulio Romano. Why does Shakespeare specify that this particular
Italian painter and sculptor – a significant but not outstanding student of Raphael –
was the alleged sculptor of the statue? Romano died in 1546, so Shakespeare could
not have met Romano personally. Had Shakespeare ever seen any of Romano’s
works? Does this reference indicate that Romano had a particularly important
reputation in England at the beginning of the seventeenth century? Instead of
focusing on the biographical links between Shakespeare and Romano, I would
like to pause for a moment to consider the significance of this passage from an
aesthetic perspective. Shakespeare’s third gentleman seems less interested in the
particular artist than in the fact that the work itself is a marvel of verisimilitude.
Like the grapes drawn by Zeuxis or the curtain drawn by Parrhasius, this sculpture
of Hermione is a wonder because it is indistinguishable from Hermione herself.
In the broader context of the play what is most interesting about this praise of
Romano’s talents as the sculptor of Hermione’s statue is that it is entirely baseless.
In fact there is no statue; there is only Hermione herself, who Paulina has artfully

 References to Shakespeare’s plays are drawn from The Norton Shakespeare, based
on the Oxford edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katharine
Maus (eds) (New York: Norton, 1997).
90 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

hidden away. When she draws the curtain and reveals the figure which they all
believe is Romano’s statue, Paulina says to the assembled stage characters, ‘I like
your silence; it the more shows off / Your wonder’ (5.3.21–2). Leontes confirms that
Perdita is amazed by the verisimilitude of the apparent sculpture: ‘O royal piece!
/ There’s magic in thy majesty, which has / My evils conjured to remembrance,
and / From thy admiring daughter took the spirits, / Standing like stone with thee’
(5.3.38–42). Without mentioning Romano by name, Polixenes praises his work:
‘Masterly done. / The very life seems warm upon her lip’, and Leontes adds, ‘The
fixture of her eye has motion in’t, / As we are mocked with art’ (5.3.65–8). Staring
at the statue, he adds ‘What fine chisel / Could ever yet cut breath?’ On one level
Shakespeare is using the statue to confirm the capacity of art to produce wonder
through verisimilitude, and on another he has placed an actual human being on the
pedestal in order to engineer an astounding metamorphosis.
Paulina baits the fish well by telling the assembly that they must either leave
– which they seem physically unable to do as they can hardly look away from the
wonderful sculpture – or prepare themselves for ‘more amazement’ (5.3.87). The
complicity of the stage audience is critical here. Paulina claims that she will make
the statue ‘move indeed, descend, / And take your hand’, only ‘If you can behold
it’ (5.3.87–9). She emphasises this complicity again in the last moment before she
brings the statue to life: ‘It is required / You do awake your faith’ (5.3.94–7).
If there were any doubt that Paulina is attempting to create a marvel by
bringing Hermione’s statue to life it is dispelled when she tells Hermione’s
statue to move, instructing it: ‘’Tis time. Descend. Be stone no more. Approach.
/ Strike all that look upon with marvel’ (5.3.99–100). Paulina invokes Christian
rhetoric when she describes the statue’s motion as a resurrection which defeats
or cheats death: ‘Come, I’ll fill your grave up. Stir. Nay, come away. / Bequeath
to death your numbness, for from him / Dear life redeems you’ (5.3.100–103).
In her effort to assure the stage audience that she is not conjuring a spirit, she
adds ‘Her actions shall be holy as / You hear my spell is lawful’ (5.3.104–5). The
apparent resurrection of Hermione is a stunning and awe-inspiring piece of stage
business because Paulina is the only one aware of the deception. Unlike Much Ado
or Measure for Measure, where the audience members know that the miraculous
reappearances of apparently dead characters are in fact merely masks removed,
The Winter’s Tale builds to a climax in which the audience members are placed
on the same footing as the wonder-struck Leontes, Polixenes, Florizel, Camillo,
and Perdita.
The conclusion of The Winter’s Tale is marvelous in its own right, but it is
also worth considering closely because it serves as a window into early modern
literary theories regarding wonder. As several scholars have pointed out, there
was not a great deal of critical discourse surrounding wonder in Shakespeare’s
England. This may have been because wonder was widely linked to Aristotle’s
literary aesthetics at a time when Neoplatonism was on the rise, or it may simply
have been a byproduct of England’s overall belatedness in the development of
the type of sophisticated debate about literary aesthetics which took place in Italy
Transalpine Wonders: Shakespeare’s Marvelous Aesthetics 91

during the sixteenth century. For a full account of the nature of the early modern
literary marvelous, the importance of marvels, and the means by which artists
could generate wonder we need to look to Italian literary criticism, where wonder
is given a much more prominent place.
Most Italians who wrote about wonder were paraphrasing or responding to
Aristotle’s statements about wonder in his Rhetoric, his Poetics – which was
recovered in Italy in the mid-sixteenth century – and his Metaphysics. As one
contemporary scholar has noted, ‘Renaissance theorists concocted various recipes
for wonder, but they almost all shopped at the same store, the texts of Aristotle.’
In his Poetics Aristotle described wonders as surprises which seemed inevitable,
necessary, or fitting in the overall scheme of a tragic or epic work: ‘incidents
arousing pity and fear … have the very greatest effect on the mind when they
occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another; there is
more of the marvelous in them than if they happened of themselves or by mere
chance. Even matters of chance seem most marvelous if there is an appearance
of design as it were in them…for incidents like that we think to be not without a
meaning.’ In the first book of his Metaphysics Aristotle argues that wonder spurs
philosophy since a state of ignorance or puzzlement leads to contemplation, and
in his Rhetoric he reiterates the philosophical significance of wonder and adds
some notes on marvelous style, which includes novel and surprising words and
metaphors to make an impression on the audience.
James Mirollo has identified three phases of Italian discourse on wonder
between 1550 and 1650. In the first phase authors addressed the use of the marvelous
in tragic and epic plots, in the second they affirmed the use of the marvelous
as an element of style, and in the third they proclaimed that the marvelous was
the end of literary art. When we examine the various phases of Italian discourse
on wonder closely we see that wonder was a top priority, in some cases the top
priority in Italian literature in a variety of genres, but there seems always to have
been vigorous debate about the true sources and proper uses of the marvelous.
Even the terms used to describe wonders and marvels were highly ambivalent.
A careful consideration of the binaries, paradoxes, contradictions, and ambivalences
in Italian literary discourse on wonder sheds light on Shakespeare’s own dramatic
aesthetic. Just as Shakespeare utilised different techniques to generate wonder
at the conclusion of Winter’s Tale, Italian authors and literary critics embraced
multiple and often contradictory notions about how and in what circumstances an

  James Biester, Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 23.

 Aristotle, Poetics 9 1452a1ff., in The Works of Aristotle, trans Ingrid Bywater, W.D.
Ross (ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924).

  For a summary of Aristotle’s views on wonder see James V. Mirollo, ‘The Aethetics
of the Marvelous: The Wondrous Work of Art in a Wondrous World’, in Marvels, and
Monsters in Early Modern Culture, Peter G. Platt (ed.) (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware
Press, 1999), pp. 24–44, esp. p. 30.
92 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

author could amaze the reader. My hope is that this comparative approach may also
offer a new overarching conceptual framework for the analysis of Shakespeare’s
drama both in his tragic and his comic modes.
In the first decade of the seventeenth century the poet Giambattista Marino
asserted that the ability to arouse wonder was the primary criteria for a poet: ‘The
end of the poet is to arouse wonder (I speak of the excellent, not the foolish): Let
him who does not know how to astonish go work in the stables! [E del poeta il
fin la meraviglia (Parlo de l’eccellente e non del goffo): Chi non sa stupir, vada
all striglia!].’ Giason Denores concurred with Marino’s assessment regarding the
centrality of wonder when he wrote in a discorso of 1586 that ‘every poem by its
nature is based on the marvelous’. 
Giovambattista Giraldi Cinthio’s ideas about wonder are particularly important
because his Hecatommithi provided direct sources for Shakespeare’s Othello and
Measure for Measure. Giraldi agreed with Marino and Denores that a prerequisite
for poetry was the liberal use of marvels, particularly in the fable or the story the
writer created. According to Baxter Hathaway, Giraldi ‘took the extreme position
that a poet is to be called a poet primarily because of the marvels that he uses’, so
‘it follows that he wanted poems to be filled full of such events as men changing
into trees and ships into nymphs’.
Giraldi’s views on wonder were influential not only because he was one of the
first writers of vernacular tragedies modelled on the drama of the ancients but also
because he held prominent roles as a scholar and a theorist at the court at Ferrara
and at the university. Holding Giraldi up as the model of Italian literary aesthetics,
Hathaway contrasts Italian fondness for marvels and wonders on one hand with
what he calls the ‘moral earnestness of Sidney or of the English tradition’ on the
other. While there may have been a fundamental difference between Giraldi and
Sidney or Puttenham, I believe that Giraldi and his Italian contemporaries expressed
the same type of literary approach that Shakespeare used while composing his
At the conclusion of The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare presents three very distinct
types of wonders: the wonder created by verisimilitude; the wonder created by
the unexpected, the unnatural, or the strange; and what we might describe as the
Christian marvelous. Admiration for verisimilitude dates back to antiquity, and
early modern Italian authors often referred to Pliny the Elder and Callistratus as
exponents of mimetic wonder. Pliny and Callistratus argued that the best works of
art were those that simulated reality with an uncanny exactitude. They often noted
that the artfully crafted statue or painting did not just give the appearance of life, it

 In Mirollo, pp. 24, 33.

  Baxter Hathaway, Marvels and Commonplaces: Renaissance Literary Criticism
(New York: Random House, 1968), p. 116.

 Hathaway, p. 116.
Transalpine Wonders: Shakespeare’s Marvelous Aesthetics 93

seemed to actually be alive. This is precisely the praise which the characters in The
Winter’s Tale lavish on the statue of Hermione. According to the third gentleman,
Romano has crafted a statue that is so verisimilar that ‘one would speak to her
and stand in hope of answer’ (5.2.91–2). As Paulina prepares the assembly to see
the statue she instructs ‘Prepare / To see the life as lively mocked as ever / Still
sleep mocked death’ (5.2.18–20). Literary critics of the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries often referred to the idea of making a work of art seem vividly present
as energeia. In his Discorsi and his Della poesia Speroni claimed that wonder was
the effect produced by this type of vivid realism.
In 1597 Giovanni Talentoni delivered a lecture before the Milanese academy
of the Inquieti entitled ‘Discorso sopra la maraviglia’. In it Talentoni claimed that
admiration or wonder was a passion of the soul which could be produced by the
conjunction of the animate and the inanimate, and this is precisely the effect of
Hermione’s statue in the final scene. Before Paulina cues her to move, Hermione
amazes because she seems to straddle the boundary between an inanimate object
and a living being. After she begins to move, Hermione seems to definitively cross
over that boundary. Talentoni noted that the reaction to the marvelous entailed both
a physiological response and a psychological response, and the stage audience
which Hermione amazes responds both physically and psychologically. While
their physical bodies are turned to stone with wonder and their gazes become
fixed stares, Leontes and Perdita are psychologically ‘transported’ or ‘distracted’,
moved in ways which Paulina fears are dangerous.10
Italian art critics often praised works using the same terms that Shakespeare’s
characters use in their praise of Hermione. Vasari commented that the female
figure in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa seemed so alive that ‘one would swear that the
pulses were beating’ and ‘all those who saw it were amazed to find that it was
as alive as the original’.11 This statement closely resembles Leontes’ rhetorical
question to Polixenes: ‘See, my lord, / Would you not deem it breathed, and that
those veins / Did verily bear blood?’ (5.3.62–4). Bernini was said to have made
his marble statues of Apollo and Daphne live and breathe, while Caravaggio was
both renowned and criticised for his super-realism. The artist’s ability to fool the
eye was sometimes viewed with suspicion, as a sort of magic that the artist could
work on the beholder. Paulina certainly casts a spell on her stage audience and her
theatre audience when she seems to bring Hermione to life. Leontes confesses that
he is spellbound: ‘O royal piece! / There’s magic in thy majesty’ (5.3.38–9).

  For more on verisimilitude see Joy Kenseth, ‘The Age of the Marvelous: An
Introduction’, in The Age of the Marvelous, Joy Kenseth (ed.) (Hanover, NH: Hood Museum
of Art, Dartmouth College, 1991), pp. 25–59, esp. p. 48.

  For more on Speroni’s views see Hathaway, p. 155.
  For a discussion of Talentoni’s lecture see Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary
Criticism in the Italian Renaissance, 2 Vols., 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1961), pp. 238–9.
 In Kenseth, ‘The Age of the Marvelous’, p. 48.
94 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

While verisimiltude was often depicted as a means of generating wonder,

the majority of Italian authors and critics commented that the wondrous derived
not from the realistic portrayal of nature but from the surprising or startling
representation of the unusual, the unexpected, or the strange. In 1557 Giraldi
wrote that il maraviglioso could only be found in ‘those things that are outside of
common experience and outside natural limits’. Throughout his critical treatises
on romances, comedies, and tragedies he emphasised that marvels were events
in narratives which were both unusual and apparently impossible: ‘there is no
marvel in what often or naturally occurs, but it resides in fact in what seems to be
impossible and yet is projected as having happened – if not in respect to truth, at
least in respect to the fiction … which things, however false and impossible they
may be, are not the less accepted by usage, so that a composition is not likely to be
pleasing unless one can read about such fables in it’.12 In a discorso of 1574 Giulio
del Bene agreed that ‘a most beautiful ingredient of poetry is the wondrous, which
occurs when something unexpected comes about for the audience, for men marvel
and take delight in things that are new and beyond their knowledge’.13 Lodovico
Castelvetro paid special attention to the role of the unexpected reversal as a means
of generating wonder in his Poetica d’Aristotele vulgarizzata et sposta (1570),
where he dedicated 15 pages to describing recognitions and reversals which could
generate wonder in literature. Hermione’s resurrection serves as the key reversal in
The Winter’s Tale, generating a very different type of wonder from that of gazing
on a lifelike sculpture.
Some Italian authors insisted that the marvelous could be generated either
through verisimilitude or through the surprising sudden reversal, but others argued
that it was possible for a literary work to generate wonder using both techniques
at the same time. Torquato Tasso wrote a discourse on the heroic poem in 1594
which sought to justify his Gerusalemme Liberata. In the discourse he argued that
a poem could be realistic or mimetic in terms of its focus on a historical event or
a key moment in Christian history, and that it could also indulge in the pleasures
of the marvelous. James Mirollo has suggested that in laying claim to this dual
aesthetic agenda Tasso may have been suggesting a critique of Ariosto’s Orlando
Furioso, a work ‘whose romance, variety, and marvels outweighed its nominal
Christian subject’.14
I noted above that Paulina’s resurrection of Hermione resembles a Christian
resurrection. When Paulina says to the statue of Hermione, ‘Come, / I’ll fill your
grave up’ (5.3.100–101) she seems to literally mean that she will replace the empty
space created by the removal of the casket with dirt, but there is also hint here
– partly because Paulina mentions her own demise in her final speech in the play
– that Paulina will herself trade places with Hermione’s corpse in a sacrificial

 Cinthio, Discorso intorno al comporre dei romanzi, in Discorsi (Venice, 1554),
pp. 55–6.
 In Mirollo, pp. 32–3.
  Mirollo, p. 33.
Transalpine Wonders: Shakespeare’s Marvelous Aesthetics 95

act that recalls Christ’s bodily sacrifice through death for the sins of humanity.
In an early modern Christian context familiar with the medieval legend of the
Harrowing of Hell, Paulina’s claim ‘Bequeath to death your numbness, for from
him / Dear life redeems you’ seems to suggest Christ’s voyage to the underworld
to defeat Satan and rescue his deceased ancestors (5.3.102–3).
Sixteenth-century Italian assessments of the marvelous often highlighted its
linkages to religious awe. Augustine set the precedent for the contemplation of the
Christian marvelous. As Peter G. Platt has recently noted, ‘Augustine Christianised
the marvelous by connecting it to miracles, a connection that is expressed
etymologically in the embedding of miror (Latin for ‘to wonder’) and admiratio in
miraculum and is linked to the Messiah (et vocabitur nomen eius Admirabilis, Isa.
9.6)’.15 Augustine defined ‘miracle’ rather broadly as ‘anything great and difficult
or unusual that happens beyond the expectation or ability of the man who wonders
at it’.16 Italian theorists of the sixteenth century embraced the Christianisation of
the classical marvelous in multiple ways. There is a distinctly religious element,
for example, in Marino’s understanding of wonder. In praise of a painting by Titian
in his Galeria (1619) Marino seems to be praising God himself: ‘Oh celestial
semblance, oh masterly craftsman, / For in his work he outdoes himself; Eternal
ornament of cloth and paper, / Marvel of the world, honor of art!’17
Since all wonder was believed to derive ultimately from divine intervention
into the mortal realm, it was not unusual for literary theorists to compare the artist
directly to God. Emmanuele Tesauro suggested that the artist was God’s rival,
particularly in his cultivation of his ingegno – his wit, genius, ingenuity, or talent.
The poet’s ingegno was analogous to God’s creative power because just as God
made something from nothing, the artist could produce being from non-being.18
Tesauro even suggested that God and the poet shared some characteristics in terms
of their deployment of literary figures: ‘even God enjoyed being the poet and witty
speaker, verbalizing to men and angels with various heroic devices and figurative
symbols his lofty conceits’.19
Shakespeare’s attitude towards the Christian marvelous is complicated by
the fact that the standard Protestant position on marvels and wonders was that
miracles and marvels ceased after the days of the early church. This orthodox
position is presented by Lafeu in act 2, scene 3 of All’s Well That Ends Well: ‘They
say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and

 Peter G. Platt, Reason Diminished: Shakespeare and the Marvelous (Lincoln and
London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), p. 8.
 Augustine, De utilitate credendi 16.34, in J.V. Cunningham, Tradition and Poetic
Structure (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1960), p. 204.
 In Mirollo, 24. For more on Marino see Mirollo, The Poet of the Marvelous:
Giambattista Marino (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963).
 Tesauro, Il cannocchiale Aristotelico (Turin, 1670; rpt. Berlin: Verlag Gehlen,
1968), pp. 82–3.
 In Mirollo, p. 34.
96 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

familiar things supernatural and causeless’. However, Lafeu’s very next sentence
suggests that this orthodox position is both inadequate and untenable: ‘Hence is it
that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into [i.e. sheltering ourselves
with] seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear’
(2.3.1–5). Shakespeare was expressly forbidden from writing mystery plays or
miracle plays which celebrated the Christian marvelous, but in his secular drama
he offered a wide array of wonders that substituted for the daily wonders like the
Mass denied to his countrymen during Elizabeth’s reign.
To this point we have considered three varieties of the marvelous in
Shakespeare’s conclusion to The Winter’s Tale and in early modern Italian discourse
about the marvelous. In fact there were many more ways in which authors could
and did attempt to generate wonder for their readers or theatre spectators. The most
comprehensive treatise on the various sources of wonder was Francesco Patrizi’s
La deca ammirabile, published as part of his Della poetica in 1587. Danilo Aguzzi-
Barbagli has suggested that Patrizi’s treatise is worth studying because it represents
a sort of manifesto on the importance of the marvelous in literature: ‘the marvellous
is seen as the catalyst in the organisation of the poem. Patrizi devotes considerable
effort to defining the manner by which it operates in the composition: how it can
be made to penetrate every component of the structure, from the more outstanding
– the subject matter – to the most elementary – the semantic unit.’20 Patrizi thought
it was useful to distinguish between two general categories of wonder: one intrinsic
and one extrinsic. He referred to the wondrous quality of the poem itself as the
mirabile, and he described the effect of the wondrous elements on the reader
as la maraviglia. He believed that there were 12 techniques which a poet could
employ to generate wonder: ignorance, fable, novelty, paradox, augmentation,
departure from the usual, the verisimilar, the divine, great utility, the very exact, the
unexpected, and the sudden.21 Peter G. Platt comments that Patrizi’s list ‘is vast and
suggests the difficulty of determining any unified definition of the marvelous and
isolating its effects in the early modern period. Indeed, there was no unified sense
in the Renaissance: the marvelous was a concept full of multiplicity and variety’.22
While Giovanni Pontano used the word admiratio in his Actius to mean something
as mundane as ‘applause’, Hathaway notes that ‘At its highest level’, admiratio
‘is practically an access to Godhead or a direct intimation of divinity’.23 Instead
of attempting to compress or collapse the full panoply of definitions into a few

 Danilo Aguzzi-Barbagli, ‘Humanism and Poetics’, in Renaissance Humanism:
Foundations, Forms, and Legacy, Albert Rabil Jr. (ed.) (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1988), p. 3.138.
 Patrizi, La deca ammirabile, in Della poetica, Danilo Aguzzi-Barbagli (ed.)
(Firenze: Nella Sede Dell’istituto Palazzo Strozzi, 1969–71), 2, p. 305, in Platt, Reason
Diminished, p. 15.
 Platt, Reason Diminished, p. xv.
  See Giovanni Pontano, Actius, I dialoghi (Florence: Sansoni, 1943), p. 146;
Hathaway, p. 58.
Transalpine Wonders: Shakespeare’s Marvelous Aesthetics 97

categories, it seems most useful to accept that we are speaking about an inherently
ambivalent, multi-faceted category in which the terms and issues denoted were
constantly in flux and frequently subject to debate.
Study of the historical usage of the words for wonder confirms the inherent
ambivalence of the category we are describing. In English words such as admire,
awful, and wonderful were far more ambivalent during the early modern period
than they are today. The OEDs first sense of admire indicates that it was not only
a laudatory term: ‘this would make you admire, your haire stand [on] end, and
bloud congeale in your veynes’. Admiration could serve as a synonym for horror.
A citation listed in the OED under wonder from 1632 confirms that word’s sinister
potential: ‘They made a wonderfull massacre of poore afflicted Christians.’ On the
other hand, the word awful, which today holds only a negative connotation, was in
the early modern period a term which could suggest religious awe. It could mean
‘terrible, dreadful, appalling’ or ‘sublimely majestic’.
In the 1612 edition of the Vocabulario degli Accademici della Crusca, the
word maraviglia (or meraviglia) is rather loosely defined as a passion of the
soul, an astonishment born of novelty or the rare.24 The Italian words for wonder
could take on sinister connotations much as they did in English. According to
James Mirollo ‘there is a marvelous in malo as well as a marvelous in bono. If
the marvelous or wondrous exhilarates because of its size or scope, its rarity, its
novelty, its ingenuity, its paradoxicalness, it may also depress because of the fearful
destructiveness that religion, nature, and human events may display or promise.’25
An example of the sinister sense of Italian wonder exists in an inscription which
Vicino Orsini, the owner and creator of the Sacro Bosco, a mid-sixteenth-century
garden at Bomarzo, had carved into a bench in his garden: ‘You who have traveled
the world wishing to see great and stupendous marvels [maraviglie], come here,
where there are horrendous faces [faccie horrende], elephants, lions, bears, orcs,
and dragons’.26 Vicino’s collocation of maraviglie and faccie horrende indicates
the extent to which the definitions of marvels and horrors could be coterminous.
Shakespeare captures the ambivalence of wonder in the third gentleman’s comment
that ‘A notable passion of wonder appeared’ in Camillo and Leontes when the lost
Perdita was found, ‘but the wisest beholder, that knew no more but seeing, could
not say if th’importance were joy or sorrow’.
The gruesome death of Antigonus in act 3, scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale and
the earlier death of Mamillius have given many Shakespeare scholars pause. To
what extent can this play be construed as a comedy if multiple characters meet
untimely deaths within it? An appreciation of the play as a showcase for marvels or

  See Vocabulario degli Accademici della Crusca (Venice, 1516; rpt. Florence:
Licosa Reprints, 1976).
  Mirollo, p. 26.
  See Mark S. Weil, ‘Love, Monsters, Movement, and Machines: The Marvelous in
Theaters, Festivals, and Gardens’, in Kenseth (ed.), The Age of the Marvelous, pp. 159–78,
esp. p. 169.
98 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

wonders may shed new light on this question. During the sixteenth century Italian
authors and literary critics expanded the generic extent of the marvelous. Whereas
Aristotle claimed in his Poetics that the marvelous was a necessary element in
tragedy and epic, Italian authors argued that the marvelous was also a suitable
and indeed necessary component of all literary genres, including comedy. Giason
Denores believed that the same types of reversals and recognitions that created
wonder in tragedy could create wonder in stage comedy and the novella. In 1549
Gian Giorgio Trissino expanded the domain of the marvelous still further when
he noted that the desire to arouse wonder is inherent in any type of narrative: ‘all
those who narrate or who allude to anything always add something of their own in
order to arouse more wonder in those who listen’.27
Another key issue in Italian discussions of the marvelous was the res et verba
debate: should the marvelous be limited to the fable or story of a poem, or should
it instead be generated by a marvelous style created by lofty diction, strange
words, neologisms, ancient words, or unusual syntactical structures? Hathaway
has suggested that res trumped verba in Italian literary aesthetics: ‘The whole
matter of poetic invention centred more upon what was invented than upon how
it was invented.’28 We see the emphasis on matter over style in several Italian
authors. In 1600, right around the time that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet,
Paolo Beni argued that a play is much better if it contains events ‘full of variety
and inconstancy, crowded with strange and unexpected accidents, in which
therefore enter the marvelous’.29 Not only does this serve as a fitting description
of Hamlet, it describes The Winter’s Tale and many of Shakespeare’s other plays
quite well. When Camillo Pellegrino wrote his Del concetto poetico (1598), he
emphasised the importance of the concetti, by which he meant the idea or content
of a composition rather than the type of words chosen to convey it. In England
Sidney concurred that the idea of a literary work was more important than its
technique: ‘the skill of the artificer standeth in that Idea or fore-conceit of the work
and not in the work itself’.30
Despite the critical emphasis on content over style in the creation of the literary
marvelous there were many sixteenth-century Italian authors who claimed that
marvelous style was important in literature. Lorenzo Giacomini, a celebrated
member of the Accademia degli Alterati in Florence, said that the poet can make
his work delightful if he ‘invents the plot out of marvelous things’ and ‘adorns

 In Mirollo, p. 32.
 Hathaway, p. 151.
 Paolo Beni, Risposta alle considerazioni o dubbi dell’Ecc. mo Sig. Dottor
Malacreta (Padova, 1600), p. 89. The Latin text and an English translation appear in
Weinberg, 2, p. 1098.
  Sir Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetrie, in O.B. Hardison, Jr., English Literary
Criticism: The Renaissance (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1963), p. 105.
Transalpine Wonders: Shakespeare’s Marvelous Aesthetics 99

the diction with strange and wonderful forms of speech’.31 Denores agreed that
the marvelous could be created through elevated style, which he referred to as
‘la maravigla della parole’, the marvelous in words.32 He insisted that in tragedy
particular characters’ diction should be ‘raised above the way of speaking of private
persons’.33 Giovanni Mario Verdizzoti agreed that poetry ought to be cast in a high
style to create the sense of the marvelous.34 Antonio Minturno epitomised the
growing sense that marvels derived from both res and verba when he wrote in his
essay L’arte poetica (1564): ‘It can in no way be doubted that marvelous subject
matter delights marvelously … but because both from things and from words the
marvelous is born, we repute those things to be marvelous that are feigned prudently,
that are invented admirably, and are disposed and arranged in an order worthy of
marvel, and so well put together as if one event depended on the other.’35
What stylistic elements in the verba could create wonder? In reading through
a litany of these elements one gets the sense that one is reading an analysis
of Shakespeare’s style. Consider the description of the stylistic marvelous in
Torquato Tasso’s praise of Homer in his Scritti Sull’Arte Poetica: ‘he transfers
words not only from related terms but also from remote ones, just so that he may
please the hearer, fill him with stupefaction, and enchant him with wonder [purché
adolcisca l’auditore e, riempiendolo di stupore, l’incanti con la meraviglia]’.36
Both neologisms and adaptations or recastings of archaic words could generate
wonder, and Shakespeare uses both of these to his advantage throughout his
corpus. Ornateness of style was often considered wonderful or marvelous as
well. In 1554 Giovan Battista Niccolucci, also known as Il Pigna, wrote that
ornateness of narrative style ‘produces novelty, hence the marvelous, hence an
intense pleasure’.37
Questions of genre and questions of style intersected in discussions of Terence,
one of Shakespeare’s most significant models for comic drama. Benedetto Grasso
criticised Terence for what he believed was a vulgar, mundane style. In his
Oratione contra gli Terentiani (1566) Grasso conceded that Terence’s low-brow,
familiar diction was considered appropriate for the comic genre of its time, but

  Lorenzo Giacomini, ‘Sopra la purgazione della tragedia’, Orazioni e discorsi
(1597). In Hathaway, p. 157.
 In Mirollo, p. 33.
  Giason Denores, Discorso intorno a’que’ principii, cause, et accrescimenti che la
comedia, la tragedia, e il poema heroico ricevano dalla philosophia morale, & civile, & da
governatori delle republiche (Padua, 1587), p. 26.
  Giovanni Mario Verdizzoti, Breve discorso intorno alla narratione poetica (Venice,
1588), p. 5.
  Minturno, L’Arte Poetica (Venice, 1564), p. 41, in Hathaway, p. 156.
 Torquato Tasso, Discourses on the Heroic Poem, trans. Mariella Cavalchini and
Irene Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 191.
  Giovan Battista Niccolucci, I romanzi (Venice, 1554), p. 17, in Kenseth ‘The Age
of the Marvelous’, p. 40.
100 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

he criticised Terence for failing to use eloquence to arouse even a modicum of

wonder.38 Grasso was not alone in his insistence that authors of stage comedies
should employ lofty style in order to generate wonder. Vincenzo Maggi, Il Pigna,
and Giason Denores also demanded that one of the roles of comic stage plays was
to astound their audiences via an elevated style.
The notion of decorum seems to guide Shakespeare in navigating these
somewhat conflicted stylistic expectations. Whereas the noble characters in his
comedies and tragedies ascend to lofty rhetorical heights, low-born or working-
class characters indulge in the slang of the countryside or of London. The stylistic
contrasts between working-class slang and courtly wit casts each segment of
society in bold relief and reveals Shakespeare’s mastery of the entire universe of
linguistic possibilities.
An in-depth study of Italian literary aesthetics sheds light on the beginning of
The Winter’s Tale as well as the end. After highlighting several of the most common
techniques which authors use to generate wonder in their plots, Castelvetro writes
in his Poetica d’Aristotele vulgarizzata et sposta (1570) that ‘Our marvel at deeds
deliberately evil grows greater as the cause for committing atrocities diminishes.’39
Leontes has no reason to suspect Hermione at the beginning of the play. Unlike
Othello, he is not goaded into jealousy by a cunning deceiver like Iago. In fact his
trusted lord Camillo tries on more than one occasion to convince Leontes that he
is acting unreasonably. Iago, Edmund, and Don John also amaze us in part because
they lack sufficient justification to destroy their friends, confidants, and relatives.
Iago’s motive-hunting is unconvincing, and while Edmund and Don John are
bastards, their villainy exceeds the indignities that they endure.
Critical studies of wonder in Shakespeare’s plays have been somewhat
limited to date in that they have focused either on Shakespeare’s tragedies – J.V.
Cunningham’s Woe or Wonder comes to mind here – or on Shakespeare’s late
romances. Recent examples of this second type are T.G. Bishop’s Shakespeare and
the Theatre of Wonder and Peter G. Platt’s Reason Diminished: Shakespeare and
the Marvelous. In this essay I have charted the generic expansion of the marvelous
in early modern Italian literary discourse. Initially considered appropriate only for
tragedy and epic, the marvelous came to be considered paramount as an organising
principle in comedy, novella, and other forms of discourse. I believe that a similar
type of generic expansion is now possible for Shakespeareans. Shakespeare
selected subject matter and literary styles to generate wonder in his tragedies, his
history plays, and his comedies. Given the ambivalence of the term wonder in
early modern Italian and in English, the centrality of the marvelous in the critical
discourse to which several of Shakespeare’s Italian sources participated, and the
extent to which the marvelous both in res and in verba came to be accepted as the
proper end of tragedy, epic, comedy, the novella, and even lyric, it is reasonable
to consider whether the pursuit of the marvelous served as an overarching

  Weinberg, Vol. 1, p. 179.
 In Hathaway, p. 61.
Transalpine Wonders: Shakespeare’s Marvelous Aesthetics 101

aesthetic for Shakespeare. Any study attempting to make this claim would have
to begin with a careful reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and it would have
to acknowledge cultural, political, and religious differences between England and
the Italian peninsula, but it could lead to a different sort of understanding of the
fundamental precepts, whether conscious or unconscious, that guided Shakespeare
as his imagination bodie[d] forth / The forms of things unknown … Turn[ed] them
to shapes, and [gave] to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”
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Part II
Genres, Models, Forms
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Chapter 6
Hamlet versus Commedia dell’Arte
Frances K. Barasch

When we speak of commedia dell’arte today, we are likely to think of Harlequin,

physicality or, perhaps, a scripted play by Goldoni. In other words, we may picture
commedia as it evolved in the eighteenth century. If we rely on their Elizabethan
detractors, we may think commedia players differed radically from the English, as
Thomas Nashe claimed:

Our players are not as the players beyond the sea, a sort of squirting bawdy
comedians, that have whores and common courtesans to play women’s parts, and
forbear no immodest speech or unchaste action that may provoke laughter, but
our Sceane is more stately furnisht … not consisting like theirs of a Pantaloun,
a Whore and a Zanie, but of Emperors, Kings and Princes, whose true tragedies
they do vaunt.

The sixteenth-century comici, however, were far more versatile than Nashe
allowed, and Shakespeare knew that well. His career coincided with the rise of
Italian professional playing companies on the international scene. In the latter
decades of the Cinquecento, Italian players travelled widely, made numerous
documented visits to European courts, and inspired the development of theatres
in Madrid, London, and Paris where, merged with French actors, some Italian
players became permanent residents and eventually formed la comédie italienne.
Contemporary documents give evidence of their varied abilities to perform literary
drama (commedia erudita), write plays of their own, and adapt narrative texts to
create scenarios all’improvviso in tragedy, comedy, and a variety of experimental
genres such as pastoral and tragicomedy. Their success abroad has been measured
by recorded performances in private palaces and public theatres and by countless
woodcuts and engravings of scenes from improvised comedies which circulated
throughout western Europe.

  Pierce Peniless his Supplication to the Diuell, in The Works of Thomas Nashe,
Ronald B. McKerrow (ed.), 4 vols. (Oxford, 1958), vol. 1, p. 215.

  See, e.g., Alesandro D’Ancona, Origini del teatro italiano, 2 vols. (Torino, 1891);
Vito Pandolfi, La Commedia dell’Arte, 6 vols. (Firenze, 1957 ff.); Kathleen M. Lea, Italian
Popular Comedy: A Study in the Comedia dell’Arte 1560-1620, with Special Reference
to the English Stage, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1934); W.L. Wiley, The Early Public Theatre in
France (Westport, Conn., 1973). Louise George Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare’s
106 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

It was inevitable that the Italian players would attract the attention of the
Elizabethans. Italian dancers and tumblers, perhaps also clowns, had been visiting
England since 1546. The Revels Accounts for 1573–74 indicate that the Italian
players, entertained the Queen at Windsor and Reading, presenting a pastoral,
which included royal figures, shepherds, Saturn, devils, and an old man. A
company of Italian puppeteers showed plays in London in 1573, and Drusiano
Martinelli’s troupe performed there for about six weeks in the winter of 1577–78.
In the decades before 1600, English travelers saw commedia players in action
and marveled at their rhetorical range and quick wit. In 1582, the poet George
Whetstone was impressed by the comedians of Ravenna, who could speak on
demand on ‘such abstractions as Inconstancie, Dissimulation, Ignorance, Chastytie,
and Beautie’ and devise extempore actions to express those themes. And in 1587,
the playwright Thomas Kyd marveled at the ‘Italian tragedians who were so sharp
of wit, / That in one hour’s meditation / They would perform anything in action’,
adding that one could also see ‘the like / In Paris, amongst the French tragedians’.
The London theatres were saturated with plots and antics learned from Italian
books and clowns, as we learn from contemporary accounts by Stephen Gosson,
Thomas Lodge, and others. Gosson, himself the author of the lost Italianate play
The Comedie of Capitaine Mario (before 1580), complained about popular shows
of his time, accusing the Italians of corrupting the English stage through bawdy
books and ‘Comedies cut by the same paterne’, which drew ‘whole Cities’ to the
theatre. Similarly, Thomas Lodge blamed the commedia Zanni for introducing
bawdy mime to English clowns: ‘Here marcheth forth Scurilitie … the first time
he lookt out of Italy into England, it was in the habit of a Zanie.’ Lodge offered
no clue to the date of his first appearance, but references to Zanni occur fairly

Time (New Haven, 1989). Picture prints are reproduced in Recueil de Plusieurs Fragments
des Premières Comèdies Italiennes qui ont Eté Réprésentées en France sous le Regne de
Henry III. Recueil Dit de Fossard Conservéau Musée National de Stockholm, presenté par
Agne Beijer (Paris, 1928); and in Pierre-Louis Duchartre, The Italian Comedy, trans. R.T.
Weaver (London, 1929; New York, 1966).

  Norwich Corporation Books, in Notices and Illustrations of the Costumes,
Processions, Pageantry, etc. Formerly Displayed by the Corporation of Norwich (Norwich,
1850), s.v.1546. Lea offers a variant reading of the entry, vol. 2, p. 352.

  Acts of the Privy Council, N.S. J.R. Dasent (ed.) (Hendeln/Liechtenstein, 1974),
vol. 8, p. 131; Elizabeth, Vol. 2, Council Register, 24 May 1570 to March 1576 (Public
Records Office, London), pp. 360–51. For Drusiano, see Chambers, vol. 2, p. 262.

  Lea, vol. ii, pp. 348–9ff. Michael Anderson quotes several of Shakespeare’s
contemporaries on Italian extempore performance, in ‘The Law of Writ and the Liberty’,
Theatre Research International, 20:3 (1995), pp. 189–99. Whetstone and Kyd are quoted in
J.P. Collier, Annals of the Stage, 3 vols. (London, 1831), vol. 3, pp. 398–400.

  Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582), in E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage,
4 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923), vol. 4, pp. 213–19.

  Wits Miserie and the Worlds Madnesse: Discovering the Devils Incarnat of this Age
(London 1596), sig. M.iv.b.
Hamlet versus Commedia dell’Arte 107

early in English texts: Richard Edwards has Grimme the collier use ‘Zawne’ in the
farcical subplot of Damon and Pithias, acted before the Queen in 1564. By the
1590s, ‘Zane’ was evidently a common stage figure, defined in Florio’s dictionary
as ‘a Sillie John used also for a simple vice, clowne, foole, or simple fellow in a
play or comedie’. At the same time, ‘pantaloun’ appeared as a character for the
first time in an English play. He is named in the cardboard ‘plotte’ containing stage
directions for the lost pastoral called Dead Mans Fortune (c. 1589–92), where he
is the central figure in the comic subplot and also officiates in the festive resolution
of the main plot.10 Significantly, the Italianate ‘plotte’ names Burbage and other
actors who, along with Shakespeare, became the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in
1594, assuring us that his company, if not Shakespeare himself, had experience
with popular commedia techniques.11
It was in this Italianate milieu that Shakespeare served his apprenticeship
and absorbed its lessons, particularly in the early comedies. Critics have argued
since early in the last century that documentary evidence and allusions are
inadequate to establish a commedia presence having a ‘significant influence’
on English playwriting or performance in Shakespeare’s time,12 others have
uncovered a large body of circumstantial evidence which demonstates parallel
developments in English and Italian theatres. Such studies have found that many
of the improvisational techniques employed by the Italian players are scripted into

  The Excellent Comedie of Two the Most Faithfullest Freendes, Damon and Pithias
(1571), sig. F.ii.a.

  A Worlde of Words … (London, 1598), s.v. ‘Zane’.
 Repr. in W.W. Greg, Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses, 2
vols. (Oxford, 1931); also in David Bradley, From text to Performance in the Elizabethan
Theatre: Preparing the Play for the Stage (Cambridge, 1992). I discuss this ‘plotte’ at greater
length in ‘Shakespeare and Commedia dell’Arte: An Intertextual Approach’, Shakespeare
Yearbook, X (1999), Holger Klein and Michele Marrapodi (eds) , pp. 374–401.
  These findings were made by Andrew Grewar in ‘Shakespeare and the actors of
commedia dell’arte’, Studies in the Commedia dell’Arte, David J. George and Christopher
J. Gossip (eds) (Cardiff, 1993), p. 17.
 Clubb (p. 1) mentions E.K. Chambers, W.W. Greg, and T.W. Baldwin in this
context; Kenneth Richards follows their lead, declaring that ‘the most rigorous examination
of Elizabethan drama shows very little concrete evidence’ for commedia influence: ‘Inigo
Jones and the Commedia dell’Arte’, in The Commedia dell’Arte, From the Renaissance to
Dario Fo, Christopher Cairns (ed.) (Lewiston, 1988), pp. 209–25 (p. 209). For different
views, see O.J. Campbell, ‘Love’s labour’s Lost Re-studied’ and ‘The Two Gentlemen
of Verona’, in Studies in Shakespeare, Milton, and Donne, 1 (Ann Arbor, 1925); Ninian
Mellamphy, ‘Pantaloons and Zanies: Shakespeare’s ‘Apprenticeship’ to Italian Professional
Comedy Troupes’, in Shakespearean Comedy, Maurice Charney (ed.) (New York, 1980),
pp. 141–51; Harry Levin, ‘Shakespeare’s Italians’, in Shakespeare’s Italy: Functions of
Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama, Michele Marrapodi, A.J. Hoenselaars, et al.
(eds) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993, 1997), pp. 17–29; and my essay
‘Shakespeare and Commedia dell’Arte …’.
108 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Shakespeare’s comedies, including farcical stage business (lazzi), dialect, word-

play, and comic rhetoric,13 along with references to masked commedia types like
Zanni, Pantalone, and Pedant, which point directly to commedia sources. More
important are the host of comic characters Shakespeare modelled along the lines
of the braggart capitano, the innamorata, and the serva, which take on new life
in Falstaff, Beatrice, and Juliet’s Nurse and offer fresh insights to Shakespeare’s
meaning and art.14 In addition to his early comedies, studies have shown, there
are strong generic affinities between the Italian pastoral and Shakespeare’s late
romances.15 Commedia elements in the tragedies, however, have remained largely
unexamined.16 In neglecting this genre, we do an injustice to Shakespeare’s most
complex structures and ignore unique possibilities for textual interpretation and
modern performance.
Hamlet, perhaps more than any of the tragedies, reveals the commedia roots
of Shakespeare’s creativity. Shakespeare modelled Polonius and his family on the
comic figure of Pantalone, his youthful son, and marriageable daughter, well-known
stereotypes of Italian improvised comedy, but he deviated from the scenarios that
commonly featured these types by situating the comedic family in the tragic world
of the play. In the interactions of commedia and royal families, both subjected to
Hamlet’s contempt, Shakespeare created a metaphoric equivalence between the
moral vacuity of low comedy and tragic evil in the high court. Ironically, the tragic
action of the play gains impetus from the fixed commedia types. As I see it, in
the self-destructive subservience of the commedia family to the flawed royals,
Shakespeare found a way to critique the mindless theatre of the masses while
exploring the ‘banality of evil’ long before that concept gained currency in the
past century.17 In other words, he used commedia stereotypes to underscore their
moral vacuity, undermine their comedic value, and show how evil in high places

 Eugene Joseph Steele, ‘The Improvisational Art in Shakespeare and the Commedia
dell’Arte’, Ph.D. Dissertation (University of Michigan, 1975), pp. 67, 88, 98. Also see
Valentina Capocci, Genio e Mestiere. Shakespeare e la Commedia dell’Arte (Bari, 1950).
Capocci argues that the actors contributed improvisational elements, which Shakespeare
incorporated in his texts.
 On the capitano, see Giorgio Melchiori, ‘“In fair Verona”: commedia erudita into
Romantic Comedy’, in Shakespeare’s Italy, pp. 100–111 (p. 105). For other types, see
Ninian Mellamphy and Louise George Clubb, ch. 1.
  See Ferdinando Neri, Scenari delle maschere in Arcadia (Città di Castello, 1913);
Clubb, chs 4–6; and Robert Henke, ‘Pastoral as Tragicomedic in Italian and Shakespearean
Drama’, The Italian World of English Renaissance Drama, Michele Marrapodi (ed.)
(Newark: University of Delaware Press., 1998), pp. 282–301.
  Othello is an exception. See Clubb, p. 25 ff.; also Theresa J. Faherty, ‘Othello
dell’Arte: The Presence of Commedia in Shakespeare’s Tragedy’, Theatre Journal 43
(1991), pp. 179–94. Pamela Allen Brown includes remarks on Othello, in ‘The Counterfeit
Innamorata, or, The Diva Vanishes’, Shakespeare Yearbook, X (1999): pp. 402–26.
 The concept is Hannah Arendt’s, in Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality
of Evil (New York, 1964).
Hamlet versus Commedia dell’Arte 109

is expedited by ordinary people who are incapable of reflection, think and speak
in clichés, and ingratiate themselves to perverse authority out a blind sense of a
duty and honour.


As others have observed,18 Polonius is modelled on the comic figure of Pantalone,

an object of scorn in typical commedia scenarios, where he is represented as
a widower with an intemperate son, who bears watching, and a daughter of
marriageable age, who is in danger of loving unwisely. Often, he dabbles in civic
affairs, spies on his children, obstructs their desires, and is beaten or otherwise
foiled in the end. Polonius, too, is meant to be an object of scorn from his first
appearance. Hamlet identifies him with the foolish old man in a book of satire,
which claims:

that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging
thick amber and plumtree gum, and that they have plentiful lack of wit, together
with most weak hams.19

On stage, the doddering old Polonius probably resembled the famous image of
Pantalone, widely circulated in contemporary woodcuts. Shakespeare knew that
image well: in commenting on the sixth age of man in As You Like It, he described
him precisely as the ‘lean and slipper’d Pantalone’, an ancient

With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well save’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank. (2.7.157–60)

Polonius may have had Pantalone’s pointed beard, baggy hose, spectacles, and
perhaps a black zimarra to signify his official status as Lord Chancellor.20 He
may have performed in profile to highlight a long nose, signifying his ‘nosy’ and
suspicious nature. Even without the costume, Elizabethans would have recognised
Polonius as a comic parody of the Pantalone who spies on lovers, accustomed as

 H.F. Salerno, Appendix, in Scenarios of the Commedia dell’Arte, Flaminio Scala’s
Il Teatro Delle Favole Rappresentative, tr. H.F. Salerno (New York, 1989), pp. 395–411;
Clubb, ‘Epilogue’, pp. 249–80; and my essay: ‘“He’s for a Iigge, or a tale of Baudry”:
Sixteenth-Century Images of the Stage Jig’, Shakespeare Bulletin 11.3 (Summer 1993):
pp. 33–7.
  Hamlet in The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans (ed.) (Boston, 1974),
2.2.197–200. All quotations from Shakespeare are from this edition.
  For pictures of Pantalone’s costume, see reproductions in P-L. Duchartre, pp. 180,
183, et passim.
110 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

they were to eavesdroppers who ‘peepe like Italian pantelowne/ Behind an arras’,
a commedia gesture familiar enough to serve as a common simile.21 The familiar
gesture is represented in the low comedy scene shown in Figure 6.1.22
This woodcut serves as a template for the farcical underpinning of the parodic
scene in Hamlet, where Polonius is positioned behind an arras to spy on the Prince
who, he imagines, would use Ophelia as Harlequin uses Francisquina. By placing
Polonius behind the arras, Shakespeare did not merely trade on a tired gag for
cheap laughs; he used it also to comment on the King. That Claudius has a fool
for adviser impugns the King’s judgment and degrades him as willing accomplice
to the common snoop. Metaphorically, the frivolous jester and powerful king are
ruled by the same folly.
The visual parody is reinforced by Polonius’ garrulous introduction to the
visiting comici. Often thought to be a tribute to English actors,23 the speech takes
on entirely new coloration if it is perceived, not as praise of the English, but as the
foolish ramblings of its speaker, who represents himself as a commedia expert and
(reminding the audience of his Pantalone role) inadvertently satirises himself and
the Italians, who were widely known by their Continental reputation as:

the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-
comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-
pastoral; scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy,
nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and liberty, these are the only men.

The speech demonstrates Shakespeare’s awareness that these actors performed by

‘the law of writ’ in classical plays and new Italian drama, and offers a comical list
of mixed genres, which displays his own amused familiarity with the commedia
repertory.24 It also alerts us to their method of performing ad libitum, which, if
Lodge is to be believed, was imitated by scurrilous English clowns. Shakespeare
recalls the common practice of Italian clowns to interrupt the main action of a play
when audience interest may be flagging and, through Hamlet, condemns it:

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them,
for there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren

 Thomas Heywood. If You Know Not Me, cited in (OED) The Complete Edition of
the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1971), s.v. ‘Pantalone’.
 Courtesy of the Statens Konstmuseer, Stockholm: Fossard: NM G 2202/1904.
  Michael Anderson, among others, interprets the speech as Shakespeare’s desire to
praise the players and finds it unlikely that they are meant to be Italians: see ‘The Law of
Writ …’, p. 190.
 Clubb states that Polonius’ speech ‘sums up a large and mature dramaturgical
system in which both the commedia dell’arte and Shakespeare worked’, p. 21.
Hamlet versus Commedia dell’Arte 111

Figure 6.1 Pantalone spying on Harlequin and Francisquina.

spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the
play be then to be consider’d. (3.2.38–43)

Hamlet’s aversion to intrusive clowns is matched by his disdain for Polonius’

interruptions and vulgar taste. When the players first arrive, Hamlet greets them
with a request for ‘a passionate speech’ from a play lacking in ‘Sallets’ or salty
jokes, which, he explains:

was never acted: or if it was, not above once, for the play – pleas’d not the
million, `twas caviary to the general, but it was – as I received it, and others,
whose judgments in such matters cried in on top of mine – an excellent play.

The lengthy Pyrrhus speech which follows is interrupted repeatedly by Polonius

whose apish judgment ‘is cried in on top‘ of Hamlet’s: ‘Fore God, my Lord,
well spoken, with good accent and good discretion.’ Polonius’ interest, however,
112 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

soon flags: ‘This is too long’, he complains. Hamlet ignores him, addressing
the Players: ‘Prithee say on: he’s for a jig, or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps.’
Thus chastised, Polonius bows once more to princely opinion: ‘That’s good, [the
“mobled” queen is good]’. But he cannot sustain interest, and having had enough
of passion, he begs: ‘Prithee no more’.25 Polonius’ boredom with long speeches,
his interruptions, his copycat opinions, and his preference for jigs and bawdy tales
mark him as a performing clown and, simultaneously, place him among ‘barren
spectators’ numbering in ‘the million’ who share his poor taste. Because Polonius
has acted like a foolish Pantalone, regularly jeered by other characters in commedia
scenarios, Hamlet dimisses the players with the caution: ‘Follow that lord, and
look you mock him not’ (2.2.545–6).
Following the commedia blueprint in other respects, Polonius sends his son
abroad to study and expresses concern about the son’s comportment. Polonius’
advice to Laertes is a tedious speech of aphoristic commonplaces that might be
spoken by father to son in any improvised scenario. Flaminio Scala’s outline of
‘The Alexandrian Carpets’, as H.F. Salerno has noted, begins with simple stage
directions for a father and son dialogue: ‘Pantalone enters, reproaching his son
for chasing women, gambling and leading a life of vice after he returned from
school at Bologna’.26 The specific speech, of course, is left to the actor, whose
store of memorised proverbs is tapped for the occasion and probably uttered, as
Shakespeare heard it, with ‘childish treble’ and ‘pipes and whistles’ in its sound.27
Morris Tilley has counted 140 proverbs in Hamlet, the highest number to occur in
any of Shakespeare’s plays.28 Many of these are assigned to Polonius, who echoes
the conventional persuasive al figlio in a hypocritical tirata addressed to Laertes:
‘Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion’d thought his act /… . /
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice’; and so on (1.3.59–60; 68). Polonius’
long-winded recitation of proverbial wisdom beyond his own comprehension and
practice is an early parodic indicator of his Pantalone role, its clichés carefully
selected to presage the ‘unproportion’d’ outcome of his thoughtless acts.
In offering to eavesdrop on the Queen while she attempts to learn the cause
of Hamlet’s erratic behaviour, Polonius proposes a seemingly harmless scheme
to gain intelligence for the King or, failing that, to have Hamlet sent into exile.
Once again Claudius debases himself in agreeing to the fool’s plan: ‘It shall be
so. / Madness in great ones shall not [unwatch’d] go’ (3.1.184–9). An audience
conversant with commedia outcomes might well expect Polonius to be beaten
within the curtain as just punishment for his meddling ways, but the expectation of
comic duplication, gives way to a shocking reversal when he is murdered instead.

  Hamlet, 2.2. 46–67, 497, 500–501, 503, 505, 520.
  Scala’s Scenarios, p. 185. Salerno calls attention to this analogue in his Appendix,
pp. 401–3.
  As You Like It, 2.7.162–3.
  A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
(Ann Arbor, 1950), p. vii.; cited by Steele, p. 86.
Hamlet versus Commedia dell’Arte 113

At this turning point in the play, the catastrophic purpose of the commedia parody
becomes clear. Hamlet kills the King’s surrogate and, for the first time, articulates
his true intent: ‘Thou wretched, intruding fool, farewell! / I took thee for thy
better. Take thy fortune; / Thou find’st to be too busy, is some danger’ (3.4.31–3).
Polonius’ servile desire to endear himself to the King is darkly mirrored in the
King’s deeper desire to be rid of the Prince. The busybody is owed comic justice,
and Shakespeare carries it to an unprecedented extreme.


As his father’s son, Laertes is also constructed of commedia parts. These are only
briefly sketched in the play but were known well enough in the theatrical culture
to require little more than a few allusions. The young gentleman in Renaissance
drama was expected to act the Prodigal. In the Scala scenario mentioned above,
for instance, the son ‘Oratio makes excuses’ for his wild behaviour as do his doting
seniors: ‘Youth must follow its own way’, says Pantalone’s crony, Doctor Gratiano.29
In Hamlet, Laertes is a ‘reckless libertine’ who might tread ‘the primrose path
of dalliance’, as Ophelia implies (1.3. 40–50). Although he promises to heed his
father’s counsel, he remains suspect. Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes
and ferret out any ‘wanton, wild, and usual slips / As are companions noted and
most known / To youth and liberty’ (2.1.22–3). Obsessed by the banalities he seems
to have learned from the Italian stage, Polonius lists the youthful vices Laertes is
likely to pursue: ‘gaming’ and ‘drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling,/ Drabbing’
(2.1.24–6) – the very footprints of untamed youth in commedia scenarios.
There is another side to Laertes, which his father also fears. These are the traits
he shares with the Capitano or comic Bravo of the commedia stage: ‘The flash and
outbreak of a fiery mind, / A savageness in unreclaimed blood’ (2.1.33–4). The
young gentleman of the scenarios was essentially harmless and ultimately noble.
It was the Capitano who posed threats. Like the Soldier of Jaques’ speech on ‘The
Seven Ages of Man’, the Capitano was ‘Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the
pard, / Jealous in honor, sudden, and quick in quarrel.’30 Often, the Capitano played
the unwanted suitor, who pursued a lady who loved another, precipitated a fight
scene with his rival, and managed to escape after the slightest injury. Although he
boasted, threatened, and swore, the Capitano was invariably a coward and was
ultimately obliged to yield to his rival.
Laertes is a composite of the two types: he displays a gentleman’s knowledge
of courtship and sexual desire when he warns Ophelia:

… [W]eigh what loss your honor may sustain,

If with too credent ear you list his songs,

  Scala’s Scenarios, p. 185.
  As You Like It, 2.7.148–51.
114 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open

To his unmaster’d opportunity . (1.2.29–34)

Like the Player who Hamlet imagines would react appropriately to a father’s
murder, Laertes returns to court ‘with the motive and [the cue] for passion’ to
‘drown the stage with tears / And cleave the general ear with horrid speech’
(2.2.562–3). Laertes plays the Player when he returns to avenge his father, rousing
the rabble and showing his ‘riotous head’ (4.5.102), and with fiery oath, he swears
and boasts like a Capitano:

To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!

Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. (4.5.132–4)

But his resolve is quick to crumble at the sight of mad Ophelia, and his call for
revenge becomes mere bravado. Flattered by the King’s praise of his swordsmanship
and challenged to show himself ‘indeed his father’s son/ More than in words’
(4.7.126–7), he yields to his master’s insidious plan to murder Hamlet. Laertes’
prowess with the rapier is called into question by the King’s promise of a ‘sword
unabated’ (4.7.137), and his spineless offer to poison its tip inspires Claudius’
equally ignoble plan to poison Hamlet’s drink. Although fitted out for low comedy,
the cowardly son, like his foolish father and the debased King, will die of his own
‘springe’ (5.2.306).


With the commedia cognates of Polonius and Laertes in view, it should come as no
surprise that Ophelia also has origins in Italian improvised theatre. Shakespeare’s
heroines have been open to interpretation by centuries of English critics, who
found his insight into women’s roles remarkable, especially because they believed
there were no actresses to serve as models.31 These estimates did not take into
account the Italian actresses of Continental fame, who left an indelible mark on
early modern drama. In fact, very few studies focus on these women, although the
extraordinary success of commedia all’improvviso is noted historically only after
they appeared in the 1560s.32 The actresses Flaminia of Rome and Vincenza Armani,

  Women Reading Shakespeare, 1660–1900: An Anthology of Criticism, eds. Ann
Thomson and Sasha Roberts (ed.) (Manchester, 1997), passim.
 On actresses of the Cinquecento, see my essays: ‘Italian Actresses in Shakespeare’s
World: Flaminia and Vincenza’, Shakespeare Bulletin, 18.4 (Fall 2000): pp. 17–21; and
‘Italian Actresses in Shakepeare’s World: Vittoria and Isabella’, 19.3 (Summer 2001):
pp. 5–9.
Hamlet versus Commedia dell’Arte 115

according to contemporary reports,33 were innovative playmakers, musicians,

rhetoricians, and costumers. In the early decades of the Cinquecento, as Richard
Andrews has observed, most plays of the eruditi betrayed ‘a vein of hostility, or
indifference, or at the very least clumsiness, in representing female characters on
stage’.34 On the improvised stage, however, actresses brought to public view, a
new heroine – young, beautiful, faithul, sometimes tragic – and gave her a central
role in their plays. The heroines recited or sang eloquent laments and engaged in
witty dialogues so fluently improvised that the prime donne became the envy of
the literati, inspiring them to infuse complexity and dimension into the women’s
roles of literary plays.35 On stage, in pictures, and in print, their interpretations
of the faithful woman in love revolutionised popular theatre, paving the way for
Shakespeare’s Juliet, Beatrice, and Ophelia.36
Ophelia’s role as a young woman in love incorporates the virtuoso turns most
favoured by commedia actresses: the contrasto (witty dialogue on elegant themes),
the lover’s lament, and madness. Elizabethans would not have failed to recognise
Ophelia as the innamorata of improvised comedy, victim of a foolish father, who is
parted from her lover but is expected to win him in the end. In Ophelia, Shakespeare
exploits the commedia model but departs from its well-known pattern in order to
undermine it. In the ‘nunnery’ or first eavesdropping scene, the contrasto between
Hamlet and Ophelia on beauty and honesty, which should be a witty exchange
between equally matched lovers, becomes a mad dialogue in which Ophelia is
insulted as a whore. (In the twin scene in Gertrude’s chamber, Hamlet brings the
same charge against his mother.) The insult recalls those widely levelled against
actresses for following a public profession. Ophelia’s humiliation gives her good
cause to bewail her treatment. In her famous lament, she grieves: ‘O what a noble
mind is here o’erthrown, /…./O woe is me / T’have seen what I have seen, see
what I see’ (3.1.150–61).
Ophelia’s mad scene has been compared more than once to the performance of
the international star Isabella Andreini (c.1562–1604).37 Most famous among the
actresses of Shakespeare’s day and a favorite among elite audiences, Isabella is
best remembered for her role as heroine of ‘The Madness of Isabella’, performed
for the Grand Duke of Florence and his French bride in 1589. A detailed description

  Luigi Rogna, quoted in D’Ancona, vol. ii, p. 451.
  ‘Anti-feminism in Commedia Erudita’, in Contexts of Renaissance Comedy, Janet
Clare and Roy Ericksen (eds) (Oslo, 1997), pp. 11–31 (p. 28). Gl’ingannati and L’amor
costante are exceptions to the unsympathetic treatments (p. 19). The theatrical topos of
‘Woman as Wonder’ in plays of the eruditi is discussed by Clubb, ch. 3.
  Siro Ferrone, Introduction, Commedia Dell’Arte, 2 vols., Siro Ferrone (ed.)
(Milano, 1985), vol. 1, pp. 13–18.
 Actresses portrayed in paintings, woodcuts, and engravings are discussed in my
essay, ‘Shakespeare and Commedia dell’Arte’.
  Franca Angelini, ‘La pazzia di Isabella’, Teatri moderni (Turin, 1986), pp. 112–13;
and Clubb, pp. 265–6.
116 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

by her contemporary Giuseppe Pavoni survives.38 In this account, the innamorata

Isabella is told that her lover is dead and goes mad with grief. She portrays insanity
in free associations of seeming nonsense, including scraps of Spanish, Greek, and
French, songs in the French manner to delight the French bride, and comic dialects
in the voices of her commedia colleagues, uttered with ‘indescribable skill’, Pavoni
writes. She is then magically restored to sanity, learns her lover is not really dead,
and concludes the play with an eloquent speech on the passions and pains of love,
demonstrating thereby her sound mind and gifted intellect. The mad scene in Scala’s
version of same play contains additional details, including notes that Isabella ‘tears
her clothes from her body’,39 reappears several times ‘dressed as a madwoman’,
introduces vulgarities in calling for quiet ‘because Jove is going to sneeze, and
Saturn is going to let go a powerful fart’,40 and ends her ravings with a satirical
reference to the medical condition of England’s Queen Elizabeth.
Like the innamorate of many scenarios, Ophelia is young, faithful, and
unmarried, but there are subtle differences: Ophelia is much more compliant than
the headstrong daughters of commedia and far more vacuous. When Polonius learns
of Hamlet’s attentions to her, he issues the conventional maledizione alla figlia,41
echoing the sexual paranoia of comic fathers, who sequester their daughters in
the belief that all young men are seducers and faithless bawds (1.3. 91–135). She
is easily shaken by her father’s perception of Hamlet’s intentions and concedes:
‘I do not know, my lord, what I should think’ (1.3.104). Polonius fills her mental
void with orders to reject the Prince, and she complies. For the eavesdropping
plot, she is told to put on ‘devotion’s visage’ as is often done to ‘sugar o’er / The
devil himself’ (3.1.46–8), a truism that evokes the image of the painted harlot in
the guilt-ridden conscience of the King (3.1.50). When Hamlet denies his love and
questions her honesty in the first eavesdropping scene, she takes no responsibility
for her feigning and accepts her father’s view that Hamlet has gone mad.
Ophelia’s madness follows the pattern for grieving innamorate, but
Shakespeare complicates commedia tradition with artful ambiguity. At ‘The
Mousetrap’ play, she banters with Hamlet, countering his bawdy puns, but we
learn no more of her until after her father’s death. A Gentleman of the court
reports that Ophelia is distracted over her father’s death, leading us to believe
her grief is filial, but her words imply she has lost a lover. In the titillating guise
favoured by Italian actresses, she appears twice in disarray, babbling seeming
nonsense. At first, she seeks ‘the beauteous majesty of Denmark’ and sings of
true love ‘dead and gone’ (4.5.30), surely an allusion to Hamlet who has been
sent from court and marked for death. In her second mad scene, she distributes
herbs and flowers, and speaks of violets that ‘wither’d all when my father died’

  Ferruccio Marotti, Introduction to Flaminio Scala’s Il teatro delle favole
rappresentative, 2 vols., Ferruccio Marotti (Milano, 1976), vol. 1, pp. lxxiii–lxxv.
  ‘The Madness of Isabella’ ( Day 38), in Scala’s Scenarios, p. 288.
  Scala’s Scenarios, p. 290.
  Salerno, in Scala’s Scenarios, p. 402.
Hamlet versus Commedia dell’Arte 117

(4.5.185). In her distress, Ophelia mourns for both her royal lover and commedia
father in a tragicomic fusion that runs the course of the play. The nonsense of
Isabella’s mad innamorata was meant to amuse her contemporaries, who could
laugh in anticipation of her magical recovery. But there is no potion in Denmark
to cure Ophelia’s insanity. Ophelia’s death – perhaps accidental like her father’s
– strikes yet another blow at commedia foolery.
Identifying commedia patterns in Hamlet has little value if it does not assist
interpretation. By 1600 or so, when the play was written, the foolish Pantalone,
the brash son, and the mad innamorata were well-known clichés. Shakespeare had
used variations of these types in a number of his earlier plays. He returned to them
in Hamlet with new purpose: to undermine their popular appeal to the ‘barren
spectators’ of his audience and to expose the perils inherent in their unexamined
lives. Replete with metatheatrical references to the sorry state of popular theatre,
the play deflates the witless old man and his brash son by subjecting their banalities
to Hamlet’s satirical jibes and deadly jabs. Tempered by allusion to the actress
as whore, the romantic potential of Ophelia is blocked by her suspicious father
and her sanity overturned by Hamlet’s deeds. In balancing the commedia family
against the royal trio, Shakespeare juxtaposed the mundane follies of one and
the tragic flaws of the powerful other. As the Polonius family is undone by the
powerful other, the comedic is subsumed by the tragic, leaving the royal family to
consume itself. At the last, in Hamlet’s words, there is left only his story of ‘this
harsh world’ (5.2.348). As I see it, in the final orgy of murders, Shakespeare left
his audience much to contemplate regarding the essential banality of foolish men
and their royal counterparts.
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Chapter 7
The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian
Moment: Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s
Historiography, and Dramatic Form
Hugh Grady

In an earlier work, I identified a five-year period in Shakespeare’s career (1595–

1600) in which a series of political plays left behind the more moralistic framework
of the early English histories in favour of a dispassionate, distanced analysis of
political power in four history plays and in Hamlet. This framework can be called
a Machiavellian one in that it draws on the humanist, secular worldview famously
instantiated in Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses, which abandoned earlier
Providential historiography in favour of a secular, analytic approach to politics.
Of course, Machiavelli was a Janus-like cultural icon of the English Renaissance
who had two competing (and sometimes combined) images. The first and the
better known of these – Machiavelli as a conniving schemer and intriguer – was
represented in the ‘machiavel’ figure of the English drama initiated by Marlowe
and Kyd and continued by Shakespeare in Aaron of Titus Andronicus and Richard
III early in his career and by Edmund of King Lear and Iago of Othello later. This
figure lived on after Shakespeare in plays by Marston, Webster, and others. But
the second face of Machiavelli in England – and the one I am primarily concerned
with in this article – was the humanist Machiavelli who invented political science
as such by taking a completely non-Providential, secular approach to history.
Shakespeare may have adopted this Machiavellian analytic framework through
direct or indirect knowledge, but there is no doubt that this secular humanist
discourse circulated prominently in the Elizabethan political class and had also
entered the theatrical world in several dramas of Shakespeare’s great predecessor
Marlowe in particular. Beyond a few quick references, I didn’t discuss Julius
Caesar in the earlier work, but it is as well a Machiavellian drama par excellence.

 Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity
from ‘Richard II’ to ‘Hamlet’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

  See Michael Redmond, Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the
Jacobean Stage (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 6–18, for a useful summary of Machiavellian
allusions in non-Shakespearean dramatists of the period, including Marlowe, Ben Jonson,
120 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

In its bracketing of issues of moral right and wrong and in its concentration on
the analysis of actual, non-ideal political behaviour, the play is Machiavellian in
its broad intellectual framework. In addition Julius Caesar makes clear how the
Machiavellian frame has crucial implications for the form of the dramas of this
period – an issue I also left unaddressed in the earlier work. The ‘neutrality’ of
the play amounts to the creation of what Walter Benjamin called the empty world
of the seventeenth-century Trauerspiel – a form he thought to be significantly
different from that of Greek tragedy. Julius Caesar, I argue, is an example of
a Shakespearean Trauerspiel rather than of tragedy, and this helps to explain
several issues of interpretation in the play’s long critical history.

The reception of the political ideas of Niccolò Machiavelli in the England of the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been a much discussed topic for over a
century, and it has received additional elaboration in the recent period. A new and
comprehensive summary appeared last year in the opening chapter of Alessandra
Petrina’s Machiavelli in the British Isles, which both synthesises recent scholarship
and adds important new information. As has slowly become understood since a
contrary view was widely promulgated in a pioneering 1897 study of Machiavelli
in England, the fact that there was no printed English translation of Machiavelli’s

Robert Greene and George Chapman. As he notes the fullest list is still in Edward Meyer,
Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama (Weimar: Felber: 1897).

 According to Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual
Companion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), other plays in this period beyond the four histories
of the second tetralogy, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet were: Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594–95),
the missing Love’s Labour’s Won (1595–96), Romeo and Juliet (1595), King John (1596),
The Merchant of Venice (1596–97), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597–98), Julius Caesar
(1599), and As You Like It (1599–1600). King John has an obvious relation to the theme
of Machiavellian political power; As You Like It takes it as a background to comedy. The
others display different dynamics.

  See Hugh Grady, Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2009), pp. 133–92 for an analysis of the term and an application to

 Alessandra Petrina, Machiavelli in the British Isles: Two Early Modern Translations
of ‘The Prince’ (New York: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 1–45.

  Meyer, Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama, thought that The Prince was probably
known by Shakespeare and other Elizabethan-Jacobean dramatists more through Gentillet’s
demonising Contre-Machiavel than through direct acquaintance, since no published English
translation of Il Principe was available until 1640. However, Mario Praz, ‘The Politic
Brain: Machiavelli and the Elizabethans’ (1928), The Flaming Heart: Essays on Crashaw,
Machiavelli, and Other Studies in the Relations between Italian and English Literature
from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958), pp. 90–145, found a
The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment 121

Il Principe until 1640 did not preclude widespread elite access to Machiavelli’s
texts (especially Il Principe and I Discorsi) in several forms, including manuscript
circulation of English translations, Italian editions printed in London, and French
and Latin translations. English references to Machiavelli occur as early as the
reign of King Henry VIII, continue (in at least one instance) under Queen Mary,
and were commonplace among Elizabeth’s advisors like Sir Philip Sidney, Walter
Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and others. Indeed, the reigning philosophy of the Essex
faction of Elizabeth’s Privy Council of the 1590s could be and has been termed
Traditionally, as I noted above, it has been said that Machiavelli’s influence in
England took two different, and somewhat opposed forms, and this distinction,
though it can be too rigidly applied, is still a useful one, not least because it gets
at a difference in Shakespeare’s own representation of Machiavellian ideas.
First, there is the long documented series of sensationalised representations of

widespread first-hand knowledge of Machiavelli in England. In a later influential study,

Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare’s ‘Histories’: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino,
CA: Huntington Library, 1947), pp. 321–6, also argued for a popular firsthand acquaintance
with Machiavelli’s Prince in Elizabethan England, and this view was supported by Felix
Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli: A Changing Interpretation, 1500–1700 (London:
Routledge, 1964), pp. 30–76 – albeit Raab’s account apparently used unacknowledged
materials from an unpublished 1908 thesis by John Horrocks, and its details have been
questioned by other critics; see Petrina, Machiavelli in the British Isles, p. 2 n. 4. A very
useful, detailed updating and re-interpretation of Machiavelli’s influence on English (and
European) culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth century is Victoria Kahn, Machiavellian
Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1994). The new work by Petrina, Machiavelli in the British Isles, with its detailed study of
eight surviving manuscripts of English translations of Il Principe, gives additional specificity
to these claims in original scholarship and in citing other recent supporting studies.

 Petrina, Machiavelli in the British Isles, 1–45. For further discussion of the
circulation of Italian editions and translations of Machivelli (and other Italian political
writings) in England, see Redmond, Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy, pp. 75–120.

  See Stephen Gardiner, A Machiavellian Treatise, ed. and trans. Peter Samuel
Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). The text, whose authorship
is disputed, survives only in an Italian translation Ragionamento dell’advenimento delli
inglesi et normanni in Britannia [Discourse on the coming of the English and Normans to
Britain] prepared for presentation to Queen Mary’s Spanish husband Philip II and has been
translated into English in this modern scholarly edition, which includes both the Italian text
and the modern translation. See Kahn, Machiavellian Rhetoric, pp. 96–106 and 277–8, n.
12, for further information.

  Victoria Kahn wrote, for example, that ‘the Essex circle was a conduit of
Machiavelli’s ideas, as well as of Tacitism and Neostoicism, in the late sixteenth century’;
Kahn, Machiavellian Rhetoric, p. 106. Kahn was influenced in this judgement by historian
Blair Worden, ‘Classical Republicanism and the Puritan Revolution’, in Hugh Lloyd-Jones,
Valerie Pearl and Blair Worden (eds), History and Imagination: Essays in Honor of H R.
Trevor-Roper (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981), pp. 182–200.
122 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Machiavellian ideas in the London theatres of the era 1580–1642. In this series
of representations, the ideas most shocking to received opinion of Machiavelli’s
The Prince – on the necessity for deception in politics, on the need for violence
as a political weapon, for example – were exploited to create memorable stage
villains of political perfidy and cold-blooded murder, deception, and blasphemy.
Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe are the earliest playwrights in this vein,
and it was Christopher Marlowe who provided an explicit link between this stage-
villain type and the Italian political philosopher in his c. 1589 tragedy The Jew of
Malta. The play begins with a Prologue spoken by a character named Machevil,
who intones luridly inflected, over-simplified, but clearly recognisable themes
from The Prince:

I count religion but a childish toy,

And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
Birds of the air will tell of murders past.
I am ashamed to hear such fooleries!
Many will talk of title to a crown:
What right had Caesar to the empery?
Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure,
When like the Draco’s, they were writ in blood.10

Shakespeare, in his earliest, most Marlovian period, also cites Machiavelli as a

figure of unbridled evil:

I can add colors to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.11

In the early twentieth century, Marlowe’s anglicised name Machevil12 became in

Shakespeare criticism a common noun (with a modernised spelling, ‘machiavel’)

 Christopher Marlowe [The Prologue], The Jew of Malta, in The Plays of
Christopher Marlowe, Roma Gill (ed.), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 191.
A similar connection between the play’s leading character and Machiavelli is made in the
‘The Prologue Spoken at Court’ which prefaces the play’s quarto edition of 1633 – the only
source for the play’s text.
  William Shakespeare, Richard Duke of York [3 Henry VI], 3.2.191–3, in Stephen
Greenblatt et al. (eds), The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2008).
 This is the spelling used in the 1633 edn. of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, possibly
to permit the word ‘evil’ to appear in it. It differs from the anglicised spelling (‘Nicholas
Machiavell’) on the title page of the Tudor-era English manuscript translation of Il Principe
(designated Translation A by Petrina, c. 1588?) which survives in four copies and was
published in Hardin Craig (ed.), Machiavelli’s The Prince: An Elizabethan Translation
(Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1944). Other spelling variations
The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment 123

to name all dramatic stock characters of this type who peopled the Elizabethan
and Jacobean plays not only of Kyd and Marlowe, but many of Shakespeare’s and
contemporaries and successors like Marston, Middleton, and Webster.13 Generally,
many critics – perhaps influenced by Meyer’s misleading but pioneering work
– thought the machiavel did not reflect direct knowledge of Machiavelli’s texts,
but rather of critiques of him such as Gentillet’s Contre-Machiavel – an idea, as I
just argued, which now seems dubious. In the process of scholarly development
of these issues in the twentieth century, the connection of the London stage with
Machiavelli himself tended to became subordinated to stage history, and the links
of this character type with the various Vice characters of the late medieval morality
plays became more prominent.14 Machiavellian ideas were on this level reduced
to stage clichés.
However, scholars also identified a second level of Machiavelli’s reception in
England, and this was a reception among humanist scholars and political advisors
such as Francis Bacon and Walter Raleigh. In this discursive world, Machiavelli
was often linked with the Roman historian Tacitus and numerous other writers
ancient and contemporary as part of the humanist project of reviving the learning
of the ancient world and making use of it in the world of their present.15 However,
Machiavelli was a prominent name in this discussion. As Kevin Sharpe wrote, ‘the
man [Machiavelli] himself, or his reputation, became a text – debated, refuted, yet

can be found in this era of non-standardisation in orthography; for this and additional
information on the four surviving English-language manuscript translations (for a total of
eight surviving manuscripts) of Il Principe from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
see Petrina, Machiavelli in the British Isles, pp. 47–67.
  This character-type was defined early and influentially in Shakespeare studies –
arguably as a central means of domesticating and regularizing what are potentially among
the most scandalous qualities of Elizabethan/Jacobean drama: its invitation to the audience
to revel vicariously in the transgressive pleasures of a Tamburlaine, Richard III, or Edmund.
Perhaps the earliest such attempt was Meyer, Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama. The
idea of the machiavel was important to E.E. Stoll’s influential project of defining a series of
Elizabethan stage conventions to guide our interpretations of cruxes in Shakespeare – see
his Shakespeare Studies: Historical and Comparative in Method (New York: Stechert,
1942), pp. 345–7. More recently Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the
English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 35–71, discussed
stage machiavels as embodying a secret inwardness which is crucial to understanding
Elizabethan attitudes towards interiority.
  Most influential in this connection was Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the
Allegory of Evil: The History of a Metaphor in Relation to His Major Villains (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1958).
  See Kahn, Machiavellian Rhetoric, p. 250 n. 5, who writes: ‘the features characteristic
of Tacitism and the attacks and defenses of Tacitism in this period are identical to those of
124 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

possessing power’.16 In England this had begun, as noted above, in the reign of
King Henry VIII,17 but, as Kahn as well as Petrina show, it was a major project
throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods of English history. We can look to Francis
Bacon as a particularly apt example.
Machiavelli was one of a number of humanist and classical writers Bacon liked
to use to buttress his points in both The Advancement of Learning and the Essays,
and his varied allusions show him to have been well acquainted at least with The
Prince, The Discourses and The Art of War. He admires Machiavelli for showing
how to create useful knowledge from history by writing of concrete instances and
problems, although Bacon also at times criticises Machiavelli for failure to make
necessary moral distinctions and faults him for relying on the appearance rather
than the reality of virtue. In perhaps the most telling of several short passages
by Bacon touching on Machiavelli, he praised Machiavelli in The Advancement
of Learning for providing a crucial form of knowledge, ‘so that we are much
beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do and not what they ought
to do’.18 Machiavelli can be for Bacon in one of the Essays ‘one of the doctors of
Italy, Nicolas Machiavel’,19 while in another he is chidden in an otherwise positive
context for his ‘evil-favoured instance’.20
As to whether Shakespeare himself was able to read Machiavelli directly,
we have only indirect and circumstantial evidence – essentially we can only
deduce from our ideas of what must have been the sources for the plays and their
specifics. And because no ‘smoking gun’ passages from Machiavelli have ever
been securely identified to provide us with any certainty that Shakespeare had
directly read any of his works, we have to proceed at a ‘discursive’ level in a
method pioneered by Michel Foucault. We can identify specific sets of ideas and
follow their reproduction in any number of the texts of a specific cultural moment
without necessarily being able to trace the exact path the discourses followed
in their travels – whether through reading, hearsay, reproduction from similar
sources, and so on. Thus we are forced to make interpretations rather than produce
positivist certainty. But it is always thus in literary studies, I would argue, and the
knowledge we do produce, while tentative and open to further refinement or even
refutation, has a pragmatic adequacy that helps us make the texts our own and
opens them to deeper understanding. Thus I use the protean term ‘Machiavellian’
in what follows in this discursive sense, to name a set of ideas and procedures that

 Kevin Sharpe, Remapping Early Modern England: The Culture of Seventeenth-
Century Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 67; qtd, in Petrina,
Machiavelli in the British Isles, p. 6, n. 22.
 Petrina, Machiavelli in the British Isles, pp. 14–16.
  Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, Bk. 2 in Brian Vickers (ed.), Francis
Bacon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), p. 254.
  Francis Bacon, Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral (1625), in Vickers (ed.),
Francis Bacon, p. 363.
  Bacon, Essays, in Vickers (ed.), Francis Bacon, p. 418.
The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment 125

we can observe circulating among humanist scholars, Elizabethan policy makers,

and among the remarkable dramatists of late Elizabethan, early Jacobean England
– notably William Shakespeare.21
For the Shakespearean works of 1595–1600 – an era I have termed
‘Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment’ – the Machiavelli in question is a
far broader and nuanced political theorist than the one evoked through the
villainous figures who appeared so often in Shakespeare’s earliest plays of c.
1590–95 like Aaron of Titus Andronicus, Richard of Gloucester/Richard III in
3 Henry VI and Richard III – clear evil-doers performing in an easily legible
moralistic framework.22 Nor is it the same Machiavelli evoked through the more
sophisticated, psychologically complex, but clearly evil arch-villain machiavels
of the later tragedies like Iago, Edmund of King Lear, or Lord and Lady Macbeth.
Rather, it is the political scientist Machiavelli whose influence shows itself less in
individual characters than in the form of the new intellectual framework and in
a certain set of political/moral issues established in the four plays of the second
historical tetralogy, in King John, in Hamlet, – and in the play to be examined here,
the 1599 Julius Caesar. All these plays are characterised by morally complex
political conflicts where right and wrong are hard if not impossible to identify and
where the hand of Providence is seemingly absent. And although it is necessary
(given the general public’s negative associations – then and now – of the idea of
the ‘Machiavellian’ with the manipulative, deceitful, and cruel) to underline the
more admirable analytic qualities of his writings, I don’t think it is possible to
entirely whitewash Machiavelli from the tendencies associated with his name. In
fact, in many of Shakespeare’s plays throughout his career, the ‘hard’ and ruthless
tenants of Machiavelli’s Prince often prove dramatically most interesting, and that
is certainly the case for the play discussed here, Julius Caesar. It is therefore
necessary to keep in mind that these moments of his work form part of larger, more
‘humanist’ and complex fabric which includes moments of deception and cruelty
as well as the secular-humanist approach to history and Providence I want to
emphasise here. It was this approach, more than the specific tactics recommended

 I used the term ‘discursive’ to label this method and evoked Foucault as its
theoretician in Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne, pp. 11–12 and 28–9. It has,
however, recognisable affinities with the idea and practice of ‘intertextuality’ as developed
in the introduction and several of the essays of Michele Marrapodi (ed.), Shakespeare, Italy,
and Intertextuality (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004); Petrina, Machiavelli
in the British Isles; and Redmond, Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy.
  Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Republicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2002), pp. 103–29, argued that even in these early works it is possible
to see an implied critique of the English monarchy in a secular-humanist framework that
might even by labelled ‘republican’, though in my view Hadfield never establishes this
in a definitive way. His argument is based on a very hypothetical ‘republican’ horizon of
interpretation which he synthesises for the occasion. However, I would argue that such a
possible subtext not withstanding, these plays are still open to providential readings not
possible for the plays of 1595–1600.
126 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

in The Prince, The Art of War and The Discourses, that allowed Shakespeare to
take major steps forward not only as a political analyst but also, as we will see, as
a dramatic practitioner.
I am positing, then, a periodisation in Shakespeare’s career in his treatment
of Machiavellian themes. In the earliest days, in plays like Titus and the first
historical tetralogy (and above all in its climax King Richard III), Shakespeare
depicts power politics analytically but within a larger implied moral framework,
so that the audience is never in much doubt (and certainly not by the end of the
play) as to who the villains are: Joan of Arc, the Duke of Gloucester, Aaron the
Moor, and Richard III have all exposed themselves in that regard.
Starting with King Richard II (1595), however, a shift occurs. The explicit
machiavels are no longer to be found; they are replaced by much more morally and
politically ambiguous figures: Richard II and Bolingbroke in the first play of the
tetralogy, then King Henry IV, his prodigal son Prince Harry and his ambiguous
boon companion Falstaff, and the rebel Harry Hotspur. We are no longer in a morally
certain universe. Instead, we are in a highly political one in which power is seen
to unfold analytically and amorally, and its agents are entrapped in its dynamics
in ways which they only partly control. Moral judgements are difficult and often
separate from political judgements. Audiences have been divided for centuries,
for example, over whether to applaud or deplore the newly crowned Henry V’s
banishment of Falstaff. But Shakespeare, for all his nuance and complexity, is
never simply ‘neutral’ or ‘value-free’, over the course of this five-year period.23
In fact, we can detect a growing critique of aspects of Machiavelli’s thought that
greatly influences the play Julius Caesar.
Did this change in Shakespeare’s dramatic practice (and in his implied
philosophy of history) starting in 1595 come about because of his reading – or
perhaps through contact with figures involved in Elizabethan politics like his
patron the Earl of Southampton or even Southampton’s boon companion the
volatile Earl of Essex? It is impossible to say; it is only possible to speculate
based on the tantalising but limited evidence at our disposal. Perhaps, as I stated
in earlier work, Shakespeare’s knowledge of Machiavellian ideas came only from
close attention to the works of Christopher Marlowe. Or perhaps, voracious and
omnivorous reader that he appears to have been, he somehow came across The
Prince, The Discourses or The Art of War. In what follows I intend to bracket these
(finally unanswerable) issues and concentrate on discursive connections. As stated
above, discourses circulate in and through societies following innumerable and
usually untraceable vectors, and I will assume that to be the case here. Somehow
Shakespeare adopted for dramatic and intellectual purposes the new ideas about
non-Providential history circulating among Renaissance humanists (and most
forcefully argued in the works of Machiavelli) and used them to create the political

  For a detailed argument defining this trajectory in the sequence of plays extending
from the second historical tetralogy to Hamlet, see Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and
Montaigne, pp. 43–57 and throughout.
The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment 127

analyses underlying Julius Caesar and the other works of this five-year period. In
the rest of this essay I will attempt to demonstrate such a reading of the play.
For purposes of my argument it is important to take into account the well
established dating of Julius Caesar to 1599 as the play Shakespeare composed
immediately after King Henry V.24 This later play of course completed the complexly
textured study of power politics and its connections to the manufacture of political
images and political deception constituted by the four plays of Shakespeare’s
second historical tetralogy (composed from 1595–99) – King Richard II, King
Henry IV, Part One, King Henry IV, Part Two, and King Henry V. As I argued in
my 2002 Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne, these plays were concerned
not only with issues of power, but also with the dialectically connected issues
of subjectivity and its resistance to (and at times complicity with) power. The
plays of the tetralogy can all be interpreted as autonomous, self-standing plays,
but they also connect through a number of their constituent elements, including a
continuous historical narrative, characters continued from play to play, and similar
themes explored over several plays. One of the most crucial themes that emerges
in all four plays is the idea that the pursuit of power in the early modern nation-
state follows forms and rules that are independent of the subjective desires of the
political actors caught up in their dynamics – although they do not always recognise
this autonomy of the political as constituting a system of reified power. For a time,
in 1 Henry IV, Prince Hal seems to keep everything in balance and preserves his
playful subjectivity even as he pursues a remarkable act of Machiavellian virtù
in emerging from the clouds of his prodigal-son image into the sunlight of his
battlefield heroics at Shrewsbury. But in the next two plays of the tetralogy, this
balance proves to be fragile indeed, and the playful prince disappears from view
as his newly created political image waxes. In the final play, King Henry V, he is
almost completely absorbed into the role of hero-king and conqueror of France,
becoming an almost Tamburlaine-like war machine. The play attempts to induct
its viewers and readers into a celebration of the conquest, and it has succeeded in
this over the centuries with many. But for almost 200 years now – at least since
William Hazlitt – another substantial segment of critics has rejected this image and
read the play as a critique of power politics and warfare. Over the last few decades,
this view of the play has become by far the majority position.
In Julius Caesar there is a recognisable continuation of the complex and
nuanced critique of reified political power begun in the second tetralogy and
climaxed in the epiphanies of King Henry V. But it is important to see that the
critique in no way depends on a reversion to the more moralistic view of politics
that prevailed in earlier plays like Titus Andronicus or King Richard III. Instead,
a Machiavellian, secular-humanist view of history remains the containing
intellectual framework of these plays, so that there is a meaningful sense in which
we can speak of a Machiavellian critique of Machiavellian power, if we understand
Shakespeare to be drawing from different aspects of Machiavelli’s complex web

  Wells and Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, p. 121.
128 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

of ideas at different points. It is that critique I want to focus on in reading this 1599
Shakespearean masterpiece. It turns out to be closely related to the traditional
debate over whether to see Brutus or Julius Caesar himself as the play’s ‘hero’.
In this reading both can be seen as victims of an autonomous system of power in
which they are entrapped.

The narrative dramatised in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar reproduced some the

era’s best known historical events among both humanist scholars and members of
the larger audience with a modicum of cultural knowledge in Elizabethan London,
portraying as they do the assassination of the great soldier and much studied author
that marked the final transformation of Rome from a Senate-controlled republic to
a monarchial empire. Shakespeare refers to Julius Caesar in several other plays,
and he had been preceded in dramatic treatments of the story by at least three
other writers. For all that, however, there was no agreement on moral-political
interpretation of these spectacular historical events, and Shakespeare’s chief
source for the play, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, presents a
characteristically ‘balanced’ analysis of events and characters, displaying both the
strengths and weaknesses of the principal historical figures. In response to the open-
ended nature of the play’s framework, much of Julius Caesar’s critical history is
taken up by arguments – sometimes in formal terms, more recently in ideological
ones – as to whether the play endorses the emerging monarchy of the Roman
Empire as brought about by its title character, or whether its sympathies lie with
the republican conspirator Brutus and his comrades’ violent attempt to preserve
the ancient Roman republic.25 By about 1960, most critics had come to accept the
neutrality or ambiguity of the play’s historical evaluations, and various schemas
were proposed to account for this non-partisanship. While this ‘divided’ quality of

 The debate over whether to see Brutus or Caesar as the play’s true tragic hero
goes back at least to the eighteenth century. The ideological debate began in earnest in
the twentieth century in a wide array of essays, with the central conflict of interpretation
described in many different opposing terms. See for example, J. Leeds Barroll, ‘Shakespeare
and Roman History’, Modern Language Review 53.3 (July 1958): pp. 327–43, who argues
that the assassination of Caesar was widely understood to have been catastrophic and so
sympathy is drawn away from the conspirators; and Irving Ribner, ‘Political Issues in
‘Julius Caesar’, Journal of English and German Philology 61.1 (Jan. 1957): pp. 10–22,
who sees Caesar as a potential tyrant and Brutus as a heroic defender of liberty. Wayne
Rebhorn, ‘The Crisis of the Aristocracy in Julius Caesar’, Renaissance Quarterly 43 (1990):
pp. 75–111, however, in a pioneering new historicist reading of the play, sees it as referencing
and investigating the social contradictions in which Elizabethan aristocrats were involved.
Most recently, Hadfield, Shakespeare and Republicanism, pp. 167–83, reads this play, like
several others, as based in pro-republican sentiments, but he thinks it portrays both sides of
the conflict as anti-republican.
The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment 129

Shakespeare’s plays is a familiar one in many ways, it is far from universal in his
work. Such plays of divided audience sympathy can be found in several periods of
his career, from early works like The Taming of the Shrew to much later ones like
Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens, but it is in the ‘Machiavellian moment’
of 1595–1600, commencing with Richard II and continuing to the transitional case
of Hamlet, that virtually all the non-comic or ‘problem’ plays composed at this
time display the kind of dramatic ambiguity, productive of deeply divided audience
sympathies, in question here. In this way, the new Machiavellian secular-humanist
vision profoundly impacted on dramatic form, and Julius Caesar is an excellent
example of this influence. This impact of the implied intellectual framework of
the play on its dramatic form was defined as long ago as the 1920s, in comments
by the English actor, playwright, director, and critic Harley Granville-Barker. He
thought the key was to be found in Shakespeare’s main source for this play (as in
so many others), Plutarch, with his distanced, objective analytic style: ‘Plutarch’s
genius, in fact, is closely allied to Shakespeare’s own, with its power to make, by
a touch or so of nature, great men and simple, present and past, the real and the
mimic world, one kin.’26 But I would argue that it would be just as apt to credit
Machiavelli and the Tacitean method associated with him.
Shakespeare’s use of a Machiavellian historical framework cannot be taken,
however, as simply a neutral substitution of one historiographic theory for another.
Instead, in relation to older (but still contemporaneous) providential views of
history, the new historical space and temporality amount to the disenchantment of
the world, the evacuation from it of intrinsic value, the creation of a new empty
space and time, one in which, as Hamlet has it, ‘The time is out of joint’. It is
through that effect especially that the Machiavellian view of history impacts as
well on the form of the work. Social critic and philosopher Agnes Heller, in a book
that deserves to be better known among Shakespeare scholars, rightly included
Julius Caesar prominently in her study of Shakespearean histories and tragedies
set in the new world, in a ‘time … out of joint’:

The time is out of joint for Brutus, Cassius, and all the conspirators. Their
conviction that it can be put right with a gesture of tyrannicide has been proven
wrong. They were the fools of history; the sacrificial ceremony was performed
in vain.27

The motif of a time out of joint is perhaps less directly expressed in the play than
it would be in its famous successor Hamlet, but such a de-valued status is clearly
implied in Brutus’s celebrated soliloquy which models for us a mind in the process
of making an undecidable moral choice:

 Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, first series (London: Sidgwick
and Jackson, 1927), pp. 51–132; 88.
 Agnes Heller, The Time Is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History
(Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), p. 320.
130 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in a council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.28

The metaphoric reference to political division is Brutus’ recognition that the times
are out of joint, that a split between the ideal and the actual has widened, that
action will be demanded of the just man if he is to honour his civic responsibility.
At the same time, the analogy has a more disturbing implication. It glances at the
age’s (now waning) pre-modern vision of an integrated, unified cosmos in which
humanity is a microcosmic mirror intimately linked with the larger structures of
state and the natural world. This motif is probably behind the list of portentous
wonders that precede the day of the assassination of Julius Caesar. We are told
of ‘a tempest dropping fire’ (1.3.10), a slave’s hand on fire ‘like twenty torches’
but unharmed (1.3.16–18), a lion outside the Capitol indifferent to surrounding
humans, a group of women ‘transformed with fear, who swore they saw/Men all
in fire walk up and down the streets’ (1.3.23–5), and whizzing meteors or comets
so numerous Brutus is able to read by them (2.1.44–5). These are the portents
referred to by Polonius in Hamlet, and we recognise a similar list (also drawn from
historical sources) in Macbeth.29
Such portents might seem to contradict the secular, amoral ‘Machiavellian’
framework which so clearly dominates the political events of the play. Precisely to
address this apparent contradiction, historicist critic Andrew Hadfield argued that
the reporter of most of them, the conspirator Casca, is probably exaggerating and
that the main point of the episode is Cicero’s rejoinder, ‘Men may construe things
after their fashion/Clean from the purpose of the things themselves’ (1.3.34–5), thus
reading them essentially as a blank screen on which the decayed state of Roman
republican culture can be projected.30 But the foreshadowing of political disasters
in natural phenomena is a favourite dramatic device of Shakespeare’s, whether
they are reported events like the self-consuming horses in Macbeth or directly
staged ones like the great storm in Act 3 of King Lear. Even in so jaundiced and de-

  William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Andrew David Hadfield (ed.) (New York:
Barnes and Noble, 2007), 2.1.63–9. All subsequent quotations from the play are from the
same edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.
 To be sure, these natural signs are soon inscribed into the political contest of
interpretations that is central to all the play’s debate. It is given to Cicero to point out
to Casca that ‘men may construe things after their fashion/Clean from the purpose of
the things themselves’ (1.3.34–5). And we soon see the conspirators make a convincing
counter-argument about their meaning to Caesar to entice him to travel to the Capitol.
  Hadfield, Shakespeare and Republicanism, p. 169.
The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment 131

idealised a play as Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses evokes the disordered macrocosm
as a mirror of political chaos and the decay of values among the encamped Greeks
at Troy. Contrary to an older critical tradition epitomised by E.M.W. Tillyard, in
none of these cases – with the possible exception of Macbeth – is the cosmos
evoked as a transcendental order against which to judge the (temporary) political
turmoil represented in those plays, an order that is the promise of a Providential
God. Rather, they are fragmented allegories, evoked, in Walter Benjamin’s apt
phrase, as ruins of a defunct, meaningful world that no longer exists.
And to mention Benjamin’s theory of the allegory is to raise another crucial link
in our understanding of how a Machiavellian secular vision affected Shakespearean
drama at the level of form. We have to speak here of form in a special sense, what
Benjamin, following the Hegelian path of the early writings of Georg Lukács,
called the work’s ‘inner form’, primarily the work’s organisation of its represented
world, its major characters, and the relation of the characters’ values to the values
of the world. Benjamin thought that the term ‘tragedy’ was unsuitable to describe
the plays of Shakespeare placed under that category since before the 1623 Folio.
‘Tragedy’ was a word that belonged properly only to the singular works of the
Athenian classical age because they were works whose form depended on the slow
revelation that the tragic hero was in fact superior to the gods.31 Such a form could
not co-exist with a dominant Christianity, and so the dramatists of the medieval
and the early modern periods were forced to invent a new form, which Benjamin,
borrowing from the traditional appellation given to the baroque dramas of the
seventeenth century that were (mistakenly, according to Benjamin) understood
to be themselves forms of tragedy, called Trauerspiele (mourning-plays). The
medieval forms, the mystery and morality plays, were one step in this direction,
but the Trauerspiel proper, he thought, was an early modern invention, influenced
by the Protestant Reformation but compatible as well with the Catholic Counter-
Reformation. Its crucial feature was its representation of an empty world, devoid
of intrinsic value, full of objects open to allegorical interpretations at at least two
levels and profoundly resistant to organic unity, being organised instead around
a principle of incompleteness, fragmentation, and constant deferment of final
meaning. And he thought that Shakespeare, along with Spanish baroque dramatist
Pedro Calderón de la Barca, was the master of the form, especially in his most
famous work Hamlet.
Julius Caesar’s resistance to the forms of classical tragedy has, of course, long
been noted, though the many attempts to make of Brutus the missing tragic hero

  Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne
(London: New Left Books, 1977), pp. 106–10. He was drawing on the theory of tragedy
of Franz Rosenzweig, Der Stern des Erlösung (The Star of Redemption) (Frankfurt, 1921);
cited in Benjamin, Origin, n. 20, 243. For a very lucid discussion of what Benjamin took
from this apologia for Judaism by Rosenzweig, see Stéphane Moses, ‘Walter Benjamin
and Franz Rosenzweig’, in Gary Smith (ed.), Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 228–46.
132 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

represent a rear-guard action to ‘save’ the play as a tragedy.32 In response, other

critics point out the lack of a single, focalising character in the play, the strength of
Cassius and Mark Antony as foils to Brutus, and the strange case of Caesar himself,
in many ways a minor character in the play bearing his name, but one whose spirit
dominates the whole. This plurality of characters (as opposed to the usual practice
of Greek and even other Shakespearean tragedies) is, however, a characteristic of
Benjamin’s Trauerspiele, and the play displays other Trauerspiel-like properties
as well – particularly the character-type Benjamin called the ‘Intriguer’, a political
schemer following a Machiavellian agenda of masked intentions and political
deception.33 However, the Intriguers of Julius Caesar are not the machiavels
of the earlier histories, nor those of Othello, King Lear or Macbeth.34 They are
the morally gray, all-too-human figures drawn from an adoption of the secular-
humanist historiography of Machiavelli, Tacitus, and (here) Plutarch.
Julius Caesar, then, is in important ways like one of Benjamin’s baroque
Trauerspiele, and it follows hard in its order of composition on the four similar
histories of the second tetralogy, Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V, sharing
many of their qualities: an abundance of characters, a dependence on historical
events and sources to form a dramatic arc, and a focus on the workings of political
power. The play is, in fact, one of Shakespeare’s consummate explorations of the
interactions of personality, impersonal forces, politics, and historical change. In
that way it continues the Machiavellian focus of the other plays of this period
– adhering as well to another characteristic of the Trauerspiel that Benjamin
noted as deeply separating the form from Attic tragedy – its dependence on and
reproduction of history rather than myth.
The play is merciless in its deflation of these celebrated historical agents,
and, as has often observed, especially in its treatment of its title character, who
is consistently presented as physically impaired and politically unsavvy, easily
manipulated by the conspirators into coming down to the Capitol despite his
wife’s prescient dream and the soothsayer’s warning. In a kind of arrogant sense
of invulnerability, he ignores plain warnings and outwits himself in his eagerness
not to seem like other powerful men:

 The critical tradition is rich is such attempts, and it would be impossible to list them
all. A classic example is Virgil K. Whitaker, ‘Julius Caesar and Tragedy of Moral Choice’,
in his Shakespeare’s Use of Learning: An Inquiry Into the Growth of His Mind and Art (San
Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1953), pp. 224–50, which assumed Shakespeare to be a
monarchist but one admiring Brutus’ virtue even in his making an incorrect choice which
causes a tragic downfall.
  Benjamin, Origin, pp. 95–6, 125, 127, 228.
 Cf. Heller, The Time Is Out of Joint, p. 311: ‘There is not a single wicked character
in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Virtues and vices, passions and calculations, overdetermine
one another or clash; none of the characters determines to become a villain, none carries the
desire for revenge to the extreme, none is daemonic.’
The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment 133

These couchings and these lowly courtesies

Might fire the blood of ordinary men
And turn preordinance and first decree
Into the law of children. Be not fond
To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood
That will be thawed from the true quality
With that which melteth fools – I mean, sweet words,
Low-crooked curtsies, and base spaniel fawning. (3.1.36–43)

Caesar is here merely amplifying in his words the observation about him made by
the conspirator Decius Brutus the night before the assassination:

… he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betrayed with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils, and men with flatterers.
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flatterèd. (2.1.203–8)

At the same time, the motives and values of the conspirators are themselves treated
as far from the ideals of republican virtue that they claim for themselves. Their
leader Cassius is transparently motivated almost purely by envy, not patriotism.
Rather than speaking of the evils of monarchy or the danger to republican liberty
in Caesar’s ascent to power, Cassius emphasises Caesar’s mere humanity and his
shared rank with the other patricians:

I had as lief not be as live to be

In awe of such a thing as I myself.
I was born free as Caesar. So were you.
We both have fed as well, and we can both
Endure the winter’s cold as well as he.(1.2.96–101)

Although Cassius tells Brutus that ‘honour is the subject of my story’ (1.2.94),
envy is its clear motivation. In fact, in the climax of his exhortation to Brutus, envy
of greatness is made the central republican virtue:

Now in the names of all the gods at once,

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods. (1.2.149–52)

Nor are the survivors of Caesar’s party – and especially their leader Mark Antony
– made into moral paragons in their opposition to what they take as unjustifiable
political murder. They are themselves skilful Machiavellian politicians with the
134 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

same willingness to use power, deception, and violence as their foes to achieve
their ends. We see this clearly in scene 4.1, which opens with Antony’s declaration,
‘These many, then, shall die. Their names are pricked’ (4.1.1). Here the objectified
and impersonal nature of Machiavellian political power is pointedly enacted for
us. ‘Look, with a spot I damn him’, Antony says of his nephew Publius, traded in
exchange for the death of Lepidus’s brother (4.1.2–6).
Because Machiavelli rejected a providential view of history, he necessarily
was open to two opposed but dialectically connected concepts of historical action,
expressed in one of the most famous sections of The Prince: recognition of the
fatality of chance and, more importantly, the opening up of a limited but real
opportunity for political agents to change history:

I think it may be true that Fortune is the arbiter of half of our actions, but that
she still leaves the other of them, more or less, to be governed by us. And I
compare her to one of these destructive rivers that, when they are ranging, flood
the plains, destroy trees and buildings, take up earth from this side and place it
on the other … . And although this is how they are, it does not follow, therefore,
that men, when times are quiet, cannot make provision against them with dikes
and embankments, so that when they rise again, either they would go into a
canal, or their impetus would not be so wild or so destructive.35

This passage – or thoughts much like it – seems to have been on Shakespeare’s

mind as he began to work out the arrangement of agency and change in the world-
historical events of Julius Caesar. He puts an image and a concept very like
Machiavelli’s in the mouth of Brutus:

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures. (4.3.218–24)

Putting aside the irony of Brutus’ making this argument to justify a military tactic
which proves disastrous – leaving their favorable position on the higher ground in
order to attack directly – we can note how generally apt it is for many of the events
of this play – though in every instance, we see how crucial contingency is. The
conspirators’ bold act, taken at the high flood just before it seems Caesar is about to
be crowned monarch of Rome, proves unworkable while Caesar’s successor Mark

 Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and Other Writings, trans. Wayne A. Rebhorn
(New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003), p. 105.
The End of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Moment 135

Antony, in an equally bold move, succeeds in seizing the political high ground
which Brutus’ oration had seemed to guarantee the conspirators.36
Shakespeare seems to adopt this Machiavellian concept of a limited historical
voluntarism and a world of fortune and contingency as a general principle (at least
starting in 1595), but he applies it differently in different plays. King Henry V
seems able to burst out of the systemic cycle of rebellion his father was entrapped
in with his bold invasion of France. But Macbeth is unable to do so after his
initial success and seems a prisoner of the fatality he first thought was on his side.
In Julius Caesar, I would argue, Shakespeare’s consciousness of the efficacy of
reified power – created in human social interactions, but under no one individual’s
control – becomes the crucial historical determinant, even in the face of such
powerful subjective agencies as Cassius, Brutus, Antony, and Octavius. Nor is
the depiction of the working out of power politics itself necessarily completely
value-free, however detached, analytical, and non-side taking it may be. The
empty world of the play is subject to mourning, and that is one reason why Antony
so uncharacteristically ends the play in praise of his great enemy Brutus. Brutus
may have been a self-deceiving and vain soul never aware of the extent that he
was being used, his self-image skilfully manipulated by Cassius to provide the
needed idealistic face and name for their plot. But like Cassio in Othello (a play
with several similarities to this one), Brutus had a beauty in his daily life that
made others ugly. The assassination, this play shows us, was indeed an ugly, brutal
thing, deceptively portrayed by its agents as a sacrifice in an obvious act of self-
deception. But the counter-blows struck against the conspirators were themselves
events cut from the same cloth. The Machiavellian world of objectified power
depicted in the play is not glorious but empty. It is the outcome of purely human
actions which must be remedied, if they can be at all, by purely human actions – of
course actions which are never depicted, nor concretely imagined, in this play. In
its classical restraint, Julius Caesar leaves the space of utopia a blank one, like so
much of Machiavelli’s own work.
In an older critical discourse from the first half of the twentieth century, it was a
commonplace to see in Brutus a Shakespearean character of political inefficacy and
marked introspection who could be seen as an early sketch for the greater portrait
of Prince Hamlet to come. Since then, however, Brutus has been subject to much
more scepticism,37 and Hamlet himself seems less introspective and idealistic than
he once did. But in the light of the discussion here, I would argue there remains an

  See my complementary analysis of Julius Caesar, Hugh Grady, ‘Moral Agency and
Its Problems in Julius Caesar: Political Power, Choice, and History’, in Michael Bristol
(ed.), Shakespeare and Moral Agency (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 15–28, which
focuses in the side of agency rather than objectified power in the play but acknowledges the
important role of the latter and so overlaps with this essay, including some common quotes
and arguments, at specific points.
  One significant milestone in this development was Maynard Mack, ‘Teaching
Drama: Julius Caesar’, in Edward J. Gordon and Edward S. Noyes (eds), Essays on the
136 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

important way in which Julius Caesar forms part of a significant Shakespearean

arc of dramatic development on the way to Hamlet, but one that has less to do with
subjective interiority and more to do with the theme of objectified political power
theorised by Machiavelli. In both plays – though more deeply and pervasively in
Hamlet – the world of politics is revealed as empty, a mechanical power struggle
destructive in its very essence, covered thinly by a veneer of worldly glory slowly
revealed to be empty underneath. Towards the end of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian
moment of 1595–1600, both time and the world seem radically out of joint, with
no immediate remedy for this forthcoming. We are left in the negativity of critique,
but that in itself is an accomplishment of a significant order.

Teaching of English: Reports of the Yale Conferences on the Teaching of English (New
York: Appleton Crofts, 1960), pp. 320–36.
Chapter 8
The Problem of Old Age: Anticomedy in
As You Like It and Ruzante’s L’Anconitana
Anthony Ellis

Renaissance literary theorists, highly influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics,

consistently propounded a utilitarian aim for comedy, a genre that could instruct
readers and spectators as it also pleased them. According to Aristotle, comedy
featured ‘a representation of people who are rather inferior’ but not so bad as to
be irredeemable: its misguided denizens merely suffer ‘a sort of error and ugliness
that is not painful and destructive’. Clearly, if more serious error were involved,
we would be in the tragic realm, where real pain and destruction abound. Instead,
in comedy, laughter is allowed to prevail, but, the commentators agreed, laughter
provoked neither for its own sake nor for the abject satisfactions that come with
reflexively mocking the vicious. As Philip Sidney maintained, such ‘scornful’
laughter should be considered ancillary to ‘that delightful teaching which is the
end of poesy’. In order for it to achieve such didactic ends, comedy – so went
the theory – needed to attain a certain level of verisimilitude, both in action and
character. Concerning the latter, comic characters should not represent historical
figures, but should be entirely fictional creations, the type, furthermore, ‘whose
actions are quite unknown and never transmitted to posterity or history by oral
tradition’. This was considered a matter of decorum: for a comedy to be credible,
its dramatic events had to be drawn from common life, that is, from the business
of ordinary people, not the exalted affairs of kings and generals. Thus, the sheer
repetition of age-old comic conventions, via their familiarity, contributed to this
sense of the verisimilar, an argument made by the sixteenth-century Italian theorist
Alessandro Piccolomini, who remarked that authors had been creating recognisable
fictional worlds by resorting over and over to ‘the avarice of old men, the tricks

  Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Richard Janko, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and
Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch (ed.) (New York: Norton, 2001), p. 94.

  Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and
Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch (ed.) (New York: Norton, 2001), p. 358.

  Lodovico Castelvetro, Castelvetro on the Art of Poetry, trans. Andrew Bongiorno
(Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1984), p. 96.
138 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

of prostitutes, the prodigality of young men, the cheating of servants’, and so on,
since the time of Plautus and Terence.
One of Piccolomini’s types, the comic senex, demonstrates some telltale,
infinitely repeatable characteristics across geographic and temporal boundaries,
such as between Cinquecento Italy and Elizabethan England. His function as a
stock character – and as a target of derisive laughter – in both locations has been
well documented. But although comedies depicting old age and the tensions of
intergenerational conflict routinely thwart the ambitions of the comic old man,
they do not all succeed so neatly at eliminating the unease provoked by old
age itself. Comedy, after all, contains the seeds of its polar opposite, tragedy,
especially where its movement towards festive, social renewal barely conceals the
fact of human mortality. In the plays examined here, Angelo (‘Ruzante’) Beolco’s
L’Anconitana (The Woman from Ancona) (c.1530) and William Shakespeare’s As
You Like It (1599), old age figures as a major nemesis, although not every senex
we encounter is inimical. The old man’s – and more broadly, old age’s – complex
portrayal contributes to these comedies’ investigation of specific social problems –
e.g., disenfranchisement, starvation, exploitation of a state’s subject lands – while
also suggesting how the senex could come to embody these problems for a society
demanding a convenient scapegoat.
Dramatic traces of real-life economic hardship, which overlay the age-youth
binary, push these two apparent comedies towards the domain of tragicomedy,
or even anticomedy. In the case of L’Anconitana, Ruzante, born in the Paduan
countryside and a lifelong witness to the ravages of war and poverty that Venetian
policy had wrought in the territories of the Republic, paints his aged male Venetian
antagonist as a villain in a way that is class-based, geographically oriented, and
ultimately ineradicable via the generic apparatus available to him. Although
Shakespeare would not have been directly familiar with Ruzante’s work, the two
playwrights were likely to have been exposed to many of the same theatregrams
enlivening early-sixteenth-century Italian erudite comedy. Shakespeare also shares
with his predecessor a tendency to explore the nature of economic hardship and
the problem of old age in comedies that contain putatively happy endings. In As
You Like It, Shakespeare’s multilayered juxtapositions of senex and puer afford
him just as penetrating a critique of latent causes of social unrest in turn-of-the-
century England.
Beolco (c. 1500–1542), also known as Ruzante after the peasant-clown
character he created and portrayed on stage, wrote 16 surviving comedies ranging
from short, single-plot villanesche treating the earthy lives and hardships of Paduan

  Alessandro Piccolomini, Annotationi di M. Alessandro Piccolomini, nel Libro della

Poetica d’Aristotele, translated in Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the

Italian Renaissance, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 1, p. 552.

  For a summary of the critical debate over the date of L’Anconitana’s first performance,
see Emilio Lippi, ‘Vent’anni di critica ruzantesca (1966–1985) (Prima parte)’, Quaderni
veneti 2 (1985): pp. 101–2.
The Problem of Old Age 139

rustics to more complex five-act dramas influenced by Italian erudite comedy.

Biographical information about Beolco is scarce, but we do know that he was born
a bastard son of a rather prosperous Paduan family that had made its fortune in the
textile trade. His illegitimacy prevented him from inheriting the property that went
instead to his parents’ legally recognised offspring, so during his career he relied
on the patronage of the wealthy landowner Alvise Cornaro, whose Paduan estates
he helped manage while Cornaro assisted him in making important Venetian
theatrical contacts. Eventually Beolco, with Cornaro’s support, founded a semi-
professional comic troupe that toured Venetian courts and those of nearby cities.
Beolco’s considerable innovations, which rank him as one of the most
critically acclaimed Italian playwrights of his century, include his sympathetic
portrayal of a peasant underclass in the Veneto that had suffered under the yoke
of Venetian patricians; his unrestrained bawdiness; and the mixing of dialects
appropriate to each individual character (e.g., Venetian for city merchants,
Paduan or Bergamask for rustics, literary Tuscan for socially elevated persons).
Via this mix of dialects, Beolco establishes class and attitudinal differences in his
characters that are in essence geographic. People from the country and the city
speak differently, and the fact that the merchant speaks Venetian encodes his own
class position, which to this Paduan writer implies a capacity for exploitation.
In a similar way, Shakespeare also grounds difference in location, as the play
shifts from the court to pastoral Arden. Each setting has its own cultural valence,
with Arden serving to counteract some of the baleful effects of urban corruption
– though not always satisfactorily.
Beolco’s plays are typically socially conscious, wildly funny, and polylinguistic,
and through them he earned celebrity status in his lifetime. His plays depict a
number of prosperous old Venetian men, analogues of the affluent patricians who
had been exploiting the Terraferma – the lands outside the city within the domain
of the Venetian Republic – by enforcing high taxation and by using Ruzante’s
homeland as a theatre of war. In addition, theatre historians have credited Beolco,
along with his urban contemporary Andrea Calmo, with influencing indirectly the

  For the known facts about Ruzante’s life, see Linda L. Carroll, Angelo Beolco (Il
Ruzante) (Boston: Twayne, 1990); and Ronnie Ferguson, The Theatre of Angelo Beolco
(Ruzante): Text, Context and Performance (Ravenna: Longo, 2000). For a recent study that
applies the theory of Jerzy Grotowski to compare Ruzante’s Bilora and Shakespeare’s King
Lear, see Robert Henke, ‘Comparing Poverty: Fictions of a ‘Poor Theatre’ in Ruzante and
Shakespeare’, Comparative Drama 41 (2007): pp. 193–217.
Cornaro was a Venetian, but his rejected bid at being awarded patrician status led him to
relocate to Padua, where he continued to harbour anti-Venetian sentiments whose magnitude
is difficult to assess. On one hand, he always maintained numerous contacts in Venice and
visited the city often. We know, however, that he welcomed other aggrieved parties on
occasion at his country estate; see Linda Carroll, Language and Dialect in Ruzante and
Goldoni (Ravenna: Longo, 1981), p. 107. Possibly, similar senses of alienation – Beolco
from being an illegitimate son, Cornaro from feeling estranged from the city of his birth
– contributed to the mutual attraction of these two figures.
140 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

subsequent development of the Pantalone character of the commedia dell’arte. His

old Venetian males may be considered Pantalone’s direct precursors, as the stock
characters of Italian drama, ancient and early modern, furnished models for a later
generation of English playwrights.
For both plays considered here, sources of dramatic conflict reflect ongoing real-
life tensions between an urban centre and a struggling rural periphery. In the case of
L’Anconitana, the juxtaposition of oppressed rural Paduan and Venetian city dweller
could easily have put spectators in mind of ongoing Paduan hardship resulting from
Venetian political and economic practices. Not so long ago, the League of Cambrai,
composed in 1508 of Spain, France, Hungary, and the Holy Roman Empire (among
others), declared war against the Venetian Republic, with the aim of halting its
expansion and seizing some of its current possessions in the Terraferma. In 1509,
the devastating Battle of Agnadello occurred. Padua fell, only to be reconquered by
Venice within months. In autumn of that year, over 400,000 ducats worth of Paduan
property was destroyed. From this point until the end of the War of the League
of Cambrai in 1517, Venice managed to retain Padua, but the region continued to
experience fighting, and the Republic drew heavily all along on Paduan recruits
to sustain the war effort. Between the major Cambric war and the Turkish war
of the late 1530s, Venetian military activity continued. According to J.R. Hale’s
calculations, between 1509 and 1530, the army was reduced to a peacetime level in
only 62 of 252 months.10 Considering that Venice paid for defense of subject lands
largely through taxation in the Terraferma, Paduans such as Ruzante must have felt
keenly the economic burden of their region’s strategic location.

  On the connection between Ruzante and the commedia dell’arte, see Franco Fido,
‘An Introduction to the Theater of Angelo Beolco’, Renaissance Drama 6 (1973): p. 212,
where he argues that ‘Anconitana prefigures indeed the typology of the commedia dell’arte’,
and Ferguson, p. 140, where the same play is called ‘a key precursor-text of the Commedia
dell’Arte’. Christopher Cairns, Scenery, Set and Staging in the Italian Renaissance: Studies
in the Practice of Theatre (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1996), p. 182, detects in the early
Cinquecento the commedia dell’arte’s ‘prehistory’, ‘a cumulative experience of theatrical
practice conducted in the streets and squares, but also in the salons of the rich, which also
included the celebrated Ruzante’.
Perhaps the most suggestive piece of physical evidence for the connection is an
anonymous manuscript at the Archivio di Stato in Modena entitled Intermezzi villaneschi,
dating probably to the end of the sixteenth century. Its two intermezzi contain scenes
seemingly adapted from Bilora and L’Anconitana. According to Ludovico Zorzi, who
edited the monumental Teatro (Turin: Einaudi, 1967), the only modern edition of Ruzante’s
complete works, the existence of this manuscript testifies to the possible circulation of
Beolco’s work among later professional companies (Teatro, p. 1618).

  Robert Finlay, Politics in Renaissance Venice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
University Press, 1980), p. 166.

  M.E. Mallett and J.R. Hale, The Military Organization of a Renaissance State:
Venice c. 1400 to 1617 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 221–7.
  Ibid., p. 227.
The Problem of Old Age 141

Apart from the physical ravages of war and increased taxation, Paduans knew
a further, related source of bitterness: the large influx of Venetian patricians into
subject towns, where they assumed lucrative roles as landowners, administrators,
and ecclesiastical officeholders.11 With increasing centralisation of political power
in Venice, access to money and power was being restricted to a more limited group;
thus, relocation outside the city presented itself as the most attractive option for
many lesser nobles. Even the most affluent, however, were at times lured to the
country to gratify their appetites.12 These territorial excesses can be seen as an
extension of conspicuous consumption in the city. It hardly mattered that the wealth
of the Venetian nobility had been steadily diminishing: an emphasis on public
display of affluence and generosity grew in the early Cinquecento, as if to belie
the hard facts that the Republic’s plans for territorial expansion had been stymied
and an economic crisis had set in. Money was poured into majestic buildings,
parks, and lavish banquets in direct opposition to the ostensible Venetian ideal
of frugality.13 Governmental edicts banning excessive spending were passed on
several occasions, with no discernible results.14 Ironically, the beautiful theatres
where Beolco staged his plays themselves testified to the rich man’s ethos of living
lavishly. As Ludovico Zorzi has shown, investment in theatres represented one
facet of the patriciate’s redirected focus from maritime to terrestrial expenditures.
He concludes that there was consistently high tolerance for theatre, even during
periods of de jure prohibition on account of its potential subversiveness, in large
part because the spectacle it offered suited aristocratic interests.15

  Fasano Guarini, ‘Center and Periphery’, Journal of Modern History 67 (Dec.
1995): p. 87.
  Gaetano Cozzi, ‘Authority and the Law in Renaissance Venice’, in Renaissance
Venice, J.R. Hale (ed.) (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), pp. 296–7.
  Cozzi, p. 327, calls the late 1520s ‘the very worst years for the Venetian economy’.
Among the problems he enumerates are slowed wool production, rising exchange rates,
and a grain shortage. He maintains that conspicuous consumption persisted while a more
general pessimism set in.
  Two examples of such laws appear in David Chambers, Brian Pullan, and Jennifer
Fletcher (eds), Venice: A Documentary History, 1450–1630 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), pp.
178–80, both dated 1562: ‘The Regulation of Banquets’ and ‘Regulation of the Wearing of
Pearls’. The editors acknowledge that such edicts were not successfully enforced, while
their passage attests to the commonness of the practice under regulation. Indicating the
increase in spending in Beolco’s lifetime, it was not until 1515 that a permanent magistracy
was appointed to oversee the administration of sumptuary laws, although government
councils had been passing such laws sporadically for two centuries.
  Ludovico Zorzi, Il teatro e la città: Saggi sulla scena italiana (Turin: Einaudi,
1977), pp. 238, 248–9. Just as Venetians tended to disregard sumptuary laws, they often
ignored the threats of fines that accompanied the banning of dramatic performances. Zorzi
has located about 50 Venetian documents relating to theatrical suppression written between
1508 and 1794; he notes, ‘the decrees always resurface in periods of crisis’ (Il teatro,
pp. 248–9, my translation).
142 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

L’Anconitana is highly original, although readers have detected echoes in it of

Bibbiena’s La Calandra, Ariosto’s I Suppositi, and Bembo’s Gli Asolani. Much
like As You Like It, it incorporates a variety of literary and cultural referents,
although the main plot of Shakespeare’s play derives from one source, Thomas
Lodge’s novella Rosalynde. As the play begins, we learn that a merchant has
ransomed three Sicilian youths – Tancredi, Teodoro, and Gismondo – from
pirates who had captured and enslaved them. While awaiting funds from Sicily
to buy their freedom from the merchant, the three try to raise money in Padua
by offering their services to upper-class women. The wife of this play’s senex
amans falls in love with Gismondo and wishes to employ him, unaware that ‘he’
is really a Gaettan girl, Isotta, in disguise. The senex, Sier Tomao,16 an 80-year old
Venetian merchant retired to Padua, is also ignorant of her real identity. He knows
that his wife intends to cuckold him, but actually welcomes her employment of
the ‘boy’, figuring that so distracted, she will fail to notice his own pursuit of the
courtesan Doralice.
Beolco, as always, plays the wily Ruzante, but unlike in his earlier plays
where this character is a rural peasant, here he is an urbanised servant (in this
case, Tomao’s). Most of the action involving the young characters impinges little
on Tomao, and thus does not merit extensive summary here. Suffice it to say that
Tomao’s wife soon realises her error and diverts her attention to another giovane.
Isotta’s long-lost sister Ginevra appears, also dressed as a man, and after a series of
misunderstandings, Ginevra marries Teodoro, and Isotta Tancredi. What concerns
this essay are the frequent exchanges between master and servant, in which
Ruzante brings to prominence Tomao’s worst age-related foibles by putting him to
a series of tests designed (allegedly) to allow him to disprove having those defects.
Tomao is, in effect, attempting to convince Doralice that his reputation for avarice
and decrepitude is unfair. By preening and performing before Ruzante, whom he
then commands to report to the courtesan, the self-deluded Tomao embodies the
idea of the foolish, decrepit old man. Finally, Ruzante organises a tryst in the
country – Tomao with Doralice, himself with her servant Bessa – but the courtesan
insists that she needs money to settle a debt before she can leave the city. Tomao,
who eagerly gives over the money, refuses to recognise the transaction as an act
of prostitution and believes she loves him. The comedy ends with master and
servant bickering and fetching their belongings for the trip, while Tomao’s wife,
indifferent to it all, prepares to entertain her own suitor.
As for Ruzante’s choice to switch late in his career from composing peasant-
centred comedies (in the villanesca tradition) to classical models, Franco Fido
proposes that he may have felt he had exhausted the former type.17 On the surface,

  Zorzi, Teatro, pp. 1474–5, in an annotation to the play, explains that ‘Tomao’

translates in Venetian both as ‘ass’ and as ‘Thomas’. He points to this choice of name as
one example of ‘the ferocious derision of the author’ towards this character and his active
anti-Venetian position.
  Fido, p. 212.
The Problem of Old Age 143

their subjects seem less topical; Linda Carroll writes that they resemble ‘cloths
woven of approved themes and emotions’, but, true to Beolco’s Paduan and
peasant loyalties, ‘thin bright stripes of anger plaid’ the later plays.18 The centrality
of old age in L’Anconitana emerges at once, in the first prologue (of two) spoken
by Time, whom the playwright has summoned to usher in the dramatic action.
‘Tempo’ describes himself as ‘vincitore di quanto è creato’ (conqueror of all that is
created), but he in turn has been ‘vinto’ (conquered) in being persuaded to appear
before the spectators.19 The miracle he promises to effect during the comedy is, in
essence, to stop time’s passage, so that no one will age during the performance.
This is to say, paying attention to the players will cost the auditors none of their
life force:

Vi prometo, mentre che a li piacevoli ragionamenti, che a succedere hanno,

darete udienzia, ancora che la pronteza de l’ore non possi ritenere, nondimeno
farò che [né] per voi, né per conto del viver vostro volerano, ma per il rimanente
del mondo sí; e a la fine pervenuti, piú da me guadagnato che perduto averete.
(p. 777)

(I promise that while you listen to the pleasing speeches to come – although I
cannot slow the quickness of the hours – yet I will arrange it that those hours will
pass neither from you nor from your lives, but from the rest of the world, yes; so
in the end, you’ll have gained more from me than you’ve lost.)

The spectre of tottering Tomao haunts this play, yet if old age lies in wait for
everyone, Beolco wants to parry the charge that he has conducted his audience
even one whit closer to the obsolescence of his prime target. Spoken before a play
devoted so deeply to mocking the aged, the prologue would suggest that Tomao’s
corruption has not been temporally determined, if time can pass without loss. And
if the stoppage of time must finally be acknowledged as a fiction – ‘Tempo’ cannot
halt the hours outright – the didactic function of the drama can at least arrest the
advancement of corruption.
According to Jackson Cope, the inclusion of Time as a participant here reflects
Ruzante’s awareness of the origins of romance in centuries-old, regenerative

  Linda L. Carroll, ‘Carnival Rites as Vehicles of Protest in Renaissance Venice’,
Sixteenth Century Journal 16 (1985): p. 502. Carroll uses the word ‘plaid’ as a verb here.
  All quotations from Ruzante’s plays are taken from Zorzi’s Teatro. Parenthetical
citations refer to act, scene, and speech number, following the enumeration in Zorzi. For a
full English translation of the play, see Nancy Dersofi’s dual-language edition L’Anconitana/
The Woman from Ancona (Berkeley: University Press of California, 1994). Indispensible to
the task of rendering this multilingual drama into English have been Zorzi’s own translation
of Ruzante’s text into modern Italian and Giuseppe Boerio (ed.), Dizionario del dialetto
veneziano (Venice: Giovanni Cecchini, 1856; anastatic reprint, Florence: Giunti, 1998).
144 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

rituals.20 But he also mentions a difference: here, Time lays aside his allegorical
costume (‘in uno di questi canti lassiato ogni mio costume’, he says) in order
to watch the comedy as ‘a Padovano among Padovani’.21 It might be suggested,
extrapolating from Cope, that Time’s nonparticipation signals the refusal of
this comedy to complete the dramatic ritual: time does not move (and effect an
‘uncrowning’) because, literally, Time does not move (i.e., perform) following his
prologue. In ordinary circumstances, a wedding or some restoration of order would
conclude the comedy. Instead, Ruzante foils genre expectations. The old man’s
deluded self-assessment as a Don Juan remains unshaken, as at play’s end he and
his servant embark for the isle of Arquà to rendezvous with their mistresses.
Duped by his servant, who professes that damaging rumors have been
circulating in Padua regarding Tomao’s avarice, the senex freely parts with his
money to pay Doralice’s ‘debt’ and thereby disprove the gossip. Naturally, Ruzante
pockets a portion of these funds to assist him in courting Bessa. Tomao’s private
fear that he may be squandering his fortune on a doomed endeavor belies his new
public display of generosity, just as his physical failures confirm the rumours’
allegations of debility. As early as Tomao’s first scene, the catalogue of ailments
begins: when alone on stage, he admits that his eyesight is failing (‘La vista no me
serve tropo ben’) and that walking around the city irritates his catarrh (2.1.4). But
Ruzante knows his master’s vanity, his mistaken conviction that he has nurtured
with success a robust public reputation, and anticipates that these new rumours,
whether trumped up or not,22 will make him an easy mark. The servant reports a
list of Tomao’s defects that have become public knowledge: he is stingy, has bad
breath, has musty-smelling feet and armpits, is filthy, has poor posture, coughs like
a hen, farts louder than gunshot, has a hernia like bagpipes (‘che ’l par un cassil da
piva’), and suffers from ‘maroele’ (hemorrhoids) (2.4.69–77). He intersperses with
these several unflattering epithets, including ‘spauraia da colombi’ (scarecrow)
and ‘galo sberozò’ (castrated rooster) (2.4.79). The exchange about hemorrhoids
takes up several lines while Ruzante tries to remember the name of the malady. It
is striking that Ruzante refers to the effects of hemorrhoids in terms of gestation:
the old man’s spasms of pain are so great, ‘par ch’a’ fazè un puto, quando a’ caghè’
(it’s like you make a baby when you shit) (2.4.77). Based on Tomao’s premonition
of impotence quoted above, there is every reason to doubt he can ‘make a baby’ in
the normal way. But his infirmity represents normalcy in an 80-year-old. The true

  Jackson Cope, Dramaturgy of the Daemonic: Studies in Antigeneric Theater from
Ruzante to Grimaldi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), pp. 28–9.
  Ibid., 29.
  In 2.2, Bessa confides in Ruzante that his master suffers in the eyes of her mistress
because he watches his money too closely (‘guarde a dinari’) (22). She proceeds to whisper
to him inaudibly a sequence of Tomao’s faults, all of which have reached her by word
of mouth. In this exchange, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of Bessa’s complicity in
Ruzante’s later plan. She is either passing on gossip she has actually heard or concocting it
to provide Ruzante with the means of duping his master.
The Problem of Old Age 145

contradiction – the violation of natural law, so to speak – lies in Tomao’s resolve to

deny his proper place, to substitute birth throes for the aches of advanced age.
Ruzante’s abusive description of him suggests the extent to which the
senex amans could appear a grotesquerie on stage. Even if we assume that his
servant is painting an exaggerated picture, Tomao lends it some legitimacy by
acknowledging the likelihood that others might accept it wholesale. It is especially
the contorted physicality attributed to the senex that anticipates pictorial renderings
of the commedia dell’arte mask of Il Magnifico (eventually Pantalone) later in
the century.23 Immediately, as expected, Tomao attempts to refute the negative
physical portrayal by putting his body to the test, a response calculated to amuse
both his servant and the spectators. First, in order to demonstrate that his body is
not misshapen, he removes his cloak; Ruzante, now playing the sycophant, marvels
that he is indeed ‘si’ derto co’ è un scato’ (straight as an arrow) (2.4.83). Next,
Tomao takes up Ruzante’s challenge to walk fast, then to trot, and the unwonted
exertion leads to a pratfall, at which the servant feigns shock. The master blames
his accident on faulty clogs, leading the other to repudiate the rumour about his
physical debility, even though Tomao has hardly proven, as Ruzante insists, that
he is as ‘idente su le gambe, con è un bel levriero’ (vigorous on his legs as a
fine greyhound). All that remains, Ruzante informs him, is to dissuade the world
that he is ‘scarso’ (stingy) (2.4.89). This suggested change in disposition, timed
perfectly to follow praise of his physical self-fashioning, triggers the loosening of
the purse strings that was Ruzante’s objective all along: Doralice must be assured,
‘se l’ha bisogno de danari, che la me comanda’ (if she needs money, she may
command me) (2.4.90).
Thus, the character Ruzante manipulates the old man as a source of money
and jests, the two entities he values most, but beneath the playfulness lies a latent
animosity the artist ‘Ruzante’ can never quite dispel. For example, in the same
scene, while Tomao sings a traditional love song, his servant interrupts him,
saying he identifies better with other ditties. Ruzante offers snatches of these
alternative ‘love songs’, which amplify love’s clichéd agonies to veiled threats of
violence: ‘Anema mia, se sola te catasse’ (My soul, if I found you alone), ‘Cavato
ve voria esser lo core’ (I would like your heart to be pulled out),24 and ‘Cortelo in
lo magon per mezo el core’ (Knife in the chest through the heart) (2.4.55). Indeed,
protestations of love connected with Tomao tend to have a menacing aspect, as
when he courts Doralice in Act 4. He is able to speak in successive breaths about
his wish to stab the rumourmongers plaguing him and his desire to make love
to her (4.5.119–20). His lasciviousness growing, he addresses the beloved as a

  Zorzi, editorial annotation in Ruzante, Teatro, p. 1470.


  My translation of this line cannot capture its equivocal meaning. Boerio defines

‘cavàr el cuor‘ as ‘spezzare il cuore’, i.e., to break one’s heart. Thus, on one hand Ruzante
is singing of heartbreak – ‘I want your heart to be broken’ – but ‘cavare’ also can mean
‘to extract, to tear out’, as in, ‘I want your heart to be torn out of your chest.’ The violent
implication becomes clearer once the next lyric has introduced a knife.
146 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

consumable: called ‘carne mie’ (my flesh), she will satisfy his carnal appetites
because she is ‘pí dolce che coronela de zucaro’ (sweeter than a sugar crescent)
(120, my emphasis).
The boldness of his speech seems to shock even Ruzante, who after they depart
the lady’s company marvels, ‘A’ parí cossí un stizo coverto in lo viso, e sí a’ si’ un
mal sbregon, vu. A’ no l’ara mé crezú …’ (you seem on the outside a smoldering
ember, and yet you’re a real chatterer. I never would have believed it) (129).25
While this assertion may only be more backhanded flattery, Ruzante actually
seems briefly discombobulated. At this point, he interrupts his train of thought to
utter an obscure platitude and an unclear comparison between women and plums,
a subject he promptly drops (129). He regains his composure, but the spectacle of
the old man’s lust in Doralice’s presence has managed to unsettle his fixed idea of
the master’s obsolescence, to remind him that threatening power can reside in, that
is, it can lie ‘smoldering’ in, a feeble Venetian body.
The play’s final scene (5.4) suggests with its antigeneric content Beolco’s refusal
to subordinate his anger (personified in Ruzante) to the needs of a traditional happy
ending. There will be no pardon for the senex amans, nor will he ask for any, nor
will he give his blessing to the weddings of the young lovers, whose business gets
concluded speedily in Act 5, scene 1. Tomao actually hints at his own enduring
condemnation while nervously awaiting their meeting with the two prostitutes.
Issuing from his home, where his wife will soon cuckold him, he declares, ‘Amor
me travaia, el par che aspete una sentenzia de lite’ (Love so torments me, it’s as
if I’m waiting for a verdict in court), and at that moment he feels come over him
what he describes as ‘i susti de la morte’ (the breath of death) (27). In this instant,
he confronts, albeit faintly, a dual, long-denied reality – his guilt and his mortality
– only to banish these thoughts in the next breath, a prayer to God that after all
this trouble, he will not have squandered his money. His mind has returned to the
defense mechanism of the practical. He orders Ruzante back into the house to
fetch some essential items, the paraphernalia not of lovers’ trysts but of comic old
age: a nightcap, slippers, unguent for sciatica, and a urinal (44). Once they have
departed, Tomao asks Ruzante if he has remembered to bring his sword, a curved
model called a ‘çinquedea’ (61). Meanwhile Ruzante, burdened with Tomao’s gear
and bickering with his master, discovers they have been going the wrong way.
He curses the time lost, shouting in the play’s final speech, ‘Cancaro a i stuorti e
a i driti’ (Shit on the curved ones and on the straight!) (64). And insofar as these
adjectives denote, in some contexts, moral direction, his curse articulates Tomao’s
own depraved attitude, indifferent to the respective merits of the ‘wrong’ and the

  The translations of coronela as ‘crescent’ and coverto as ‘smoldering’ I owe to
Dersofi’s English translation. Boerio’s dictionary corroborates these choices. Coronela
means ‘cuticle’, and apparently in Beolco’s time a similarly shaped pastry became called
this as well. An omo coverto is a man who is dark (cupo) and does not readily reveal
his intentions. The verb covare in standard modern Italian retains the double sense of ‘to
smolder, to lie hidden’.
The Problem of Old Age 147

‘right’. Among the powerful, ethical distinctions have become irrelevant, and what
remains, even at the end of comedy, is the angry voice of the dispossessed.
Dispossession – of lands, of inheritance – marks also Shakespeare’s As You
Like It, a play that has much to say about old age and the aging process. One of the
play’s central juxtapositions is that of senex and puer, which occurs twice, in the
pairing of the old shepherd Corin with young Silvius, and in the master-servant
dyad of boyish Orlando and faithful Adam. The cooperation and selflessness that
mark Orlando and Adam’s relationship demonstrate that productive harmony can
exist between youth and age, although it is important to note that their partnership,
deriving from a difference in rank and the fact that Adam used to serve Orlando’s
father, is unequal by definition. Still, their loyalty is mutual, befitting the terms
of the ‘constant service of the antique world’ (2.3.57).26 Adam offers all his gold
to the banished youth and vows to attend him with his remaining strength, while
Orlando’s sole concern later is to provide for the old man when he is weak and
famished in Arden.
In Act 2, Adam reveals that he has long anticipated that advanced age would
one day lead to his firing. He has saved 500 crowns for the unhappy prospect
of forced retirement, when ‘service’ should become ‘unregarded age in corners
thrown’ (2.3.41–2). His exemplary private behaviour – the refusal of ‘hot and
rebellious liquors’ and other ‘means of weakness and debility’ (2.3.49, 51) – has
allowed him, he declares, to approach 80 years of age in robust physical condition,
so that he can promise to perform for Orlando ‘the service of a younger man’ in
their travels (2.3.54). He does not manage to keep this promise: the hardships of
their trip to Arden wear him down much faster than they do Orlando. However,
the exaggeration of his physical prowess hardly condemns him, as sacrificing his
own comfort for the sake of his late master’s son remains all that can give his life
meaning. Also, Orlando has to suspect his limitations, for not long after having
stated his qualifications, Adam lets slip his true motive for accompanying the
youth, namely, ‘to die well’ (2.3.76).
Adam may have been a powerfully suggestive figure at the time of this play’s
first performance because he transforms himself (by choice, no less) into one of
his society’s greatest fears: an impoverished vagrant. As Marcia McDonald has
argued, the ‘poverty issues’ in the 1590s make this fantastical pastoral setting
‘decidedly more local’.27 In England, the most vivid, frightening threats to stability
– poverty and vagrancy – were widespread by the late 1500s. These conditions
afflicted unfortunates of both genders and all ages, of course, but evidence exists
that the elderly made up a disproportionately high share of the poor population
and thus might have emblematised in some situations society’s collective decline.
According to one statistical study, the elderly (defined as those 60 or over)

  All quotations from Shakespeare are taken from The Complete Works of
Shakespeare, David Bevington (ed.), 5th ed. (New York: Longman, 2004).
  Marcia McDonald, ‘The Elizabethan Poor Laws and the Stage in the Late 1590s’,
Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 7 (1995): p. 128.
148 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

composed about 10 percent of the early modern English population, a considerably

lesser figure than in Britain today, but the percentage of elderly among the poor
(defined as those receiving some Poor Law relief) ranged from 14 to 32 in the
four towns for which census data is available, Norwich, Ipswich, Warwick, and
Salisbury. Based on these figures, a correlation seems to have existed between
age and poverty in greater population centres.28 Poverty increased significantly in
rural areas as well, as applications for poor relief demonstrate, due to higher rates
of landlessness brought on largely by enclosures.29 In many cases, some of these
disenfranchised peasants, constrained to seek new employment elsewhere, were
responsible for inflating the poor population in the towns. Aged people who lacked
any equivalent of Adam’s nest egg were less attractive as potential labourers in a
tight economy where supply exceeded demand. Meanwhile, many of the elderly
poor lacked the family support to escape destitution: fully one third of old people
in pre-industrial England had no surviving children.30 For these reasons, as Alan
Macfarlane concludes about the sixteenth-century economic crisis, ‘The problems
of poverty and old age are closely connected.’31
Many features of As You Like It evoke contemporary fears of widespread riots
due to the effects of enclosure, as Richard Wilson has demonstrated. Noting that
this comedy appeared at the end of a decade marked by famine and dispossession,
he calls it ‘a drama of enclosure and exclusion’ and Orlando ‘the bogeyman of the
Elizabethan rich’.32 His starting-off point is Charles’ description of Duke Senior’s
entourage as inhabiting Arden ‘like the old Robin Hood’ (1.1.112), the celebrated
twelfth-century outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Indeed, this
comparison might have been troubling to an English aristocracy that feared this
very redistribution should the rule of law not prevail over the beggared masses. At
the same time, other textual elements relate specifically to the experience of the
poor elderly in the midst of agricultural crisis. For example, by tingeing the idyll
of Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde with shades of economic realism, Shakespeare
likens old Corin to the English farmers who were struggling to eke out a living.
Because the old shepherd’s employer ‘is of churlish disposition’ and intends to
sell his property, Corin informs Rosalind, ‘there is nothing / That you will feed on’
(2.4.76, 81–2).

  Lloyd Bonfield, ‘Was There a ‘Third Age’ in the Preindustrial English Past? Some
Evidence from the Law,” in An Aging World: Dilemmas and Challenges for Law and Social
Policy, John Eekelaar and David Pearl (eds) (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), pp. 43–4.
  Pat Thane, Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 103.
  Ibid., p. 11.
  Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction
1300–1840 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 107.
  Richard Wilson, ‘“Like the old Robin Hood”: As You Like It and the Enclosure
Riots’, Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): pp. 5–6.
The Problem of Old Age 149

Orlando has also suffered at the hands of an abusive property holder, his
brother Oliver, who eventually has his own lands seized by Duke Frederick. This
pattern of confiscation, reminiscent of the redesignation of land that had been so
disastrous to the English peasantry, unmakes Adam, too, for Oliver communicates
the expendable nature of the servant (calling him an ‘old dog’) (1.1.78) right
after he rejects Orlando’s suit for advancement. Adam’s mistreatment compels
his retreat to Arden and subsequent starvation, relieved finally by the bounty of
his fellow forest-dwellers in Act 2, scene 7. If Wilson is correct, his plight would
have kindled in the Elizabethan spectator’s mind the sharp reality of dearth and
resultant food riots. Certainly, his distress reflected the condition of a growing
number of unwelcome, elderly poor depending for their survival on the resources
of communities that saw themselves as already strained.
As the numbers of the poor soared in the sixteenth century, Parliament passed
a series of measures to confront the problem, culminating in the Poor Law of
1601, which remained in force well into the nineteenth century.33 According to the
stipulations of this developing legislation, all able-bodied persons were expected
to work; no paid retirement upon a certain age existed, as Adam shows he is
aware.34 Regarding the indigent elderly who were physically incapable of work,
the law placed primary responsibility for their maintenance on their children.35
When no children existed, or they could prove themselves unable to support
their aged parents, the administration of the local parish was obligated to provide
relief. It did so using a tax collected for this express purpose, called a ‘poor rate’.36

  Macfarlane, p. 106.

  Macfarlane claims that the absence of retirement contracts in early modern England

reflects the high standing of individual property rights. He concludes, ‘The reputation the
English have for not caring for their old is thus in one sense justified; loneliness is a price
that is paid for economic and political individualism’ (p. 116).
In Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), Michael MacDonald discusses the
frequent reluctance of children to pay for the daily care, including medical costs, of their
aged parents. Fears of filial abandonment often caused old persons to retain control of
their property until the very end, a decision that enforced the continued solicitude of their
children but led on some occasions to resentment (pp. 45–7). A fair number of extant Tudor-
Stuart ballads deal with the contempt of neglectful older children for their aging parents
who had relinquished control of property, for which see the subsection ‘Tales of Rejection
of Elderly Parents by Adult Children,” in Alice Tobriner, ‘Old Age in Tudor-Stuart Ballads’,
Folklore 102 (1991): pp. 158–62.
  Ralph Houlbrooke, The English Family 1450–1700 (London: Longman, 1984),
p. 26, determines that ‘the poor stood least chance of having children living near who were
able to help them if they survived till old age’. He identifies this tendency as accounting
for the high percentage of the aged among poor relief recipients, noting that they ‘always
bulked largest’ in this group (p. 26).
  Poor law legislation stressed the advisability of eliminating mendicancy by
encouraging all able-bodied people to work, including the aged. For example, the treatise
150 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

A great amount of anecdotal and documentary evidence suggests the unpopularity

of and frequent resistance to the economic burden imposed by this rate. Some
towns like Norwich established a strict three-year settlement rule before a resident
could apply for poor relief, a defensive measure designed to combat the rising
influx of poor vagrants from nearby localities.37 Pat Thane has studied the ‘strict
limits’ to ‘neighbourliness’ evident in city records, which testify to the close watch
some citizens kept over how poor relief was doled out. Citing one example, she
quotes from a charge made against the overseer of the Norfolk pensions that he
allowed a woman to collect even though her son-in-law ‘lived idle and refused to
labour though able of body’.38
Although the provisions for poor relief also provided funds to younger people
(and in fact, whole families), the disproportionate numbers of the aged among
the poor, coupled with a prevailing negative attitude towards old age, tended to
scapegoat them. Inadequate public resolve prevented the institution of poor relief
from satisfying the needs of all old people, many of whom either scraped by on
minimal aid or were refused assistance altogether. Also, most managers of the
poor relief system cared more about the prevention of riots than the well-being of
the elderly poor; since old people were perceived as unlikely to create civil unrest,
their delinquent children tended not to be prosecuted for refusing to sustain them,
as dictated by law.39 This frequent inattention by both the family and the state to
the problem of the aged poor gives truth to the fool’s remark in John Marston’s
Jacke Drums Entertainment, published only two years after As You Like It, that
‘poor and need hath no law’.40
The pained awareness of the absence of ameliorative law appears to have
been just as acute for Beolco, as another, earlier Beolcan text, La Prima Oratione
(1521), indicates. Performed for the Bishop of Padua at Cornaro’s country estate,
this monologue contrasts country and city, to the former’s advantage, before
asking the bishop to consider several new canon laws designed to benefit farmers.
Although the tone of the oration is comic to the extreme – one proposed law would

Orders Appointed to Be Executed in the Cittie of London, for setting roges and idle persons
to worke, and for releefe of the poore (London, 1570), p. 30, stipulated that ‘none of the
poor, or their children, be suffered to beg or wander in the streets, but be exercised upon
meet labor toward the getting of their living in honest sort’. Exceptions were to be made not
for all old persons, but for the ‘aged lame and impotent … not to be cured or able to labor’
(p. 14). Those who refused to work could be sent to Bridewell (p. 31).
  Margaret Pelling, ‘Old Age, Poverty and Disability in Early Modern Norwich:
Work, Remarriage, and Other Expedients’, in Life, Death, and the Elderly: Historical
Perspectives, Margaret Pelling and Richard M. Smith (eds) (London: Routledge, 1991),
p. 80.
  Thane, p. 108.
  Tobriner, p. 169.
  Jacke Drums Entertainment: or the Comedie of Pasquill and Katherine. As it hath
bene sundry times plaide by the Children of Powles (London, 1601), p. 5.
The Problem of Old Age 151

outlaw monogamy so that city and country folk, interbreeding, might become
over time one ‘parentò’ (‘kin’) (Teatro, 1203) – in it the speaker alludes to the
real injustices urbanites were perpetrating on the farming class. Lorena Favoretto
affirms the political sensitivity of this content, for among the spectators ‘it is
probable that a good number of people … Venetians and Paduans, had a case
pending regarding their own fiscal immunity [i.e., from taxation] … and had found
a lawyer to defend themselves from the Territory, or even, still worse, from the
peasants whose privileges they strove to oppose’.41 In this way, the political bite of
Beolco’s works threatens to override the capacity of his stage personages to arouse
reassuring laughter. Just as hardship and harsh weather in Arden qualify its own
status as a regenerative setting, Beolco refuses to allow the audience of the Oration
to entertain a vision of some nameless rural utopia, but instead engages their vivid,
often embattled experience with what Favoretto calls their own ‘contado vivo’
(living countryside).42
In neither of these plays do the strains between the urban and rural worlds get
anything close to resolved. As surely as in L’Anconitana, in As You Like It the social
institutions and dilemmas that precipitate the withdrawal to Arden (including but
not limited to primogeniture and enclosure) remain in force at play’s end. Duke
Senior even calls attention to the deep-rooted disparity between rich and poor in his
final wish that all now prosper ‘according to the measure of their states’ (5.4.174).
The salvation of Adam – the emblem of the aged, disenfranchised poor – owes
itself to the plenty he and Orlando eventually stumble upon and the generosity of
its possessors. This fortuitous intervention seldom had a corollary in wider English
society, where growing numbers of the indigent were outstripping the public will
to fund adequate poor relief. Even in Arden itself, profit-seeking dealing in land
may go on, dispossessing the forest’s longstanding inhabitants.
In portraying the un-idyllic aspects of Arden – Corin’s master; the ‘winter’s
wind’ that the exiles feel (and accept) as ‘the penalty of Adam’ (2.1.7, 5) –
Shakespeare conveys the real suffering felt by the unwelcome poor and the threat
they posed to authority as potentially ungovernable masses. The negligence so
often shown the aged poor seems to have arisen at least in part from the belief that
this group endangered the peace less than the younger, more volatile unemployed.
But if they were powerless, they were also highly visible – and thus troubling
psychologically. We see, then, that Ruzante’s and Shakespeare’s old men occupy
different socioeconomic positions, the former being of the wealthy, exploiting
class and the latter of the servant class, one bad break away from destitution. Yet
each play’s investigation of social ills conjoins old age and poverty in ways that
reveal them both as enduring problems which comedy fails to dispel, let alone
to solve.

  Lorena Favoretto, ‘Il territorio padovano nell’epoca del Ruzante: l’indagine storica
e il messaggio letterario’, Quaderni veneti 27–8 (1998): p. 39. My translation.
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Chapter 9
Ruzante and Shakespeare:
A Comparative Case-Study
Robert Henke


The polydialectal, resolutely local, and idiosyncratic theatre of Angelo Beolco

(in arte Ruzante), the ‘great unapproachable’ in Richard Andrews’ apt phrase,
did not influence Shakespeare or any other early modern English dramatist. No
demonstrable connection links the two playwrights, such as can be positively
identified between Ariosto’s I suppositi and the Lucentio-Bianca subplot of The
Taming of the Shrew via George Gascoigne’s Supposes, an engaging translation
of Ariosto’s play performed at Gray’s Inn in 1566 to an Inns of Court audience
highly curious about the new forms of theatre coming from Renaissance Italy.
Unlike paradigmatic dramatists such as Ariosto and Bibbiena, who along with
the later commedia dell’arte actor-‘composers’ modularly deployed a flexible but
finite system of ‘theatregrams’ that Louise George Clubb and others have shown to
be cognate with the structural system of Shakespeare’s plays, Beolco’s persistent
attachment (both cognitively, as a dramatist, and physically, in the muscle-
memory of the practicing actor) to local popular forms such as the bulesca, the
mariazo, the villanesca, and the buffonesca could be seen to pull him outside of
this international system of genres, topoi, plots, and character structures. The
very ‘genius’ of both Ruzante and Shakespeare, even when correctly specified as
the distinctly collaborative genius operative in the particularly social medium of
theatre, and forged in the particularly fertile social-theatrical environments of the
Veneto in the early Cinqucento and London at the turn of the seventeenth century
may be seen to render them, quite literally, incomparable.

  Scripts and Scenarios: The Performance of Comedy in Renaissance Italy
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 143.

  Louise George Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare’s Time (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1989).

  For a fine discussion of the myriad popular forms deployed by Ruzante in concert
and tension with classical dramatic forms, see ‘Explorations of Genre and Language’ in
Ronnie Ferguson, The Theater of Angelo Beolco (Ruzante): Text, Context, and Performance
(Ravenna: Longo, 2000), pp. 121–61.
154 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Striking differences between the two playwrights may easily enough be

identified, mostly stemming from the significantly greater presence of the actor
Beolco in his scripted plays relative to Shakespeare. From that follow several
corollaries: relative to Shakespeare, a high frequency of monologues and dialogues,
written for the roles of ‘Ruzante’ and ‘Menato’ (played by Beolco’s friend Marco
Aurelio Alvarotto); extending from this dyadic character system, a generally
more restricted character alignment built around the small circle of Paduan
patrician youth forming the semi-professional company that Ruzante directed; a
significantly smaller compass of plots and situations, organised mostly around
the peasant or villano figure in the first half of his career and then increasingly
conditioned by the structures of humanistic comedy as developed by Ariosto and
others in the second half; the unambiguous expression throughout the corpus of
the playwright’s own philosophy of ‘snaturalità’, in contrast with Shakespeare’s
notorious ideological elusiveness; and a higher incidence of occasional drama in
Beolco’s work, usually prompted by visits and other events at the estates of the
playwright’s patron, Alvise Cornaro.
Many other striking differences could of course be identified. Still, Ruzante’s
very greatness, widely acknowledged by Italian scholar and theatre practitioners
in despite of his undervaluation outside of Italy, might itself prompt a certain kind
of comparative investigation with Shakespeare in regard to select issues. This
essay proposes comparison by homology, proposed by Claudio Guillén in The
Challenge of Comparative Literature as one of several viable and important modes
of transnational inquiry. Especially when set against the leading contemporary
dramatists in, respectively, early Cinquecento Italy and Elizabethan/Jacobean
England – Ariosto, Bibbiena, Aretino, and Machiavelli in Italy; Marlowe, Webster,
Jonson, Dekker, Middleton, Chapman, Marston, and Fletcher in England – several
kinds of homologies may be observed between Ruzante and Shakespeare, which
will in turn help to analyse salient differences. The first part of this essay, then,
examines four homologies in the lives and careers of Beolco and Shakespeare that
stand out in some relief when the two playwrights are set against their peers in Italy
and England: the fact that they were both working actors throughout the course of
their playwriting careers; their status as both insiders and outsiders in relationship
to centres of power and culture; a restless habit of formal experimentation,
especially in negotiating ‘popular’ and ‘learned’ strains; and a deep experience
with and continued interest in rural life. The second part of the essay compares
the playwrights’ representation of poverty, hunger, and charity, in the context of
certain economic and social homologies between early modern Venice and London

 True, it might be added, of almost every early modern playwright relative to

  Especially if the course of an entire career is considered, Cornaro’s influence on
Beolco significantly outstripped that of Shakespeare’s patron Southampton.

  See Claudio Guillén, The Challenge of Comparative Literature, tr. Cola Franzen
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 70.
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 155

(poverty did not respect borders). If early modern poverty stemmed in large part
from agricultural crises in the early stages of capitalism, Ruzante and Shakespeare
may have been especially well poised, because of their backgrounds, to represent
the structural connections between rural and urban poverty.


Notwithstanding the significantly higher profile of the playwright Beolco in his

corpus, the fact that he and Shakespeare were both actors and directors does stand
out in relief when they are set against their fellow playwrights in Italy and England.
Excepting Giovanni Battista Andreini, no other major Italian or English playwrights
in the early modern period arguably worked so actively and continually as an actor
in the theatre. Active work in theatrical companies (semi-professional for Beolco,
professional for Shakespeare) generated particular affinities in the respective
corpuses for performance-based phenomena, such as the verbal and gestural gags
of improvising performers such as buffoni and clowns, and is clear that Shakespeare
as well as Beolco wrote parts for specific actors (in this respect, of course, like most
of their dramatist peers). Ruzante, it might fairly be acknowledged, must have been
a significantly better actor than Shakespeare, whom documentary evidence does not
link with any major role, but unlike Ben Jonson (the only other high-profile English
Renaissance playwright who might have a claim in this regard) Shakespeare’s work
as an actor was constant and continual. The contemporary testimony of Bernardino
Scardeone, a Paduan chronicler and author of De antiquitatae urbis Patavini, that
Beolco used to mix with peasants from the countryside outside of Padua, imitating
their speech and even exchanging clothes with them, bespeaks an extraordinary
mimic facility that he brought to his famous peasant or villano role of ‘Ruzante’,
which according to Marin Sanudo seems to have distinguished him in his first
recorded performance in 1520 with the Immortali, one of the Compagnie delle
Calze.10 Ruzante also learned the skill of impersonation, or ‘contraffare’, from

 One might extend this exception to other actor-writers of the commedia dell’arte
such as Pier Maria Cecchini, except that only Giovanni Battista Andreini can more
considered, like Beolco, even more important as a playwright than as an actor.

 Other English playwrights documented with acting experience include Anthony
Munday, Thomas Heywood, William Rowley, and Nathanial Field. It is possible, although
highly speculative, that John Webster acted professionally.

 Cited by Emilio Lovarini, Studi sul Ruzante e la letteratura pavana, Gianfranco
Folena (ed.) (Padua: Antenore, 1965), p. 45; from Bernardino Scardeone, De antiquitate
urbis Patavii et claris civibus Patavinis (Basel: N. Episcopium, 1560), p. 255. The name
itself ‘Ruzante’ seems to have been taken from a particular village, Pernumia, frequented
by Beolco (Lovarini, Studi sul Ruzante, pp. 43–4).
  Marin Sanudo, Diarii, R. Fulin, F. Stefani, N. Barozzi, G. Berchet, M. Allegri (eds)
(Venice: Visentini, 1879–1902), XXVII, pp. 253–6.
156 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

famous Venetian buffoni such as Zuan Polo Liompardi and Domenico Taiacalze,
with whom he frequently performed. If there is any basis to the legends that
Shakespeare played the roles of Adam in As You Like It and the ghost in Hamlet, he
must have been a completely different kind of actor, for these parts appear to require
gravitas and sententiousness. Still, compared with Webster, Jonson, Middleton,
and other contemporaries, Shakespeare appears to draw from the life-blood of the
working clown to a much greater extent. Hamlet’s critique of this figure,11 whose
gifts are comparable to the Italian buffone in improvisational composition, skill in
impersonation, and a non-representational form of acting at odds with the humanist
desiderata of verisimilitude with which Hamlet identifies in his speech, cannot be
equated with Shakespeare’s own view, especially when the central protagonist of his
most famous play himself exhibits verbal and physical gags and techniques proper
to the clown.

Insider and Outsider

In this regard, Ruzante and Shakespeare do not immediately stand out relative to
their playwriting contemporaries in Italy and England. Many if not most Italian
and English Renaissance playwrights held liminal relationships to centres of power
and influence. Theatre in the period was both highly valued – as it tended to be in
courts and privileged cultural settings such as Italian academies and the English
Inns of court – and harshly disparaged, as it generally was by ecclesiastical and
municipal authorities, and by gentlemanly and aristocratic individuals who might
not have had any personal investment in theatre.
Still, the dynamics of this paradox compare strikingly between the two
playwrights. Because of land purchases dating back to his grandfather, Beolco
had access to his family’s considerable holdings in the country, and enjoyed living
in the fine Paduan house purchased by his successful father, but because he was
illegitimate – probably the son of a family maid whose father was an ‘operarius’12
– he inherited only a small sum. Because of his grandfather’s connections with
the early Venetian printing industry and the University of Padua and his father’s
prestigious position as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Arts at the university,
Beolco had strong ties there, taking classes and probably using the university as
the initial venue for La pastoral and other early dramatic ventures, but he never
was able to take a degree – also probably because of his illegitimacy. Thanks to
Cornaro’s patronage, Ruzante gained access to a vital centre of culture, art, and

  Hamlet 3.2.38–45. All Shakespeare citations refer to The Riverside Shakespeare,
second edition (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
 The term is taken from the will of Beolco’s father, Giovanni Francesco Beolco.
See E. Menegazzo and P. Sambin, ‘Nuove explorazioni archivistiche per Angelo Beolco e
Alvise Cornaro’, Italia medievale e umanistica II (1964): p. 219.
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 157

power in the Veneto; Cornaro himself, however, felt marginalised and excluded
from the inner circles of the Venetian patriciate.13
For his part, Shakespeare came from a solid enough provincial family, even
during the period when he had to endure his father’s fall from grace beginning in
the mid-1570s. Still, among his boisterous but sophisticated colleagues Christopher
Marlowe, Thomas Watson, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, and
Robert Greene, whom he would have met sometime in the late 1580s, the Stratford
newcomer would have indeed seemed like an ‘upstart crow’, as Greene derisively
called him in the 1593 Greene’s Groat’s-Worth of Wit.14 Notwithstanding their
evident admiration of Shakespeare because of his early success in the Henry VI
plays, they would tended to have looked down on the ‘upstart’ not because of his
relatively humble beginnings (most of them came from humble stock), but because,
unlike them, he did not have a university degree. Additionally, Shakespeare’s rural
background would have stood out in this group, and might have been the butt of a
few jokes. Shakespeare was not of course without learning, with the solid bilingual
education of the Stratford Grammar School and his close access to the London book
trade via his fellow Stratford immigrant Richard Field, but like Beolco he lacked
the official imprimatur of a degree. Unlike Webster, Dekker, Jonson, Middleton,
and Heywood, Shakespeare played no identifiable role in civic events such as
James’ coronation or the Lord Mayor’s pageants. Like Cornaro in relationship to
Ruzante, if less on a daily basis and over a less extended period of time, his patron
Southampton provided to Shakespeare immediate access to culture and power,
probably including the acquaintance of John Florio through whom Shakespeare
would have learned much about Italian culture and theatre, but Southampton’s
unfortunate fate after his support of Essex bespeaks the marginality of his patron.

Formal Range and Experimentation

Ruzante and Shakespeare were keenly interested in popular forms, both dramatic
and non-dramatic, while also remaining deeply invested in humanist-based dramatic
form: it is arguably the case that the melding of the ‘popular’ and the ‘learned’ forms
the basis of their art. For example, in representing the connection between poverty
and crime both Ruzante and Shakespeare light upon newly-formed urban popular
genres: the bulesca and the cony-catching pamphlet, which in fact are comparable in
their constellation of urban toughs (bravi), taverns, prostitutes, violence, and crime
perpetrated by the desperate.15 In Ruzante, the turn in the latter part of this career

  For a discussion of the ambiguous positions of both Beolco and Cornaro, see
Ferguson, The Theatre of Angelo Beolco, pp. 111–15.
 Cited and discussed by Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary
Life (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 115–16.
  For a discussion of the bulesca genre, as well as the texts of the genre that Beolco
probably knew, see Bianca Maria da Rif, La letteratura “alla bulesca.” Testi rinascimentali
158 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

towards humanist drama following neo-classical principles can be confidently

asserted, with the ample evidence of La Piovana, La Fiorina, and L’Anconitana; in
Shakespeare, scholars might debate the significance of his turn, in The Tempest, to
the unities, but it is still striking. In both cases, the late turn towards neo-classical
dramaturgy simply continues a career of restless dramaturgical experimentation:
continual work in mixed genres that demonstrates both awareness of codified
distinctions and the willingness to violate those codes. Both playwrights test the
generic limits of comedy to a greater extent than their dramatic peers. Beolco’s La
pastoral hinges on the character Ruzante’s dispatching of his father by means of
‘medicine’ obtained from the Bergamask doctor; his mid-career masterpiece Bilora
ends with a peasant killing a usurious merchant. The Parlamento and Moscheta
similarly challenge the limits of comic form, of which Beolco would have been well
aware from his knowledge of Mandragola and Ariosto’s early comedies,16 perhaps
not viewing standard humanist form as fully commensurable with the social and
economic pressures of the Veneto in this time of crisis.17 Whether in his mid-career
‘problem plays’ or his ‘tragical-pastoral-comical’ late plays or even in the dangerous
and excluded figures of his mature comedies, Shakespeare of course also pushes the
limits of comic form.

Personal Experience of Rural/Agricultural Life

Especially when compared with their professional counterparts in Italy and England,
Ruzante and Shakespeare both demonstrate a deep familiarity with the countryside
and agricultural life in their plays. Sometimes the country is invoked from a displaced
perspective that can express nostalgia or utopianism; at other moments one is struck
by the realism of what seems like actual rural life. As is obvious from the frequent and
extremely specific references to birds, flowers, plants, farming procedures, and the
like in his plays, Ruzante was thoroughly acquainted with the countryside, from his
own family’s extensive land holdings (most notably in the village of Pernumia where
he is reputed to have written several of his works18) and from his direct administrative
work with Paduan peasants on behalf of his land-owning patron Alvise Cornaro.
Several early plays, such as La pastoral, Betía, and Dialogo facetissimo were set

veneti (Padua: Antenore, 1984).

  Mandragola was performed at the Venetian convent the Crosichieri on 13 February
1522. See Marin Sanudo, Diarii, XXXII, pp. 458, 466; and Giorgio Padoan, La commedia
rinascimentale veneta, 1433–1565 (Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 1982), pp. 81–2.
 In the course of developing his methodology of ‘distant reading’, Franco Moretti
has interesting observations about the relation between literary form and social context. See
Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London and New York: Verso,
2005), pp. 3–33.
 According to Lovarini, this is based on a report in a 1601 Paduan manuscript. See
Studi sul Ruzante, p. 43.
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 159

in the countryside, and signature plays such as Parlamento, Bilora, and Moscheta
represent peasants forcibly displaced to the city, variably represented both through
literary prisms (mainly the fashionable villanesca genre in vogue at the University
of Padua) and with what impresses us with the ‘reality effect’, to no small degree
evoked by the use of specific terms in the Paduan dialect. Ruzante’s choice of the
pastoral genre for his first play La pastoral – unusual when compared to the generic
panorama of Ariosto, Machiavelli, and Aretino – allowed him to contrast the mode
of literary pastoral absorbed from Sannazaro and the Venetian aristocrat-turned-
actor Francesco de’ Nobili19 with the lives of real country dwellers.
Among the major dramatists with whom he associated and collaborated in
London, Shakespeare is unusual in both having roots in the countryside and in not
repudiating his association with the provincial town where he made continual real
estate investments and where he eventually retired.20 His grandfather was a tenant
farmer, his father John had been designated as ‘agricola’ before he established
himself as a Stratford glover,21 and his mother Mary Arden was the daughter of a
prosperous farmer of yeoman status. Many of Shakespeare’s closest relatives, as he
grew up, either had been or remained farmers, and he is unusual among London-
based playwrights in the frequent use of images and terms from the countryside,
often particular to Warwickshire, such as ‘kecksie’, to refer to a kind of grass good
for making whistles.22 Shakepeare’s 1602 purchase from John Combe of some 107
arable acres of land in Old Stratford, in addition to 20 acres of pasturage, bespeaks
a continued interest in farming.23 Whereas the fashionable genre of city comedy, a
staple of Middleton, Dekker and Webster, and Jonson, appears not to have exerted
a major influence on Shakespeare, his persistent interest in pastoral24 is plausibly

  Francesco de’ Nobili, in arte Cherea (the name is taken from role in a Terence play
that he performed), was most noted for staging performances of Terence and Plautus, but
also introduced in his egloghe pastorali dramatic versions of pastoral.
  Stephen Greenblatt emphasises Shakespeare’s surprising lack of defensiveness
about his rural background in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
(Random House: London, 2005), p. 41.
 The administrative letters of Richard Shakespeare’s (the playwright’s grandfather)
estate described John Shakespeare thus, even though at the time he was living in Stratford
and working as a glover. See Schoenbaum, Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, p. 27.
  Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare (London: BBC, 2003), pp. 17–18.
Shakespeare uses ‘kecksies’ in a speech from Burgundy in Henry V (‘[N]othing teems /
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs …’ V.ii.51–2).
  William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975),
pp. 186–91.
  As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale, composed at the middle and near the end of
his career, respectively, demonstrate Shakespeare’s most recognisable use of pastoral, but
the mode is also deployed in refracted and imaginative ways, as in King Lear, Cymbeline,
and, arguably, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.
160 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

linked to his own background and all the more striking given the mode’s relative
unimportance among Shakespeare’s contemporaries.25
Shakespeare’s explicit use of the pastoral mode, in As You Like It and The
Winter’s Tale, allowed him to counterpoint, to comic effect, the imagined pastoral
of literary convention with representations much more in tune with the actual social
life of the country in ways that are productively comparative to Ruzante. In the
latter’s La pastoral, the material need to bury a shepherd falsely thought to be dead
drives the literary, Tuscan-speaking shepherd Arpino in scene 11 to seek the help of
the crass Paduan peasant ‘Ruzante’, who is desperately trying to trap birds in order
to feed his wife and his sister, recently widowed by marauding German soldiers.
A scene alternating Tuscan with Paduan is played between Arpino and Ruzante
that stages the sharp incommensurability of the two worlds: Arpino’s reference
to the god ‘Pan’ is taken by the starving Ruzante to mean ‘pane’; and at one point
the language barrier leads Ruzante to think that Arpino is asking the peasant to
masturbate him.26 Similarly, the comic effect of the Corin-Touchstone exchange in
As You Like It (3.2) derives almost entirely from the sharp differences between their
points of view: in this case, a gentle satire of country life via the sophisticated clown
(can one hear the echoes of university wits such as Greene and Nashe mocking the
recently arrived rural transplant?), and such actual experiences of pastoral life as
Shakespeare might have known from his youth. Here again, a plane of similarity
can illuminate lines of difference: the exchange between Corin and Touchstone,
notwithstanding its comic incongruity, is dilatory, expansive, and generative. The
shepherd and the clown are not, literally speaking, using different languages as are
Arpino and Ruzante. Touchstone’s sexual humour, when he facetiously decries the
fact that Corin earns his living ‘by the copulation of cattle’ (3.2.80), is far less crude
than Ruzante’s vulgar malentendu with Arpino. Still, the two scenes are strikingly
comparable, and tend to set Ruzante and Shakespeare apart from their peers: could
one find a similar theatregram in the work of Ariosto, Aretino, Webster, Jonson,
Marston, or even the popularising Dekker? Manifestly there is no direct influence;
what justifies comparison is a homological genre system: pastoral and the ‘anti-
pastoral’ modes that it typically provokes.
These accounts of country life, to be sure, were not unproblematically direct
and ‘authentic’, since both playwrights also filtered rural experience through
popular urban genres and urban paradigms of representation. Ruzante deploys

  Samuel Daniel’s, John Fletcher’s, and Ben Jonson’s forays into pastoral were
idiosyncratic and non-paradigmatic. Daniel’s pastoral dramas, The Queenes Arcadia
(pub. 1606) and Hymen’s Triumph (pub. 1615) can be seen as both homages to Battista
Guarini, whom he had recently met in Italy, and offerings to Anne of Denmark. Fletcher’s
Faithful Shepherdess (pub. 1609) was a non-repeatable failure, and Jonson’s incomplete,
and posthumously discovered The Sad Shepherd a curious experiment on which he was
apparently working near the time of his death.
  Lovarini supplied ‘te magne’, with an obscene sense, for the manuscript’s ‘te ma’.
See Zorzi, Ruzante: Teatro, p. 1291, and Ferguson, The Theatre of Angelo Beolco, p. 16.
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 161

the predominantly satiric villanesca genre much in vogue among both university
and patrician circles in both Padua and Venice,27 and Shakespeare enlists urban
images of agricultural phenomena such as the sheep-shearing festival in The
Winter’s Tale (4.4).28 Still, Shakespeare knew enough about actual rural life to be
able to counterpoint, in that same scene, the old shepherd’s realistic account of
pastoral labour to Perdita’s imaginative indulgence (4.4.55–69). Ruzante, in what
Ludovico Zorzi and other critics have seen as a complex double perspective, often
complicates the conventionally satiric thrust of the villanesca with what carries the
effect of the peasant’s own perspective.29
As we shall see in an extended discussion below, in their ‘realistic’ purchase
on agricultural life both Ruzante and Shakespeare could be strikingly sensitive to
the hardships and sufferings befalling small landowners in the painful transition
from feudalism to capitalism: famine, hunger, exorbitant rents, dispossession, and
enforced migration. At the same, time, a paradox may be registered: a double
perspective on the part of Shakespeare as well as Ruzante. If Beolco’s astounding
mimic skill as both actor and playwright in impersonating the actual and
imaginative lives of peasants corresponds to Shakespeare’s oft-touted capacity to
absorb the multifarious, contradictory lives of those around him, Beolco was also
capable with his patrician patrons of distancing himself from peasants. Similarly,
Shakespeare’s ‘negative capability’ implies not merely imaginative generosity but
also the fact that he could as easily abstract himself from as engage himself with
the objects of his representation.
Considering the astounding imaginative purchase of both Ruzante and
Shakespeare, they also displayed surprising financial acumen, which clearly in
Shakespeare’s case and arguably in Ruzante’s case might have induced a certain
personal conservatism and capacity in their personal lives to distance themselves
from the suffering of others, notwithstanding the imaginative empathy revealed
in their art. Beolco was chosen by his father and his brothers to administrate
the family estates,30 and a Treasury document in 1594 implies that Shakespeare
along with Richard Burbage and Will Kempe had already come to assume
financial responsibility for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.31 After careful saving
and investment allowed him to purchase premium real estate in both London
and Stratford, Shakespeare was willing to sue fellow Stratford dwellers for the
collection of minor sums owed to him – not an extraordinary procedure for the

  See Domenico Merlini, Saggio di ricerche sulla satira contro il villano (Torino:
Ermanno Loescher, 1894).
 As Stephen Greenblatt argues, ‘A sheep-shearing festival performed on the stage of
the Globe as part of a sophisticated tragicomedy was not in fact a sheep-shearing festival;
it was an urban fantasy of rural life’ (Will in the World, p. 40).
  See Zorzi’s comments in the introduction: Ruzante: Teatro, pp. xviii–xx.
  Giorgio Padoan, La commedia rinascimentale veneta (1433–1565) (Vicenza: Neri
Pozza, 1982), p. 66.
  Greenblatt, Will in the World, p. 210.
162 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

time, as biographers such as Samuel Schoenbaum have hastened to add, but one
that certainly indicates that he kept a close eye on his own finances.32 Appointed
Cornaro’s delegate to ‘riscuotere crediti e fitti dei contadini’33 [to collect debts
and rents from peasants], Beolco was in an ambiguous position: he witnessed the
straightened and even desperate circumstances of Paduan peasants quite closely but
was obliged to enforce official policy. One such peasant, Michele Polato from the
village of Codevigo, was recorded in a notarial document dated June 15, 1529:

volens sibi succurrere in tanta penuria victus ne fame pereat, cum iam duobus
mensibus publice mendicare sit coactus, prout aput omnes de eo notitiam
habentes notissimum est, et non habens alim modum sibi facciendi et substentandi
pauperam vitam nisi per venditionem.

(Vanquished by such great need, and wanting to help himself so that he would
not die from hunger, and having already for two months been driven to beg
publically, as was known by everyone aware of recent events, and not having
other means of making and sustaining his poor life except by selling his

Ser Polato’s sale of his small plot of land to Cornaro for only three ducats might have
been administered by Beolco himself, who would probably have had to maintain a
certain amount of emotional distance from the miserable Polato’s suffering while
effecting the transaction. Cornaro’s purchase of land from such peasants provided
immediate relief for them but no long-term solution for those who would probably
be forced into sustaining themselves as tenant farmers, day-labourers, or perhaps
beggars. The utopian agricultural and land reclamation schemes pursued by Cornaro
and celebrated by Beolco in the Seconda oratione and Dialogo facetissimo would
have seemed less grand to the peasants being bought out than they did to Beolco’s
patrician audiences. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Sperone Speroni,
Ruzante cautiously supported the practice of usury (although forcefully arguing
for moderation) that, some believed, was squeezing out the peasants forced to
borrow at unreasonable rates from Paduan and Venetian lenders.35

  See, for example, Shakespeare’s suit of Philip Rogers in 1604 for Roger’s debt
of 35s.10d for a purchase of malt for domestic brewing. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare:
A Documentary Life, pp. 182, 184.
  Cited by Padoan, La commedia rinascimentale veneta, p. 67.
  Quoted by Zorzi, p 1439, who draws upon the archival work of Emilio Menegazzo
and Paolo Sambin, ‘Nuove esplorazioni archivistiche per Angelo Beolco e Alvise Cornaro’,
Italia medioevale e umanistica VII (1964), pp. 231–6.
  For a good discussion of Beolco’s ambiguous position see the detailed discussion by
Zorzi in the notes to Dialogo facetissimo, pp. 1438–40. On usury, see Padoan, La commedia
rinascimentale veneta, p. 101 and Speroni’s Dialogo dell’usura, in which he critiques the
practice and associates Ruzante with the wrong side of the argument.
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 163

Shakespeare, who in his account of Corin’s plight at the hands of a ‘churlish

master’ charging him exorbitant rents appears to register sympathy for the plight
of the rural poor, in his own life tended to be cautious and conservative, mainly
dedicated to protecting his own investment. (Even in this play, which as we shall
see generally resonates with empathy towards the poor, Rosalind’s purchase of
Corin’s land puts her more or less in the position of Cornaro, notwithstanding
her magnanimity.) In 1614, after having retired to Stratford, William Comb,
the nephew of the man who had sold him arable and pasturable land in Old
Stratford 12 years earlier, joined forces with Arthur Mainwaring, steward
to Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, in a project to enclose the common fields of
nearby Welcombe. Such enclosure projects, converting arable land into sheep
pasture, tended to reduce employment, hike up the price of grain, and dispossess
small landowners of their holdings, and it was no surprise that the Stratford
Town Council unanimously opposed it, led by Thomas Greene, Shakespeare’s
‘cousin’. Shakespeare cautiously entered into an agreement with Mainwaring
that he would be compensated for any personal loss resulting from the enclosure,
and although earnestly petitioned by Greene he refused to back the opposition,
assured that he would not lose anything and professing before Greene to believe
that nothing would happen. Shakespeare might have actually believed this, or
may have generally thought that enclosure would benefit everyone. As Stephen
Greenblatt has observed, the story is not personally damming, but hardly
presents the wealthy Shakespeare as someone overly concerned about those
less fortunate than himself.36 But, as with Beolco, Shakespeare’s may have been
more consistently compassionate than he was in his personal life.

Poverty, Hunger and Charity in the Work of Shakespeare and Ruzante

Both playwrights were reaching their dramatic maturity (about mid-career) when
disastrous famines struck: the great 1527–29 Venetian famine, in the midst of
which and immediately afterwards Beolco wrote Seconda oratione, Dialogo
facetissimo, Parlamento, Bilora, and Moscheta, and the 1595–96 Midlands
famine, demonstrably resonating in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
Henry IV, part I, As You Like It and other plays written in the dearth’s aftermath.
Poverty, hunger, vagabondage, and poverty’s exacerbation of both infectious
disease and crime were probably the most serious social problems across Europe
in the sixteenth century, and they were problems that travelled readily across
borders. It is a comparable problem, again providing both interesting differences
as well as similarities.
Then as now, the economies of Europe (including England) were closely
interconnected, all the more so in the early stages of capitalism. The question has

  See Schoenbaum, Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, pp. 230–34 and Greenblatt,
Will in the World, pp. 382–3.
164 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

been debated by economic historians, but the consensual belief is that the new
wealth generated by early capitalism did actually lead to an increase in poverty,
difficult as it is to measure this term, which carries relative rather than absolute
value.37 Peasants, tenant farmers, and small landowners across Europe were hit
particularly hard. Agricultural innovations required by heightened international
competition greatly favoured large landowners over small. General inflation,
arguably exacerbated by the discoveries of precious metals in the New World, was
not advantageous for peasants, and a general decrease in real wages and purchasing
power can be observed in the period.38 When additional disasters occurred on top
of these economic trends, such as war and the bad harvests induced by excessive
or insufficient rain, those peasants and farmers living on the edge would be pushed
past the breaking point, forced like Michele Polato da Codevigo to sell their land
and hope to survive by other means.
Prompted by 1) the association of poverty with the bubonic plague (if based on
the incorrect belief that the plague was air-borne;39 2) the fact that there probably
were more beggars lining the streets and roads of Europe; and 3) a developing
Protestant critique of the traditional Catholic veneration for the poor (most obvious
in attacks such as Luther’s on the mendicant orders), municipal authorities in
European cities began concerted efforts, during the 1520s, to reshape the control
and relief of poverty from a largely church-based response to a rationalised and
organised state operation. Similar reforms were effected in Nuremberg in 1522; in
Strasbourg and Leisnig in 1523–24; in Zurich, Mons, and Ypres in 1525; in Venice
in 1528–29 (precisely after the famine registered in the plays of Ruzante); in Lyons
and Geneva in the 1530s; and in Paris and Madrid in the 1540s.40 As can be seen in
the above list, Catholic as well as Protestant towns pursued the reforms, despite the
fact that the changes tended to counter traditional Catholic practices of charity.
London reforms may be said to have begun with Thomas Wolsey’s response to
the May Day Riots of 1517 (given the concerns about unruly crowds generated by
this event, central to the play Sir Thomas More in which Shakespeare had a hand),

  For a discussion of the relative nature of what societies consider as ‘poverty’,
and the methodological challenges this poses for the historian of poverty, see Paul Slack,
Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London and New York: Longman, 1988),
pp. 2–4.
  For a good pan-European account of early modern poverty, see Catharina Lis and
Hugo Soly, Poverty and Capitalism in Pre-Industrial Europe, trans. James Coonan (Bristol:
Humanities Press, 1979).
 As Carlo M. Cipolla and other historians have demonstrated, however, there
certainly were connections between poverty and the spread of infectious disease. See Carlo
M. Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000–1700,
third edition (New York: Norton, 1994).
  For a good account of the 1520s reforms, including some discussion of transnational
influence among the reformers, see Bronislaw Geremek, Poverty: A History, trans.
Agnieszka Kolakowska (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 120–44.
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 165

proceeded by fits and starts throughout the sixteenth century, and took their decisive
form in the 1572 and 1598 Acts for the Punishment of Vagabonds.41 International
‘influence’ from city to city must have occurred through ambassadors, word of
mouth, and other means that are not difficult to imagine, and there are textual
traces of transmission as well. The document detailing the paradigmatic reforms
proposed in the Catholic, Belgium town of Ypres was translated into English
by William Marshall in 1535 as a potential blueprint for action in England; in
the 1550s, Martin Bowes proposed a ‘brotherhood of the poor’ modelled on an
organisation of charitable merchants in Venice.42
The cardinal points of the continental reforms, which the English poor
laws eventually adopted in 1572 and 1598 (in each case prompted by famine-
induced rebellions), were threefold. First, the reduction and even elimination of
individualised begging and almsgiving, with strict distinctions enforced between
the ‘impotent’ and deserving poor and the so-called ‘sturdy beggars’ deemed able
to work, and liable for punishment and incarceration if caught illegally begging.
Secondly, the strong intrusion of secular authority into a domain previously
regulated by the church. Thirdly, a move towards the centralisation of charitable
and penal institutions.
Although the reforms were carried out in Catholic cities, there was
resistance along predictably theological lines, and a partial reason for the
slow implementation of the poor laws in England was residual attachment to
Catholic ideas and practices, obviously kindled by the Marian period of 1553–
58.43 Relative to Protestant discussions of the subject, Catholic charity through
and beyond the early modern period tended to be more driven by a desire for
personal salvation, in the belief that almsgiving was a reciprocal exchange: the
rich offered material relief, and the poor prayed for them. Donor rather than
recipient-oriented, it was at variance with the new poor ordinances in that it also
tended to favour indiscriminate, as well as voluntary giving: the dispensation of
charity regardless of the perceived legitimacy of the petitioner.44 In both Venice
and England in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a residual
attachment to traditional Catholic attitudes and practices regarding poverty
and charity ran against the grain of the new poor laws, even as these policies
haltingly but progressively did develop into actual practice. Because extreme

  For the development of the English poor laws in the early modern period, see Slack,
Poverty and Policy, pp. 113–37.
  For these two transnational conduits, see Slack, Poverty and Charity, pp. 117, 120
  For an account of residual Catholicism in England, see Eamon Duffy, The Stripping
of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, second edition (1992; London
and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
  In Poverty and Welfare in Hapsburg Spain (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1983), pp. 25–6 and passim, Linda Martz gives a good account of early modern
Catholic ideas regarding charity.
166 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

poverty quickly takes its toll on the human body, depriving its victims from food,
protection from the elements (shelter and clothing) and health, its manifestations
take similar forms across geo-linguistic, and even temporal boundaries. Certain
theatregrams of hunger, or more particularly ‘corpograms’ because they were
conveyed by the physical actor, could easily travel across geo-linguistic
boundaries. Furthermore, as we have just seen, the social responses to poverty
happened to take very similar shape in Europe in the early modern period, with
debates about the response framed by recurring differences between Catholic
and Protestant attitudes. That Shakespeare, compared with his London peers,
had a greater understanding of the countryside – including the ills wrought by
bad harvests and famine – and arguably greater sympathy towards Catholic ideas
than most of his peers might help explain his kinship with Beolco in this regard.
Ruzante, as a Catholic, and Shakespeare, if not a closet Catholic at the very least
clearly interested in the dramatic appropriation of Catholic ideas, each registers
the tension between state policy and residual sympathy in regard to poverty.
Some salient differences between Beolco and Shakespeare on this theme
might first be noted. Hunger, in fact, never becomes a central theatregram in
English Renaissance comedy as it did in Beolco and the commedia dell’arte.
(It is surprisingly absent from Spanish Golden Age drama, although of course
crucial in the picaresque novel.) The perpetual hunger of the peasant, staged by
the figure Ruzante at the very beginning of Beolco’s first play (La pastoral) in
the ‘Proemio a la Villana’, is intensified in the ‘famine plays’ (Seconda oratione,
Parlamento, Bilora, Dialogo facetissimo, and Moscheta) in the figure of the
peasant compelled to migrate to the city. In the arte, as we can distinctly see
in the successful Arlecchini Tristano Martinelli and Domenico Biancolelli, the
trope of the zanni staging his hunger before his stingy master becomes codified
as a dependable locus of amusement, a repeatable theatregram, even at the
point when the actual actors had become rather well off.45 (Whereas commedia
poverty still carries social resonance, it loses the tragicomic and even tragic
edge characteristic of Ruzante’s work.) Without the central structure of the
master-servant dyad, derived from the senex-servus relationship in Roman
New Comedy, Shakespeare and other English Renaissance dramatists did not
play hunger as a comic topos. An interesting exception might appear to be The
Merchant of Venice, where in the Shylock-Gobbo dyad Shakespeare approximates
the Pantalone-zanni relationship more nearly than anywhere else. Shakespeare
counterpoints Gobbo’s perceived, if preposterously-expressed deprivation (‘I am
famished in his service; you may tell every finger I have with my ribs’ [2.2.106–

  For a discussion of Martinelli, who probably experienced destitution in his early
career but enjoyed prosperity in his middle age, see my ‘Representations of Poverty in the
Commedia dell’Arte’, Theatre Survey 48:2 (2007): pp. 229–46. Biancolelli places hunger
centre-stage in several of his scenarios, such as ‘Le voyage de Scaramouche e d’Arlequin’
and ‘La fille désobéissant’. See Delia Gambelli’s edition of the Biancolelli zibaldone:
Arlecchino a Parigi, vol. II, Lo scenario di Domenico Biancolelli (Rome: Bulzoni, 1996).
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 167

7]) to his stingy master’s perception that Gobbo is a shiftless drone, who has
been ‘gurmandizing in his service’ (2.5.3). Gobbo, from the comic psychomachia
between his ‘conscience’ and the ‘fiend’ to his interview with Bassanio, teaming
up with his side-kick blind father as an abject comic duo, plays something like
the ‘servant of two masters’ gag that must have been in place well before Goldoni
wrote it down. Still, Gobbo’s hunger merely provides a non-dramatised back-story,
and hardly can be said to provide a central topos in the play.
Hunger does lie at the very heart of Beolco’s villano-centred corpus, in a way
that is unimaginable in Shakespeare or any other English Renaissance dramatist.
According to Mario Baratto, ‘il pane’ becomes the ‘primitive and concrete symbol
of their [the peasants’] union through the continuity of the seasons’.46 When the
character Ruzante, in Parlamento de Ruzante che iera vegnú de campo, wants to
stress his common identity with ‘foreigners’ whom he has encountered during
the war, he invokes this very idea: ‘sí fa pan com a’ fazóm [nu], e sí magna com
a’ fazóm nu’ [they make bread just like we do, and they eat just like we do].47 La
pastoral carries the temporal structure of a deferred and finally consummated meal,
since it begins with ‘Ruzante’ complaining of his agonising hunger and ends with
him devouring the meat sacrificed for the god Pan (heard by Ruzante as ‘Pane’) at
the end of the play, after repeated plaints of hunger resonating like a grim lazzo,
scarcely relieved by the few scraps of bread garnered from the reluctant Arpino.
For Padoan, the hunger, or ‘mal de la loa’ [evil of the wolf] invoked in Beolco’s
work is no longer a mythic or folkloric trait of the peasant but significant insofar
as it is linked to real social conditions.48
Hunger and its attendant degradations frequently provide the dramatic motor
of Beolco’s plays – again, in ways that simply do not occur in English Renaissance
drama. As in La pastoral, the starved and degraded protagonist usually does not
explicitly beg, but the practice of begging – now secularised and unsanctioned by
the church – is refracted in various ways. Begging and desperate supplications
are performed – indeed, quite virtuosically in the roles played by Beolco himself
– but in a coldly mechanistic world run by material and merely economic calculus,
in which there is little chance that traditional receptors of charity will indulge
the supplicant’s ‘performance’. Personal economic troubles quickly breed
sexual and relational problems. Often the ‘audience’ for supplication, and the
most mathematically rigorous exponent of mere materialism, is the estranged
wife of the protagonist played by Beolco. The ‘Ruzante’ protagonist alternates

  Tre studi sul teatro (Venice: Neri Pozzo, 1964), p. 50, and see pp. 50–53 in this
volume for a discussion of the central role of hunger in Beolco’s work.
 All Beolco citations refer to Ludovico Zorzi (ed.), Ruzante: Teatro (Turin: Einaudi,
1967). Here, Zorzi, p. 529.
 Padoan, La commedia rinascimentale veneta, p. 100. Baratto puts this somewhat
differently, placing the hunger topos in Beolco at the intersection of myth and historical
specificity (Tre studi, p. 51).
168 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

between desperate, degrading, and illusory attempts to retain his estranged wife
(if conveyed with performative verve) and suicidal despair – also, to be sure,
executed with considerable histrionic brio. In place of the medieval dispenser of
charity, whether from the monastery, the hospice, the confraternity, or the church,
who was instructed to accord the suppliant the benefit of the doubt (‘in dubio pro
paupere’), the petitioner meets the cold wall of scrutiny, scepticism, and discipline
– as advocated by many in the new wave of poor law reforms. Although the
very materialist laws governing Beolco’s plays allow little opportunity for the
dramatisation of charity, the force with which its absence resonates may be taken
to suggest Beolco’s yearning for traditional forms of generosity recently placed
under critique by the new state policies.
Dialogo facetissimo, performed in January 1529 at the height of the famine,
begins with the peasants Menego (played by Beolco) and Duozo (played by
Alvarotto) literally counting the months until the next harvest, proposing in a
series of ‘tragic lazzi’ ridiculous and desperate means to stave off hunger:49 eating
nothing but turnips (which, unfortunately, turn out to be laxatives); the cessation of
defecation, which in effect appropriates the grain hoarding perniciously practiced
by Venetian officials at the expense of Paduan peasants; and inducing grave illness,
which will cut one’s appetite but unfortunately also end one’s life. To Duozo’s
blithe recitation of anodyne proverbs amounting to the idea that providence will
provide for them, Menego counters that the famine is largely man-made, caused
by the Venetian patricians who have been both hoarding grain and lending to
Paduan peasants at exorbitant rates of interest: ‘El provierbio è ben vero … [m]o
gi usulari el fa falare’ [The proverb is true, but the usurers have given it the lie].50
Going on to say that the usurious patricians in Venice are thirsty for the blood of
the poor, Menego clearly implies that the resolution of the famine will at least in
part depend on human agents as well.
Menego fears that he will lose his wife Gnua because he can’t provide for her,
and has his worst fears confirmed when his rival Nale beats him up, seriously
wounding his hand. After dismissing the idea that his new disability could gainfully
establish him as a beggar, providing a legitimating cover in the context of the new
poor laws, Menego turns to the idea of suicide by auto-cannibalism: he can eat
himself alive, with the grim consolation that he will not die hungry.51 (This ‘tragic
lazzo’ is repeated in Moscheta, in the aftermath of Ruzante’s rejection by Betía:
after proceeding through the alternatives of killing himself with a knife, by beating
himself, and by self-strangulation, Ruzante resolves to eat himself to death, taking
care to begin with the feet and end with the hands so that he will still be able to

  Zorzi, Ruzante: Teatro, pp. 693–5. This term, aptly reflecting Ruzante’s challenge
to standard comic form, is used by Piero Camporesi in his brilliant discussion of this play.
See Il pane selvaggio (1980; Milan: Garzanti, 2004), p. 33.
  Zorzi, Ruzante: Teatro, p. 695.
  Zorzi, Ruzante. Teatro, p. 709.
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 169

eat.52) No properly formal issue of the problem can be devised in this occasional
play, which ends with the off-stage, outre-tombe voice of ‘Zaccarotto’ (a recently
deceased Paduan patrician) praising the agricultural reforms of Cornaro as the
answer to the peasants’ woes.
Parlamento and Bilora, while addressing the problem of hunger somewhere
more obliquely than La pastoral and Dialogo facetissimo, stage the same
problems: a dispossessed protagonist whose inability to earn a living causes his
wife to abandon him in order to stay alive. Set in Venice, which shift itself follows
the forced migrations of their protagonists and so many peasants in the wake
of the Venetian wars and the great famine, these brilliant plays arrive at more
properly dramatic resolutions than Dialogo facetissimo, if clearly violating comic
In Parlamento, Ruzante desperately pleads for a return to old times with his
wife Gnua, who during Ruzante’s adventures in the war (pursued by the protagonist
purely for the money) has taken up work as a prostitute protected by a bravo, as
reflected in the fashionable bulesca genre. Ruzante is scrutinised by his compadre
Menato (Alvarotto) and Gnua, who tellingly complain that he does not bear the
visually readable marks of a former soldier (scars, etc.), which would legitimate
him as someone deserving of charity and public assistance. The action then takes
the streamlined path of wordless, but violently effective mime: Gnua’s bravo
arrives, beats Ruzante up, and takes Gnua away. The play ends with the ‘lazzo
of a hundred’, repeated in both Dialogo facetissimo and Moscheta: the hapless
Ruzante, increasingly losing touch with reality, fantasises that he has not been
attacked by just one man, but a hundred. Reflecting the monologic nature of these
plays, and the high profile of the actor-playwright, instead of the dramatic-social
formal resolution of Mandragola,53 Parlamento ends with a stand-up routine.
Whether by the abrupt and externally conveyed utopian vision of Dialogo
facetissimo, or by the combined devices of mime and monological fantasy in
Parlamento, each play must go beyond the normal parameters of dramatic action
in order to achieve its resolution, generic form not yet fully meshing with social
context. Bilora ‘solves’ the problem with something like tragicomic form, as
Bilora (the ‘Ruzante’ part) at the very end of the play shockingly murders Tonin,
the usurious Venetian merchant living like others of his kind on the blood of the
Paduan poor. When, earlier in the play, the starving Bilora first abjectly approaches
his wife Dina, who has taken up with Tonin, she takes him for a beggar. Although
he takes some pains to refute this, he does supplicate her for money, as well as a
return to their former life together. His socially contextualised crime of murder

  Zorzi, Ruzante: Teatro, p. 637.
 This is not to say that everything is resolved and unambiguous at the end of
Mandragola; still, even the play’s irresolutions and ambiguities have ‘objective correlatives’
in a dramatic form well calibrated to the play’s character structure, which in turn resonates
with social life.
170 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

occurs in a drunken state after he has satiated his thirst and hunger with the money
Dina has given him.
Many other socially contiguous aspects of poverty could be discussed in
these plays, extending to Moscheta. What might be generalised – and likened to
Shakespeare notwithstanding the fact that hunger and poverty is merely a secondary
theme in his plays – is that Ruzante is able to represent the ways in which extreme
poverty reduces man to the realm of force, of necessity. So Hannah Arendt:

Poverty is more than deprivation, it is a state of constant want and acute misery
whose ignominy consists in its dehumanizing force; poverty is abject because
it puts men under the absolute dictate of their bodies, that is, under the absolute
dictate of necessity …54

Put similarly, and also an apt theoretical account of Beolco’s abject figures, are
Marx’ thoughts from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

The animal is immediately identical with its life-activity. It does not distinguish
itself from it. It is its life-activity. Man makes his life-activity itself the object of
his will and of his consciousness … . [I]t is only because he is a species being that
he is a conscious Being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because
of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses this relationship … .
[A]n animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It
produces one-sidedly, while man produces universally. It produces only under the
dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free
from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.55

Ruzante’s protagonists live, like animals, under the dictate of force and necessity
– never more clearly than with the women who have little choice (notwithstanding
Dina’s very fleeting illusion in Bilora that she can choose) but to remain in their
present situations lest they starve to death. The famous ‘snaturalità’ of Beolco,
in this time of crisis, becomes the necessity-bound ‘nature’ of the animal, who
‘produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need’. The ‘Ruzante’
character continually compares himself to an animal. At the opening of
Parlamento, he declares that after his long post-desertion journey he has yearned
to arrive in Venice more ‘che no se agurè mé d’arivare a l’erba nuova cavala
magra e imbolsía’ [than a thin and broken-winded horse yearns to come to new
grass].56 The eponymous name of the protagonist in Bilora, from the Milanese

  On Revolution (1963, London: Penguin, 1977), p. 50. I thank Paul Kottman for
pointing out to me the relevance of Arendt’s book on revolution to poverty and political
  The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition, Robert Tucker (ed.) (New York and
London: Norton, 1978), p. 78.
  Zorzi, Ruzante: Teatro, p. 517.
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 171

word ‘bèllora’, or ‘weasel’, may appropriately describe the arc of the play’s plot;
in Zorzi’s words, the weasel is an animal attributed to have a scheming instinct,
but who is also ferocious and bloody.”
Relative to his fellow London dramatists, the provincially-raised Shakespeare
is remarkably sensitive to agricultural crises and the devastation thereby wrought
both locally and throughout society. Several plays written in the wake of the
disastrous harvest and severe famines of 1595–96, which prompted the Oxfordshire
anti-enclosure revolt in November 1596 led by the carpenter Bartholomew Steer
and the miller Richard Bradshawe, resonate with the problem. In A Midsummer
Night’s Dream, probably composed in 1595–96, Titania observes:

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,

The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard.
The fold stands empty in the drowned field … (2.2.93–6)

Although Titania blames the ruined harvest on her quarrel with Oberon, Annabel
Paterson has convincingly argued that Shakespeare, like Menego in Dialogo
facetissimo, was well aware of the very human causes of the problem, mindful
of both the Oxfordshire rising of 1596 and the some thirteen disturbances in 1595
in London and adjoining areas, many led by artisans leading the same kinds of
occupations as those in Dream.57
As You Like It (probably composed in 1599), which Richard Wilson has
convincingly linked with the recent famine and Oxfordshire rebellion,58 in
counterpointing ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ pastoral does engage the very real problems of
famine, bad harvest, exorbitant rents, enclosure, and dispossession that Shakespeare
was acquainted with from the beginning to the end of his days in Stratford. The
desperate cry of Adam, ‘Oh, I die for food!’ (2.6.2) – who along with Orlando
is recently dispossessed and is now living a life of vagrancy – would have held
particular resonance for the audience two or three years after the disastrous 1596
harvest. The comic tone of Celia, Rosalind, and Touchstone straggling through the
forest in their own exilic pilgrimage obscures the fact that they, too, are starving
and must thrust themselves onto Corin’s charity. In a sharp version of William
Empson’s ‘trick’ of pastoral, the courtiers play the roles of beggars (in a way that
blends fiction and reality, since they are truly hungry) in the pastoral theatre. Corin’s
affirmative, if modest response distinctly links his master’s unfair treatment with
his ‘churlish’ refusal to practice traditional charity understood precisely in neo-
medieval terms as spiritual exchange:

 Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989),
pp. 52–70.
 Richard Martin, ‘“Like the old Robin Hood”: As You Like It and the Enclosure
Riots’, Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): pp. 1–19.
172 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

But I am shepherd to another man

And do not shear the fleeces that I graze.
My master is of churlish disposition
And little recks to find the way to heaven
By doing deeds of hospitality. (2.4.77–81)

A third play written soon after the 1595–96 famine, 1 Henry IV, provides in the
‘Carrier’ scene of Act 2, scene 1 a striking portrait of poverty and degradation, also
tied to recent events and cognate with the radically material and animalistic imagery
of Beolco’s famine plays. The two food carriers in the Rochester inn, readying
themselves in the early morning to carry their foodstuffs to London, lament the
impoverishment and suffering of their horse and the ‘starving’ and pitiful turkeys
that they are hoping to see, thus projecting implicit human suffering onto animals.
The ‘poor jade’, suffering from a worn-out saddle that cuts through his hide, has
contracted intestinal worms from moldy food. The carriers simultaneously voice
nostalgia, lament, and social critique when they allude to happier times under
the previous ostler, who was apparently so keenly attuned to the welfare of his
animals that the rise in the price of oats (the 1595–96 famine-generated price
rises) hastened his early death. Just as the character Ruzante, in Il parlamento,
has brought back lice as his only trophy from the wars, the carriers are infested
with fleas, and for reasons that Shakespeare chooses to make particularly explicit
and disgusting. Because their superiors do not provide them with chamber pots,
they are obliged to urinate in the chimney, breeding fleas which then turn back to
feast on them as if they were rotting fish. This repulsive food cycle, reminiscent of
Hamlet’s meditations to Claudius after Polonius’ death, returns man to the lowest
level of animal existence.
As in Ruzante, there is a clear link between poverty and crime. The
Chamberlain of the inn, living in the midst of such extreme poverty, acts as
informant to Gadshill for the crime (touching Prince Hal himself via three degrees
of separation) of robbing a wealthy franklin on the road to Canterbury. Poins and
company just possibly become types of Robin Hoods engaged in redistributing
wealth, but less as a socialist band of ‘merry men’ (half of them of course turn on
the other) than as part of a Robert Greene-style criminal network. Not because of
direct influence, but because of a homological system of theatregrams that might
have been conveyed via theatrical cultures of poverty, Falstaff’s multiplying
buckgram men replicates something very like the ‘lazzo of a hundred’ that
Beolco staged at the end of Parlamento and elsewhere.
Arguably alluding to another, 1607 round of anti-enclosure and famine riots
in the Midlands,59 Coriolanus begins with famished, desperate Roman citizens
revolting over what they claim to result not from natural causes, as Menenius
attempts to convince them, but from familiar-enough human agency. Like

 E.C. Pettet, ‘Coriolanus and the Midlands Insurrection of 1607’, Shakespeare
Survey 3 (1950): pp. 34–42.
Ruzante and Shakespeare: A Comparative Case-Study 173

Menego correcting Duozo’s ‘natural’ understanding of the Venetian famine with

incisive social analysis, a Citizen protests:

They ne’er car’d for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their store-houses cramm’d
with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome
act establish’d against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain
up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will: and there’s all the
love they bear us. (1.1.79–86)

This anachronistic and richly topical critique against the Roman patricians for
hoarding, usury, unfair poor laws, and the exploitation of the poor in military
conscription, strikingly resembles critiques voiced by villani against Venetian
patricians in Beolco’s famine plays, counterpointed though these critiques are by
the utopian vision of Cornaro’s reforms. For both Ruzante and Shakespeare, it is
an agriculturally-based analysis of poverty, as opposed to urban-based critiques
of greed and capitalist acquisition prevalent in the city comedies of Jonson,
Middleton, and others, and also characteristic of Cinquecento humanist comedy.
Notwithstanding the obvious and many differences between the two playwrights,
it provides another striking instance of their affinity.
This page has been left blank intentionally
Chapter 10
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope:
From Commedia Grave to Shakespeare’s
Pericles and the Last Plays
Michele Marrapodi

The First Folio, the grand edition of Shakespeare’s theatrical works edited by
his two fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, contains 36 ‘playes’
subdivided into Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, ‘cur’d, and perfect of their
limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceiued the[m]’.
The late romances or tragicomedies are not recognised as a genre of their own:
Pericles is totally missing, as well as The Two Noble Kinsmen; The Tempest and
The Winter’s Tale respectively commence and conclude the Comedies group, and
Cymbeline is put among the Tragedies (see Figure 10.1). The irony of the two
editors’ desire to produce a rigorous classification lies in the natural confusion of
kinds that was typical of the Elizabethan age, as shown by the title-pages of many
in-quartos that allude to the contamination of forms and avoid any attempt at rigid
dramatic categorisation. As Jean E. Howard has pointed out, ‘[i]f one examines
the quarto versions of many of the plays later included in the first folio, a similar
instability in generic labelling becomes equally apparent’. It is only in modern
editions that the term ‘romance’ appears, in order to emphasise the presence of
a more elaborate dramatic plot which, after an intricate series of peripeteia and
extraordinary happenings, suddenly unravels in a happy ending. The characteristic
features of these plays invested thematic, stylistic, and ideological structures and
transformed previous convention – founded on metaphorical, mimetic, and non-

  Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, Facsimile edition, by
Helge Kökeritz, and Charles Tyler Prouty, ‘Preface: To the great Variety of Readers’. On
the editorial history of Shakespeare’s works and on the First Folio in particular, see Sonia
Massai, Shakespeare and the Rise of the Editor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2007), especially pp. 136–79.

  Jean E. Howard, ‘Shakespeare and Genre’, in A Companion to Shakespeare, David
Scott Kastan (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 298.

  The term ‘romance’ was first used by Edward Dowden in Shakespeare: A Critical
Study of His Mind and Art (London: Henry S. King, 1875).
176 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Figure 10.1 A Catalogve, from Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories &

Tragedies (1623).
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 177

naturalistic language – into a metatheatrical and fabulous dimension that opened

up the way to experimentation. The employment of a multiple intreccio, favoured
by the humanist practice of complicatio, enriched the combination of hybrid plots
of the ‘tragical-comical-historical-pastoral’ kind so dear to Polonius. The typical
themes of mixed drama range from shipwreck to separation, from presumed death
to disguise, from the intervention of supernatural forces to theophanies, and from
recognition to family reunion. There are also domestic tragicomedic elements
relying on English traditions, such as the medieval theatre’s blend of the serious
and the facetious, the tendency to indulge in storytelling, the influence of the happy
ending in morality plays, the convention of pastoral poetry, and the use of masque
elements prompted by the Jacobean private stage.
Among the aesthetic principles of both comedies and tragedies there was the
implicit conviction that human life was subjected to the vagaries of fortune or to
the whim of the gods: the world was mainly governed by chance, making any
prediction or certainty quite impossible. In the romance tradition, on the contrary,
the impossible becomes possible. The blind wheel of fortune gives way to a higher
power that guides man’s actions. The difference in the dramatic convention lies not
so much in the mise en scène of the complexity of construction as in the different
significance attributed to the development of the narrative line. In romance,
narration serves as a vehicle for social interaction, spectacle, and actual performance
and not just a formal linguistic instrument serving to individual characterisation.
The Christian virtue of patience and endurance became the didactic telos that
distinguished the new hero of the romance from the violent world of the Tragedies,
in which overwhelming passions and powerful lacerations brought him to a state
of extreme inner conflict, compelling him to rebel against destiny, driven on by a
mistaken moral choice and an essentially pagan view of reality. ‘As flies to wanton
boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport’, Gloucester affirms in King
Lear (4.1.37–8). ‘What counts’, as Giorgio Melchiori put it,

is the quest more than the final achievement, and that is indeed the dominion
of romance, a tale of adventure, of movement in space and time, a progress
in episodic form … . The dialectical process could take place then within
the romance framework, between its narrative level – the storyline and its

 Cf. the famous categorisation of theatrical genres pronounced by Polonius
(2.2.392–8) in Hamlet, The Arden Shakespeare, Harold Jenkins (ed.) (London: Methuen,
1982). On the English origins of tragicomedy and on Italian influences, see Madeleine
Doran, Endeavor of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison and London:
The University of Wisconsin Press, 1954), pp. 186–215.

 Cf. Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1976), part. pp. 129–74.

  Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (eds), William Shakespeare. The Complete Works
(London: Clarendon Press, 1988). Quotations from Pericles are from the Arden Edition,
F.D. Hoeniger (ed.) (London: Methuen, 1963).
178 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

metaphorical level – the meaning beyond the meaning, or rather beyond, inside,
in contrast with the events represented on the stage.

In that sense, the odyssey of Pericles – in what may be called the most Homeric of
Shakespeare’s works – recalls the grand allegory of man’s voyage across the ever-
changing ocean of existence. It presents the protagonist’s alternating fortunes and
wearying tribulations until he finds that salvation depends on recognising one’s
limits and understanding the paucity of human power before the divine geometry
that rules the universe. For this same reason, with the possible exception of The
Tempest, the romances’ fundamental medieval quality, inherent in their blatant
time shifts and anachronisms and in their revival of Hellenistic pastoral tradition,
comes across with particular ideological intensity. The Renaissance concept
of Deus absconditus is important. Here, as advanced by Calvin and Luther,
but discernible also in Montaigne and Bacon, Divinity observes man’s actions
unmoved. However, the trope counteracts the more ancient concept, but one
shared by the Counter-Reformation spirit and operative from Aquinas to Milton
and beyond, of Deus geometra, the builder and regulator of the cosmos, where God
is an artist, who governs man’s life and preordains events, thanks to the action of
divine surveillance. For in the romances, and especially in Pericles, the metaphor
of the pagan ‘wheel of fire’, which decided the fate of countless tragic heroes, is
changed by supernatural power into a comforting Christian vision: the idea that
every human event is in some way designed for a secret purpose, not accessible
to man’s understanding. The moral lesson of these principles is transmitted by the
regenerative function of love, entrusted to spiritual female roles, and often exalted
in contrast to ‘foil characters’ who accentuate their educational force.
In Northrop Frye’s vision, the fantastic and mythical genre of romance is related
to a form of repeated storytelling that ‘proceeds toward an end which echoes the
beginning, but echoes it in a different world’. This archetypal circular structure
emphasises the exemplary and didactic character of the fabula, mixing together
the realistic and the fantastic elements that reveal its explicit metatheatrical quality
and serving to evoke wonder and stirring the imagination. As Daniel Seltzer puts

  G. Melchiori, ‘Romance into Drama’, in M.P. De Angelis, V. Fortunati and V.Poggi
(eds), Atti del V Congresso Nazionale dell’Associazione Italiana di Anglistica (Bologna:
CLUEB, 1983), p. 23 (italics in the text).

 On the concept of Deus absconditus and Deus geometra, see respectively W.R. Elton,
‘King Lear’ and the Gods (San Marino, Ca: Huntington Library, 1966), part. pp. 32–3;
‘Shakespeare and the Thought of His Age’, in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, K.
Muir and S. Schoenbaum (eds) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 180–98;
and F. Ohly, ‘“Deus Geometra”. Appunti per la storia di una rappresentazione di Dio’, in
Geometria e memoria. Lettera e allegoria nel Medioevo, L. Ritter Santini (ed.) (Bologna: Il
Mulino, 1985), pp. 189–247.

 N. Frye, The Secular Scripture. A Study of the Structure of Romance (Harvard:
Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 49.
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 179

it, the playwright ‘is concerned now with the extended development of a plot in
which moral significance is implicit, … more with general effect than with details
of emotion revealing the depths of one person, … more interested in the theatrical
means to express such moral significance … the purpose of which would be to
expand the audience’s view in a larger way, to invite them to watch and marvel’.10
Many of the aesthetical and ideological aspects that contribute to the rhetorical
and stylistic texture of this edifying form of theatrical expression, constructed
on metanarrative affabulation and iconic repetitions, stem from Shakespeare’s
reworking of the third genre theorised by Giraldi Cinthio and perfected by Giovan
Battista Guarini. In refashioning Aristotle, Giraldi takes it as a dramaturgical
necessity, imposed by the need to adapt to the changed tastes of the times and the
courts. As a consequence, he conceived the tragedy ‘a fin lieto’ in the Discorso
intorno al comporre delle comedie e delle tragedie, subsequently transformed
with Egle into the variant of pastoral satire.11 In devising the tragedia mista, with
its double Terentian model, Giraldi identifies the tragicomedic mode which was
better suited to the preferences of the audience – highlighting the active role of
women and domestic virtues prompted by the Counter-Reformation – a genre
whose narrative prototype was the Odyssey, just as the Iliad was that of tragedy.12
Although heralded by numerous early sixteenth-century examples of favole
boscherecce and by Torquato Tasso’s Aminta (1573), Guarini’s view of the
mixed genre found its most natural expression in pastoral tragicomedy. Guarini
succeeded in presenting the tragic pathos of the great Giraldian characters side by
side with the passions tormenting the minds of the rustic shepherds in Il Pastor
fido (1590), and imitating ‘with the use of stage machinery a feigned and mixed
action comprising all the tragic and comic parts that plausibly and decorously may
stand together, corrected to a single dramatic form, in order to purge with delight
the sadness of the spectators’.13

 D. Seltzer, ‘The Staging of the Last Plays’, in J. Russell Brown and B. Harris (eds),
Later Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 8 (London: Arnold, 1966), pp. 156–7.
 Cf. G.B. Giraldi Cinthio, Intorno al comporre delle commedie e delle tragedie
(1543), in Scritti critici, Camillo Guerrieri Crocetti (ed.) (Milan: Marzorati, 1973); Egle,
Lettera sopra il comporre le satire atte alla scena, Favola pastorale (1545–50), Carla
Molinari (ed.) (Bologna: Commissione per i testi di lingua, 1985. Giraldi’s attempt at
founding the new satirical genre was quite unprecedented except the invention of favole
pastorali (Agostino Beccari, Cristoforo Castelletti) which anticipated Tasso’s Aminta and
Guarini’s Pastor fido.
 Cf. Marvin T. Herrick, Tragicomedy. Its Origin and Development in Italy, France,
and England (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1955), pp. 63–92.
  B. Guarini, Il Pastor fido (Bari: Laterza, 1914), p. 246. Both Aminta and Il Pastor fido
were published for the first time in London in 1591. On the influence of Italian tragicomedy
on the English stage, see Forme del tragicomico nel teatro tardo elisabettiano, Vittoria
Intonti (ed.) (Naples: Liguori, 2004), Introduction, pp. 5–33; Early Modern Tragicomedy,
Subha Mukherji and Raphael Lyne (eds) (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2007).
180 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

The wide-ranging structural effects in Shakespeare’s late works of the

transition from Giraldi’s approach in the Lettera sovra il comporre le satire (1545–
50) to Guarini’s in Verrato primo (1588) and Verrato secondo (1593),14 written
in opposition to the purist arguments of Giasone de Nores, have been studied
by Robert Henke, who analysed their intertextual dynamics from outside the
framework of traditional intertextual positivistic studies.15 Yet, in various mature
comedies, from All’s Well That Ends Well to Measure for Measure, it is possible
to notice some typical traits of the third kind, identified with satire or tragicomedy
ever since the first Humanist theorists.16 Such traits entered into English culture
by way of translations, rewritings, imitations, and direct and indirect borrowings
from the successive developments of ‘regular’ sixteenth-century theatre, such as
the bucolic poetry and the pastoral scenarios of the commedia dell’arte. Playing a
transnational role, the commedia all’improvviso, thanks to the natural hybridism
innate in this genre constructed on fixed types became the most important vehicle
for the diffusion throughout Europe of the vast repertoire of late Cinquecento
theatregrams, a phenomenon favoured by the itinerant nature of the most important
professional troupes of players.17
In the late Romances, governed by ethical considerations of reconciliation
and forgiveness, the representation of contemporary Italian culture becomes
an ideological appropriation of its mythological and literary heritage, in which
‘Italian vices’ are often set against ‘English virtues’ and replaced with the post-
Tridentine values of patience, constancy, and endurance characteristic of moral
education. Louise George Clubb argued that the presence of these very same
thematic developments in Shakespeare’s early comedies could be explained by

  Both works were subsequently collected together in more organic form in
Compendio della poesia tragicomica (1601).
 R. Henke, Pastoral Transformations: Italian Tragicomedy in Shakespeare’s Late
Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997) and ‘Pastoral as Tragicomedic in
Italian and Shakespearean Drama’, in The Italian World of English Renaissance Drama:
Cultural Exchange and Intertextuality, Michele Marrapodi (ed.) (Newark: University of
Delaware Press, 1998), pp. 282–301.
 Cf. ‘Pellegrino Prisciani teorizza lo spazio scenico della commedia’ (1486–1500),
in Il Teatro italiano. La Commedia del Cinquecento, Guido Davico Bonino (ed.), vol. 1
(Turin: Einaudi, 1977), p. 410: ‘… nel teatro se exerciteno tre facte de poeti: TRAGICI,
li quali recitano le miserie de tiranni, COMICI, che ripresentano li pensieri, affanni et
travalgie de patri de famiglia; SATYRICI, li quali cantano et ripresentano la dolcezza et
piacere de le campagne et ville, li amori et innamoramenti de pastori’.
  See Louise George Clubb, ‘Italian Stories on the Stage’, in Shakespearean Comedy,
Alexander Leggatt (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 32–46;
‘Pastoral Jazz from the Writ to the Liberty’, in Italian Culture in the Drama of Shakespeare
& His Contemporaries: Rewriting, Remaking, Refashioning (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007),
pp. 15–26. Cf. also Robert Henke, ‘Border-Crossing in the Commedia dell’Arte’, in
Transnational Exchange in Early Modern Theater, Robert Henke and Eric Nicholson (eds)
(Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 19–34.
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 181

the impact on the English stage of commedia grave, with its Counter-Reformation
inspiration, the authors of which

claimed ‘gravità’ of form in the disposition, complexity, and thematic unity of

their intrecci, and gravità of content in the morality, tragic emotion, fear, and
maraviglia that they mixed with comic conventions. It was by retaining the
lineaments and language of comedy, especially low comic types and bawdry and
the prohibition of bloodshed, that commedia grave differed from the tragicomic
mixture in tragedia di fin lieto; and it was by the juxtaposition of extremes,
high and low, serious and hilarious, and by its urban setting that it differed from
Guarini’s kind of tragicomedy, to studiedly mild third genre created by the fusion
and tempering of the extremes of the two others.18

The explicit didactic intent, conveyed in the decisive action of the female figures,
whose first model was probably derived from the salvific and educational vision
of love based on the Sacre rappresentazioni and the so-called early sixteenth-
century ‘Christian Terence’, justifies an even greater influence that extends to
Shakespearean romances and Jacobean and Caroline tragicomedies.19
In Pericles, the eponymous hero’s encounter with evil, when he deciphers the
ambiguity of the riddle, assumes the significance of ‘foul incest’, for which his
kingdom must suffer and succumb to the tyrant’s will, because he is immediately
aware of the serious danger looming over anyone learning the secrets of Kings
(‘Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s their will; / And if Jove stray, who dares
say Jove doth ill?’, 1.1.104–5). The shocking discovery of sexual abuse committed
within the family is starkly contrasted with the incorruptible purity, steeped in the
Christian virtue of patience, that characterises the behaviour of Pericles’ daughter
and that of his wife Thaisa. Thus Marina is not just a symbol of rebirth, serving
to return the Prince to his lost kinsfolk; she becomes the most natural prize for
the arduous trial of Christian resignation which the protagonist has to undergo
– something made possible by the regenerative action of the two women, who
perform the same maieutic function as Perdita and Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.
The outburst of jealousy in Leontes and Posthumus Leonato in Cymbeline stems
from the same type of ‘Italian vice’ that infects Othello’s mind, opposed to the

  Louise George Clubb, ‘Woman as Wonder: Theatergram of Italian and
Shakespearean Comedy’ in Italian Drama in Shakespeare’s Time (New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 66–7.
 As Madeleine Doran put it, the impact of a Christian Terence on drama was
‘extremely interesting because it shows the tradition of classical comedy combining
with the tradition of the religious drama to produce a strong movement towards realism’
(Endeavors of Arts: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama, p. 162). I have dealt with the
relationships between commedia grave and Jacobean tragicomedy in my chapter ‘From
Narrative to Drama: The Heroic Tale and the Theater’, in M. Marrapodi (ed.), The Italian
World of English Renaissance Drama, pp. 41–70.
182 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

virtues of hope and redemption embodied in the female figures in the recognition
scenes. Although daughters in the late romances ‘are distressingly vulnerable to
a host of evils’, as Cyrus Hoy pointed out, ‘they are incorruptible, and they all
in one way or another redeem the father figure; … the sort of recognition scene
Shakespeare composed for Lear is recapitulated with ever-increasing brilliance
in Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale, where it serves as an appropriate
occasion for demonstrating the daughter’s redemptive powers’.20
This important development in the allegorical construction of the last plays,
as Robert S. Miola made clear, ‘occurs in a Christianised context of sin and
repentance’ where its clearly didactic function resembles both the mixed tragic
mode theorised by Giraldi and Guarini’s pastoral tragicomedic variation.21 The
female redemptive capacity, exalted by the aesthetics of the new genre, blends with
the topoi of the donna mirabile and presumed death in commedia grave, enriching
the narrative output of commedia erudita with the addition of more solemn and
complex elements of gravitas, such as the accusation, trial, or threat of death
looming over the young innamorata, all being finally resolved by a sudden reversal
or a positive coup de théâtre thanks to the meritocratic intervention of Providence.
Complete characterisation is often assisted by the woman’s unusual dialectic
ability, as she takes her brave stand and defends her qualities of honesty and loving
fidelity, revealing herself in a religious aura as the personification of Christian
values. Marina, Imogen, Perdita, and Miranda, each on their own or flanked by the
supportive action of their mothers, are variously portrayed with the rhetorical traits
of the persecuted heroine – first subjected to an unfair trial and then elevated to the
rank of an angelic figure, like Desdemona or Cordelia, by effect of their virtues
of grace and innocence. The common rhetoric, constructed on naturalness and
simplicity of language, expands the ‘woman as wonder’ trope, which introduces
the explicit Counter-Reformation moralism of commedia grave into Renaissance
Anglo-Italian humanist culture. As Louise George Clubb put it, the theatregram
of the ‘wondrous woman’, breaking free of the prescribed stereotyped role of the
passive innamorata, subjected to patriarchal authority, ‘functions as an example of
virtue for imitation and admiration, and is associated … with an extra-fabular reality

 C. Hoy, ‘Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare’s Romances’, in Shakespeare’s
Romances Reconsidered, Carol McGinnis Kay and Henry E. Jacobs (eds) (Lincoln and
London: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), p. 78. See also Raphael Lyne, Shakespeare’s
Late Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 81–98.
 R.S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 188. On the influence of Guarini’s tragicomedy, see
also G.K. Hunter, ‘Italian Tragicomedy on the English Stage’, in Dramatic Identities and
Cultural Traditions: Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Liverpool: Liverpool
University Press, 1978), pp. 133–56. For a different perspective of Guarini’s influence on
Jacobean tragicomedy, see Jason Lawrence, ‘Who the devil taught thee so much Italian?’
Italian Language Learning and Literary Imitation in Early Modern England (Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 142–51.
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 183

that is invoked not by an obvious allegory but as an image of a truth physically

unseen yet naturally related to the prima facie story. At her full development the
figure is known by a hush that falls about her, a sense of her being a thing enskied
and sainted’.22
These moral qualities, often set off by the contrast with other characters,
underline the presence of a submerged yet unmistakable allegorical design,
associated with the representation of the didactic action of women, with its leaning
towards pardon and reconciliation. Before analysing the relationship with the late
Romances, it may be useful to single out the literary archetypes and models that
gave rise to the iconic and ideological matrices of these characterisations.

The affinities of genre linking Shakespeare’s late plays to the vast repertoire of
Counter-Reformation theatre have not always been recognised. However, many
thematic points of contact and conflict can be found if we examine the intertextual
dynamic from the viewpoint of recurrent dramatic microstructures. Seen in
this way, the topic of the woman brought to justice – one of the most frequent
theatregrams in the thematic reworkings of mixed drama – contains the situational
developments of two typological themes: the motif of the accused or slandered
woman and that of the assertive woman, both plentifully represented in Anglo-
Italian Renaissance theatre, either separated and not interdependent or combined
together in a single paradigm. Albeit with obvious contamination, the theatregram
of the assertive woman leads to a gradual process of masculinisation recognisable
in a chain of uses and reuses that, among the most significant examples, range
from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to Terence’s Hecyra and, through the mediation
of Boccaccio, from Machiavelli’s Clizia to Varchi’s La Suocera, culminating
in Shakespeare’s Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and the transvestite Moll in
Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl. Opposed to this is the case of the figure
of the ‘lady on trial’. Based on the re-evaluation of the feminine world, the woman
subjected to judgement or trial, operating above all in the sentimental models of
commedia grave, is embellished by gloomy contributions from the tragic genre
and given a happy ending by replacing the classical topos of whorish fortune with
the retributive action of divine justice.
The conflict between masculinisation and femininisation also inspires
Shakespeare’s romances, partly drawing, as Stevie Davies suggests, ‘from the root-
sources of Shakespeare’s Last Plays, the Greek romances of the early Christian era
(Apollonius of Tyre, Chaereas and Callirhoe, Aethiopica), with their emphasis on
the love-quest, the crucial role of the heroine, ritual death or loss of consciousness

  Louise G. Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare’s Time, p. 68.
184 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

and rebirth’.23 The reworking of these theatregrams includes the character of the
constant woman who remains faithful to the man she loves and to her ideals, despite
being repudiated or compelled by misfortune to leave her home. On a narrative
level, Boccaccio provides a link with the world of theatre through his novelle of
Giletta of Narbona and the patient Griselda (Decameron, III.9; X.10).24 In drama,
the prototype from which this is derived is L’Amor costante (1536) by Alessandro
Piccolomini, the theorist and founder of the Accademia Senese degli Intronati,
who constructed a play à these dealing with constancy in love, again rewarded
at the end by Providence. The whole comedy, prologue included, is structured in
metatheatrical terms. After the introductory caricature of the Spaniard, made the
target of increasing socio-political intolerance, the Prologue presents a foretaste
of the play’s content in the way it teaches women, in Decameron style, ‘quanto
manifesto error sia abbandonarsi nelle avversità amorose: perché quel pietosissimo
dio che si chiama Amore non abbandona mai chi con fermezza lo serve’.25 The
metatheatrical content is reproposed in the comment made by the miles Corsetto
regarding lovers’ fidelity: ‘Oh felicissima coppia d’amanti! oh amor costante!
oh bellissimo caso da farci sopra una comedia eccellentissima!’ (II, iii, p. 331).26
The usual Plautine conflict between senes and adulescentes, reformulated by
Shakespeare for symbolic purposes, is hinted at in the sententia pronounced by
Messer Giannino that stigmatises old people’s egoism: ‘I vecchi … non sanno far
le cose più generosamente perché gli atti magnanimi son nimici di quella età’ (IV,
ii, p. 372).27 The senex iratus of the first Shakespearean comedies, often represented
by a jealous pater familias (Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s
Dream), gradually changes – in the transition from Lear to Prospero, by way of
the initial fatal errors of Leontes and Cymbeline – into a choleric, bloodthirsty
tyrant who, to a different degree, has to atone and repent before he can regain his
lost values and affections. The explanatory function of the fabula and its explicit
didactic value accompany this process of spiritual maturation, which is brought to

  Stevie Davies, The Idea of Woman in Renaissance Literature. The Feminine
Reclaimed (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1986), p. 110.
 On the theatricality of the Decameron, v. Nino Borsellino, Rozzi e Intronati.
Esperienze e forme di teatro dal ‘Decameron’ al ‘Candelaio’ (Roma: Bulzoni, 1974),
pp. 13–50. I have dealt with the relationships between commedia grave and Jacobean
tragicomedy in my chapter ‘From Narrative to Drama: The Heroic Tale and the Theater’, in
M. Marrapodi (ed.), The Italian World of English Renaissance Drama, pp. 41–70.
 A. Piccolomini, L’Amor costante, in Commedie del Cinquecento, Vol. 1, Aldo
Borlenghi (ed.) (Milan: Rizzoli, 1959), Prologo, p. 282 (‘how manifest an error it is to give
in when crossed in love: for that most compassionate god called Love never abandons those
who serve him with steadfastness’).
  ‘O most happy pair of lovers! O constant love! O most perfect subject for a most
excellent comedy.’
  ‘Old men … cannot act more generously because magnanimity is the enemy of old
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 185

light thanks to the maieutic role of women and recompensed with the recognition
and family reunion scenes. In L’Amor costante the two lovers are obliged to marry
in secret because of their families’ opposition, fleeing by sea; their ship is then
captured by Moorish pirates and they are separated for many long years. Here is
Ferrante’s account of how he lost his beloved Ginevra:

la Fortuna, che sempre s’oppone ai bei disegni de li inamorati, volse che,

come fummo nei mari di Pisa, fussemo assaliti da quattro fuste di mori da le
quali fummo messi in mezzo e, doppo che i miei compagni, valorosamente
combattendo, furon morti e io gravemente ferito, venne ogni cosa in man de’
mori. E già, in quel mezzo che combattemmo, avea una fusta di quelle, in mia
presenzia, rapita per forza la mia Ginevra e portatala via, non giovando alla
meschina el pregarli o che l’uccidessero o che non la dividessero da me. (II, iii,
p. 328)28

The two lovers assume a new identity and are eventually reunited, safe and sound.
But their clandestine union is discovered and, accused of treachery, they have
to save themselves from the death threats of the old tutore, who in the end turns
out to be the girl’s true father. Nearly all the characters frequently address the
audience, in a rhetorical interplay that underlines and amplifies the stage fiction,
conveying a new form of tacit didactic message.29 In the epilogue, a soliloquy of
the maid Agnoletta draws attention to the moral teaching that can be learned from
the story:

Imparate, donne, da costei a esser costanti nei pensier vostri; e non dubitate, poi.
Imparate voi, amanti, a non abbandonarvi nelle miserie e soffrir le passioni per
fin che venghino le prosperità. (V, ix, p. 419).30

  ‘Fortune, which always obstructs lovers’ fine plans, would have it that when we
entered the seas of Pisa we were assailed by four Moorish vessels that surrounded us. My
shipmates fought valiantly but were done to death, I was gravely wounded, and all fell into
the hands of the Moors. But in the midst of the fray, one of these vessels, before my eyes,
took my Ginevra by force and carried her off, and to no avail to the poor damsel were all
her pleas to them either to kill her or not to part her from me.’
 Cf. Richard Andrews, Scripts and Scenarios. The Performance of Comedy in
Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). For Andrews, ‘This
element of direct moralizing from character to audience is new, and a first sign of the moral
unease which was soon to hit Italian culture about the function of fictitious stories in general
and comedy in particular’ (p. 103).
  ‘Learn from her, o ye women, to be constant in your thoughts; and then never have
any doubts. And you men who are in love, learn never to give up but to bear all hardships
until better times come.’
186 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

In La Pellegrina (1564) by the other intronato Girolamo Bargagli – another fruit

of the anticlerical collaboration of the Siena Academicians31 – the main Leitmotiv
is the conflict that prevents the union of the two pairs of lovers, whose stories are
intertwined until all is resolved in the final scene. The eiron, that is the agent of
the comedic action and the resolver of the situation, is Drusilla who, donned as
a pilgrim, is seeking her promised husband, Lucrezio, whom she believes to be
unfaithful. The motif of the search and disguise is taken from the novella of Giletta
of Narbona (Decameron, III.9), a source also used for the character of Helena in
the analogous Shakespearean play, All’s Well That Ends Well. In reality, Lucrezio,
believing Drusilla to be dead, is reluctantly betrothed to Lepida, who – herself being
in love with another – feigns madness. Thus Drusilla’s feigned death is echoed by
Lepida’s feigned madness in a subtle interplay of revelations and mirror images. The
arrival of Drusilla, in the pilgrim’s disguise, resolves all misunderstanding and the
lovers’ fidelity is rewarded. The recognition scene is skilfully managed by the young
woman, who demonstrates unusual dialectic ability displayed in simple, direct
language that dispels suspicion and goes straight to the heart of her interlocutor. The
consequent recognition is hailed as a spiritual rebirth, a true triumph of love and trust
rewarded by Heaven. When Lucrezio recognises his beloved, after believing her to
be dead, he expresses his joy with exclamations of amazement and wonder:

Luc. Oh cielo, oh Sole! che odo qui, che veggo io? questo è l’aspetto, questi sono
i sembianti della mia Drusilla. Ma voi chi sete? ò spirito, ò donna che vive? Sete
voi Drusilla? Drusilla morta, ò pur risuscitata, che cosa è questa?

Pell. Io ero morta, essendo priva di voi, che sete la mia vita: e ora risuscito, che
racquistando voi, raquisto insieme lo spirito. (V, vi)32

After testing Lucrezio’s feelings and cleverly conducting him towards the very
moment of anagnorisis, Drusilla can reveal herself as a living reward, granted
by Heaven for their reciprocal vows of fidelity. The theme of constancy in love,
undermined by the licentious behaviour of the Nurse, Giglietta, who urges them on
towards an erotic carpe diem, blends with the topos of the donna mirabile who is
able to overcome the flukes of fortune thanks to an extraordinary strength of faith.
Drusilla makes this clear at the end of the play when she removes her disguise:

 In this regard, see Nino Borsellino, Rozzi e intronati: Esperienze e forme di teatro
dal ‘Decameron’ al ‘Candelaio’, pp. 91–119.
  Girolamo Bargagli, La Pellegrina, Commedia Del Materiale Intronato, in Siena per
Matteo Rorimi, 1589. (‘O Heaven, O Sun! What is this I hear, what is this I see? This is
the form, these are the features of my Drusilla. Tell me, who are you? Are you a spirit or a
living woman? Are you Drusilla? What is this, Drusilla dead or returned to life? … I was
dead, when I found myself without you, you who are my life: and now I live again, for
regaining you I also regain my spirit.’) Cf. Pericles’ ‘Thou that beget’st him that did thee
beget’ (5.1.195).
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 187

Pell. Entriamo, che non veggo l’ora di gittar giù affatto quest’abito, che ora è finito
il Pellegrinaggio: ora è ottenuta la grazia: ora sono adempiti i voti! (V, vi).33

The plot of La Donna costante (1589) by Raffaello Borghini is based on the same
type of family conflict as that used by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. The
heroine Elfenice has to forsake Aristide, who has been obliged to flee because
he thinks he has killed her cousin. Years later, Aristide returns and learns that his
beloved is dead. Yet Elfenice has only feigned death in order to avoid a second
marriage and to continue her search for Aristide. The recognition scene, faithful
to the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, is intended to stress the motif of the
reward of love depending on lovers’ mutual fidelity. After a series of peripeteia,
concluding in a trial scene in the Palace of the Governor, who threatens to punish
the rivals unless they agree to make peace, the young lovers are at last able to get
married. Again it is the innamorata who plays a decisive role in the development
of the dramatic action. Her strength and constancy are lauded in the episode of the
feigned burial, as can be evinced from her conversation with the Balia:

Balia. Come è possibile figliuola mia, che tu non ti sii morta di paura, quando ti
risentisti in quella sepoltura, e che ti trovasti fra tanti morti?
Elf. Amore mi assicurava, e confortava, e la speranza d’haver presto à ritrovarmi
col mio signore mi faceva ardita contra ogni timido pensiero … (I, x)34

In her disguise as a boy, Elfenice can be present in all the tangled twists of the plot.
She reveals herself at the right moment to Aristide, who has resolved to put an end
to his days because of his beloved’s death. Elfenice’s ‘miraculous’ rediscovery is
interpreted by Aristide as sign of the divine power of both Heaven and Love:

O’ Elfenice mia adunque siete voi pur viva. O’ che contento estremo, ò che
allegrezza infinita è questa? (Atto III. ix)

O’ quante gratie render ti debbo benigno Cielo. E quanto di te lodar ti posso
cortese Amore? Non so come tanta allegrezza può capir nel mio petto; né so
come io potrò viver tanto ch’io mi conduca ad havere sposata la mia dolce
padrona. (IV, v)35

  ‘Let us go in, for I cannot wait to doff this garb, now that the pilgrimage is over:
now Grace has been granted: now our vows have been fulfilled.’
 R. Borghini, La donna costante, nuovamente ristampata in Fiorenza appresso
Giorgio Marescotti, 1582 (‘Nurse. How is it possible, my child, that you did not die of fear
when you awoke in that tomb and found yourself in the midst of so many dead bodies? Elf.
Love reassured and comforted me, and the hope that I should soon be reunited with my lord
and master emboldened me against all fearful thoughts.’) 
  (‘O Elfenice mine, thus you are still alive. O what utter happiness, o what infinite
joy is this? … O how much gratitude I owe you, kind Heaven. And how much can I extol
188 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Subsequently, the sentence hanging over Aristide’s head drives Elfenice to consider
taking her life if her long search proves to have been in vain. The Governor’s
sensible decision to punish both their houses, a motif linked to the theme of justice
deriving from the Council of Trent, brings family reunion and reconciliation
between parents and children. At the end of the woeful tale, Elfenice rises again to
new life, as the onomastic power of her name suggests, and she recognises that her
rediscovered happiness is due to the action of Providence:

Elfenice. Ringraziato sia il Cielo, che dopo tante tempeste il mio legno è giunto
in sicuro porto, e piaccia all’alto Motore, che mediocre travaglio mi sia dato in
contrapeso di così grande allegrezza, ch’io sento. (V, xiv)36

By associating the pedagogic sentimentalism of this theatrical form with the

thematic and ideological complexity of Shakespeare’s early tragicomedies, Louise
George Clubb established an implicit correlation with the aesthetic criteria of the
mixing of genres. In these works, from All’s Well That Ends Well to Measure for
Measure, love is a power capable of resolving all, a power entrusted to woman, a
creature endowed with divine grace who succeeds in triumphing over the setbacks
of misfortune and men’s impediments:

Love is promoted to the rank of grace and providence, and the commonplace
of feigned death and burial is used as more than an example of cleverness: it
is a wonder of steadfastness signifying the right human action that cooperates
through love in the stability of the Unmoved Mover, who is the source of love
and of the providence that controls the mutability of fortune.37

The theme of providence thwarting the supremacy of fortune, as worked out in the
various elaborations of the ‘wondrous woman’, can also be found in Annibal Caro’s
Gli Straccioni (1543–45), in Sforza Oddi’s commedie gravi – above all, I morti
vivi (1576) and Prigione d’amore (1580) – and in Gli duoi fratelli rivali (1601)
by Giambattista Della Porta, all being works based directly or indirectly on the
association of theatregrams presenting the apparent or presumed death of the lady
on trial, leading up to Shakespeare’s Hero in Much Ado About Nothing and finally
Hermione, in The Winter’s Tale, progressing by way of Desdemona’s sufferings
in Othello and the slandered Imogen/Innogen in Cymbeline, i.e. portrayals of
women subjected to judgement or trial by the arrogance of male power. The
female character that emerges from all these characterisations is often regarded

you, gentle Love? I do not know how so much joy can enter my heart; nor do I know how I
shall be able to live long enough to take my sweet mistress to wife.’)
  (‘Elfenice. Heaven be thanked, that after so many tempests my ship has come safely
to port, and may it please the high Mover that slight turmoil be given me in exchange for
this great happiness that I feel. V, xiv.)
  Louise George Clubb, Italian Drama of Shakespeare’s Time, p. 73.
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 189

as a ‘saint-like’ or ‘Christ-like’ figure, modelled on the Christian principles of

renunciation and endurance through the use of images and religious metaphors, a
figure who nevertheless, with her exemplary behaviour denounces the patriarchal
and authoritarian structure of the court or society represented, expressing a positive
symbology of eros directed towards recovery and salvation.
A sort of ideological manifesto of this deliberate thematic choice is present
in the Prologue to Sforza Oddi’s last play, Prigione d’amore. In the dialectic
between Comedy and Tragedy, based on the classical theory of literary genres,
the author justifies the presence of pathetic-sentimental comic matter constructed
on passiveness and endurance with his total support of the cultural policies of
the Counter-Reformation Church.38 Tragedy scolds Comedy for usurping her
cathartic purpose of achieving pity and emotion and Comedy replies that the
true origin of aesthetic pleasure and delight lies precisely in the conflict between
laughter and tears.

Tragedia. Dunque vuoi tu tòrre a te stessa il piacevole, e il ridicolo, per lo quale

si tanto da’ popoli desiderata?
Comedia. I miei ministri ingegnosi san mescolare col buono essempio della
favola grave, e di virtù piena tante facezie, e discorsi piacevoli, che chi mi
ascolta, e utile, e diletto insieme ne riporta. Onde disse il mio latino, ‘e colto ha
il punto, chi l’utile, e il diletto insieme ha giunto’.
Tragedia. Questo mi piace, ma la compassione e gli affetti, che sono miei
propri, con che licenzia così spesso mi usurpi, e cerchi di farne quasi tragiche
le favole tue?
Comedia. Et nell’amarezza delle lagrime ancora sta nascosta la dolcezza del
diletto; e io che in ogni maniera dilettar voglio, fo così spesso e di lagrime e
di riso una vaghissima mescolanza, e l’amaro del pianto fa più gioconda la
dolcezza del riso.39

 An anticipation of the dialectics among theatrical genres can be seen in the Prologue
to L’Ortensio (1560) by Alessandro Piccolomini in which the form and contents of Comedy
are considered more suitable to the lighter spirit of Siennese academicians:
‘Tragedia. … con tutto che io tratti di cose meste, non dimeno soglio portare molto
diletto, non pure con l’imitazione, come fai tu, ma col muovere ancora pietà in altrui, oltre
che soglio parimente recare in altrui giovamento grandissimo purgando gli animi da certe
Comedia. Egli è vero, ma per imitare io cose piacevoli, mostro di porgere maggior
diletto, e per lo scoprire e riprendere l’azioni degne di biasimo delle persone di mezzano
stato: appare più manifesto il mio giovamento, per essere così fatte azioni più commune
alla vita umana, che non sono quelle grandi imitate da te.’ In Commedie del Cinquecento,
Aldo Borlenghi (ed.), p. 1042.
  Sforza Oddi, Prologue to Prigione d’amore, in Il Teatro italiano. La Commedia del
Cinquecento, Guido Davico Bonino (ed.), vol. III (Turin: Einaudi), p. 446:
‘Tragedy. Do you therefore wish to keep away from you the pleasant and the ridiculous
which all people so much desire?’
190 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

The social and political dimension implicit in edifying literature of the sort
also includes providing a moral lesson on the behaviour of Princes. Not only
for the objectives of the self-preservation of power, as laid down by the laws of
the Machiavellian pragmatism of the epoch, but also protected, as Guido Baldi
observed, ‘from condemnation of all subversive moves, as regards the selection of
a compromise solution in which absolutism was tempered by respect for morality
and religion’.40
Much Ado About Nothing is an analogue of Della Porta’s Gli duoi fratelli
rivali, although inspired more directly by the fifth canto of Orlando Furioso
and Bandello’s twenty-second novella.41 In this play, Shakespeare succeeded in
balancing the various parts that compose the main plot, onto which he grafted the
secondary plot derived from the tradition of the ‘scorner of love’, a tradition kept
alive by the considerable influence exerted by Castiglione’s Il libro del Cortegiano
– known in England in Thomas Hoby’s 1561 translation – on the love literature of
the Renaissance. Beatrix and Benedick’s witty verbal duels are fully integrated into
the dramatic texture of the play, based entirely on the theme of linguistic deception,
wordplay, and misunderstandings caused by twisted information and misleading
accounts. The playwright seems to be fascinated by the evolution of his art, which
was now gradually freeing itself from the artificial euphuistic language of the early
comedies and progressing towards the elaborate, paronomasic, erudite style of the
mature works. As a result, instead of absorbing the Sicilian climate in Bandello’s
novella and drawing on this to frame the play’s thematic structure through his
innovations, Shakespeare expands this iconology, adding the remarkable linguistic
ability of his characters to the natural qualities possessed by Sicilians; all of which
makes Much Ado an influential model for all subsequent plays set in Sicily.42 The
quarrelsome couple in the subplot arouses so much interest on stage as to eclipse
the theatrical fortunes of the conventional lovers of the main plot. Dogberry’s
amusing malapropisms express greater realism and dramatic effectiveness than the
weak solution Bandello opts for, with the unexpected repentance of the slanderer,

Comedy. My ingenious ministers know how to use the good example of the solemn
fable, so full of virtue, to combine so many frivolities and pleasing discourses that my
listeners find in them both the useful and the delightful. As the Latin writer said, “He who
unites the useful and the delightful has reached the target”.
Tragedy. This pleases me, but by whose permission do you usurp from me compassion
and love, which are my domain, and seek to turn your fables almost into tragedies?
Comedy. Sweet delight lies concealed in the bitterness of tears; and I, who in all ways
wish to delight, very often make a most delicate mixture of tears and laughter, and the
bitterness of weeping makes the sweetness of laughter more joyful.’
  G. Baldi, ‘Le commedie di Sforza Oddi e l’ideologia della Controriforma’, Lettere
italiane (1971): p. 44.
 Cf. G. Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. II
(London: Routledge, 1958), pp. 61–139 on the entire subject of the play’s sources.
 Cf. M. Marrapodi, La Sicilia nella drammaturgia giacomiana e carolina (Rome:
Herder, 1989), pp. 23–37.
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 191

in ironic contrast with the smart linguistic repartee of the sophisticated court in
Messina, which is unable to penetrate the wall of outward appearance.
The search for comic effect based on the characters’ linguistic virtuosity
and verbal daring, which accentuates the dramaturgical effectiveness through
the expressive power of a textual construction oriented towards spectacular
complacency, appears to be hinted at in the radical experimentation of Della Porta’s
Gli duoi fratelli rivali. Della Porta departs from the rigid didacticism of his Sienese
models and re-elaborates a spectacular type of comedy, skilfully and successfully
blending measured Counter-Reformation moralism with an equal portion of a rich
clown-like register that includes all the main types of Plautine comedy, from the
pedant to the parasite, from the miles gloriosus to the cunning or faithful servant.
As Guido Davico Bonino has remarked, with reference to this extreme form of
theatrical sensitivity, ‘Literary virtuosism (bristling with hyperboles, studded with
agudezas, and scattered with metaphors) now finds itself complying with an astute
strategy that itself seeks comic effect. The lexical magic, the syntactic leaps in the
dark, are moments in a make-believe “distance dialogue” between spectator and
actor.’43 This is how Don Ignazio describes himself falling in love with Carizia
during the bullfight:

… il toro alcuna volta mi feriva nella pelle e ne gocciolavano alcune stille di

sangue, e il popolo ne avea compassione; ma ella con i giri degli occhi suoi mi
fulminava nell’anima, ma perché le ferite erano senza sangue, niuno ne avea
compassione. De’ colpi de’ tori alcuni ne andavano vòti d’effetto; ma quelli degli
occhi suoi tutti colpivano a segno. Pregava Amore che crescesse la rabbia a’ tori,
ma temperasse la forza de’ guardi di Carizia. Al fin io rimasi vincitore del toro,
ella vincitrice di me: ed io che vinsi perdei, e fui in un tempo vinto e vincitore,
e restai nella vittoria per amore. Del toro si vedea il cadavero disteso in terra, il
mio vagava innanzi la sua bella imagine; il popolo con lieto applauso gradiva la
mia vittoria, ed io piangeva la perdita di me stesso. Ahi quanto poco vinsi! ahi
quanto perdei! vinsi un toro e perdei l’anima.. (I, i).44

  G. Davico Bonino, Il Teatro italiano. La Commedia del Cinquecento, ‘Introduzione’,
p. XX.
  G.B. Della Porta, Gli duoi fratelli rivali, in Le Commedie, Vincenzo Spampanato
(ed.), Vol. II (Bari: Laterza, 1911): ‘… the bull more than once gored my skin and drops of
blood flowed, and the crowd had pity on me; however, she with the turns of her eyes struck
me to the soul, but as these wounds were bloodless no one pitied me. Some of the blows
dealt by the bulls were void of all effect, but all those dealt by her eyes hit their target. I
begged Love to increase the bulls’ rage, but to temper the violence in Carizia’s eyes. In the
end I defeated the bull, and she defeated me: and I who had won lost, and at one and the
same time I was both loser and winner, and I remained victorious for love’s sake. The body
of the bull was there to see, stretched out on the ground, my own body wandered before
her fair image; the crowd merrily applauded my victory, while I be wept the loss of myself.
Alas, how little I won and how much I lost! I defeated a bull and lost my soul …’.
192 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

The theatregram of presumed death, which the didactic purpose of the slandered
woman revolves around, operates in both plays as a form of recognition of
improper behaviour that leads to a happy ending only after an appropriate process
of expiation and repentance, which in Della Porta is guided by the hand of God,
as the matrona Polisena expressly declares: ‘Rendete le grazie a Dio, non a me
indegna serva! Egli solo ha ordinato nel cielo che i fatti cosí difficili e impossibili
ad accommodarsi siano ridotti a cosí lieto fine’ (V, iii).45 Don Ignazio believes that
the vision of his beloved, whom he feared to be dead, will deceive his sight and
cloud his reason until truth is confirmed by the senses.

Don Ignazio. … l’infinito contento che ho nell’alma mi accieca gli occhi, mi

offusca i sensi e mi conturba l’intelletto, ché veggiando dormo, vivendo moro,
ed essendo sordo e cieco odo e veggio. Ma se eri sepolta e morta, come or sei qui
viva? o quello o questo è sogno. E se sei viva, come posso soffrir tant’allegrezza
e non morire? O tanto desiato oggetto degli occhi miei, hai sofferte tante ingiurie
insin alla morte, insin alla sepoltura; e or volevi finir la vita in un monastero!
Carizia. Veramente avea cosí deliberato per non aver a trattar piú con uomo,
poiché era stata ingiuriata e rifiutata dal primo a cui avea dato le premizie de’
mia amori e i primi fiori d’ogni mio amoroso pensiero.
Don Ignazio. Deh! signora della mia vita, poiché sei mia, fammi degno che ti
tocchi; e no potendoti ponere dentro il cuore, almeno che ti ponga in queste
braccia. Io pur ti tocco e stringo; donque io son vivo. Ma oimè, che per lo
smisurato contento par che sia per isvenirmi! i spiriti del core, sciolti dal corpo
per i meati troppo aperti per lo caldo dell’allegrezza, par che se ne volino via, e
l’anima abbandonata non può soffrir il corpo, e il corpo afflitto non può sostener
l’anima: mi sento presso al morire. Ma come posso morire se tengo abbracciata
la vita?46

  ‘Give your thanks to God, not to me, a worthless servant. He alone in Heaven
ordained that these difficult and irresolvable events should come to such a happy ending.’
  (‘Don Ignazio. … the infinite contentedness in my soul blinds my eyes, darkens
my senses and confuses my brain for though awake I sleep, though alive I die, and though
deaf and blind I hear and see. You were dead and buried, so how is it that now you are here?
Either one or the other is a dream. And if you are alive, how can I bear such happiness and
yet not die? O object of my eyes, so much desired, you have suffered so many hardships
even unto death, even unto burial; and now you desired to end your days in a nunnery?’
Carizia. That indeed is what I resolved, so that I should have no more traffic with men,
as I was insulted and shunned by the first to whom I gave the first-fruits of my love and the
first flowers of all my loving thoughts.
Don Ignazio. I beg you, mistress of my life, as you are mine, make me worthy to touch
you; and not being able to put you in my heart, at least let me / put you in these arms / hold
you in my arms /. And yet I hold and embrace you; I am therefore alive. But woe is me, such
is my boundless delight that I feel I must faint! the spirits of my heart, liberated from my
body along canals that the heat of happiness opens too wide, seem to be flying afar, and my
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 193

In Much Ado, the final marriage between Claudio and the veiled lady whom he
believes to be his lamented beloved’s cousin, is proposed as a way of setting aright
the tragic error that caused the death of Hero. The episode’s true function is to
underline feminine spiritual qualities – so unfairly denigrated – and to allow the
coup de théâtre that makes it possible for the lady to reappear and reaffirm her

Claud. Another Hero!

Hero. Nothing certainer:
One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid. (5.4.62–4)

The theatregram of supposed death and burial, on which the sudden change
of fortune attributed to Providence operates, is well suited to the educational
purposes of dramatic art that is expressly demanded by Counter-Reformation
theatre; however, women’s victory continues to be presented against the backdrop
of a male-dominated society in which a rigid patriarchal and misogynist structure
allows an innocent daughter to be violently accused and condemned by her
father without any possibility of appeal or defence. As many feminist critics have
suggested, patriarchal violence in Much Ado is represented by the anxiety of ‘a
symbolic murder … supported by the highest-ranking members of the social
order – including the woman’s own father. This is a world where those who seek
maliciously to disrupt the social order can find a wedge against their betters by
exploiting a universal anxiety concerning woman’s sexuality as an index of her
agency and potential unruliness’.47 It is only after All’s Well and Measure for
Measure that the figure of the heroine acquires the superior qualities that permit
her to promote the process of family reconciliation and rebirth on which the action
of the woman will exert its effect in the last plays, setting up a gradual feminising
of the iconic models, myths, rites, and symbols that lie at the base of the ideology
and the metaphorical and allegorical construction of the romance plays.

Despite an excessively articulated and complex narrative structure that may be the
result of a process of collaboration, Pericles presents an exemplary case of formal
and thematic ideological consistency. This consistency is achieved by means of
a dense network of iconic events that add to the play’s unity of style and favour

forsaken soul cannot abide my body, and my tormented body cannot bear my soul: I feel I
am about to die. But how can I die if I hold life in my embrace?’)
  Mihoko Suzuki, ‘Gender, Class, and the Ideology of Comic Form: Much Ado About
Nothing and Twelfth Night’, in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, Dympna Callaghan
(ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), p. 130.
194 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

the message it is intended to put across. Thus the initial symbolism of incest is
continually being re-evoked by metaphors and antithetical terms that accentuate the
cyclical dimension and point in the direction of the specific educational purpose.
The fabula’s instructive quality is consolidated by the alternating sequence of loss
and gain, defeat and victory, sorrow and joy. This circular structure, made up of
sudden changes and unexpected surprises, is typical of the multidimensional art
of the classical romance in which, as in the Odyssey, the hero is obliged to seek
his identity through a series of alternating vicissitudes and which has close links
with the medieval and chivalrous quest. Unlike Lear – yet equally smitten in the
objects of his dearest affection – Pericles does not rebel against his fate. He bears
the burden of his misfortunes with stoic resignation, in an exemplary parable of
Christian humility that creates a significant thematic contrast with the evil world
of his persecutors:

We cannot but obey

The powers above us. Could I rage and roar
As doth the sea she lies in, yet the end
Must be as ’tis. (3.3.9–12)

Here Pericles describes to the perfidious rulers of Tharsus the disappearance of

his spouse Thaisa, whom he buried at sea during a tempest, believing her to have
died giving birth to their daughter Marina. Thematically, Pericles’ personal story
appears to be a reversal of that of Oedipus. Both in Sophocles’ tragedy and in
Seneca’s Latin version,48 the myth of the Sphinx is a basic preliminary element
that precedes the action of the play and is the reason why the protagonist, after
solving the riddle, finds himself – against his will – living out all the predicted
stages of an inescapable destiny until his ultimate anguished state of awareness.
In Shakespeare’s text these two dramaturgical moments are inverted. In addition
to the eponymous hero’s innocence, Pericles is aware of the incest from the outset
and, although immediately denying it, he nonetheless suffers its consequences
because the moment of anagnorisis coincides – and indeed identifies itself – with
his own personal tragedy. The real reason for Pericles’ suffering is not revealed
since, as in Oedipus, the audience should be interested not in the errors, real or
imagined, of the protagonist but in the paradigm of his existence. This type of

 Cf. Sophocles, Oedipus the King, translated into Italian by Salvatore Quasimodo,
Introduction by R. Rebora (Milan: Mondadori, 1972); the ‘Loeb Classical Library’ offers
excellent English editions of Sophocles and Seneca (London, 1981 and 1979). Seneca’s
influence on Shakespeare has been studied by various authors, for a good analysis of the
subject, see J. Daalder’s introduction to Thyestes, translated in 1560 by J. Heywood (London:
E. Benn, 1982). For a systematic study in Shakespeare, see R.S. Miola, Shakespeare and
Classical Tragedy. On Greek tragedy and the Elizabethans, see H.D.F. Kitto, Form and
Meaning in Drama. A Study of Six Greek Plays and of ‘Hamlet’ (London: Methuen,
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 195

moral progression, punctuated by various examples or medieval tableaux vivants

commented upon by Gower and by means of which the protagonist’s journey of
experience and awareness proceeds, accompanies the woeful tribulations of his
wife Thaisa and his daughter Marina. The use of Gower as a chorus, as a presenter
and icastic narrator, is similar to that of the role of the intermezzo in certain
commedie gravi (see, for example, Raffaello Borghini’s La donna costante) but
also performs an important metatheatrical function, welding the various episodes
together and nullifying the anachronies and excessive shifts in time and space
by making use of at least three verb tenses: future, present, and past. In Act 4,
Gower invites us to imagine, like ‘Time’ in The Winter’s Tale, the rapid passing
of some 14 years (‘I carried winged time / Post on the lame feet of my rime’;
4, Chorus, 47–8), diverting our attention to Marina, who in the meantime, at
the court of Cleon, has become a splendid young woman, rich in every virtue,
‘train’d / In music’s letters; who hath gain’d / Of education all the grace, / Which
makes her both the heart and place / Of general wonder’ (Chorus, 4. 7.11). Such
perfection arouses the envy of Queen Dionyza, who sees her daughter’s beauty
eclipsed by Marina’s. Like Lady Macbeth, Dionyza is not just a woman who
inspires and instigates evil – she represents the archetypal figure of the cunning
temptress who uses specious rhetorical devices to talk people into committing a
crime. Her powers of deception are even commented on by her husband, in the
scene where she recounts the diabolical plan she has hatched against Marina
(‘Thou art like a harpy, / Which, to betray, dost with thine angel’s face, / Seize
with thy eagle’s talons’, 4.3. 46–8). In an intricate interplay of dichotomies,
the Queen’s malice and ingratitude are set against the constancy and generosity
of Thaisa, who for Pericles’ sake has risked everything, immediately believing
in his noble qualities. In contrast, Dionyza uses the following terms to instil
steadfastness in the spirit of the assassin Leonine:

Let not conscience,

Which is but cold, or flaming love thy bosom
Enslave too nicely; nor let pity, which
Even women have cast off, melt thee, but be
A soldier to thy purpose. (4.1. 4–8)

By urging him to forego the prerogatives of human nature and deny conscience,
love, and piety in favour of a perverse concept of manliness, which she equates
with the brutality of a soldier, Dionyza also provides a powerful and emblematic
contrast to Marina in her next appearance, when her purity is underlined, as in
the case of Ophelia and Perdita, by the symbolism of flowers. When Marina,
saddened by the death of her faithful nurse, is left alone with Leonine, her
innocence is poetically projected by the simplicity of the language she uses to
describe the tragic moments of her birth:
196 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

The purple violets, and marigolds,

Shall as a carpet hang upon thy grave,
While summer-days doth last. Ay me! Poor maid,
Born in a tempest, when my mother died,
This world to me is as a lasting storm,
Whirring me from my friends. (4.1.15–20)

Marina’s account is abruptly broken off by Leonine ordering her to pray (‘come
say your prayers’, 65): the re-evocation of her birth has the effect of an ironic
prelude to her death. Equally in vain is the attempt to soften the assassin’s heart
and to discover the reason for his horrid task; mindful of Dionyza, Leonine puts an
end to the dialogue with a comment that leaves no room for hope:

My commission
Is not to reason of the deed, but do’t. (4.1.82–3)

The pirates’ providential arrival saves Marina from certain death and adds new life
to the complex plot of the fabula.
The values of the ‘wondrous woman’ emerge with greater strength and clarity
in the final part of the play, with its description of Marina’s vicissitudes at Mytilene
and her meeting with her father. Sold by the pirates to the owners of a brothel,
Marina transforms the sinners into penitents by the sheer expressive power of her
words and the example of her virtues, causing considerable financial loss to the
servant Boult and his mistress, Bawd. The rhetorical power of her words lies in
the naturalness and simplicity of her speech. Her discourse confounds the logic of
vice and perversion, as is evident in the ironic contrast with the explicit wantonly
indecent behaviour of the procuress:

Mar. Are you a woman?

Bawd. What would you have me be, am I be not a woman?
Mar. An honest woman, or not a woman. (4.2.78–81)

Without any doubt, the most effective sequence is that regarding her meeting
with Lysimachus, the Governor of Mytilene. The scene has all the hallmarks of
Shakespeare. Like Isabella in Measure for Measure, Marina engages in a battle
of words with Lysimachus in which the simplicity and straightforwardness of her
language enable her to controvert and gloss her adversary’s remark, with the result
that in the end she triumphs over him:

Lys. Now, pretty one, how long have you been at this trade?
Mar. What trade, Sir?
Lys. Why, I cannot name’t but I shall offend.
Mar. I cannot be offended with my trade. Please you to name it.
Lys. How long have you been of this profession?
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 197

Mar. E’er since I can remember.

Lys. Did you go to’t so young? Were you a gamester at five or at seven?
Mar. Earlier too, sir, if now I be one.
Lys. Why, the house you dwell in proclaims you to be a creature of sale.
Mar. Do you know this house to be a place of such resort, and will come
into’t. I hear say you’re of honourable parts and are the governor of this place.

In the play’s exemplary antithetical structure, Marina acts as foil to Antiochus’s

incestuous daughter inasmuch as she not only succeeds in defending her honour
from the impure attack of the senses but also ensures that her moral conduct acts as
a model for the spiritual salvation of others. As Inga-Stina Ewbank pointed out in
her comment on Marina’s magical meeting with her father, she is not only chaste
and innocent but also endowed with a gift for plain and basically naturalistic
speech, which owes its power of persuasion precisely to the ‘literaliness’ of
expression: ‘her eloquence lies in her very literaliness, and … it is this quality
which is therapeutic’; this enables her to enter the ‘reunion scene not primarily as
a symbol of “sweet harmony” but as a vigorous heroine of social comedy, capable
of working through words on people’s minds’.49 Previously, with Lysimachus,
Marina had already demonstrated that she possessed natural powers of persuasion
when she converted him to the right and proper cause simply by affirming her own
personal testimony of life and by refusing all ambiguities, understatement, and
amphibologies, i.e. the instruments of hidden persuasion that are typical of oblique
communication. As shown in the characterisations of Desdemona and Cordelia,
naturalistic language, with its lack of exaggeration and deceit, contains the special
evocative quality of its own expression. The mere telling of the sad events of their
past makes them immediately worthy of attention and trust. Consistent with Lear,
Pericles is guided by his daughter until the beneficent moment of anagnorisis by
a gradual process of awareness that traverses a whole range of emotions before
acquiring a necessary maieutic value of regeneration and rebirth. ‘The pattern’,
as Ewbank acutely observed, ‘is that of a psychologically convincing process of
approaching the truth, doubling back, hesitating, asking for still more proof. As
in King Lear, we do not simply watch and marvel, we apprehend the wonder of
the recognition through characters’ experiences.’50 Pericles’ ineffable joy conveys,
in the single image appropriate for the situation (‘this great sea of joys’), the
protagonist’s supreme happiness as he accepts the new reality that enables him,

 I-S. Ewbank, ‘“My name is Marina”: The Language of Recognition’, in Ph. Edwards,
I-S. Ewbank, G. K. Hunter (eds), Shakespeare Styles. Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 117.
 Ibid., p. 121 (italics in the text). On the characteristic language and style of Marina
and the last plays, see Russ McDonald, Shakespeare’s Late Style (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006).
198 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

with an act of reciprocal regeneration, to rediscover what he had lost and to return
to life once again:

Give me a gash, put me to present pain,

Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O’erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness. O, come hither,
Thou that beget’st him that did thee beget;
Thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tharsus,
And found at sea again. (5.1.191–7)

Thus the theme of incest, concealed in the interplay of paradox and in the
ambiguity of the riddle, is resolved in its opposite by Pericles’ words. In this
way the father-daughter relationship, initially poisoned by the incestuous couple,
returns to a state of purity thanks to the miracle of recognition and is interpreted in
its correct human dimension of a generous and disinterested feeling of love that is
capable of generating the magical effect of rebirth and reconciliation. The sense of
contentedness in this scene is made all the more complete because the successful
reunion takes place at sea aboard Pericles’ ship. It seems to underline, with
Nature’s implicit approval, the symbolic value of the sea, which returns what it has
destroyed: ‘And found at sea again.’ Like Lear’s reaction at his joyful recognition,
Pericles requests new clothes, symbolising a new life, and his happiness is so
complete and the moment so sublime that he hears heavenly music, the supreme
‘music of the spheres’ which represents ‘the single symbolic image that expresses
the whole play’,51 leading to the happy ending and the family reunion.
In addition to replacing the topos of chance and blind fortune with the Counter-
Reformation motif of Providence, as in the commedia grave, the playwright grafts
the tragicomical pattern onto the events he presents, thereby lightening the grim
weight of the tragic sense of death that is ever present in life. The protagonist even
uses the disappearance of Simonides to succeed him at Pentapolis together with his
rediscovered wife, while the destruction of the evil lords of Tharsus by the angry
throng is like a nemesis for the thankless manner in which the virtuous Marina
was treated. The same applies to the other romance plays. Cloten’s decapitation in
Cymbeline and the fact that Antigonus is devoured by a bear in The Winter’s Tale
are events that do not involve our emotions because these actions are rooted in the
tale’s fable-like dimension, they are part of the inscrutable design of ‘great creative
nature’, of the perennial cycle of death and rebirth, suffering and miraculous
healing, loss and gain all of them events that are no more important than other
human activities. As R.A. Foakes put it, the last works ‘are presented within the
detached perspective of a dramatic structure which treats death as a detail in the

 Cf. J. Arthos, ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyres: A Study in the Dramatic Use of Romantic
Narrative’, Shakespeare Quarterly, IV (1953): 257–70.
The ‘Woman as Wonder’ Trope 199

pattern of existence’.52 It is in Shakespeare’s final works that the female universe is

raised to the rank of a true protagonist, freeing men from the anxiety of authority
and the patriarchal restrictions of social and political dominion.

 R.A. Foakes, Shakespeare. The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays: From Satire to
Celebration (London: Routledge, 1971), p. 95.
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Part III
Spectacle, Aesthetics,
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Chapter 11
Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival:
Venice and Verona Revisited
François Laroque

It is interesting and significant that, in some of the plays he wrote between 1592 and
1606, Shakespeare’s representation of Italy and performance of scenes borrowed
from Italian popular drama should include carnivalesque elements with masques,
torches, fifes and drums, cross-dressing as well as more subversive aspects such
as those concerned with sexuality and satire. These scenarios often involve a
patriarchal, family structure in an urban environment away from the more romantic
patterns of ‘green world’ comedy (like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You
Like It) as well as a specific generic instability, since comedy is always close to
real or potential tragedy. Such hybridity was never theorised in England and seems
to proceed from a number of empirical choices and specific needs of the public
playhouses and the professional stage in Shakespeare’s day and it does reveal a
number of interactions with the world of commedia dell’arte which some actors
like William Kempe seem to have been quite familiar with.
Now, these imported ‘theatregrams’ as well as the rich intertextuality inherent
in popular sayings and clichés currently circulating about other nations and
strangers, particularly vivacious during the Carnival period, are prominent aspects
in such plays as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant
of Venice or Othello. These two comedies and two tragedies indeed present us
with facets of Italian carnival in the two nearby cities of Verona and Venice, where
comic and tragic elements and the themes of love and hate, trade and exchange,
war and violence are woven together in exciting and sometimes disturbing ways.

 Editions used for Shakespeare quotations: Clifford Leech (ed.), The Two Gentlemen
of Verona, Methuen (The Arden Shakespeare), London, 1969; Jill L. Levenson (ed.), Romeo
and Juliet, OUP (The Oxford Shakespeare), Oxford, 2000 ; Jay L. Halio (ed.), The Merchant
of Venice, OUP (The Oxford Shakespeare), Oxford, 1994 ; E.A.J. Honigmann (ed.), Othello,
Thomas Nelson & Sons (The Arden Shakespeare), Walton-On-Thames, 1997.

  See Louise George Clubb, ‘Italian Stories on the Stage’ in Alexander Leggatt (ed.),
The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2002), p. 35.

 The term is used by Louise George Clubb in her monograph Italian Drama in
Shakespeare’s Time (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989).
204 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Shakespeare, who was the first playwright in England who gave such
paramount importance to Italy in his drama, may indeed have found in Italian life
and in popular stage traditions an openness that allowed him to maintain a basic
generic ambivalence in his plays as well as a way of exploiting the thrill of cultural
exchange and national difference on stage. In transcoding, names and geographical
places, he indirectly refers to English types or situations in a détour adding depth
and meaning to plots enriched by a form of European exoticism where fate and
folklore, satirical gibes and lyricism are freely combined. But carnival remained
an ambiguous site. Indeed, it took up familiar, recurring calendrical cycles and
customs while simultaneously opening transgressive spaces, with its unruly wives,
rebellious children or threatening strangers that all seemed likely to put the social
and sexual hierarchies upside down.

Theories of Dramatic Genres and Visions of Renaissance Carnival

While the plays of Machiavelli, Aretino, and Bibbiena had included some bawdy
and rough comedy, the post-Tridentine period in Italy introduced a rigorous
division between the academy, the world of commedia erudita, on the one hand,
and, on the other, the street theatre of commedia dell’arte which was based
on a form of irreverent laughter that derided social pretensions and pompous
respectability. The most influential spokesman on comedy in Italy was Gian
Giorgio Trissino who, in his Poetica (1561), contended that ‘the objects of
laughter deserve mockery because of their moral shortcomings’ and was partly
responsible for reviving ancient theories of comedy and argued for the inclusion
of strong satirical elements. It is likely that Jonson’s comedy of humours drew
on such views since aggressive laughter and the lashing out of vices and follies
easily aligned themselves with this type of comic theory. Still, Sidney’s refusal of
‘mongrel tragi-comedy’ seems to confirm that in England, and for Shakespeare
at least, this type of drama was evolved in a haphazard, empirical manner without
any theoretical underpinning.
At this juncture, it seems likely that carnival shows and plays became
associated with Italian comedy and thus left their imprint on Shakespeare’s creative

  Louise George Clubb even speaks of ‘Shakespeare’s Italophilia’, Italian Drama,
p. 33.

  François Laroque, ‘Shakespeare’s Imaginary Geography’ in Andrew Hadfield and
Paul Hammond (eds)., Shakespeare and Renaissance Europe (London: Thomson, The
Arden Shakespeare, 2004), pp. 193–219.

  John Roe, ‘Theories of literary kinds’ in Michael Hattaway (ed.), A Companion to
English Renaissance Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), p. 293.

  Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry or the Defence of Poesy, Geoffrey Shepherd
(ed.) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965), p. 135.
Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival 205

imagination. Indeed, in an analysis based on Leone di Somi’s Dialogues, Leo

Salingar mentions the link between pre-Tridentine Italian comedy and carnival:

A Renaissance comedy might be justified as a ‘mirror of human life’, wherein

vices are attacked’ and ‘virtues praised’, but it was essentially a ‘carnival show’,
an explosion of high spirits licensed and ratified by custom. In popular custom
it was a time for release and mimic expiation, expressed through wooing games,
mock-battles between Carnival and Lent … and through dances and processions
led by animal- and devil-masks.

Some of these carnival jokes and pranks led to serious incidents and may be
thought of as possible analogue sources for the plot of Romeo and Juliet when
comedy suddenly veers into tragedy:

The historian, William Thomas (who introduced the word carnival into
English in 1549) relates how …, at Venice, ‘in their Carnival time (which we
call shrovetide) you shall see maskers’ – strangers in the city– ‘disguise them
selves’ in the Venetians’ habit, and come unto their own noses in derision of their
customs, their habit … and misery …. But, also at Venice, in 1549, Sir Thomas
Hoby, Castiglione’s future translator, witnessed a day of carnival masquerading
for a visiting nobleman, which began in ‘great sort and merry pastime’ … and
ended in a brawl over a lady in a masked ball at night, which cost the nobleman
his life.

So, carnival is endowed with a double face, a bright as well as a dark one, and
Shakespeare seems to have been particularly fascinated by this form of ambivalence
or ‘contrariety’.
One salient feature of commedia dell’arte in carnival times is the place given
to improvisation with what Louise George Clubb describes as ‘slapdash, bare bone
scenarios’10 to be expanded and declined in infinite combinations and variations:

Italian comedy … and the scenarios for improvising … all drew on the stage
repertory accumulated in decades of ransacking and recombination, composed
of pieces of stories, situations, speeches, moves, themes, and characters. The
classical Plautine cast was updated and augmented in commedia erudita, the
old man as the vecchio, the young lovers as giovani innamorati, with servi
and freeloaders, the braggart capitano frequently Hispanized, the procurer as
ruffiano, the prostitute as cortegiana, the nurse as balia, together with friars,
pedants, alchemists, Moors, Jews, Germans and Ragusan seafarers, innkeepers,

  Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1974), p. 191.

 Ibid., p. 192.
 Clubb, Italian Drama, p. 37.
206 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

gypsies, comic hangmen, constables, and other additions from narrative sources,
especially the Decameron.11

Similarly, Shakespearian comedy proceeds from a free combination of such eclectic

sources and a play like The Merchant of Venice contains elastic structures that
allowed both for improvisation and endless repetition. As Richard Andrews notes,

The Merchant of Venice comes out as a comedy which assembles a notably

higher number of moveable dramaturgical theatregrams, often with links to
material in Italian plays and scenarios.12

In his cross-breeding of England and Italy, Shakespeare also freely refashioned and
reconfigured familiar types, stock figures and plots which he inserted in different
contexts and perspectives. This liberty and apparent absence of rules as well as the
art of resorting to a number of open-ended structures was close to the living world
of carnival with its encouragement of improvised speeches, its satirical gibes and
grotesque humour, its use of disguise which provided so many variations on the
‘comedy of errors’ paradigm.
The fact that Shakespeare’s comic heroines often cross-dress in men’s
apparel and then become what they really are, i.e. boy actors, was another link
between English stages and the world of Italian comedy and carnival customs. In
his ‘Survey of all professions’, Piazza universale di tutte le professioni (1584),
Tommaso Garzoni denounces masks and carnival as devilish and pagan rites but
he particularly objects to women riding about in male disguise:

But is it not even worse to see the women dressed as men, and sometimes taken
riding by their lovers, as you can see in some places, and all those harlots going
in men’s clothes with their stumpy legs sticking out like so many turtles?13

Otherwise, Elizabethan Shrove Tuesday celebrations with their games of

‘throwing at cocks’ and the penitential sacking of brothels and playhouses by the
London apprentices14 had little or nothing in common with the rich festive season
of Venice and Verona, which offered a proliferation not only of masquerades, but
of plays, pageants and all sorts of elaborate and artistic events.15 So one might

 Clubb, Italian Drama, p. 36.
  Hadfield and Hammond, p. 146.
  Salingar, p. 193.
  François Laroque, Shakespeare’s Festive World (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1991), pp. 97–101.
 Roberta Mullini, ‘Streets, squares and courts: Venice as a stage in Shakespeare and
Ben Jonson’ in Michele Marrapodi, A.J. Hoenselaars, Marcello Cappuzzo and L. Falzon
Santucci (ed.), Shakespeare’s Italy. Functions of Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 158–9.
Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival 207

regard Shakespeare’s Venice and Verona plays as an attempt to emulate such

kaleidoscopic variety in scenes where the London spectators could find an idea
of what these shows were like, while he gave a free rein to ad-libbing actors like
Kempe who perfectly knew of most of commedia’s comic routines and the art of
milking laughs from the groundlings.
Recent theories of the carnivalesque generally extoll Mikhaïl Bakhtin’s views
of carnival as the triumph of the ambivalent grotesque in his celebration of popular
life and energies as well as of what he calls the ‘culture’ and the ‘laughter of the
market place’.16 This Marxist revision of popular rejoicings as a form of culture
in its own right, providing a vision of topsy turvydom and subverting the official
voice of the élite has been responsible for the wide dissemination of both radical
and idealised views of carnival. But, as Terry Eagleton notes, it never was a
revolutionary phenomenon:

Carnival … is a licensed affair in every sense, a permissible rupture of

hegemony, a contained popular blow off as disturbing and relatively ineffectual
as a revolutionary work of art. As Shakespeare’s Olivia remarks, ‘there is no
slander in an allowed fool’.17

Other readings of carnival, like Natalie Davis’s or Keith Thomas’s, insist on its
highly traditional and even corrective nature:

This was a harshly intolerant popular culture, hostile to privacy and eccentricity
and relying on sanction not of reason but of ridicule … Shocking though
it seemed, the main drift of this laughter of burlesque and inversion was
conventional enough. It reinforced accepted morality by mocking superiors by
standards which they themselves upheld.18

Keeping these views in mind, Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry present
carnivalesque laughter in terms that oblige us to revise the rather benign and

“Triumphs, processions, performances inside the palaces of the aristocracy and in the
squares, but also along the streets, made Venice a complex machina theatralis … But the
Venetian landscape of small squares, minor canals and narrow streets was also the scene
against which popular (even aristocratic) entertainments were performed. There, mock fights
with sticks and bullfights took place, street fools sang, mountebanks sold their goods, actors
performed their commedia improvvisa, and masked people flowed by during Carnival.”
  Mikhaïl Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, translated by Helene Iswolsky
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).
 Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin: Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London:
Verso, 1981), p. 48.
 Keith Thomas, ‘The Place of Laughter in Tudor and Stuart England’, Times Literary
Supplement 21 (January 1977), p. 78.
208 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

optimistic analysis of C.L. Barber’s widely influential Shakespeare’s Festive


Barber … ignores the overwhelming conservatism of Renaissance satire,

whose targets were not obnoxious authority or repression, but fops, usurers,
extravagantly dressed women, smokers, lying travelers – those who failed
to conform to repressive convention. The repressiveness, the nastiness, of
saturnalian festivity is often ignored … not all that is saturnalian is ‘release’.
Twelfth Night shrewdly portrays authority-flouting festivity turning nasty …19

Given the number of xenophobic practices in carnival, where strangers, Jews and
Moors were often turned into scapegoats,20 festivity being a way of turning ‘popular
justice’ into a means of strengthening the local community, or age group, at the
expense of the ‘Other’, Shakespeare seems to have been aware of the dehumanising
risks of such cathartic ritual which he considers with some ambivalence:

Ben Jonson is clearly … more ‘Italian’ than Shakespeare, with Volpone in

particular containing a level of pitiless contempt for practically everybody
which goes even beyond Mediterranean models. Shakespeare, by contrast, is
notoriously unwilling to deny that even his most unsympathetic victims ‘have
feelings too’. Shylock bleeds when he is pricked …21

Indeed, the problem with much carnival theory analysis, it seems to me, and
particularly with Michael Bristol’s Carnival and Theater,22 is a sort of obfuscation
of issues where cultural or historical anthropology is put on the same level as
artistic endeavour. The interesting thing, in Shakespeare’s Italian carnival is
precisely that festive practices are then translated into words, so that custom,
superstition or even artistic creation become problematised. This is of course when
they are placed in an ambivalent context, half-way between comedy and tragedy
and in passages where grotesque humour often predominates, as in Shylock’s
‘merry bond’ or in Othello’s obsession with the farce of cuckloldry. So, rather than
seeing in Jack Cade’s bloody carnival in 2 Henry VI which Richard Wilson calls

  Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (eds), True Rites and Maimed Rites. Ritual
and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois
Press, 1992), pp. 92, 17.
 Richard Wilson, ‘Making Men of Monsters. Shakespeare in the Company of
Strangers’ Shakespeare, Volume 1, Number 1 and 2 (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 11.
  Richard Andrews, ‘Shakespeare and Italian Comedy’ in Andrew Hadfield and Paul
Hammond (eds), Shakespeare and Renaissance Europe, p. 139.
  Michael Bristol, Carnival and Theater. Plebeian Culture and the Structure of
Authority in Renaissance England (London: Methuen, 1985).
Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival 209

‘a projection of the sexual and cannibalistic terrors of the Renaissance rich’,23 I

have argued that Shakespeare, very early on in his work, was interested not only
by the intrinsic energy and vitality of street riots and chaotic crowds, but also in
the highly theatrical nature of carnival:

More than a proto-insurrectionary model or real utopia, the rebellion scenes

seem to me to constitute a bricolage of festive traditions that are used for their
subversive and comic impact in the play, so that the savage London insurrection
looks like a ‘spectacle of strangeness’ where the plebeians play the part assigned
to wild men or Turks in the Jacobean antimasque … the carnivalesque in those
scenes ultimately serves the function of calling attention to the world of the
stage, to the improvisations of the actors presenting the rebel craftsmen while
wielding theatrical properties and destroying the theatrical illusion …24

Such bricolage seems in keeping with the eclectic incorporations of commedia

dell’arte scenarios and with early modern representations of Italian carnival as
such as opposed to theoretical extrapolations that aim at aligning Shakespeare’s
carnival plays with various political or ideological agendas.

Hospitality vs. Exclusion

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the instability of Proteus’ amorous pursuits

anticipates on Romeo’s new baptism when he forgets Rosaline and falls in love at
first sight with Juliet. But Proteus’ erotic truancy away from the faithful Julia in
favour of Silvia, the beloved of his friend Valentine, represents a serious breach
of honour codes that can only be understood within a carnivalesque logic as in A
Midsummer Night’s Dream where these sudden shifts and switchings of love and
desire are part of the fairies’ nightly misrule. Several images and plot elements in
the play (the reference to pearls, pilgrims, to the ‘corded ladder’ which Valentine
plans to use in order to ascend Silvia’s window, the theme of banishment etc)
confirm the feeling that The Two Gentlemen of Verona may be read as an early
version of Romeo and Juliet. But one particularly striking note, it seems to me, is
the use of race and ‘blackness’ as a trope of gender transgression to refer to Julia’s
supposed ugliness when she cross-dresses as Sebastian in order to remain close
to the unfaithful and treacherous Proteus who left her when he fell in love with

 Richard Wilson, “‘A Mingled Yarn’: Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers”,
Literature and History 12, N°2 (1986): p. 176.
  François Laroque, ‘The Jack Cade Scenes Reconsidered: Popular Rebellion, Utopia,
or Carnival?’ in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions, The Selected Proceedings of the
International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Tokyo, 1991, Tetsuo Kishi, Roger
Pringle, and Stanley Wells (eds) (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), p. 86.
210 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Silvia. Proteus had then contrasted Silvia’s beauty with Julia’s in terms of a very
straightforward contrast:

And Silvia (witness heaven that made her fair)

Shows Julia but a swarthy Ethiope (2.6.25–6)

Julia seems to confirm and conform to this rough judgement when, disguised as
Sebastian, she describes her ‘faded’ looks:

Silvia Is she not passing fair?

Julia She hath been fairer, madam, than she is:
When she did think my master lov’d her well,
She, in my judgement, was as fair as you.
But since she did neglect her looking-glass,
And threw her sun-expelling mask away
The air hath starv’d the roses in her cheeks,
And pinch’d the lily-tincture of her face,
That now she is become as black as I… (4.4.146–54)

Finally, in the last act, Proteus tries to reassure Thurio about the way he looks:

Thurio What says she to my face?

Proteus She says it is a fair one.
Thurio Nay, then the wanton lies: my face is black.
Proteus But pearls are fair; and the old saying is,
Black men are pearls in beauteous ladies’ eyes. (5.2.8–12)

These various exchanges sound like a string of fairly banal clichés inspired by
the artificial idiom of Petrarchan sonneteers. But they can also be read as signs of
inclusion of foreign standards of beauty that point to an aesthetics of contrariety
marked by carnivalesque customs (masks and blackened faces being current
carnival practices).
Another carnivalesque inversion is found in Julia’s cross-dressing as Sebastian
and playing here a close double game as boy-girl while associating festive traditions
with the world of popular theatre:

Silvia How tall was she?

Julia About my stature: for at Pentecost,
When all our pageants of delight were play’d,
Our youth got me to play the woman’s part,
And I was trimm’d in Madam Julia’s gown,
Which served me as fit, by all men’s judgments,
As if the garment had been made for me;
Therefore I know she is about my height.
Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival 211

And at that time I made her weep agood,

For I did play a lamentable part.
Madam, ‘twas Ariadne, passioning
For Theseus’ perjury, and unjust flight;
Which I so lively acted with my tears,
That my poor mistress, moved therewithal,
Wept bitterly; and would I might be dead,
If I in thought felt not her very sorrow. (4.4.155–70)

Such multiplication of identities is the theatrical counterpart of carnival games,

even though Julia doubles as the suffering Christian protomartyr Sebastian as well
as the pagan emblem of female woe, Ariadne. Thus, she easily switches from boy
to girl and from girl to boy in her various roles and personae. In this, she emulates
the shape-shifting, instable Proteus but in a positive, efficient way since it is her
disguise which allows her to reach a form of hidden truth as well as to recover
her fickle lover in the end. So, the carnival scenarios of Pentecostal pageants are
not simple illusions but a détour which finally enables her to retrieve and secure
Proteus’ love. And this notion of a détour is supported by the latent image of the
labyrinth for which Aridne provided Theseus with a clue.
In Romeo and Juliet, the image of the first Verona play is echoed in the crucial
moment when Romeo sees Juliet for the first time:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear … (1.4.156–9)

With its torches, face masks, and music the dance is closer to a masquerade than to
a real carnival, but the allusion to the Ethiop here does not serve the same purpose
as in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is an image of inclusion, later confirmed
by Capulet’s silencing Tybalt’s storming anger and insisting on the sacred duty of
hospitality.25 Moreover, the jewel image is indeed a form of interior illumination,
an epiphany that magically enshrines Juliet within a beautiful miniature but which
also indirectly transcribes her name in terms of the ‘Jule/jewel/Juliet’ acoustic chain.
It is indeed remarkable that Romeo, who has never seen her before, should thus

  Tybalt What, dares the slave

Come hither, covered with an antic face,

To fleer and scorn at our solemnity?

Now by the stock and honour of my kin,

To strike him dead I hold it not a sin …
    Capulet Verona brags of him

To be a virtuous and well-governed youth.

I would not for the wealth of all this town

Here in my huse do him disparagement. (1.4.168–83)
212 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

unconsciously divine her name. ‘What’s in a name?’ (Romeo and Juliet, 2.1.86).
Well, in this particular case, it does sound like some transcendental essence or like
a cabbalistic incantation to conjur up a spirit.26 In the early comedy, the Ethiop
image was used to contrast two types of feminine beauty (dark vs. ‘fair’) while, in
the love tragedy, it enhances the girl’s magic radiance, so much so that it is then
completely part of her, just as night in the play is always associated with erotic
energy. Interestingly enough, Juliet later alludes to Phaëton (3.2.3) who, according
to Ovid, caused ‘the Ethiopians … [to become] so black and swarth’ when he lost
control of the chariot of the sun and ‘the world was all on flaming fire’.27 As in
Julia’s monologue, the carnivalesque image is turned into a complex signifier, at
the heart of the play’s ‘discordia concors’, where the inclusion of difference and
otherness simultaneously connotes harmony and destruction.
In Venice, things are more ambiguous since the love lottery organised by Portia’s
dead father leads to a rejection of strangers in scenes whose comic elements consist
of a series of fairly crude and rough xenophobic stereotypes which, by their very
elasticity and open-endedness, may well have corresponded to carnivalesque lazzi.
The Prince of Morocco, who is an equivalent of the braggart capitano, like Othello
in the later tragedy, anticipates on his possible rejection by Portia:

Mislike me not for my complexion,

The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine. (2.1.1–7)

After he has made the wrong choice of the golden casket containing nothing but ‘A
carrion Death’ (2.8.63), Portia simply exclaims ‘A gentle riddance’ (2.8.78). But

 According to the logic of carnivalesque topsy turvydom, Mercutio will mock
Romeo’s infatuation in a series of bawdy double entendres that debunk the rapturous magic
of love:

Twould anger him
To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it and conjured it down:
That were some spite. My invocation
Is fair and honest, in his mistress’ name:
I conjure only but to raise up him. (2.1.24–30)
  Madeleine Forey (ed.), Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Translated by Arthur Golding
(London: Penguin Classics, 2002), p. 69.
Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival 213

paradoxically she will later adopt the name of the black Magus Balthazar28 when
she passes herself off as ‘a young doctor of Rome’ (4.1.152) who will brilliantly
outwit Shylock in the course of his trial against the merchant Antonio. At the
level of farce, one should also remember Lorenzo’s scathing retort to Launcelot,
who had quipped him for marrying the Jew’s daughter, regarded as an alien in the
Venetian community:

I shall answer that better to the commonwealth than you can the getting up of the
negro’s belly. The Moor is with child by you, Lancelot! (3.5.34–6)

Such ambivalence prepares the contradictory images of the Moor in Othello,

where the title part is alternately presented as ‘the devil’ and as the ‘noble Moor’
who, as the Duke says, is ‘far more fair than black’ (1.2.291). So, Desdemona’s
‘divided duty’ (1.3.181) corresponds to the systematic opposition of two points of
view, namely to Iago’s carnivalesque exclusion and to love’s miraculous inclusion.
From a political and cultural point of view, this juxtaposition of opposites is found
in the way Venice combined cosmopolitanism and kindness to strangers with strict
rules of containment and a sense of political expediency.

The Hybridity of Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival

In The Merchant of Venice, the masque scenes (2.4–7) refer to a time of merrymaking
and carnivalesque exuberance when Jessica secretly leaves her father’s house at
night in order to elope with her Christian lover, Lorenzo. This in fact reverses the
Verona carnival in Romeo and Juliet where the feast consists in a group of masks
gate-crashing into Capulet’s house only to be welcomed by the host along with the
invited guests.29 Its rejoicings are also described negatively by Shylock who warns
his daughter against these vain pastimes as Philip Stubbes would in his Anatomie
of Abuses:30

 Richard Wilson p. 15: “… art historians remind us that in Northern Europe in the
late Middle-Ages the prospect of a negro visitor occurred in just such a non-interrogative
context, when people contemplated the unexpected but auspicious figure of Balthazar, the
black Magus who brings his box of myrrh … to the infant Christ in Flemish paintings of the
Epiphany. As in a mumming, these New Year pictures commemorate the fortuitousness of
the surprise newcomer, the alien who bears gifts from afar.”
  Murray J. Levith, Shakespeare’s Italian Settings and Plays (Houndsmill and
London: Macmillan, 1981), p. 54, quotes Fynes Moryson who “reports the masque parties
at ‘Carnival time’: Yea the very houses of noblemen and gentlemen, upon occasions of
meetings to danse with wemen and virgins of honour, are open for any masked persons to
enter and behold them.”
 Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), Margaret J. Kidnie (ed.) (Tempe:
Arizona, Renaissance English Text Society, 2002).
214 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica:

Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces;
But stop my house’s ears –I mean my casements:
Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter
My sober house. By Jacob’s staff I swear
I have no mind of feasting forth tonight. (2.5.28–37)

This is a closed world with doors shut tight in order to ward off possible intruders,
so that Shylock, ‘the man that hath no music in himself’ (5.1.83), rejects all
rejoicings as discordant intrusions into his own private sphere of thrift and sobriety
which he would like his daughter to respect and protect. In a way, Jessica’s
betrayal of her father foreshadows Desdemona’s, except that she runs away with
some of Shylock’s ‘gold and jewels’ (2.4.31). Jessica is ‘much ashamed of [her]
exchange’ when she is ‘thus transformed to a boy’ (2.6.35, 39). Indeed, if she
seems quite happy to ‘gild [herself] / With some more ducats’ (2.6.49–50). This
means that gold has been changed into the signifier of her redemption, which she
buys from Lorenzo with her love and stolen ducats, as the final vision of the ‘floor
of heaven … / Thick inlaid with patens of bright gold’ (5.1.58–9) confirms at the
end. If Juliet was a jewel, Jessica is a Jewess, and the alchemy of conversion takes
precedence over the kabbala of her fathers. This is meant to make her better accepted
in the ‘brave new world’ the Venetian Christians which she has chosen to become
part of. But Jessica’s alchemy seems to reverse the usual process. Indeed, she does
not change her father’s ‘turquoise’ for money, but for a ‘monkey’. So, in a series of
subtle touches, Shakespeare debunks the hypocrisy of the Venetian carnival, used
and abused in so many ways, just as he exposes the ambiguous attitudes of the
Christian husbands who never forget their interests, even if they claim that they act
in the name of religion. In this perspective, it is interesting to note Salarino’s remark
while he is waiting for his friend Lorenzo to join the group of carnival revellers:

O, ten times faster Venus’ pigeons fly

To seal love’s bonds new made than they are wont
To keep obligèd faith unforfeited. (2.6.5–7)

The allusion to ‘love’s bond’ that should remain ‘unforfeited’ is a direct echo
of Shylock’s ‘merry bond’, thus showing that commercial exchange, usury, or
‘usance’, as well as marriage and ‘jouissance’ are all predicated on the same model
in Venice. And the comic, bawdy ‘ring’ business in the end seems to hammer home
the same lesson, even if it is now one which is taught by the women at the expense
of the men. The pound-of-flesh motif serves to carnivalise business transactions
while the ring episode refers to cuckoldry as a possible retaliation by women
Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival 215

against their husbands in case they do not respect the marriage contract verbatim.
So, Shakespeare does not only stage the ‘victimization of the outsider’31 in his
Venetian carnival, he also shows that the topsy turvydom of holiday misrule must
be contained by the law at the risk of degenerating into a war between the sexes.
In Romeo and Juliet another subversion of Italian carnivalesque is found in
Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ soliloquy just before the group of friends and cousins
enters Capulet’s house. This Celtic note in an otherwise Italian background brings a
disturbing touch by way of what looks like a long digression and improvisation on
the part of a character who is after all a maschera and a zani, albeit more elaborate
than the traditional figure. In her edition, Jill Levenson remarks that the end of
Mercutio’s monologue (1.4.86–94) amounts to the description of an erotic dream
with key phrases referring to positions for sexual intercourse.32 On the other hand,
this type of fantasy also evokes witchcraft superstitions (allusion to the ‘hag’) and
the beliefs of the Friul peasantry described by Carlo Ginzburg in his Night Battles.33
Indeed, the historian establishes a link between these night battles, during which the
benandanti fought against a crew of witches and devils, and the famous ‘mesnie
Hellequin’ at the origins of charivari. The ‘mesnie’ is first heard of in an 1140
manuscript narrative by a monk called Orderic Vital who describes a noisy band of
men and women, a crowd of tormented people with Ethiopians and loose women
in their midst, clerks and soldiers walking along with them, who were supposed
to be the souls of the dead that belonged to the Herlechini family … According
to Ginzburg, the vision corresponded to the myth of the ‘wild hunt’, the troop of
the premature dead walking at night in the midst of a terrible din following now a
feminine leader (Perchta, Holda, Diana), now a masculine one called Herlechinus.34
This was a pagan deity supposed to be the mythical ancestor of the famous commedia
dell’arte clown, Arlecchino. And, up to a point, Mercutio’s Queen Mab seems to be
the Celtic equivalent of the cursed rider:

That is that very Mab

That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes. (1.4.86–9)

This ominous dream is a foreshadowing of death as well as another way of

combining or ‘tangling’ the motifs of eros and thanatos since sexual awakening

 Richard Wilson, p. 11.
  Romeo and Juliet, Levenson(ed.), p. 187.
  The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth
Centuries. Translated by Anne and John Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1983; original edition Giulio Einaudi, 1966).
  Ginzburg, ‘Charivari, associations juvéniles, chasse sauvage’ in Jacques Le Goff
and Jean-Claude Schmitt (eds), Le charivari (Paris: Mouton, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en
Sciences Sociales, 1981), p. 134.
216 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

coincides here with a kind of orgasmic smothering and erotic riding becomes an
equivalent of the night ride of the company of the dead:

This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage. (1.4.90–92)

In the image of a maid lying on her back and ‘pressed’ by the ‘hag’, one may
indeed see an adumbration of the murder of Desdemona by her bedeviled husband,
a scene which, as some critics have noted, may be read as a perverted, delayed
consummation of his marriage after the work of sexual frustration brilliantly
orchestrated by Iago.35
It begins like some sort of charivari when Iago and Roderigo wake up Brabantio
in the middle of the night in order to warn him of his daughter’s elopement with
the Moor:

The abusive language, the noisy clamour under Brabantio’s window, and the
menace of violence of the opening scene in Othello link the improvisations
of Iago with the codes of carnivalesque disturbance or charivari organized in
protest over the marriage of the play’s central characters.36

Iago and Roderigo resort to scurrilous lazzi as they heap upon the half-asleep
Brabantio a series of extravagant, obscene images that combine Rabelaisian
carnivalesque with the dark folklore of ‘la mesnie Hellequin’ marked by
miscegenation, bestiality, and sexual depravation:

Iago Zounds, sir, you’re robbed, for shame put on your gown!
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul,
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you,
Arise I say! …

Brabantio What tell’st me of robbing? This is Venice:

My house is not a grange …
Iago Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God if the devil bid
you. Because we come to do you service, and think we are ruffians, you’ll have

 Pierre Janton, ‘Othello’s Weak Function’, Cahiers Elisabéthains N°7 (April,
1975); T.G.A. Nelson and Charles Haines, ‘Othello’s Unconsummated Marriage’, Essays
in Criticism 33 (1983), pp. 1–18; François Laroque, ‘Figures de la perversion dans Othello’
in Dominique Goy-Blanquet (ed.), Autour d’Othello (Amiens: Sterne, 1990), p. 57.
  Bristol in Woodbridge and Berry, p. 75.
Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival 217

your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to
you, you’ll have coursers for cousins and jennets for germans!

Brabantio What profane wretch art thou?

Iago I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now
making the beast with two backs. (1.1.85–115)

The situation puts upside down the carnival scenes of The Merchant of Venice
where the Christians take advantage of festive confusion, of masks and darkness to
‘gate-crash’ into Shylock’s fast-bound house and get hold of his daughter and his
bags, since it is now the ‘extravagant and wheeling stranger’ (1.1.134) who elopes
with a senator’s daughter. Moreover, the Moor is demonised and called ‘devil’
and ‘Barbary horse’ by Iago who lets loose his grotesque gusto in a sequence
of alliterative phrases that oddly combine carnivalesque lazzi, Philip Stubbes’s
puritanical pamphlets presenting the May games as the ‘devil’s dance’, and the
Inquisitor’s obsession with witches and satanic rites. The allusion to the Sagittary,
the name of the inn where Othello and Desdemona are supposed to spend their
marriage night, associates the general with the classical half-man, half-beast
monster, while it also indirectly identifies him with the night ride and the wild
hunt of ‘Mesnie Hellequin’ in charivari literature. Furthermore, Othello appears
as a kind of dark ‘Trojan horse’ whose treacherous introduction inside Venice and
Brabantio’s home will be the site of looting and destruction. So, Iago’s ‘black
Sanctus’37 takes the form of the bell and alarum warning the citizens that a house
was on fire:

Roderigo Here is her father’s house, I’ll call aloud.

Iago Do, with like timorous accents and dire yell
As when by night and negligence the fire
Is spied in populous cities … (1.1.73–6)

Such strident signals must have indirectly called to the spectators’ minds the fateful
destruction of the city of Troy or, more recently, the sack of Rome by an army of
Spaniards and Frünsberg’s ten thousand Lutheran mercenaries in 1527.38
Yet, in spite of these tragic overtones, we remain in a world of improvisation,
trickster comedy, and carnivalesque jokes, even if Iago pushes the sexual farce to
grotesque, nightmarish confines and, as Louise George Clubb rightfully explains,

Othello is another extraordinary Shakespearean variation on Italian theatrical

structures … Iago [is] a diabolic mutant of the clever scheming servo who

  François Laroque, ‘Othello and the Popular Traditions’, Cahiers Elisabéthains N°
32 (October 1987): p. 20.
 André Chastel, Le sac de Rome, 1527 (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), pp. 43–4.
218 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

creates the illusion in Othello’s mind that the situation is a stereotypical comedy
of adultery, complete with stock figures and himself as the cuckold. Shakespeare
propels this farce into tragedy by means of the psychological power he gives his
characters, by Othello’s refusal to play the role, showing how a ‘real’ captain and
husband might act if he took the scenario seriously. Making tragedy of comedy,
Shakespeare also makes his own play seem ‘real’ by contrast with farcical

Hybridity here emerges from the mixed genre of the love tragedy, Shakespeare’s
variation on the English tradition of the ‘domestic tragedy’ to which a new version
of Italian commedia dell’arte is being added. The best analysis of this subversion
or perversion of a dramatic structure is found in Pamela Allen Brown’s intriguing
piece, ‘Othello italicised: xenophobia and the erosion of tragedy’:

In the case of Othello, which was written during the height of the rage for stage
satire, Shakespeare overlays Cinthio’s ‘Il Moro’ with a travesty of commedia
to produce a deliberately misshapen text … While contaminatio and generic
hybridizing are prime operations of Renaissance drama, in Othello popular
drama and fiction are yoked by violence together. Commedia’s cynicism towards
women and marriage, and its pervasive cuckoldry humour, turn deadly in Iago’s
misogynist jesting and plotting … The satire is multiply cannibalistic, wreaking
havoc with the masks and roles of the Italian commedia players and mutilating
the Italian literary forms from which the play is constructed … The play
dehumanizes Othello and Desdemona by treating them as grotesque effigies and
subjecting them to ritual abuse … In Othello the negative stereotypes overwhelm
the positive ones, operating as intertexts from popular culture in slurs by Iago,
Roderigo, Emilia and others, but also in the form of fixed ideas about skin colour
brought to the theatre as part of audiences’ ‘mental furniture’.40

This partly accounts for the importance of Italian influences on Shakespearean

drama and on some of its most stunning innovations. Shakespeare was indeed
interested in disjunction and contradiction and he found in Italian places and cities
of the Veneto, as well as in the carnivalesque and commedia dell’arte theatregrams,
elements that allowed him to substantiate his new, grotesque version of tragedy as
perverted comedy and ‘misshapen text’. In my view, it is no doubt Italy and Italian
drama, just like the part played by France and the French background in the history
plays, that provided him with such inventive possibilities.
So, in using Verona and Venice for comedy as well as in his tragedies,
Shakespeare managed to wrench himself free from the strictures and constraints of

 Clubb, Italian Drama, p. 45.
 Pamela Allen Brown, ‘Othello Italicized: Xenophobia and the Erosion of Tragedy’
in Michele Marrapodi (ed.), Shakespeare, Italy, and Intertextuality (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2004), pp. 149–51.
Shakespeare’s Italian Carnival 219

Trissino’s and Sidney’s theories of drama, thus preserving a certain ambivalence

and open-endedness in his plays. Thereby, carnival could simultaneously become
a byword for inclusion and hospitality as well as a means of expressing satirical
laughter against strangers, a way of using festive customs as part of the traditional
cathartic ritual of blaming the violence and sins of the city on the scapegoated alien
in a then-reinforced Christian community. Moreover, what Italy and commedia
dell’arte clearly had to offer were a mélange of ‘theatregrams’ and stock types and
characters as well as the necessary openness for improvisation, a specific feature
of both carnival and commedia dell’arte. Shylock and Othello end up as rejected
aliens but they are victimisers as much as they are victims and it is this basic
ambiguity which makes up part of their rich humanity.
In the group of plays I have chosen to examine in the perspective of Italian
carnivalesque, the main point is that Italy alongside with its Carnival traditions
and satirical comedies, provided Shakespeare with a vast stock-in-trade of stories
and characters. This was the world which inspired his daring generic inventions
in plays where laughter and terror,41 joy and disaster are constantly on each
other’s heels, thus making for the ebullient life, the energy and the exuberance
that are among the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s specific genius and extraordinary

  François Laroque in Roberta Mullini (ed.), For laughs (?). Puzzling Laughter in
Plays of the Tudor Age (Peter Lang: Berne, 2002), pp. 161–75.
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Chapter 12
(Re)fracted Art and Ordered Nature:
Italian Renaissance Aesthetics in
Shakespeare’s Richard II
Susan Payne

Surprisingly the relationship between Richard II (1595) and Italian aesthetics

is cited hardly at all by editors and contributors of volumes on the conjunction
between the Italian Renaissance and the, far later, English ‘Renaissance’. The play
has been the object of two excellent Arden editions but the great majority of the
many and detailed references to indirect sources of ideas and theories informing
Shakespeare’s construction of the text are to those of English origin. I intend here
to examine the aesthetic origins of two of the ‘minor’ scenes and attempt to trace
the ideas they are based upon back to their undoubtedly Italian sources. In doing
so I want to underline how these ideas help to render the ‘tragicall-historicall’
Richard II more ‘tragicall’ than ‘historicall’ – more as belonging to the dawn of
the great tragedies than, paradoxically, to the ‘tetralogy’ of which it is the ‘first
part’, and which it is possible from the textual and source-based clues available
that Shakespeare intended it to be. Significantly these two scenes, the first part

 The date of the play’s composition is still accepted as being problematic. Charles
R. Forker, the editor of the latest Arden Richard II (London: Thomson, 2002) has this to
say: ‘The obvious terminus a quo is the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587),
Shakespeare’s major source, while the terminus ad quem is clearly the first quarto of 1597.
By this time the play had undoubtedly had its initial run by the Chamberlain’s Men, who
then, apparently, released it for publication ... The style of the play, unusual among the
histories, constitutes the most reliable way of narrowing its time limits, for its distinctive
features group it obviously with Love’s Labours Lost, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer
Night’s Dream, dramas that almost all scholars agree fall within the period 1594–95 ... If, in
accord with most recent opinion, we accept Daniel’s first edition [of The First Four Books
of the Civil Wars, 1595], as a valid Shakespearean source, the play could not have been
composed earlier than the latter part of 1595’ Introduction, pp. 111–14.

  See, in his book, Shakespeare: The Histories (London: Macmillan, 2000), Graham
Holderness’s elegant discussion of whether the histories should be discussed as ‘a long,
sustained and extraordinarily innovative dramatic meditation on the nature of history’
(p. 8), or as a ‘discontinuous, independent “petit récit”’ which provides ‘an interpretive
context capable of recognising the cultural conditions that produced, in the late sixteenth
century, a collocation of volatile and unstable units of performance that appear to have
222 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

of 2.2 and the whole of 3.4, both, for the most part, invented by Shakespeare, are
enacted by marginal characters many of whom are also inventions or in the case
of Queen Isabel, conflations of two historically documented personages. The two
scenes notoriously use, in the first case what I shall term ‘the optical aesthetic’, as a
deforming and outgoing paradigm and in the second, the ‘horticultural aesthetic’ as
a containing, controlling and inward paradigm. These two contrasting movements
inform the play as a whole – a play peculiarly concerned with questions of
perspective – and in particular the characters of the two main dramatis personae,
Richard himself and his antagonist Bolingbroke.
But let us first refresh our memories about the play itself. That Richard II is a
profoundly schizoid text has always been the starting point for any studies concerning
or concerned with it. In the play, the separation of ‘the King’s two bodies’ to use the
phrase which Ernst Kantorowicz adopted as title for his seminal study on medieval
kingship, the ‘body politic’ and the ‘body natural’, constitutes the basic antithesis
or agon upon which tragedy (to use a horticultural image) is grafted and upon which
it propagates itself. Richard II would seem, at first glance, to have a straightforward
actantial scheme, To-be Deposed King versus Usurping King, Richard (protagonist)
versus Bolingbroke (antagonist). In fact, as one of the first plays in which the
mechanisms and contradictions of power and the subversion or transgression of
power are given a totally articulated expression in the Shakespearean macrotext, this
situation is, from the play’s very beginning, to be seen as simplistically deceptive.
‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed
king’ (3.2.54–5) Richard states halfway through the play but as the action progresses
his most dangerous enemy is seen to be not so much Bolingbroke, who will be King
Henry IV, as Richard himself. ‘Now mark how I will undo myself’ he will say in
4.1.203 and this short line is easily seen as a programme of Aristotelian tragedy,
in a play, moreover which is in the ‘high style’ (as Ure says ‘even the gardeners
speak like gentlemen’), written in verse throughout and with no comic relief (even
the gardeners do not make us laugh). By using the underlying concepts marked
out by Aristotle himself, that of Fate or tyche (here, in the guise of history, and of
the shared knowledge of that history on the part of the audience) and that of the
error or hamartía of the tragic hero, Shakespeare attempts to elude the (at the time)
ideologically thorny problem of the usurpation of a badly administered realm and

continually thrown into question the apparently stable structure to which they nominally
belonged’ (p. 8). Holderness states that he wishes to ‘avoid the pressure to distinguish
absolutely, or to choose irrevocably, between these two directions in modern criticism’
and indeed that ‘they no longer seem ... incompatible’ (p. 8). I agree wholeheartedly with
his position.

  See my commentary to Richard II in A. Serpieri et al., Nel laboratorio di
Shakespeare: Dalle fonti ai drammi. Vol. III, La seconda tetralogia (Parma: Pratiche
Editrice, 1988) pp. 47–90.

 Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies. A Study in Medieval Political
Theology (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981; first ed. 1957).
(Re)fracted Art and Ordered Nature 223

the divine right of kings. One of the fundamental differences between Aristotelian
and Renaissance tragedy immediately springs to the eye: for Aristotle the downfall
of an evil protagonist is not tragic and both Richard, as well as Macbeth after him,
are murderers – though Richard is one only in a judicial sense.
Coleridge defined what he termed the ‘historical drama’ as being:

the transitional state between the Epic and the Drama … In the Epic a pre-
announced Fate gradually adjusts and employs the Will and the Incidents as its
instruments … while the Drama places Fate and Will in opposition [and is] then
most perfect when the victory of fate is obtained in consequence of imperfections
in the opposing Will, so as to leave the final impression that the Fate itself is but a
higher and more intelligent Will.

For Coleridge Richard II was ‘the purest Historic Play’ and in the terms of the above-
quoted definition, this would seem to be true. Initially Richard’s will appears to be
opposed to his fate. But as the plot develops, his will and his fate seem, in a sense to
coalesce, as at the centric or vanishing point of an Albertian diagram of prospectiva
or perspective, his will becoming paradoxically the instrument of his downfall.
Indeed, Richard may be considered as much a prototype of the purely Shakespearian
tragic hero as a representative of a more broadly Elizabethan or English Renaissance
example of this genus – we need only think of the debts many scholars consider
that Shakespeare owes to two of the great tragedies by Marlowe, Edward II and Dr
Faustus. And if we turn to Elizabethan, instead of Romantic, literary theory for a
definition of tragedy, we find that Sir Philip Sidney’s basic metaphor, the diseased
state, is also, in the case of this play, Shakespeare’s:

… high and excellent Tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth
forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that maketh kings fear to be tyrants,
and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humours; that, with stirring the affects of
admiration and commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon
how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded; that maketh us know

Qui sceptra saevus duro imperio regit

Timet timentes; metus in auctorem redit
(He who rules his people with a harsh government
Fears those who fear him; the fear returns upon its author)
Seneca, Oedipus, 705.

  The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 5: II Lectures1808–1819, R.A.
Foakes (ed.) (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1987) p. 283.

 Ibid., p. 285.

  Sir Philip Sidney, Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie, J. Churton Collins (ed.) (London:
Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1955) p. 31.
224 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Richard, inasmuch as he is King, is the embodiment of the medieval symbolic

order, an order which is in the process of crumbling and giving way to the
‘syntagmatic’ relativistic order of the beginnings of the modern world. The play
is indeed articulated upon this basis. So, during its course, Richard, the last of the
Plantagenets, the medieval ‘sacred’ monarchs, is seen in his symbolic and public
function as head of and representation of the body politic, especially in the first
Act, where, however, the paradigm of ceremony manifested from the beginning
is evinced as being ever more of a simulacrum. More importantly, however, he is
shown in private, as an individual man within the limitations of his ‘body natural’,
to be bent on a sort of perverse self-immolation, an end which he himself feels
and/or wishes others to feel, as inevitable (‘I am sworn brother, sweet, / To grim
Necessity’, he says to Queen Isabel as he bids her farewell, 5.1.20–21). This
‘representation of a self-undermining authority’, as Stephen Greenblatt put it,
seems to go beyond Richard’s own consciousness of the ‘tragic error’ of having
had his uncle Thomas of Gloucester assassinated (before the action begins), or
his realisation of having been misled by his favourites into ‘farming the realm’
and causing national ruin. That ‘the king must die’ is a real as well as a symbolic
or better mythological commonplace or topos – indeed as the anthropological
scholars tell us, it lies at the heart of the ‘sacred’ and at the origins of tragedy. But
that the king should, to all intents and purposes, ‘kill’ himself is another matter.
Shakespeare was, of course, treading on very dangerous ground here from
an ideological standpoint, and no critic ever forgets to remind us of the play’s
possible connection to the Essex rebellion of 1601 (and Elizabeth I’s famous
exclamation to William Lambarde, her antiquary, on the discovery of a portrait
of the Richard, ‘I am Richard II. Know ye not that?’), very probably the cause
of the censuring of the deposition scene which only appears in its entirety in Q4,
published in 1608, five years after the death of Elizabeth, lines 154–318 being
expunged in all three preceding Q’s. Forker, in his detailed Introduction to the
latest Arden edition of the play also cites other cases of Richard’s being used as
a dangerous political metaphor at Elizabeth’s court, together with a reference
to the appearance of at least four other contemporary plays on the subject of
Richard’s reign.
After this brief refresher note on a play which is one of the less ‘frequented’
both of the history plays (compared with Richard III and Henry V for instance)
and of the other earlier plays contemporary with it, Romeo and Juliet and A

  Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearian Negotiations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988),
p. 137.

  ‘Sir Francis Knollys, after giving unwelcome advice to the Queen, wrote in 1578 that
he refused to “play the partes of King Richard the Second’s men” (a synonym for flatterers),
while Lord Hunsdon at some point before 1588 repeated the same phrase. Sir Walter Raleigh
in a letter to Robert Cecil (6 July 1597) remarked that Essex was “wonderfull merry att ye
consait of Richard the 2” apparently alluding to the same analogy.’ See, Forker’s edition of
Richard II, p. 5.
(Re)fracted Art and Ordered Nature 225

Midsummer Night’s Dream) I want to return to what is to be the subject of this

chapter – that is the surprising appearance and use of the optical and horticultural
paradigms already briefly mentioned as a basic armature of the play’s tragic bias.
Let us begin with the first, the optical paradigm, based on the use and exaggeration
of perspective, discovered by Jurgis Baltrušaitis in his study on anamorphosis,10
in which the author quotes the following speech by Bushy from 2.2 in which the
king’s favourite is attempting to reassure Queen Isabel for the foreboding she feels
after having bidden Richard farewell:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,

Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For Sorrow’s eyes, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which, rightly gazed upon,
Show nothing but confusion; eyed awry,
Distinguish form. So your sweet majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,
Find shapes of grief more than himself to wail,
Which looked on as it is, is naught but shadows
Of what is not. Then, thrice-gracious Queen,
More than your lord’s departure weep not. More is not seen,
Or if it be, ’tis with false Sorrow’s eye,
Which for things true weeps things imaginary. (16–27)

These lines have been the object of several distinguished critical studies, first and
foremost being that of Ernest Gilman (1978) in his book The Curious Perspective.11
All critics concur in the fact that Bushy is being shown to confuse two different
perspective ‘toys’ – one is the multiplying glasses (or mirrors), also mentioned
by Webster, which, being ‘cut into number of facets each [give] a separate
image’12 and the other is indeed the anamorphic picture described and analysed
by Baltrušaitis which seems grotesquely distorted if it is not viewed ‘awry’
through a spyhole in the frame. Anamorphosis (a typically Mannerist and, as it
develops, Baroque phenomenon) finds its origins as far as Renaissance Europe is
concerned, in the meeting in Italy, during the first half of the fifteenth century, of
the arts and the sciences, of, as Baltrušaitis reiterates, ‘the optical experiments of

  Jurgis Baltrušaitis, Anamorphic Art, trans. W.J. Strachan of Anamorphoses ou magie
artificielle des effets merveilleux, Olivier Perrin Editeur, 1969 (Cambridge: Chadwick-
Healey Ltd, 1977).
 Ernest Gilman, The Curious Perspective (New Haven, Connecticut and London,
  W. Shakespeare, Richard II, Peter Ure (ed.), Arden Edition, Second Series (London
and New York: Routledge, 1956), note to 2.2.18, p. 70.
226 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

artists and scientific speculation’13 on the basic principles of perspective, and their
reconstitution by various means. Leon Battista Alberti and his successors applied
the Euclidean prospectiva – which, as Gilman remarks, in itself has nothing to do
with art – to the problems of graphic representation. This meeting of arts and science
produced prodigious results: Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Vignola,
Serlio, and Barbaro among others all applied mathematical theories methodically
and elaborated procedures for dealing with all possible forms, creating as they did
so the prospectiva artificialis, Piero’s prospectiva pingendi. In his treatise Della
pittura, the central document of Renaissance perspective theory, Alberti devises
a method of drawing a mathematically and therefore he thought optically correct
representation of space in which the relative sizes of objects at different distances
and the apparent convergence of parallel lines will be as convincing to the eye in
art as they are in nature. But the point Gilman makes and which is germane to less
specifically painterly uses of the theory is that

… a perspective painting conjures up a three dimensional space in which every

front has a back and a side, every figure and every scene generate an unlimited
number of aspects – and yet it imprisons the spectator in a single point offering
only a single view. The very fullness and definition of perspective space implies
a radical incompleteness of our vision, and the point of view becomes a drastic
limitation, a set of blinders, as well as an epistemological privilege.

The spectator’s secure vantage point is undermined in another way, even as it

seems to be securely established. The more perfect the representation of reality
achieved in a perspective picture, the more perfect is the deception practised on
the viewer. Albert’s window opens on to an illusion of reality.14

I have not space enough nor time (to misquote) to pursue the fascinating question
of the origins of the curious perspective. Suffice it to say with Baltrušaitis that
‘perspective was restored both as a rationalisation of vision and as an objective
reality while at the same time preserving the element of make-believe. The
development of its technique supplied new methods with every device’.15 And
one of these new methods was the invention (it seems originally by Leonardo in
the Notebooks) of the anamorphic picture. Such a picture, Baltrušaitis comments,
could very well have been seen by Shakespeare:

There is … an anamorphic portrait of a king of England, Edward VI, executed in

1546, a year before his accession to the throne. Paul Hentzner, a German traveller,
who had seen it at Whitehall in 1598 described it: ‘A picture of King Edward
VI representing at first sight something quite deformed, till by looking through

  Baltrušaitis, pp. 3–4.
  Gilman, p. 31.
  Baltrušaitis, p. 3.
(Re)fracted Art and Ordered Nature 227

a small hole in the cover, which is put over it, you see it in its true proportions.’
The portrait is enclosed in a frame like a box, with a small hollow on the right
side fixing the position from which the eye sees it correctly. … Another passage
contemporary with Hentzner could refer to the same anamorphic portrait. In
his description in Richard II (1595–96) of a fit of grief, Shakespeare alludes to
similar distortions which appear to a troubled eye [quotes RII, 2.2.18–22] …
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theatrical company to which the playwright
belonged, played occasionally in the palace where the strange portrait of Edward
VI then hung. Shakespeare, like Hentzner, may have been struck by it.16

Baltrušaitis, when annotating this observation, points out, following Chambers,

that the Lord Chamberlain’s men are known to have presented plays at the Palace
of Whitehall in 1598.17
Let us return to our play. Perspectivism has long been a commonplace in
Shakespearian criticism of the history plays as Pugliatti points out. Quoting Rabkin
and Grudin she sees ‘the source of the intellectual play on paradox and contrariety,
a pattern of thought to which Shakespeare could consciously and meaningfully
appeal’ in the influence of a number of works including those by Italian Renaissance
thinkers and writers such as Castiglione and Giordano Bruno,18 and particularly
quotes Talbert’s analysis of Richard II as an example of conflicting perspectives,
in this case, both in the play and its sources, of ‘the coexistence and competition
… of the antithetical meanings of the Lancastrian and Yorkist perspectives’. From
a ‘historicall’ viewpoint, questions such ‘Does the text side with the usurper or
with the deposed king?’ make some sense. But from a ‘tragicall’ point of view
the same problematics do not obtain. When Forker observes in his Introduction
to the latest edition of the play ‘Shakespeare seized the opportunity to dramatize
the original mythic cause of the disasters already staged in the Henry VI – Richard
III sequence’19 he is putting his finger on the nub of the question. We need to be
able to see both sides of the conflict to be able to appreciate the ‘fear’ Richard has
caused himself and to feel ‘pity’ for the tragic paradox in which he finds himself
at the end of the play.
And it is here I wish to return to the ‘optical paradigm’. For it is not by looking
rightly’ at scene by scene that the tragic meaning of Richard’s fall is grasped but
in looking ‘awry’ from right to left, from end to beginning – from when indeed
Richard, in the deposition scene, replying to Bolingbroke’s rhetorical question
‘Are you contented to resign the crown?’ strips himself of his own regalia (‘the
readiness is all’) and reveals himself as a victim of the emptiness of human

  Baltrušaitis, pp. 16–19.
 E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, A Study of Facts and Problems, Vol. II
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), p. 321.
 Paola Pugliatti, Shakespeare the Historian (London: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 42–3.
  Forker, p. 3.
228 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be.

Therefore no ‘no’, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me how I will undo myself.
I give this heavy weight from off my head,
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths;
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues, I forgo;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny.
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me,
God keep all vows unbroke are made to thee!
Make me that nothing have, with nothing griev’d,
And thou with all pleas’d that hast all achiev’d. (4.1.200–217)

This reply to Bolingbroke’s question cannot help but recall Isabel’s predictive
speeches to Bushy in 2.3. the first of which calls up Bushy’s surprising excursus
into the realms of the curious perspective and ends ‘Yet again, methinks,/Some
unborn sorrow, ripe in Fortune’s womb, / Is coming towards me, and my inward
soul / With nothing trembles’ (9–12), and the second which answering it, ends ‘I
cannot but be sad – so heavy sad /As thought, on thinking on no thought I think,
/Makes me with heavy nothing faint and shrink’. To Bushy’s response ‘Tis nothing
but conceit, my gracious lady’ which returns to the question of the anamorphic
conceit, Isabel replies:

’Tis nothing less. Conceit is still derived

From some forefather grief. Mine is not so,
For nothing hath begot my something grief,
Or something hath the nothing that I grieve.
’Tis in reversion that I do possess –
But what it is, that is not yet known what,
I cannot name. ’Tis nameless woe, I wot. (34–40)

Both speeches have to do with the motif of ‘nothing’ (a word which occurs no
less than 25 times in the play), which is proleptic of the entire issue of Richard’s
downfall (as is indeed the incapacity to name and the namelessness mentioned
in the last line) and which lies at the heart of the Shakespearian tragic vision, a
vision concerned with the pathos of the imaginary, in which the subject gropes
desperately and hopelessly for the expression of meaning more than for meaning
tout court and, though finding none, nonetheless by looking and speaking ‘awry’,
(Re)fracted Art and Ordered Nature 229

gives voice and form to his/her attempt. Anamorphosis, as Serpieri points out,
while playing with Alberti’s centrally based perspective,

creates the conditions for relativism, and the co-ordinates of a new de-centred
epistemology, similar to that of the Copernican universe … in its viewpoint
fugues. A new perspective has opened on the modern Imaginary, from which
one thing may always also be another … and the sense must be endemically
negotiated between sender and receiver in relation to the perspective in which
the object is placed and from which it is perceived.20

At this point we pass from the first invented scene to the second – 3.4 – the
‘garden scene’ during which Queen Isabel and her two ladies-in-waiting play the
part of audience to a the gardener and his two men as they work in the garden and
use the imagery suggested by this work to comment on the state, comparing the
right cultivation of a garden with Richard’s corrupt administration of England:

Go bind thou up young dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and, like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast-growing sprays
That look too lofty in our commonwealth.
All must be even in our government.
You thus employed, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

1 Man
Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,

 Alessandro Serpieri, Polifonia shakespeariana (Roma: Bulzoni, 2002), p. 74, ‘si
creano comunque le condizioni del relativismo, le coordinate di una nuova epistemologia
decentrata, come nell’universo copernicano, … per la fuga dei punti di vista e dei punti di
fuga. Si è aperto il varco all’immaginario moderno, per cui una cosa può sempre essere
anche un’altra cosa ... e il senso va continuamente ristipulato, tra mittente e destinatario, in
relazione alla prospettiva da cui l’oggetto è posto e da cui è colto’.
230 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Her knots disordered and her wholesome herbs

Swarming with caterpillars? (29–47)

In her excellent study of Richard II, Phyllis Rackin refers to the garden scene as an
allegory, a return to a medieval past, not only in content but also in form:

The stylized unreality of the garden scene distances the audience from the
character’s medieval time-situation and reminds them that what they are
watching is a representation of an exemplary tale, an action completed long ago
whose interpretation is not disputable but an established convention.21

The imagery used in the scene, which naturally refers back to Gaunt’s dying speech
(2.1.31–68) and to the theme of the realm as a ‘blessed plot’ (50) being ‘leased
out … / Like to a tenement, or pelting farm’ (59–60), has many sources, from
biblical to classical, to simply practical – anyone who has ever gardened will agree
with most of what the gardener says. The emblematic use of the good gardener
as the good ruler or tutor is to be found elsewhere in sixteenth-century English
writing (these examples, I must underline, are of course not being presented as
Shakespearian sources), most similarly in Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the
Governour (1531), in the fourth chapter of the first book entitled ‘The education or
fourme of bringing up the childe of a gentilman’:

For as moche as alle noble authors do conclude, and also commune experience
proueth, that where the gouernours of realmes and cities be founden adourned
with vertues, and do employ theyr study and mynde to the publicke weale as
well as to the augmentation therof as to the establsshynge and longe continuance
of the same: there a publicke weale must nedes be both honorable and welthy.
To the extent that I wyll declare howe suche personages may be prepared, I
will use the policie of a wyse and counnynge gardener: who purposynge to
haue in his gardeine a fyne and preciouse herbe, that shulde be to hym and all
other repairynge therto, excellently comodiouse or pleasant, he will first serche
throughout his gardeyne where he can finde the most melowe and fertile erth:
and therin wil he put the sede of the herbe to growe and be norisshed; and in
most diligent wise attende that no weede be suffred to growe or aproche nyghe
unto it: and to the entent it may thrive the faster, as soone as the fourme an
herbe ones appereth, he will set a vessel of water by hit, in suche wyse that it
may continually distille on the rote swete droppes; and as it spryngeth in stalke,
under sette it with some thyng that it breake nat, and always kepe it cleane from
weedes. Semblable ordre will I ensue in the fourmiynge the gentill wittes of

 Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 126.
(Re)fracted Art and Ordered Nature 231

noble mennes children, who from the wombes of their mother, shal be made
propice or apte to the gouernance of a publicke weal.22

Here, the figure is used at a more primitive stage of the ruler’s actions – instead of
illustrating the results of bad husbandry, Elyot (c. 1490–1546) is using the same
emblem to prevent its occurrence. If the ruler is educated rightly he says, just
as a plant should be cared for rightly, then he will govern rightly – and other
(figurative) ‘plants’ will come to no harm.
Henry Brinklow (d. 1546), the sixteenth-century reformer, in his Complaynt
of Roderyck Mors, uses the garden – specifically of Tudor England this time – as
a parable:

The kyngs grace began wel to wede the garden of Ingland, but yet he left
stonding (the more pytye!) the most fowlest and stynkyng wedys, which had
most nede to be first pluckyd vp by the rootys; that is to say the prycking thistels
and styngyng nettels; which, styll stondyng, what helpyth the deposyng of the
pety membres of the Pope, and to leaue his whole body behynd, which be the
pompos bisshops.23

Elyot’s nephew, George Puttenham (c. 1529–90), too, in The Arte of English Poesie
(1589), adopts the same figure. Here, however, Puttenham following Aristotle,
approximates art and nature firstly from an (Aristotelian) medical perspective and
then from a horticultural one, which is all his own:

In some cases we saye arte is an ayde and coadiutor to nature, and a furtherer
of her actions to good effect, or peraduenture a meane to supply her wants, by
reinforcing the causes wherein shee is impotent and defectiue, as doth the arte of
phisicke, by helping the naturall concoction, retention, distribution, expulsion,
and other vertues, in a seake and unhealthie bodie; or, as the good gardiner
seasons his soyle by sundrie sorts of compost, as mucke or marle, clay or sande
and many times by bloud, or lees of oyle or wine, or stale, or perchaunce with
more costly drugs, and waters his plants, and weedes his herbes or floures, and
prunes his branches, and unleaues his boughes to let in the sunne, and twentie
other waies cherisheth them and cureth their infirmities, and so makes that neuer
or very seldome any of them miscarry, but bring foorth their flours and fruites in
season. And in both these cases it is no smal praise for the Phisition & Gardiner
to be called good and cunning artificers.24

  Sir Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named the Governour (1531), S.E. Lehmberg (ed.)
(London:Dent, 1962) p. 15.
 Henry Brinklow, The Complaynt of Roderyck Mors etc. (London: N. Treubner for
the Early English Text Society, 1874) p. 8.
  George Puttenham (1589), The Arte of English Poesie, Edward Arber (ed.) (London:
English Reprints, 1869) p. 308.
232 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

In Richard II the garden lends itself to being a symbol of order and household
economy – but with its mentioning of the need for neat trimming of enclosing
hedges, of knots or formal flowerbeds, of ‘law and form and due proportion’ it
refers to the Italian gardens of the Renaissance, the gardens, yes, of Theobalds and
Nonesuch, of Wollaton and Wimbledon – but originally to the aesthetic behind
Villa Lante and Villa d’Este. David Coffin’s seminal study on the latter tells of the
gigantic task undertaken on the slopes below the Villa at Tivoli, begun in 1550,
in which not only was water harnessed and made to flow in the most complex
and imaginative manner in the famous ‘giochi d’acqua’ but even the centring
perspectives of earlier Renaissance gardens was decentred and rendered multiple
and subjective. And yet, Coffin points out,

As one stepped out upon the lower plain of the garden the steep slope up to the
foot of the Villa was awesome not in the Romantic mode of nature’s grandeur
but in the power of man to shape nature to his will. … From the Villa itself there
is naturally a magnificent vista out over the countryside, but in this vista the
garden plays a minor role. It lies below one as a controlled parterre intermediate
between man’s habitation and uncontrolled nature.25

This, indeed, is the contrary force to which I referred earlier. I do not think it
is fortuitous that the two invented scenes embody the two of the fundamental
paradigms of a Renaissance (the English Renaissance) which, because of its tardy
flowering with respect to that of Italy, has within it contemporaneously not only
the seeds, but also the buds and flowers of Mannerist and even early Baroque
thought. If the first invented scene (2.2) embodies and shows forth the explosion
– or perhaps it would be better to say the implosion of the laws of the central
perspective, the second (3.4) shows an attempt to counteract this by calling on the
‘horticultural paradigm’ or aesthetic as a counterbalance. If Richard cannot keep
order, then Bolingbroke will, the gardeners demonstrate by their use of the garden
emblem, and by an almost allegorical use of horticultural imagery. This, as we
have seen, lies within a well established English literary tradition by the end of the
sixteenth century, a tradition which of course, from the point of view of the visual
arts, and particularly the portraiture of Elizabeth I, drew on the medieval depicting
of the Madonna within the symbolic hortus conclusus.
And yet, here too, the tragedy of relativism, the tragedy of the subject within
a reality which he/she no longer comprehends, can no longer attempt to control,
is experienced and signalled. Many critics have pointed out that Richard II is a
play about grief, a word which appears 27 times while its synonyms ‘sorrow’
and ‘woe’ occur respectively, 26 and 27 times. At the end of the garden scene,
as soon as the Queen hears the news of the deaths of Richard’s favourites and of
his arrest, she emerges from her hiding place and after speaking to the gardener

  David R. Coffin, The Villa d’Este at Tivoli (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 1960) p. 39.
(Re)fracted Art and Ordered Nature 233

departs, weeping, for London. The gardener leaves his ‘controlling’, his pruning
and weeding, his cutting and grafting in order to plant ‘a bank of rue, sour herb
of grace. / Rue e’en for ruth here shortly shall be seen / In the remembrance of a
weeping queen’ (105–7) and the allegory fails to hedge in the continuing of the
tragic action.
In a play which follows its main source, the Chronicles of Holinshed, with a
fidelity which is particularly strong, these two invented scenes carry the weight of
Shakespeare’s originality, his inimitable creativity in the face of ‘imitation’. He
picks up and uses here concepts that are at the root of the huge changes that the
Italian Renaissance was the first to experience. Both scenes in which the marginal,
female and to all intents and purposes invented figure of Queen Isabel solicits
the expression of a whole philosophy of ‘nothingness’ – the ‘nothing’ that lies at
the back of perspective, the ‘nothing’ that no hortus conclusus can contain but
that Richard knows, and his Queen with him, is within the ‘hollow crown’, the
nothingness of the great Shakespearian tragedies to come, which will only find its
like again in the existentialist absurd of Beckett.
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Chapter 13
’Tis Pity She’s Italian:
Performing the Courtesan on the Early
Seventeenth-Century English Stage
Keir Elam

The early seventeenth-century English stage witnessed an unprecedented invasion

of prostitutes, courtesans and other ‘wanton’ women. The invaders in question
were all fictional, nearly all were Italian and most were Venetian. Their presence in
Jacobean and Caroline plays was in part due to increased cultural tourism to Italy
and to the resulting travel literature, in part to the influence of Italian courtesan
literature and of the urban legends that had grown around the cortigiane, and
above all to the demand for sensationalism, especially blood and sex, on the part of
Jacobean audiences, which Italian characters and settings always guaranteed. The
table below gives a partial list of plays with courtesans and other Italian women
of dubious morality as protagonists or as minor characters. The sheer number of
these plays, and the central role often played in them by courtesans and ‘whores’,
are such as to warrant, perhaps, the coinage of a specific theatrical sub-genre that
we might term courtesan drama.

Courtesan drama: some seventeenth-century English plays

with courtesans and other ‘wanton’ Italian women

William Shakespeare, Othello (1601)

(Bianca: courtesan)

Thomas Dekker (?), Blurt, Master Constable (1602)

(Imperia: courtesan)

Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, The Honest Whore, Part 1

(Bellafront: courtesan)

Thomas Dekker The Honest Whore, Part 2 (1606?)

(Bellafront: reformed courtesan)
236 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Edward Sharpham, The Fleire (1606)

(Florida and Felecia: courtesans)

Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606)

(The Duchess; Gratiana)

Barnabe Barnes, The Devil’s Charter (1607)

(Lucrezia Borgia)

John Marston, William Barkstead and Lewis Machin, The Insatiate

Countess (1610?)
(Countess Isabella)

John Webster, The White Devil (1612)

(Vittoria Corombona)

John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (1614)

(The Duchess; Julia)

Anon., The Costlie Whore (1620?)

(Valentia: courtesan)

Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women (1621)

(Bianca Capello)

Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, The Changeling (1622)

(Diaphanta and Beatrice Joanna)

John Ford,’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1629?)


Richard Brome, The Novella (1632)

(Victoria, disguised as courtesan)

James Shirley, The Lady of Pleasure (1637)

(Lady Aretina)

Aphra Behn, The Rover (1677)

(Angellica Bianca, ‘a famous Courtesan’)

Aphra Behn, The Feigned Courtesans (1679)

(Marcella and Cornelia, the ‘feigned courtesans’)
’Tis Pity She’s Italian 237

There are two semantic oppositions at work in many of these plays. The first
opposition involves the wh-word that appears in three titles: John Ford’s ’Tis Pity
She’s a Whore, Dekker and Middleton’s The Honest Whore and the anonymous
The Costlie Whore. In all three cases the titular ladies are conventionally Italian,
but otherwise they have very little in common, largely because the thematic word
in the titles, ‘whore’ itself, is one of the most ambiguous terms in early modern
English. It may refer on the one hand, as in The Honest Whore and The Costlie
Whore, to a professional courtesan, or it may indicate on the other hand, as in ’Tis
Pity, a more generic female dissoluteness or disorderliness that has no specific
vocational implications. This difference may seem at times fairly subtle, since
courtesans were themselves considered dissolute and disorderly, not least on the
English stage, but it is nonetheless substantial, since, vice versa, by no means
all the so-called ‘whores’ who people early modern literature and drama are
professionally qualified to earn the epithet.
The question of such semantic ambiguity is directly posed by Ford’s title itself.
The ‘she’ of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and hence the wh- epithet itself, seem to allude
primarily to the incestuous, metaphorically whorish, protagonist Annabella, but
perhaps not exclusively so, since Anabella’s not altogether suitable tutoress is an
old female bawd, who sports the unequivocal trade name Putana. The wh-word,
therefore, might regard either Annabella or Putana or both. This ambiguity re-
emerges dramatically or dramaturgically in the finale of the tragedy, in which the
Cardinal orders:

Peace; First this woeman chiefe in these effects,

My sentence is, that forthwith shee be tane
Out of the Citty, for examples sake,
There to be burnt to ashes.

The cardinal, as Lisa Hopkins has observed, ‘must be talking either about the dead
body of Annabella or about Putana [“this woman”], but it is nor certain which of
the two’. Since ‘Annabella has already been stabbed and butchered, and Putana
has been blinded – the traditional punishment for incest’, the Cardinal’s sentence
seems excessive, but it is above all not clear precisely who should be burned to
ashes, the dead woman or the living but blind one: it makes a difference.
The tragic consequences of the unstable whore-courtesan opposition are
likewise, and notoriously, present in the first seventeenth-century play to introduce
an Italian, and specifically Venetian, courtesan on the English stage, namely
Shakespeare’s Othello. The presence in Cyprus of the courtesan Bianca is one of

  John Ford, ’Tis Pitty Shee’s a Whore: Acted by the Queenes Maiesties Seruants, at
The Phoenix in Drury-Lane (London: Printed by Nicholas Okes for Richard Collins [etc.]

  Lisa Hopkins, Introduction to John Ford, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (London: Nick
Hern Books, 2003), p. ix.
238 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

the decisive pieces of evidence exploited by Iago, in his campaign of persuasion

of Othello, concerning the sexual incontinence of Venetian women at large. Not
by chance, Bianca is brought on with Desdemona’s supposed handkerchief in 4.1.
in such a way as to assert an equivalence with the play’s other Venetian lady. Any
distinction between the two is thereafter blurred in Othello’s perception:

I took you for that cunning whore of Venice

That married with Othello.

The semantic slipperiness of the wh-word, and indeed of the very concept of
‘whore’ in early seventeenth-century England was such as to make it a catchall
term for the denigration of women in general. Discussing the language of insult
in early modern London, the social historian Laura Gowing notes that ‘The word
“whore” was the most common form of abuse [towards women]; its centrality
to insult, and the elaborations that defamers wove around it, reveal some of the
assumptions about gender, sex, and honour that were central to the language of
verbal abuse’. In the period from 1606 to 1640 the term whore and its synonyms
‘quean’ and ‘jade’ account, according to Gowing’s statistics, for 39 per cent of
the total of terms of slander on public record. Few of the victims of such abuse
justified it in professional terms.
There appears to be a diachronic dimension to the distinction between
professional courtesans and generic bad women on the seventeenth-century stage:
the earliest Jacobean plays featuring ladies of dubious repute – Shakespeare’s
Othello, Dekker’s Blurt, Master Constable and The Honest Whore, and Sharpham’s
The Fleire – interpret the term in its technical, professional sense, despite Angela
Ingram’s claim, in her study of ‘bad’ women in the Jacobean drama, that ‘For a
whore to have actual social or political status she would have to be classed as a
courtesan, but this is a figure that the Elizabethan/Jacobean drama seems reluctant
to portray’: not entirely reluctant, as the number of courtesans named in the above
table suggests. Later Jacobean and Caroline plays, from The Revenger’s Tragedy
to Ford’s ’Tis Pity – with the important exception of The Costlie Whore – tend to
replace prostitutes with profligates, whereby the professional meretrix disappears,
only to reappear on stage much later, in the Restoration plays of Aphra Behn.
The second semantic and lexical opposition in play on the seventeenth-century
stage is that between the English wh-word on the one hand and the Italianate term
courtesan on the other. ‘Courtesan’ first appears in English in the mid sixteenth

  William Shakespeare, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Michael Neill (ed.) (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2006), 4.2.105–6.

  Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 63.

 Angela Ingram, In the Posture of a Whore: Changing Attitudes to ‘Bad’ Women
in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik,
Universität Salzburg, 1984), p. 41.
’Tis Pity She’s Italian 239

century (the OED’s first instance is from William Thomas’s History of Italy, 1549),
and the term retained its somewhat exotic quality in the seventeenth century. The
sociolinguistic differences between the two terms, ‘whore’ and ‘courtesan’, are
analysed in Edward Sharpham’s comedy The Fleire (1606–1607) – where two
Florentine courtesans, Florida and Felecia, discuss the definition of their trade:

Why are wee whores?
What are we else?
Why we are Curtizans.
And what difference pra’y?
O great great madam, your whore is for euery rascall but your Curtizan is for
your Courtier.

Thomas Coryate, recounting his visit to Venice and his admiration for the local
cortigiane, offers an analogous etymology of the term:

The woman that professeth this trade is called in the Italian tongue Cortezana,
which word is derived from the Italian word cortesia that signifieth courtesie.
Because these kind of women are said to receive courtesies of their fauorites.

In Coryate’s dubious derivation the courtesan becomes nothing less than an

expression of Italian Renaissance civitas, with a probable glance at Castiglione’s Il
Cortegiano. The Italian courtesan is so much a Jacobean and Caroline stereotype
as to represent almost a case of synonimity. Ladies of leisure and pleasure turn out
to be Italian even when, officially, they are not: John Marston’s Dutch courtesan
in 1604 in his play of that name, for example, is declaredly non-Italian, but she
sports an Italian name, Franceschina, and is in fact inspired by a historical Italian
figure, Bianca Maria Scappardone, Countess of Challant in the previous century.
Italian ladies likewise dominate early seventeenth-century non-dramatic literature
dedicated to professional courtesans. Gervase Markham’s poem The Famous
Whore, or Noble Curtizan (1609), for instance, bears the explanatory subtitle
conteining the lamentable complaint of Paulina, the famous Roman Curtizan,
sometimes mes unto the great Cardinall Hypolito, of Est. The famous Roman
whore in question, Lollia Paulina, was historically a first-century first lady, wife

 Edward Sharpham, The Fleire. As it hath beene often played in the Blacke-Fryers by
the Children of the Reuells (London: Printed and are to be solde by F.B. [etc.], 1623).

 Thomas Coryate, Coryats Crudities (London, 1611), p. 264.
240 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

of Caligula, but is modernised and professionalised by Markham into a cortigiana

associated with a powerful Renaissance Cardinal and prince, Ippolito II d’Este, son
of that most notorious, not to say whorish, of mothers, Lucrezia Borgia. Paulina
is so much an icon as to make a lengthy appearance in another piece of early
seventeenth-century courtesan literature, Nicholas Goodman’s Hollands Ledger,
whose protagonist ‘Dona Britanica Hollandia, the Arch-mistris of the wicked
women of Eutopia’ is influenced in her career choice by the legend of ‘Lollea
Paulina, the greatest Courtezan, the basest Whore, and the deceitfullest Bawde,
that euer Rome did acknowledge’.
The relevant connotations of Rome here – ancient or modern Rome, since
the distinction is strategically blurred – are clearly those of the Catholic church,
for which the Roman whore becomes synonym, or perhaps metonym, and thus
a pretext for virulent bouts of anti-catholicism. John Taylor the Water poet’s A
common whore with all these graces grac’d (1625) makes these connotations
explicit. Writing of the courtesans’ working life, he claims that:

And though these things the Pagan people did,

Yet Christian gouernments these things forbid.
But there’s no Common-wealth maintaines the same,
But where the Pope is Landlord o the game.

Robert Hayman’s Quodlibets (1628) likewise makes whoredom and Catholicism


Our Common Whores turne Roman Catholicks,

By that meanes they get Pardons for tricks10

There were other more recent historical models for the Roman whore, among them
Tullia d’Aragona (c. 1510–56), the ‘intellectual courtesan’ and philosopher, whose
lovers in her Roman period included the poet Sperone Speroni and the banker
Filippo Strozzi.
The early modern geopolitics of Italian courtesanship were essentially
binary, its other main venue being, naturally, Venice, famous or infamous for its
supposedly enormous population of professional queans: ‘it is thought’, affirms
Thomas Coryate, ‘that [they] are … at the least twenty thousand, whereof many
are esteemed so loose, that they are said to open their quivers to every arrow’.11
Jacobean and Caroline literature abounds with stories of English cultural and

 Nicholas Goodman, Hollands Leagver: or, an Historical Discovrse of the Life and
Actions of Dona Britanica Hollandia the Arch-Mistris of the wicked women of Evtopia
(London: 1632, sig. C3r.).

  John Taylor, A Common Whore with all these Graces Grac’d (London: 1625, B3r.).
 Robert Hayman, Quodlibets (London: 1628, sig. B2v.).
 Coryate, p. 264.
’Tis Pity She’s Italian 241

sexual tourists in Venice, ­­such as the hapless Bristol merchant Ferdinand in

Thomas Dekker’s Penny-wise, Pound foolish (1631), a text that again stresses
the unbridgeable cultural gap between the Venetian cortegiana and the English

As before in London hee was insnard by one English whore, so here found
hee ten thousand Uenetian Courtizans, the worst of them all, hauing sorcery
enough in her eyes and behauiour, to inchant him. With the butterfly hee flew
from herbe to herbe, and from weed to weed, but in the end alighted vpon one,
which he liked aboue all the rest. Here he stayed, Here hee set vp his rest. …
You talke of the poore Cat-a-mountaines in Turne-bull, who venture vpon the
pikes of damnation for singlemoney; and you wonder at the fethered Estridges in
Westminster, Strand, Bloomsbury &c. how they can liue; where these Venetian
Madonaes, carry the ports of Ladyes, liue in houses faire enough to entertaine
Lords. Into such a lodging was Ferdinando receiued, vpon such a Curtizan did
he fasten his lustfull affection.12

What Dekker, Coryate, and other English commentators note particularly in Venice
is the presence of high-class prostitutes, the cortigiane oneste, richly attired and
socially accomplished, as distinct from the lower-class cortigiane di lume, who plied
their trade near the Rialto Bridge and were more similar to common London jades.
The majority of Jacobean stage courtesans, beginning with Bianca and
Imperia and ending with Valentia, are likewise Venetian. The closest dramatic
study of the Venetian cortegiana as it were in the field is Dekker’s comedy Blurt,
Master Constable, despite the presence of the distinctly English and Dogberry-
like Constable Blurt himself. The action, set in Venice, takes place mainly in the
bordello of Imperia, derived from the luxurious prostitute of the same name in
Bandello’s novella 42, and described in the play as ‘a bona roba’, who shares her
‘house’ with five other colleagues. The plot manages to be at once anti-Italian and
anti-French, since it involves the captured French gentleman soldier Fontinelle,
who, newly and secretly married to the noble Venetian Violetta, nevertheless falls
in love, thanks to the machinations of Violetta’s disapproving brother Hippolito,
with the bona roba Imperia. Violetta saves her marriage in extremis through the
conventional bed-trick.13 The play, thanks especially to the mediation of Blurt
himself, offers its English spectators the opportunity for some theatrical cultural
tourism, taking them directly into a Venetian locus amoenus, as in the scene in

 Thomas Dekker, Penny-Wise, Pound Foolish. Or, a Bristow Diamond, set in two
Rings, and both Crack’d. Profitable for Married men, pleasant for young men, and a rare
example for all good Women (London: 1631), pp. 28–9.
  For a thorough analysis of this convention, see Marliss C. Desens, The Bed-Trick in
English Renaissance Drama: Explorations in Gender, Sexuality, and Power (Cranbury NJ:
Associated University Presses, 1994).
242 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

which the Constable leads the Doge to the bordello in order to prevent Fontinelle
from betraying his Venetian wife with Imperia:

Right, sir, this is the whorehouse
Shall fetch him forth. [To Blurt] Go, sirrah, in our name;
Attach the French lord.
Enter Blurt and watch, holding Fontinell and his weapons.

The duke is within an inch of your nose and therefore I dare play with it, if you
put not up; deliver, I advise you.
Yield up my weapons, and my foe so nigh?
Myself and weapons shall together yield;
Come anyone, come all.
Kill, kill the Frenchman! Kill him!14

Implicit in such episodes is a comparative trope, whereby Venice becomes

London’s mirror image or double through a process of opposition (for example,
the civilised courtesans themselves, unknown in London) and at the same time
through a process of assimilation (for example, the whorehouse, only too well
known in London), which enables the use of Italy as a pretext for a fierce critique
of contemporary English society. Such a comparative mode may be seen more
explicitly at work in The Honest Whore, in which Bellafront, mad for love, ends
up, with sublime geographical incongruity, in London’s Bedlam. Likewise in
Sharpham’s The Fleire the action ends up in London, although the courtesans
themselves stay put in Florence.
Perhaps the most intriguing exercise in intercultural comparison and contrast,
however, is the anonymous play The Costlie Whore, which dramatises, if not the
English, at least the northern European reception of the Venetian courtesan since
the eponymous protagonist Valentia, from Venice despite her Spanish name, is
discovered in, of all places, Saxony, where she is viewed as a somewhat exotic,
highly alluring but also dangerously expensive luxury item, threatening not so
much German public mores as German financial stability:

Duke. Admir’d Valentia, Curtezans are strange

 Thomas Dekker (?), Blurt Master Constable. Or The Spaniards Night-walke. As it
hath bin sundry times priuately acted by the Children of Paules (London: 1602), 5.3.
’Tis Pity She’s Italian 243

With us In Germanie; except her selfe,

Being a Venetian borne and priviledg’d,
The state allowes none here.15

Valentia is inserted into a plot that combines the legend of Hatto, the notorious
Medieval Archbishop of Mainz with the story of a more modern duke of Saxony.
Her incongruous presence in Germany may reflect what Margaret Rosenthal terms
the German/Italian, especially Venetian axis, which saw intense trade and touristic
relations between the two countries.16 If G. E. Bentley’s dating of the play (1619)
is correct,17 Valentia may also be a political allegory for events of the Thirty Years’
War (1618–48) that had just got under way with an unholy alliance between
Lutheran Saxony, the Catholic League, and Ferdinand II backed by his Spanish
relatives. Valentia becomes the Catholic whore – hence her Spanish name and the
extraordinary political power that she exercises over the Duke.
There is, however, another and more strictly theatrical or performative source
of Valentia’s power. She brings with her to Saxony many of the legendary qualities
characterising the Venetian cortigiane oneste, including an elegance and eloquence
that increase her cultural kudos and political prowess. ‘Also thou wil find the
Venetian Cortezan’, affirms Coryate, ‘… a good Rhetorician, and a most elegant
discourser’ (267). Her verbal artistry recalls that of renowned Venetian courtesan
poets suchas Veronica Franco, sometime lover of Henry II of France.
Above all, she is associated with the courtesan performative mode par
excellence, music. When Valentia makes her first appearance­, it is in the context
of a carnival-like music festival:

The beauteous and the famous Curtezan,

Allyed unto the banished Montano,
Admir’d Valentia, with a troope of youths,
This day doth keep her yeerely festiuall,
To all her suters, and this way she past
Unto her arbour, when the Musique plaide.18

The musicality of the courtesans was internationally renowned. In The Fleire the
Knight praises the courtesan’s supposed singing skills:

  The Costlie Whore. A Comicall Historie, Acted by the companie of the Revels
(London, 1633), 2.1, sigs. C3r–C3v.
  Margaret F. Rosenthal, ‘Cutting a Good Figure: The Fashions of Venetian
Courtesans in the Illustrated Albums of Early Modern Travelers’, in Martha Feldman and
Bonnie Gordon (eds), The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (New York and
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 52–74; p. 69.
  Gerald Eades Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage: Dramatic Companies
and Players (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), Vol. 1, p. 175.
  The Costlie Whore 2.1, sig. C3v.
244 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

Kni: Shees wondrous musicall too.

Fle: Verie true, she euerie day sings Iohn for the King, and at Vp tailes all, shees

Coryate notes the supremely seductive power of the courtesan’s singing and

Morouer she will endeuour to enchaunt thee partly with her melodious notes
that see warbles out upon her lute, which shee fingers with as laudable a stroke
as many men that are excellent professors in the noble science of Musicke; and
partly with that heart-tempting harmony of her voice.20

Coryate probably has in mind a long and venerable line of sixteenth-century

Venetian courtesan singers such as Gaspara Stampa, not to mention Angela Zaffetta
serenading her lovers in Aretino’s Dialogues. As Bonnie Gordon observes (182),
and as Valentia demonstrates in the play, ‘When courtesans trafficked in song, they
engaged forces that were not just immaterial but material and that were altogether
more potent than money’.21
The other performative association of Italian courtesans was theatre itself,
and especially comedy, not only as elected subjects, as in La cortigiana by
Aretino22 – himself son of a Venetian courtesan – but also as performers. The
line of demarcation between the courtesan and the actress was so subtle as to be
at times non-existent. The legendary courtesan singer Barbara Salutati, lover of
Nicolò Machiavelli, built a successful theatrical career and, in addition to being
the biographical inspiration for Machiavelli’s La Clizia, wrote and probably
performed madrigals for the performance of the comedy. Many decades later,
Adriano Banchieri’s musical comedy Barco di Venetia per Padova (1605) depicts
a courtesan in the act of improvising an ottava rima and risposta with her suitor, a
singing role that may indeed have been actually performed by a cortigiana.
The courtesans were expert performers in all senses. It may well be that it is
precisely their performative qualities, as singers and actresses, that rendered them
of particular interest to English audiences. Not by chance, when Coryate visits a
Venetian theatre, he is struck by the actresses on stage, some of them probably
courtesans, but still more so by the real spectacle that takes place offstage, namely
the disguised professional ladies exhibiting themselves in the most exclusive
sector of the audience (see Figure 13.1):

 Edward Sharpham, The Fleire.
 Coryate, p. 267.
  Bonnie Gordon, ‘The Courtesan’s Singing Body as Cultural Capital in Seventeenth-
Century Italy’, in Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon (eds), The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-
Cultural Perspectives, pp. 182–98; p. 182.
 The play, originally published in Venice in 1534, was republished in England, in
Italian, by John Wolfe in 1584.
’Tis Pity She’s Italian 245

Figure 13.1 Thomas Coryate’s encounter with the Venetian courtesan Margarita
Emiliana, from Coryats Crudities, 1611.
246 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

I was at one of their Play-houses where I saw a Comedie acted. The house is
very beggarly and base in comparison of our stately Play-houses in England:
neyther can their Actors compare with us for apparel, shewes and musicke. Here
I obserued certaine things that I neuer saw before. For I saw women acte, a
thinge that I neuer saw before, though I haue heard that it hath been some times
used in London, and they performed it with as good a grace, action, gesture and
whatsoeuer conuenient for a Player, as euer I saw any masculine Actor. Also
their noble & famous Cortezans came to this Comedy, but so disguised, that a
man cannot perceiue them. For they wore double maskes upon their faces, to
the end they might not be seene: one reaching from the toppe of their forehead
to their chinne, and under their necke; another with twiskes of downy or woolly
stuffe couering their noses. And as for their neckes round about, they were so
couered and wrapped with cobweb lawne and other things that no part of their
skin could be discerned. Upon their heads they wore little blacke felt caps very
like to those of the Clarissimoes that I will hereafter speake of. Also each of
them wore a black short taffeta cloake. They were so graced, that they sate on
high alone by themselues in the best roome of all the Play-house.23

No such double female spectacle, on and off stage, was possible in the early
seventeenth-century English theatre, where female performers were banned and
the richly attired cortigane oneste were conspicuously absent from the galleries.
Nonetheless, prostitutes were in a sense doubly present, on stage as dramatic
characters, albeit played by boys, and, notoriously, in the audience where they
happily plied their trade, even if less histrionically than their Venetian colleagues.
The intimate association between courtesanship and performativity in England,
as in Venice, went beyond this, however, thanks in part to the contiguity between
London playhouses and whorehouses, as in the brothel street Rose Alley, behind
the Rose theatre, but also to the direct involvement of actors such as Edward
Alleyn and impresarios such as Alleyn’s father-in-law Philip Henslowe as owners
of stews or whorehouses,24 where ladies performed professionally and perhaps
even musically, even if they were plain English whores, and not exotic Italian

 Coryate, pp. 247–8.
  See E.J. Burford, The Orrible Synne: A Look at London Lechery from Roman to
Cromwellian Times (London: Calder & Boyers, 1973), pp. 182–3.
Chapter 14
Silence, Seeing, and Performativity:
Shakespeare and the Paragone
Duncan Salkeld

Just occasionally, Shakespeare’s characters declare themselves speechless, but at

these moments they rarely remain quiet for long. In shock at the deaths of the
two young princes in the tower, the Duchess of York in Richard III declares, ‘My
woe-wearied tongue is still and mute’ (4.4.18). Hardly pausing for breath, she then
laments, ‘Edward Plantagenet, why art thou dead?’ Antonio, at the end of The
Merchant of Venice, learns of his lawyer’s real identity and openly declares, ‘I am
dumb’. Six lines later, he finds words: ‘Sweet lady, you have given me life and
living’ (5.1.279, 285). Hamlet ridiculously tells himself, ‘But break, my heart, for
I must hold my tongue’ (1.2.159), and Cordelia, with eloquent feeling, explains
that she cannot heave her heart into her mouth (1.1.89–90). Even Shakespeare’s
taciturn country justice of the peace named Silence in 2 Henry IV manages a
few words (3.2.4ff). Although he repeatedly bemoaned his ‘tongue-tied’ Muse
(Sonnets 66, 80, 85, 140), Shakespeare developed an aesthetics of silence. Drama
is naturally as much a visual as an auditory art and hence the creative purposes
to which Shakespearean silences were put are often pictorial. This article focuses
specifically on a particular kind of verbal silence – the silence of images expressed
in words, a literary technique known as ekphrasis – and argues that in Shakespeare’s
plays and poems, silence has powerful, transformative and performative effects.
Now and then, silent characters occur in the plays by mistake or change of
mind. Leonato in Much Ado has a wife named Innogen whom we never see or
hear; a Petruccio who never speaks appears in Romeo and Juliet (3.1.31); a silent
‘Gebon’ appears in the 1600 quarto of Henry V; and we never learn the name,
or hear the voice, of Prospero’s absent wife. But Shakespeare also used silence.
Raped, dismembered, and her tongue cut out, the visually shocking Lavinia in
Titus Andronicus still manages to communicate: Titus consoles her, ‘Speechless
complainer, I will learn thy thought; In thy dumb action will I be as perfect as
begging hermits in their holy prayers’ (3.2.40–41). These words belong to a scene
absent from the 1594 quarto but added to the 1623 Folio version, and so doubly
turn silence into speech. I shall argue that Shakespeare’s uses of ‘dumb action’, a

 All quotations from Shakespeare are drawn from Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John
Jowett and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1986).
248 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

feature most readily familiar perhaps from the ‘dumb shows’ in his plays, derive
ultimately from a key debate in sixteenth-century aesthetics. Dumbness, for
Shakespeare, could prove an effective conceit. Alonso, in The Tempest, remarks
on the possibilities of silent action: ‘I cannot too much muse. / Such shapes, such
gesture and such sound, expressing –, / Although they want the use of tongue
–, a kind / Of excellent dumb discourse’ (3.3.37–9). ‘Dumb action’ and ‘dumb
discourse’ are not accidental in Shakespeare for they responded to what Sidney
famously called ‘speaking pictures’ in The Defence of Poesy (c. 1582). In one
sense, all drama might be said to be ekphrastic since it depends upon words turning
images into action, pictures speaking. But a specific intellectual context lies behind
Shakespeare’s use of the device, a sixteenth-century aesthetic debate known as
the paragone, or ‘contest’ of the arts. Shakespeare engaged in his own version
of the paragone, taking it into new arenas, but understood it in terms ultimately
drawn from Sir Philip Sidney and, before him, Leonardo da Vinci. Yet in contrast
to Sidney, Shakespeare repeatedly dwells on the inadequacies of words and the
virtues of portraiture. He could readily valorise pictures over poetry because he
regarded images as performative, that is, as owning some active quality to bring
about personal change. Yet there were also practical reasons why Shakespeare
took an interest in pictures: he worked and collaborated with a painter – Richard
Burbage – and theirs was a partnership of vocations.

Portraiture and the Early Modern Theatre

As might be expected, monied patrons of the early theatre companies liked to sit for
their portraits. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and uncle to Sir Philip Sidney, owned
a large collection of paintings and had his likeness made repeatedly. An unknown
English artist painted Ferdinando Stanley, fifth Earl of Derby and patron of ‘Lord
Strange’s Men’, and another Anglo-Netherlandish painter drew Henry Carey, first
Baron Hunsdon and Lord Chamberlain from 1585 to 1596. Henry Wriothesley, third
Earl of Southampton, had his portrait painted several times, including a miniature
by the celebrated royal painter Nicholas Hilliard which has survived glued to the
back of a playing card. William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, commissioned his
portrait at least three times by Netherlandish artists Paul van Somer, Daniel Mytens,
and Abraham van Blyenberch. It was not only aristocrats who could afford such
flattery: an increasing number of the ‘middling sort’ did so too. According to Tarnya
Cooper, the second half of the sixteenth century witnessed a quickening interest

  See Tarnya Cooper, Searching For Shakespeare, with essays by James Shapiro and
Stanley Wells (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2006), p. 127.

  For likenesses of Dudley, Stanley, Carey, and Herbert see respective entries in
Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 2004–2007), hereafter DNB, at
<> by Simon Adams (8160), David Kathman (26269), Wallace T.
MacCaffrey (4649), and Victor Slater (13058).
Silence, Seeing, and Performativity 249

in portraiture even among the artisan and trading classes. Players bought into this
vogue. Edward Alleyn’s unusually full-length portrait hangs in Dulwich Picture
Gallery, and a painting of his ‘good sweet mouse’, Joan, is owned by Dulwich
College. A well-known portrait, widely regarded as of Christopher Marlowe,
rescued from rubble outside Corpus Christi College Cambridge, attests to the
confident self-image such a rising star might wish to display. Among payments to
the writer William Bourne or Bird, Philip Henslowe records a loan of five shillings:
‘lent vnto Wm borne the 14 of July 1598 for to geue the paynter in earneste of his
pictor the some of …. vs’. Nathan Field, listed as a ‘principal player’ of the King’s
Men in the 1623 Folio, is believed to have been the subject of an extant painting by
an Anglo-Dutch artist (unknown), and the actor John Lowin, who had transferred
from Worcester’s to the King’s Men by 1603 and acted at the Globe in Marston’s
The Malcontent, was painted in 1640 at the age of 64. This latter work now hangs in
the Ashmolean Museum. A case from Bridewell Hospital indicates that portraiture
was a mark of growing social aspiration. Johan [Joan] Robinson, examined ‘on
pticular notes’ on 7 November 1604, alleged that Richard Moulsdale was the father
of her child and that, ‘in his chamber on a table did hange his picture pictured in
cutt fustian clothes layd with silverbraid’. Moulsdale’s occupation is unrecorded
but since fustian was a coarse cloth of cotton and flax worn by the poor, his means
were unlikely to have been ample.
Engravings were a cheaper alternative to painting and provided printers with a
ready source of re-usable images. They could, for example, be made from portraits
rather than from life. Elias Allen, a maker of mathematical instruments, was
portrayed by the Dutch artist Hendrik van der Borcht in or about 1640. We only
know of that painting from Wenceslaus Hollar’s engraving of it. Wood or copper-
plate engravings were inexpensive and taken increasingly seriously by the book
trade. Humphrey Moseley declared in his letter-preface to the works of Beaumont
and Fletcher that he had been ‘very ambitious to have got Master Beaumont’s
picture; but could not possibly’. Consequently, his edition of Comedies and
Tragedies written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Gentlemen (1647)
bears an engraving of Fletcher only. As Moseley explained, ‘The figure of Mr.
Fletcher was cut by severall Originall Pieces, which his friends lent me, but withal
they tell me, that his unimitable Soule did shine through his countenance in such
Ayre and Spirit, that the Painters confessed it, was not easie to expresse him’. One
of those ‘Originall Pieces’ that Moseley referred to may have been the only known
surviving portrait of Fletcher, made circa 1620 by an unknown artist, apparently

 R.A. Foakes (ed.), Henslowe’s Diary (London and New York: Cambridge University
Press, 2002, 2nd edn), p. 93.

  See Cooper et al., pp. 135–6.

  See Bridewell Court Minute Book (BCB), vol. 4, fo. 563v.

  See H.K. Higton’s entry for Elias Allen in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
250 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

purchased by Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon around 1683–85. Confident in

his ‘unimitable’ soul, Thomas Coryate circulated images of himself engraved for
his Coryat’s Crudities (1611) in the hope that the illustrations might help sell the
book. Publishers and writers saw marketing advantages in portraits. An engraving
was made for John Davies of Hereford’s Writing Schoolmaster (1633), and another
for Archy Armstrong’s Book of Jests (1630) was enlarged and reprinted for an
edition in 1657, the only known surviving image of James I’s fool. The famous
engraving for the First Folio in 1623 – made six years after Shakespeare’s death
by either Martin Droeshout the younger or his uncle, Martin Droeshout the Elder
– may well have been taken from an earlier, life-time portrait. Tarnya Cooper has
suggested that it was probably commissioned for the Folio volume, but, as Peter
Holland has pointed out in his fine ODNB biography, the ‘mere idea of placing
an image of an author on the title-page of a collection was unusual’.10 Holland
conjectures that the engraving may have been made for earlier, quite separate
purposes. Jonson’s 1616 folio edition of his Works, over which so much authorial
care was exercised, bore no engraving of its author. Instead, Jonson preferred
architectural and monumental emblems to blazon the authority of his works. Only
much later would a series of line engravings be made of Jonson etched from the
portrait of him by Van Blyenberch in 1626.11
Shakespeare’s own investment in portraiture has recently become something
of a hot topic. Despite a somewhat sceptical reception, claims by Stanley Wells,
Paul Edmondson, and Mark Broch for the ‘Cobbe’ portrait (formerly known
by its copy in the Folger library as the ‘Janssen’ painting) as an authentic life-
painting of Shakespeare have yet to be fully appraised. Space prohibits detailed
discussion of the controversy here, but this recent proposition ought not to be
disregarded. The provenance of the ‘Cobbe’ portrait is at least as strong as that of
the ‘Chandos’ painting which has been more widely accepted as of Shakespeare.
While the ‘Janssen’ picture may indeed resemble a portrayal of Sir Thomas
Overbury, now hanging in the Bodleian library, the same cannot be said for
the ‘Cobbe’ portrait (its ‘prime version’ or original). No alleged portrayal is

 Cited from George S. Darley (ed.), The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher (London:
George Routledge and Sons, 1840), 2 vols, xlvii. On Fletcher’s portrait, see Cooper et al.,
p. 182.

 Davies’s engraving is reproduced as a frontispiece to A.B. Grosart (ed.), The
Complete Works of John Davies of Hereford (Cherstsey, 1878), 2 vols. See R. Malcolm
Smuts’s entry for Archibald Armstrong in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (653).
  See Cooper et al., p. 48. See also Peter Holland’s entry for Shakespeare in Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography (25200).
  For discussion of Jonson’s title page illustrations, and illuminating comment on
his relation to the paragone, see Stephen Orgel, ‘Jonson and the arts’ in Richard Harp and
Stanley Stewart (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000), pp. 140–51. For Jonson’s likenesses, see Ian Donaldson’s entry for
Jonson in DNB (15116).
Silence, Seeing, and Performativity 251

known to be of Shakespeare, and in these circumstances the ‘Cobbe’ must be

of considerable interest. By an inexact measure of broad likeness, the closest
family resemblances in ‘Shakespeare’ portrayals remains between the ‘Chandos’
painting, ‘Droeshout’s’ engraving in the 1623 First Folio and the ‘pork butcher’
bust in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.12 What we do know is that, throughout
his writing career, painting fascinated Shakespeare. He repeatedly alluded to and
even used paintings (more commonly termed ‘pictures’) as properties. References
in the plays contradict the common supposition that they must have been
miniatures. Proteus begs Silvia for ‘[t]he picture that is hanging in your chamber’,
that he may speak and sigh at least to her ‘shadow’ (4.2.114–15), and Silvia later
hands it to the disguised Julia (4.4.111). The lord, in the induction to The Taming
of the Shrew, gives order for his walls to be hung round with ‘all my wanton
pictures’ (Ind. 1.43), and these are later described in some detail. Benedick, newly
convinced of Beatrice’s adoration, determines that he will ‘go get her picture’
(2.3.232). In The Merchant of Venice, Portia is won by selection of her portrait,
hidden in one of three caskets: ‘The one of them contains my picture, Prince’
(2.7.11). Hamlet compels Gertrude to ‘look here upon this picture’ and see in it
‘the front of Jove himself’ (3.4.52, 55), and so too her own guilt. In a scene replete
with comic potential, Emilia in The Two Noble Kinsmen brings on stage pictures
of Palamon and Arcite, weighs up their relative attractions and still cannot decide
between them (4.2.1–53). Shakespeare made striking dramatic use of images.
Aside from his use of dumb-shows, apparitions, and pageantry, several of his
plays’ endings turn upon revelation of an image, including The Comedy of Errors,
Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure.
Perhaps his most memorable silent image occurs at the end of The Winter’s Tale,
in the manifestation of Hermione, a moment that echoes the device at the end of
Much Ado where a supposedly new ‘Hero’ is revealed. Paulina promises a rueful
Leontes ‘another / As like Hermione as is her picture’ (5.1.72–3). Statuesque,
Hermione represents the poet’s closest dramatic equivalent to what Thomas
Heywood called, in 1612, ‘dumbe oratory’, the silent, auspicious visual form: ‘He
so near to Hermione hath done Hermione that they say one would speak to her and
stand in hope of answer’ (5.2.90–92).13 Naturalism restores Leontes’ wife but, in
this moment, Shakespeare’s art comes – not for the first time – firmly within the
compass of the paragone, a sixteenth-century debate between the auditory and
visual arts. Leontes invites Hermione’s statue to speak but Shakespeare mutes
her in a moment where visual effect is paramount. This intentional restraint in
favour of a tableau has its origins in Shakespeare’s earlier work, especially in
The Rape of Lucrece (1594). The roots of the ‘comparison of the arts’ debate go

  See Mark Broch and Paul Edmondson, with a foreword by Stanley Wells,
Shakespeare Found (The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2009). See responses to and a
defence of their claims in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 March 2009, 27 March 2009,
3 April 2009, 17 April 2009.
 Thomas Heywood, The Apology For Actors (London, 1612), fo. B3v.
252 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

back to arguments by a number of European Renaissance writers, some of them

now obscure: Boccaccio, for example, favoured theology, Coluccio Salutati
preferred law, and Gian Francesco Poggio promoted medicine.14 We might have
expected Shakespeare to advocate the superiority of poetry. In fact, he did the

Leonardo, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Paragone

The poet Simonides of Ceos (c. 500 BCE) is usually credited with having coined
the phrase, ‘Painting is dumb poetry, and poetry is speaking painting’.15 This, or
a very similar maxim, clearly lies behind Horace’s famous phrase in Ars Poetica
‘ut pictura poesis’ [‘a poem is like a painting’], and it became a commonplace
of sixteenth-century aesthetics: Sir Thomas Hoby, for example, writing in
Politique Discourses (1586) stated, ‘For as Simonides saide: painting is dumme
Poesie, and a Poesie is a speaking Picture’.16 Perhaps the most famous sixteenth-
century advocate of Simonides’s epithet was Leonardo da Vinci who drew upon
it for his work entitled Paragone (c. 1500), in which he argued for the greater
excellence of painting over all sister arts, especially over poetry. Leonardo held
that since painting is based upon scientific and mathematical principles, it is
consequently a more accurate and truthful form of representation. The painter’s
eye is less easily deceived and the most noble of all the senses.17 Painting does
not fade away, like music; it draws more admirers, more discussion, and more
praise, than poetry, because it offers images in whole rather than in part: ‘the
poet in describing the beauty or ugliness of any figure can only show it to you
consecutively, bit by bit, while the painter will display it all at once’.18 Asserting
painting’s primacy and autonomy, Leonardo rules out claims for the superiority
of rival disciplines:

If you, historians, or poets, or mathematicians had not seen the things with your
eyes, you could report but imperfectly of them in writing. And if you, O poet,

  Geoffrey Shepherd (ed.), An Apology for Poetry; or, The Defence of Poesy
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973), p. 29. See also Paul Oskar Kristeller,
Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays (New Jersey: Princeton University
Press, 1965, 1980), pp. 53ff.
 Irma A. Richter, Paragone: A Comparison of the Arts by Leonardo Da Vinci (Oxford
and London: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. 38.
  Jean Hagstrum, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English
Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 58.
  Jean Paul Richter and Irma A. Richter (eds), The Literary Works of Leonardo da
Vinci, compiled and edited from the original manuscripts (London and New York: Oxford
University Press, 1939), 2 vols., I, p. 53.
 Ibid., p. 79.
Silence, Seeing, and Performativity 253

tell a story with your pen, the painter with his brush can tell it more easily,
with simpler completeness, and less tedious to follow. If you call painting dumb
poetry, the painter may call poetry blind painting. Consider, then, which is the
more grievous defect, to be blind or dumb?’19

These somewhat wryly made arguments were widely influential yet the precise
tracks of their dissemination are hard to identify. As Carlo Pedretti has observed,
‘Leonardo’s Paragone must have been known in the sixteenth century at a time
when the comparison of the arts, especially Painting and Sculpture had become
a most fashionable debated theme. And yet, shortly before Lomazzo records it
in 1584, there originated the abridged version of the Treatise on Painting which
omits the whole Paragone. On the other hand, it appears that Benedetto Varchi in
Florence, had known it at the time of his famous questionnaire in 1546’.20 What
made Leonardo’s views especially distinctive is the fact that, of all Renaissance
writers on the arts, he alone compares painting and poetry.21 Writing of Varchi’s
knowledge of Leonardo, Leatrice Mendelsohn has pointed out, ‘We may assume
that by 1547 Leonardo’s opinions were absorbed into the mainstream of the
oral tradition on art, even if they were no longer identifiable as his personal
contribution.’ More generally, Clarke Hulse has shown that the terms of the
paragone were assembled by Italian theorists into a coherent vocabulary, adopted
by painters and humanists throughout Europe: ‘This vocabulary’, Hulse writes, ‘is
the glue holding the arts together in the Renaissance.’22
Sidney’s older friend Hubert Languet once requested a painting of him to make
the long periods when they were apart a little easier to bear. ‘I have’, he wrote, ‘one
engraved on my heart which I always see before my eyes but I implore you not to
think it a burden to indulge my desire: send me your portrait, or bring it with you
when you return’.23 Travelling in Europe in 1573–75, Sidney stopped at Venice
and debated whether to have the work done by Paolo Veronese or Tintoretto. He
chose Veronese and attended his studio on the Calle di Ca’Mocenigo in February
1574. Languet further asked Sidney to allow the inscription of some ‘short verses’
he had composed upon the painting, but Sidney declined. Once he had received
the work, Languet felt it rather poor: ‘it seems to me to be someone resembling
you’. But another friend, Daniel Rogers who visited Languet, said of it, ‘When
I look at that image, so like your own nature, it looks back at me with eloquent

 Ibid., p. 201.
 Carlo Pedretti, Leonardo: A Study in Chronology and Style (London: Thames and
Hudson, 1973), p. 85.
 I owe this point, with gratitude, to Claudia Corti.
  Beatrice Mendelsohn, Paragoni: Benedetto Varchi’s Due Lezzioni and Cinquecento
Art Theory (Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI Research Press, c. 1982), 37. See also Hulse, The Rule
of Art, p. 117.
 Alan Stewart, Philip Sidney: A DoubleLife (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000).
254 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

eyes. But oh, why is it muter than a silent fish, why does it not speak?’24 On his
return to England, Sidney sat for at least three further painters, first it seems
for Cornelis Ketel in 1577, then for an unknown painter in 1578, and lastly for
John de Critz in 1583/84. Sidney would not only have seen many of his uncle’s
paintings at Kenilworth Castle or Leicester House, but quite possibly saw a variety
of Renaissance portraits both at great English houses like Hampton Court, and
on his European travels. The context for Sidney’s engagement with the essential
ideas of the paragone was his stay at Vienna and introduction to the court of
Maximilian II with his friend Edward Wotton. The Defence of Poesy (c. 1579–82,
published 1595) begins with a memory of this Viennese visit. Here, Sidney in
all likelihood saw portraits by Titian, and perhaps by Bartholomaeus Spranger,
newly arrived in Vienna.25
Sidney structured his Defence of Poesy in the manner of a Ciceronian oration.
In his opening ‘narrative’, Sidney argued, much as Thomas Elyot had done in
The Boke named the Governor (1531), that poetry, ‘being the first light-giver to
ignorance’, has always served as ‘first nurse’ to other branches of learning (Sidney
calls them ‘tougher knowledges’).26 Observing the rival claims of philosophy and
history, he insists that ‘the philosophers of Greece durst not a long time appear to
the world but under the masks of poets’, and that ‘even historiographers … have
been glad to borrow both fashion and perchance weight of poets’.27 For Sidney, the
astronomer, geometrician, arithmetician, musician, natural or moral philosopher
and lawyer remain bound to the compass of mere nature. Only the poet, ‘lifted up
with the vigour of his own invention’ and ‘freely ranging within the zodiac of his
own wit’ can ‘grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better
than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature’.28
Struggling between ‘erected wit’ and ‘infected will’, the poet is rightly termed
vates, seer or prophet since ‘with the force of a divine breath he bringeth things
forth far surpassing her [i.e. Nature’s] doings’.29 Thus far, Sidney has outlined in
near systematic terms his own contribution to the ‘comparison of the arts’. But
there follows an intriguing manoeuvre. At this point in his laudation (at the outset
of the ‘proposition’), Sidney defines poetry as essentially a form of imitation,
‘a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth – to speak metaphorically, a

 Clarke Hulse, The Rule of Art: Literature and Painting in the Renaissance (Chicago
and London: Chicago University Press, 1990), p. 117.
  See Katherine Duncan-Jones, ‘Sidney and Titian’ in English Renaissance Studies,
presented to Dame Helen Gardner in honour of her Seventieth Birthday (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1980), pp. 1–11. See also note 35 below.
  Shepherd, (ed.), 96/13–14. Elyot maintained that, ‘poetry was the first philosophy
ever known’, see S.E. Lehmberg (ed.), Sir Thomas Elyot: The Book named The Governor
(London: Dent, 1962), p. 46.
 Ibid., 96/38–97/1, and 97/21–4.
 Ibid., 100/21–5.
 Ibid., 101/22–3, 19–21.
Silence, Seeing, and Performativity 255

speaking picture – with this end, to teach and delight’.30 The formulation draws an
Horatian equivalence between the visual and verbal arts. The painter, however, is
never discussed. Turning to the poet’s ‘other competitors’, Sidney dismisses the
historian as ‘loaden with old mouse-eaten records’ and tied ‘to the particular truth
of things and not to the general reason of things’. He is then similarly disparaging
about the philosopher, who is ‘so misty to be conceived’ because ‘his knowledge
standeth so upon the abstract and general’. A triumphant quill-flourish sees the
‘peerless poet’ rise pre-eminent for achieving ‘a perfect picture’ that ‘coupleth the
general notion with the particular example’.31
Sidney avoids precise distinctions between images, paintings or the pictorial
qualities of words in the Defence of Poesy. He alludes variously to mental imagery,
hypothetical paintings and possibly to real ones too. But he does so with the single
purpose of advancing the case for poetry’s excellence. In Forrest G. Robinson’s
words, ‘Thinking is seeing, and ideas are pictures, but Sidney proposes to
communicate those mental images, not through external pictures, but through the
speaking picture of a poem.’32 Sidney enlists the rhetoric of painting to evoke the
memorable and striking powers of verse:

A perfect picture I say, for he [the poet] yieldeth to the powers of the mind
an image of that whereof the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description,
which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul so much as
that other doth.33

On the one hand, when Sidney asks, ‘whether you had rather have Vespasian’s
picture right as he was, or, at the painter’s pleasure, nothing resembling’ (109/37–
9), he may have in mind a quite imaginary painting, or an actual work, perhaps a
copy of Titian’s Vespasian, as Katherine Duncan-Jones has suggested, or one by any
number of European painters (including Gulio Romano’s The Triumph of Titus and
Vespasian). On the other hand, when referring to the image of the witch Canidia (as
described by Horace), he is clearly imagining a painting rather than invoking a work
he has seen. Sidney’s understanding of the visual arts is diffusely and variedly spread
through his Defence of Poesy, so much so in fact, that its argument for poetry’s
incomparability is shot through with references to visual metaphor: the Psalms of
David offer a ‘heavenly poesy’ that is ‘seen by the eyes of the mind’ (99/18–21);
poets set forth nature as a ‘rich tapestry’ (100/29); ‘Poetry ever setteth virtue so out
in her best colours’ (111/27); the poet ‘doth not only show the way, but giveth so
sweet a prospect’ (113/20–21); the poet ‘doth draw the mind’ better than any other
artist (115/28–9). The poet ‘pictures what should be’ (124/21). Poems name men

 Ibid., 101/33–6.
 Ibid., 105/21, 107/5–7, 106/38, 107/1–2, 107/9–13.
  Forrest G. Robinson, The Shape of Things Known: Sidney’s Apology in its
Philosophical Tradition (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 136.
 Ibid., 107/13–17.
256 Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories

‘but to make their picture more lively’ (124/33). At no point can Sidney’s defence
shed visual language even as he remains pointedly silent about the painter’s art.
It is difficult to imagine that Sidney could have been entirely unaware of
Leonardo’s views as expressed in the Paragone. He evidently took interest in
theories of pictorial representation. Nicholas Hilliard, in his Treatise of the Arte
of Limning (c. 1600), recorded a brief conversation with Sidney about questions
of proportion.34 Katherine Duncan-Jones has suggested that he may have seen
some of Titian’s paintings on his trip to Venice and Vienna in 1573–74 (and even
speculates that he may have visited the ageing master). The suggestion can be
strengthened to a near-certainty. In his account of the painter’s life, Vasari writes
that, ‘Titian also executed portraits of Ferdinand, king of the Romans, who was
later elected emperor, and of his sons, Maximilian (now emperor) and Maximilian’s
brother’.35 Sidney would have seen these paintings when introduced to the court
of Maximilian at Vienna in the winter of 1574. Aware of the paragone, Sidney
mentions Simonides (128/31) and refers to Leonardo’s life-long patron, Francis
I, ‘the great King Francis of France’ (131/15–16), who Vasari tells us, held the
dying artist in his arms in 1519.36 The Defence of Poesy, Forrest G. Robinson has
argued, established a ‘visual epistemology’ as the basis for the greater excellence
of poetry. Sidney’s ‘speaking picture’ metaphor, derived ultimately from Leonardo
and, before him, Simonides, effectively collapses distinction between the two arts,
regarding them equally as a means to the same moral end – that is, the clothing
of virtue with beauty.37 What should by now be clear is that Sidney’s argument
for poetry rests upon a prior case for the supremacy of painting advanced by
Leonardo. As Leonard Barkan remarks in his study of ekphrastic deception in
Shakespeare, ‘What is most interesting for our purposes in the Sidney passage,
however, is the competitor who is not mentioned, that is the visual artist’.38 This
silence seems telling.

Shakespeare and the Paragone

Shakespeare engaged with these debates but added a new twist: he was a poet
who favoured the art of painting and deprecated the powers of words. He first
addresses the terms of the paragone in his poems, especially in The Rape of
Lucrece (1594) and Sonnets (published 1609). In the latter, the group of sonnets

  See Hulse, 115–56. See also, H.R. Woudhuysen’s entry for ‘Sir Philip Sidney’ in
DNB (25522).
  George Bull (trans. and sel.), Giorgio Vasari: The Lives of the Artists
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 456.
 Ibid., p. 270.
 Robinson, pp. 137–204.
  Leonard Barkan, ‘Making Pictures Speak: Renaissance Art, Elizabethan Literature,
Modern Scholarship’, Renaissance Quarterly, 48, 2 (Summer 1995): pp. 326–51.
Silence, Seeing, and Performativity 257

deemed earliest – those mainly addressed to the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ – noticeably
lack vocabulary relating to the visual arts. Colin Burrow, the sonnets’ latest editor,
follows Macdonald P. Jackson’s arguments from rare-word analysis in dating
these sonnets to 1591–95. In contrast, sonnets 1–126, which seem