The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation by Peter France 28 Introduction


Transporting Tragicomedy: Commedia dell’Arte



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3.4 Transporting Tragicomedy: Commedia dell’Arte


That both pastoral and tragicomedy influenced English dramatists is without doubts – but the ways of “transforming tragicomedy” from Italy to England are a subject to explore, as does Robert Henke in “Transporting Tragicomedy: Shakespeare and the Magical Pastoral of the Commedia dell’Arte”. In this essay Henke wants to prove that commedia dell’arte was as important for this transportation as were the Italian dramatists, Guarini and Tasso. He argues that Shakespeare was aware of the commedia dell’arte and that there are many similarities in “dramaturgy, generic configuration, and theatrical systems” (Henke 43) between plots of the commedia and of some of Shakespeare’s plays. There were several ways how an English playwright could get in touch with modern genres from Italy: there were many Italians who lived in London (e.g. John Florio); Englishmen travelled to Italy; fellow actors got to perform together with Italian actors – e.g. Will Kemp; and there were other playwrights who were aware of the modern genres and could provide information about them – e.g. Thomas Nashe or Ben Jonson. Some of the English authors combined, according to Italian practice, tragicomedy and pastoral, but more often they used only the tragicomedy. Influenced by the fame of Tasso and Guarini, many critics thought that they were the main source for English tragicomedies, but after examining the whole theatrical practice in Italy it was revealed that Tasso’s and Guarini’s plays were “unrepresentative” of Italian theatre in general (Henke 45). Most pastoral tragicomedies performed by both professional actors and amateurs differ from Tasso and Guarini mainly by “embodying a fuller range of action than characterises Tasso’s narratively based play, or lacking the heavy Sophoclean substructure and theoretical apparatus of Guraini’s pastoral” (Henke 43). Henke even states that the plays by commedia dell’arte were closer to Shakespeare than to Tasso or Guarini. But what Shakespeare and commedia dell’arte have in common with Guarini is that they understood his principle that “genres and their elements were pliant creative materials rather than essential forms” (Henke 47) – which means that combining various elements of different genres (characters, mood, settings, effect on the audience) is valuable and not at all should be restricted. However, this generic complexity was typical also for classical authors (such as Euripides) and because of the development of Italian drama through translating and imitating the classical drama, it is often difficult to find out whether the origins of a play are classical or Italian – while “most of Shakespeare’s comedies show the influence of Italy and many of them are dependent, in part at least, on Italian novella and comedies” (Kaufman 10), it is also “probable that a great many comedies believed to be dependent on Plautus or Terence are in reality either translations or imitations of Italian plays” (Kaufman 10).

The Italian influence was not restricted only to larger units such as a whole genre – there is also one particular feature that was transported from Italy to England – intermedii, or, in England, dumb shows. It was a practice of the Italian court drama – “inserting allegorical representations between the acts” (Cunliffe 5). The intermedii preceded the vernacular drama in Italy. They consisted of, for example, various Morris dances or mythological gods with nymphs or Muses. These dumb shows were added to all comedies and to some tragedies in Italy and they became so popular that many members of the audience – including such supporters of the arts as Isabella Gonzaga (d’Este), the patron of Ariosto – were going to see the plays only because of the intermedii. Later in the siteenth century there was even a criticism claiming that instead of the intermedii being written to fit the plays it was the other way around. The intermedii were also popular among foreigners who did not understand the language – because these shows were “dumb” they made impression on them as much as on the Italian audience. Cunliffe in “The Influence of Italian on Early Elizabethan Drama” praises English playwrights who made the dumb shows even more interesting by “confining” them “to tragedy, and connecting the allegory closely with the plot” – they gave them thus “greater usefulness and significance” (5).



Even in Italy were the dramatic troupes originally all-male, but in 1560s first actresses appeared and while “all-male theatre appears to have in fact privileged comedy and physical farce” the actresses “broadened the generic repertoire” (Henke 47). Vincenza Armani and “Flaminia” were two rival troupe-leaders from this period and they “brought the high literary registers, musical skills, and familiarity with fashionable genres such as pastoral into the mix of the commedia dell’arte” (Henke 47) and thus changed their performance for ever. Henke states that it was the women, as Armani, who made pastoral “affectively” tragicomic (Henke 48) – they aimed at “a sweet smile rather than the raucous belly laugh of unadulterated comedy, the pathos elicited by false death rather than the terror aroused by the irrevocable death of tragedy, a register of melos and amorous sentiment poised halfway between the two generic extremes” (Henke 48). The fact the English writers were acknowledged with the existence of actresses is known from “Thomas Norton’s 1574 denunciation of female performers” (Henke 44). It seems that the English playwrights and critics were interested rather in technical parts of the Italian theatre than in women’s influence on the performance – but at the same time, if they were critical to the fact that women were performing on stage, it does not mean that they were critical to those assets the actresses brought to commedia dell’arte or that they were aware of them at all – so the actresses influenced the English drama by bringing the female elements (sentiment) to the male theatre of mainly “comedy and physical farce”.



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