Italian Culture in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: Rewriting, Remaking, Refashioning

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Italian Culture in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: Rewriting, Remaking, Refashioning. Edited by Michele Marrapodi. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007. Illus. Pp. xv + 286. $99.95 cloth.

Reviewed by

Fernando Cioni
Shakespeare Quarterly

Volume 61, Number 2, Summer 2010

E-ISSN: 1538-3555 Print ISSN: 0037-3222

DOI: 10.1353/shq.0.0139

This volume of essays is the natural sequel to Marrapodi's earlier collection Shakespeare, Italy, and Intertextuality (2004). Following Keir Elam's suggestion that "'Renaissance Italy tout court [is] a great cultural intertext for Shakespeare and his contemporaries'" (255), Marrapodi's new collection challenges traditional views of Anglo-Italian transactions. The old idea of a borrowed source should be replaced by an investigation of "the multifarious ways of exploiting Italianate discourses," including the "questions of ideological appropriation, involving an array of issues and responses subjected to a process of political negotiation, confrontation, and opposition" (3). The main focus is no longer the Elizabethans' capacity to adapt Italian sources "but the ways in which the otherness of Italy and the politics of resistance that it implies works on the ideological construction of Renaissance drama" (4–5). The essays analyze, some more insightfully and convincingly than others, early modern English drama "from within the context of three broad categories of cultural and ideological appropriation: the rewriting, remaking, and refashioning of the iconic, thematic, historical and literary aspects of the Italian Renaissance influencing the production of English theatrical tradition" (5).

In the book's first section, "Rewriting Italian Prose and Drama," Louise George Clubb argues that early modern dramatists not only ransacked narrative lines from the novella tradition but also combined them with "theatregrams" (16) taken from the vast repertory of Italian Renaissance comedy.1 Clubb believes that Polonius's speech on the actors alludes to the contrast "between scripted five-act plays observing the rules (the 'writ') and improvised three-act performances from [End Page 274] a canevaccio or scenario (the 'liberty')," characterizing Italian pastoral drama (15; see Hamlet, 2.2.401).2 Clubb demonstrates how Shakespeare, in the construction of romantic comedies and romances, drew upon a wide selection of favole (fables) and pastorali (pastorals) in the form of both "writ" and "liberty." Marrapodi offers a wide-ranging analysis of theatregrams and "narremes" that move from Italian Renaissance conduct and courtesy books and from novelistic literature to romantic comedies. He considers the dramaturgical method behind the construction of such plays as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, maintaining that Shakespeare's heterogeneous blend of comedic material is based on an intertextual rewriting and refashioning of novelistic, theatrical, and cultural Italian traditions. Robert Henke and Nina da Vinci Nichols explore the connections between Shakespeare and commedia dell'arte. Henke analyzes theatregrams in Hamlet, with particular focus on the hybridism resulting from the reliance upon the Italian world of scripted playacting and commedia dell'arte. He emphasizes that Polonius's speech on theater is reminiscent of the improvisational exchange of the commedia dell'arte and that it "carries the erudition of the 'writ,' but its compositional style bespeaks the 'liberty'" (70). Ophelia's entrance in the madness scene in Q1 Hamlet resembles the mad scene in Italian scenarios, where the lute was commonly used by actresses such as Isabella Andreini, "who could easily offend with bawdy songs and gestures" (80). The topoi of the dream, the role of supernatural sprites, and the recognition game are the emphasis of da Vinci Nichols's analysis of the master-servant relationship in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. She provides wide-ranging examples from the two plays, where Puck and Ariel serve as harlequins to their masters Oberon and Prospero. She argues that it is in The Tempest where "dreams, sprites, and the master-servant game of recognition find their culminating form" (146).

The second section, "Remaking Italian Myths and Culture," opens with Keir Elam's insightful analysis "'At the cubiculo': Shakespeare's Problems with Italian Language and Culture." John Florio's Second Fruits (1591) was Shakespeare's "tourist guide" to Italy (100). Far from being ignorant of Italian geography and culture, Shakespeare found everything he needed in Florio, whose First Fruits (1578) is quoted in Italian by Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost. Elam calls this rapport between Shakespearean comedy and Florio's dictionary "interlexical relations" (107), where interlexicality is "a form of micro-intertextuality where a dialogic relationship is set up within a single word, due to competing meanings or competing cultural connotations deriving from two languages and two texts that engage with each other within the space of a given lexical item" (107). Elam gives examples of these interlexical relations from The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Twelfth Night.

The Merchant of Venice and the myth of Venice are central to the contributions by J. R. Mulryne and John Drakakis. Mulryne focuses on the play's historical accuracy [End Page 275] and documentation, providing examples on how important historical events are in the foreground of The Merchant of Venice. Drakakis looks at The Merchant of Venice and Othello as derivative plays, arguing (if not always convincingly) that they share a common thread of ideological and political confrontation: the "two Venetian plays both represent, and maintain a critical distance from venice" and "interrogate and challenge existing elements of the received 'myth'" (172). Claudia Corti explores the refashioning of the Oedipal hero from Plutarch's Martius to Shakespeare's Coriolanus, suggesting that Martius has a psychologically erotic dependence on his mother. Coriolanus is immediately characterized by his sexual abstinence that "satisfies most of the characteristic English Renaissance political requirements" (190). Sexuality and political leadership are perceived as incompatible categories, and Volumnia emphasizes this incompatibility when "she suggests the ideological interconnection between chastity and political leadership" at 1.3.24–25 (192). Subjugated by his mother, Coriolanus is deprived of any sexual strength. The war against Rome is his last attempt to be free from his Oedipal dependence, while his "final and fatal surrendering to his mother" is the tragic acknowledgment of his failure (193). In the end, Corti notes, "whatever the circumstances, the ending of subversive sexuality, either Oedipal or homosexual, must be death" (195).

Victoria Scala Wood and Michael J. Redmond analyze The Tempest from two different perspectives. The former explores the play in terms of ceremonial power, emphasizing how The Tempest "questions the uses of hierarchical power, possession, and potency while it dramatizes the link between stagecraft and statecraft in the spectacle of Prospero's rule: the perfect blend of political opportunism and theatrical cunning" (200). Redmond sets the play in its Jacobean theatrical and ideological contexts, connecting Prospero's political strategy to regain his dukedom to those scheming and disguised rulers we find in the plays of Marston, Middleton, and Beaumont, which belong to the Italianate tragicomic subgenre so popular on the early Jacobean stage.

The remaining essays in this collection explore a range of topics and texts on the themes of rewriting, remaking, and refashioning. Frances K. Barasch focuses on Falstaff and Harlequin to connect "harlotry players" to the itinerary jesters and to commedia dell'arte (27). The late Adam Max Cohen sees Prince Hal, in Henry V, as a complex Italianate figure, constructed on Baldassare Castiglione's ideal courtier. Jill Phillips Ingram pays particular attention to George Gascoigne's treatment of dissimulation and role-playing in Supposes, especially the marginal notes to the play printed in the 1575 edition of The Posies, which clarify his changes from Ariosto's original. Lisa Hopkins explores the connection between Sir John Harington's version of Orlando Furioso and several Shakespeare plays; in particular, she finds "a marked similarity of tone between Harington's Ariosto and Troilus and Cressida" that "echoes and muses on the 'coterie' quality" of the Italian poem" (131, 130). Hopkins convincingly demonstrates that this assimilation of Italian culture blends with the question of the Poets' War. The dramatic structure of Marston's Malcontent clearly has Italian [End Page 276] models, in particular, Guarini's tragicomedy, Jason Lawrence shows. Lawrence's close analysis of the play displays a number of thematic derivations and linguistic borrowings from the 1602 translation of Guarini's Il Pastor Fido. Middleton's supposed misogyny is questioned by Celia R. Daileader, who, studying Middleton's refashioning of Pietro Aretino's Ragionamenti, demonstrates how the dramatist had an extraordinary ability to comprehend female nature. In the final essay, Giorgio Melchiori suggests "a different view of the relationship between Italian culture and Elizabethan drama" (241), arguing that Romeo and Juliet is structured as a poetic drama. Melchiori gives a close reading of Juliet's presumed death, interpreting it in musical terms and emphasizing how Shakespeare used that scene as an operatic technique.

This collection—the third Marrapodi has edited on the intertextual relations between Shakespeare and Italy—represents a step forward in assessing Anglo-Italian literary and cultural relationships in early modern English drama. These essays give us a new perspective on the countries' literary and cultural exchange in the Renaissance, no longer merely studies of the sources, locations, and intertextual relations, but scrutinies of the ideological construction of the early modern dramatic texts, where the otherness of Italy works, in Elam's words, as "a generative machine producing powerful models—cultural models, political models, ideological models, iconographic models, behavioural models and so on—which could be freely taken up and transformed by the early modern English."3

Fernando Cioni  

Fernando Cioni teaches English literature at the University of Florence. With Keir Elam, he coedited A Civil Conversation: Anglo-Italian Literary and Cultural Exchange in the Renaissance and, with Virginia Mason Vaughan and Jacquelyn Bessell, Speaking Pictures: The Visual / Verbal Nexus of Dramatic Performance. He is working on a book entitled Performing Jewishness on the British Stage: 1500–1800 and a bilingual edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

1. "Theatregrams" are the "interchange and transformation of units, figures, relationships, actions, topoi, and framing patterns"; see Louise George Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time (New Haven: Yale UP, 1989), 6.

2. Quotations of Shakespeare's works follow The Riverside Shakespeare, 2d ed., gen. ed. G. Blake-more Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

3. Keir Elam, "Afterword: Italy as Intertext," in Shakespeare, Italy, and Intertextuality, ed. Michele Marrapodi (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004), 253–58, esp. 255

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