Battista Guarini Essay - Critical Essays


Italian pastoral drama , generally speaking, deals with a world separated from history. It is an escape into another, more primitive world. It presents also a subworld, or a symbolic world, very much in line with the ideology of the particular culture. Although any kind of classification is somewhat arbitrary, historically one can say that the literary tradition of the pastoral spans more than two centuries, beginning with Il ninfale d’Ameto (1341-1342; also known as Commedia delle ninfe), by Giovanni Boccaccio and reaching a high point in The Faithful Shepherd. The pastoral covers the time from the autumn of the Middle Ages to the crisis of the Renaissance or the beginning of the Baroque age. Even a cursory look at this tradition must include a few milestones, such as Angelo Poliziano’s Orfeo (pr. c. 1480; English translation, 1879; also known as Orpheus), a lyric pastoral with dramatic forms of sacra rappresentazione; and Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia (1504), a romance alternating pastoral eclogues with narrative prose. It was in the first half of the sixteenth century, however, that Italian pastoral drama grew through the study of Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) and Greek tragedy. Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio (who also wrote a pastoral drama, Egle, pr. 1545), with his treatise Discorso sopra il comporre le satire atte alla scena (1554; on the composition of satires fit for the stage), was the first to pose the question of the mixture of tragedy and comedy. This form was perfected by Tasso’s Aminta (pr. 1573; English translation, 1591), and by Guarini’s The Faithful Shepherd, the crowning jewels of Italian pastoral drama.

The Faithful Shepherd

The setting of The Faithful Shepherd is Arcadia, the pastoral world par excellence, which is subject to a long-standing curse caused by an unfaithful nymph, Lucrina, who had provoked the death of her beloved shepherd, Aminta. This sin must be atoned for annually by the Arcadians through the sacrifice of a virgin to Diana. Also, the law of the land establishes that any woman who breaks her promise to a lover should be killed. The oracle has prophesied to the people:

Your woe shall end when two of Race DivineLove shall combine:And for a faithless Nymph’s apostate stateA faithful Shepherd supererogate.

The only two people who can end the curse are Silvio and Amarilli, both of divine origin. Their nuptials are wished for by all Arcadia and are prepared by their parents. Yet, typical of pastoral situations, Silvio, who is loved by Dorinda, is not in love with Amarilli and despises love: He is a worshiper of Diana, the goddess of hunting, not of Venus. Amarilli, always a champion of honor and modesty, is secretly in love with Mirtillo, who came to Arcadia only for her and who wants to see her to confess his love. Mirtillo, however, is also loved by Corisca, a scheming, libertine nymph who does her best to destroy her rival, Amarilli. In fact, in order to disguise the real goals of her actions, Corisca brings about a meeting between Mirtillo and Amarilli. Later, however, she persuades Amarilli to enter a cave where she might catch Silvio with another woman. This would give Amarilli a chance to break her promise to Silvio and be free to love Mirtillo. Mirtillo, thanks to Corisca’s machinations, also enters the cave with the intention of catching Amarilli with another man and of publicly denouncing her.

The two lovers are discovered together by the guards, and according to the law, Amarilli must be put to death for breaking her faith to Silvio. Mirtillo prevents this by offering himself in place of the virgin, and the substitution is accepted. The priest Montano is about to perform the execution when it is discovered that Mirtillo is the son of Montano and thus of divine origin, and that Mirtillo’s real name is Silvio. The blind soothsayer Tirenio announces that the words spoken by the oracle have been fulfilled: By marrying Amarilli, Mirtillo-Silvio, the faithful shepherd of divine origin, will free Arcadia. The other Silvio finally falls in love with and marries Dorinda. Corisca, in the end, repents and is forgiven.

When Guarini called The Faithful Shepherd a pastoral tragicomedy, he wanted to stress that it is a combination of tragic and comic motifs within the framework of the pastoral genre. Even before the publication of his work, Guarini had to defend this notion against the negative criticism of sixteenth century commentators of Aristotle’s Poetics. Beginning in 1587, the legitimacy of tragicomic poetry was questioned by Giasone De Nores, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Padua. De Nores asserted that Aristotle never talked about tragicomedy or pastoral and called the former a monstrous composition and the latter an illicit amplification of the eclogue into a comedy or tragedy with unlikely characters: shepherds who reason like princes or philosophers. Guarini answered with Il verato (1588) and Il verato secondo (1593), two polemical treatises named after a famous actor of the day.

Later, in his Compendio della poesia tragicomica (1601; compendium of tragicomic poetry), Guarini became the most thorough theoretician of the pastoral as a dramatic genre. Deriving from Aristotle the justification for his work, Guarini defined tragicomedy as “a fusion of all tragic and comic parts that with likelihood and decorum can stay together under a single dramatic form.” Tragicomedy borrows from tragedy...

(The entire section is 2380 words.)