Critical Evaluation

Ludovico Ariosto, best known for his epic poem masterpiece Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591), wrote many other works. His four comedies include The Pretenders. There are two basic versions of The Pretenders: The first was a prose edition, produced in Ferrara in 1509 and enacted in the ducal palace, and the second was reworked in verse and performed ten years later in Rome for Pope Leo X. The story and action of both versions are the same, but the second, versified one is more developed. The dialogue is more intricate at times, and central figures have more depth.

Comedy emerged in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries as a major form of dramatic literature in Italy, and Ariosto was a crucial element in its popularity and in its influence on literature in other European countries. The Pretenders was written and debuted not only in a thriving, leading center of Italian theater but also at the theater’s zenith.

Ariosto was a poet and humanist employed in the service of several members of the politically dominant Este family in Ferrara during the early sixteenth century. In addition to his administrative duties, he found time for study and composition. The works that resulted were written for his courtly audience, and, because of his ties with the court, his works were also performed publicly. His minor works include his comedies, and he quickly earned a reputation as a skilled composer who was able not only to provide entertainment but also to incorporate into his plays his acquaintance with Renaissance humanistic studies of classical (ancient) literature.

Ariosto’s reflection of classical Roman literature is known as erudite comedy; it is a style based on the poet’s familiarity with and conscious imitation of ancient works. The Pretenders mirrors a story used by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus in his Menaechmi (pr. second century b.c.e.; English translation, 1595). The action in both plays involves mistaken identities and humorous situations, and, eventually, all players become aware of the true identities of one another—which results in a happy resolution of the confused situation. Ariosto also drew on Plautus’s other plays and on the works of another Roman author, Terence, for formation of some of the characters and incidents in The Pretenders.

Italian critics have tended to dismiss erudite comedy as...

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