Vittorio Alfieri’s nineteen tragedies were written between 1775 and 1786. They all underwent three stages of composition: first a division of subject matter into five acts, then the writing of prose dialogue, and finally versification. Moreover, they were all revised by the author for the definite and complete edition that appeared in Paris between 1787 and 1789. Alfieri strictly applied the rules of the classical theater, never transgressing the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. Indeed, he carried the unity of action to an extreme through frequent use of monologues and the elimination of all secondary events, including the traditional narration to or by confidants, so as not to distract the spectator, who must concentrate fully on the rapidly unfolding catastrophe centered on the protagonist. The first and the fifth acts are very short. Moreover, the last act emphasizes the action of death and keeps the dying hero’s (or heroine’s) speech to a bare minimum.
Alfieri, true to eighteenth century classical tradition, did not invent any subjects for his tragedies. He based them on three sources only: antiquity, the Bible, and European history. He did, however, modify historical or mythological events to suit his artistic needs, thus giving an originality all his own to well-known stories. His main characters, full of virtues, are sublime heroes and heroines, incapable of even one low thought. Their perfection brings them into acute...
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