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 contrast with the ugly tyrannical powers that rule the world, but against which they rebel and succumb. This basic theme is characteristic of all his tragedies, although tyranny can appear in various forms. In the so-called tragedies of liberty, such as Virginia, Timoleon, The Conspiracy of the Pazzi, The First Brutus, and The Second Brutus, the struggle is against political tyranny, in which Alfieri sanctifies tyrannicide. Paternal tyranny brings about death to the noble sons in Phillip II and Don Garzia. Octavia is a victim of Nero, her cruel husband. Antigone is crushed by a terribly destiny, while Saul and Myrrha face a supernatural power: Saul must yield his throne to David, as is the will of God interpreted by the high priests, and Myrrha falls victim to the vengeance of Venus, goddess of love.
In nineteenth century Italy, Alfieri’s tragedies of liberty were preferred on account of their political message, since Italians were striving for freedom and unification. In Virginia, Alfieri chose a grandiose and terrifying episode taken from Roman history. Virginia, daughter of the respected soldier Virginius and his wife, Numitoria, is bride to Icilius, a former tribune, but is desired by Appius, chief of the Decemvirs governing Rome. Appius, unable to seduce the virtuous girl, orders his henchman, Marcus, to abduct her. Marcus claims that Virginia is his former slave taken by Numitoria and appeals for arbitration to the Roman law. With fearless courage, the two virtuous heroes, Virginius and Icilius, denounce tyranny, but they are betrayed and lose their battle. Icilius, rather than accept disgrace, stabs himself to death. Virginius, seeing that all is lost, kills his own daughter before the passive Roman people, who, moved by this utmost example of virtue, rebel against Appius and overcome him and his followers. Here the classical beauty of the virtuous, austerely noble characters, typical of Alfieri’s heroes, seems somewhat artificial. The evil characters lack individuality but fit the Alfierian scheme. There is also in this tragedy an implicit criticism of the nobility for its abuses and excesses—a criticism that Alfieri, as a nobleman himself, could make without being dismissed as merely envious.
In Timoleon, derived from Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579), the protagonist is even more idealized, and the plot is complicated by the fact that the antagonist is the hero’s brother, Timophanes, who is about to seize absolute power in the city of Corinth. The action of the play is actually based on dramatic dialogue expressing opposing ideals; in addition to the two brothers, the principal characters are their mother, Demariste, and Aeschylus, Timophanes’ brother-in-law. Timophanes loves his brother, but he cannot comprehend the latter’s love of liberty and offers to share his new powers with him, which is not acceptable to the hero. Yet at the end, before he is slain by Aeschylus, Timophanes recognizes his brother’s ideal and forgives all those plotting against him, thus from tyrant becoming human again.
The Conspiracy of the Pazzi
With The Conspiracy of the Pazzi, Alfieri turned to a relatively modern period: 1478, and the revolt led by Raymond of the Pazzi family against the Medici, rulers of Florence, in which Lorenzo managed to save himself while his younger brother Julian was slain. In the play, Raymond, who is plotting against the two tyrants, is married to Bianca, sister to the two Medici brothers, but keeps her in the dark. He and his father form a unity against the two tyrants, who also complement each other, almost reducing the number of characters. Concentration, however, is on the tragic figure of Raymond, while Bianca provides relief from the ferocity of the action with her personal drama of a woman seen as sister, wife, and mother. In this tragedy, Alfieri succeeded in making his republican hero more human by having him agonize over what will happen to his wife and children if the plot should fail. The result is a new pathos in a play in which the...
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