Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991
By the time of Pietro Aretino, the Italian Renaissance had become overripe. It would be another half-century or more before England’s attitudes and culture reached a similar stage of decadence, but the Italians were already experiencing a decline.
With the new concentration upon the world of mortal life, casting aside considerations for the afterlife, it was inevitable that pleasure should come to be regarded as the major purpose of life. Power was important, of course, as Nicolò Machiavelli attested, but, as always, the product of power was pleasure, even if it was only the pleasure of exerting control over one’s contemporaries.
Aretino, though he ridicules lechery in this play, is known for his own indulgence in excesses of sensuality. Perhaps that is why he does not excoriate sexual liberties nearly so sharply as he does the inhumanities of court politics. Those who are clever but lacking in wisdom and compassion have always enjoyed clambering over their fellows in their attempts to gain tactical advantage. Aretino seems to have recognized this at an early stage in his life, while discovering also the efficacy of his vituperative pen. The son of a prostitute, he could not rely on kindness or justice from such a world to make his life bearable. It would be difficult to believe that anyone, finding himself living the life of a servant as described by Rosso in act 5, would not seize any available means of moving to a position offering more pleasure and power (as Aretino’s writings moved him). Aretino’s poison pen is often amusing, sometimes distasteful, occasionally boring, but, given the circumstances, it is always understandable.
Rome, the setting of the play, is as much the butt of Aretino’s jokes as are courtly politics. Indeed, Rome and the life at court seem inextricably bound together in the author’s mind, perhaps because he was himself nearly murdered once as a result of court intrigues surrounding the Papacy. He appears to have adopted Venice instead as his home, lavishing his praise upon that city in act 3, and, at tiresome length, upon some of its citizens. The names of those receiving his encomiums did not simply pop into Aretino’s head unbidden; aside from those few, like Titian, who seem to have been his friends, he carefully praises those who can be of use to him. He is often quite forthright about this, at one point even going so far as to cause a character to mention his name and his hopes. The fact that such tactics were immensely successful reminds the observer that whereas Aretino’s life may have had an offensive odor about it, so did his age.
Although he was neither a great dramatist nor a great poet, Aretino displays great ability to mingle several dialects, assigning different ones to different characters and relishing especially those vigorous speech patterns associated with the illiterate and the poor. At times, the delight his characters show in the scatological can be entertaining.
He seems uninterested in, or incapable of, weaving circumstances of credibility into his characters’ entrances and exits or into their shifts in conversational subjects. Often characters simply announce that the subject will change. In many instances the author flings personages on stage and then plucks them off again with no rationale other than the exigencies of his plot.
Only once in the play does he reach the heights of bitter wisdom scaled regularly by the Jacobeans, and that is when Maco catechizes Andrea on life: Maco: Tell me, how does one come into the world, Maestro? Andrea: Through a cave. . . . . . . . . . . . . Maco: But what happens when a man is through living? Andrea: He dies in a hole as spiders do.
These lines, with their gothic imagery and cynical accuracy, might easily have excited the envy of John Webster.
One recognizes in The Courtesan the topsy-turvy world picture painted so often by other Renaissance dramatists and moralists. Servants here, as elsewhere, are insolent and presumptuous with their masters, and their masters are lustful, foolish, and purblind. When Rosso dupes Parabolano, his deceit being exposed only in the last scene, this bears a similarity to the comedies of Ben Jonson, especially to his Volpone (1605). Mosca is a much more fully drawn character, wittier and more alive, but there are definite debts owed by Jonson to just such Italian comedies as this one. If there were nothing else in Aretino to attract Jonson’s attention, the Italian’s acidic wit would most probably have impressed the Englishman as emanating from a kindred spirit.
Rosso’s argument that the way to advancement is through pandering to the lusts of the powerful has echoes in Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (pr. 1606-1607, pb. 1607) and in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (pr. 1614, pb. 1623). Perhaps a more revealing, if less definite, parallel lies in Andrea’s tutoring of Maco in the art of being a courtier. The tutor-pupil relationship has great dramatic potential for satire on the subject taught, and Aretino makes use of this potential, as does William Shakespeare in As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600, pb. 1623) when Rosalind, in disguise, instructs Orlando on the many aspects of love. Admittedly, Rosalind is much less harsh in her criticism of lovers and ladies than is Andrea on courtiers and fops, but Andrea’s subject is more deserving of acrimony. In addition, Rosalind is the future beneficiary of her precepts; she is dressing a husband, while Andrea is simply plucking a chicken.
Aretino is noted for his realism, sometimes described as “unpleasant.” The Courtesan contains many examples of realism, among which are the hawking of “histories” in act 1, the selling of lampreys, and the description of meal-taking in the servants’ quarters. It is the last that exemplifies the sort of realism that earned the adjective “unpleasant,” but it is worth remembering that few realists have escaped the adjective. Aretino, though inconsistent, is in the main a true realist.