Scholars of Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio’s work have long argued about his position in literary history. His major literary activity came at mid-century, at the time of the Council of Trent. Some see him as a classicist who continues the humanism of the beginning of the century; others find in the religious, moralizing element of his writing a reflection of the post-Tridentine program and in his theory of mixed genres and his modern reinterpretations of the ancients an anticipation of the Baroque.
The tragedy Orbecche, which launched Giraldi Cinthio’s career as a dramatist, established the formal model to which he returned in all of his tragedies, even those with happy endings. It stands alone, however, as a horror drama, for none of the plays that followed it depended as it did on horror to produce catharsis.
The action of Orbecche is close to the plot of one of Giraldi Cinthio’s short stories, which is in turn a version of Boccaccio’s tragic tale of Ghismonda and Tancredi, in Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620). A background story of incest and murder is told in the first act by Nemesis, the Furies, and the ghost of Selina, the slain wife of Sulmone. Selena, executed by the king for incest with their eldest son, had been unwittingly denounced by their very young daughter Orbecche and now wants revenge. With the second act, the action proper begins. Orbecche has married Oronte secretly for love. They have had two children, but Sulmone has been told nothing of it, since Oronte, who is of noble origin, is thought to be a commoner and, therefore, an inappropriate match for the princess. Sulmone arranges a political marriage for his daughter, and the couple is forced to act. Orbecche is fearful because she knows her father’s character, but Oronte believes the king will forgive them, and they decide to confess. Sulmone pretends to pardon them but, outraged by the affront, plans a terrible revenge. He mutilates Oronte, kills the children, then the father, and finally presents the “precious gift” of their mutilated bodies to Orbecche—Oronte’s severed head and hands and the bodies of the children, with knives in the chest of one, and knives in the throat of the other. Orbecche too feigns, asks for forgiveness, and seizes the opportunity to kill the unsuspecting Sulmone. Then she kills herself. The slaughter of Oronte and his sons is recounted by a messenger, but their mutilated bodies are brought onstage. Onstage Orbecche fondles the head of her dead husband, and then proceeds with the rest of the bloody slaughter; the murder of Sulmone is hidden from the audience’s view, but it is narrated by a semi-chorus, and Orbecche’s suicide is in full view. Such gruesome events, which in Seneca were recounted, are staged by Giraldi Cinthio, who intended the horror of them to elicit compassion in the audience and thereby bring about the catharsis.
The action of this, and of all Giraldi Cinthio’s plays, transpires during the course of a single day. He did not concern himself with unity of place, and in some of his plays, the action moves around widely (from battlefield, for example, to private chamber). He believed that if the plot were good, it had the important kind of unity of action imparted to it by the artist’s conception; this departure from Aristotle allowed him to defend the episodic narration of Ariosto’s romance and to justify the double plot for tragedy.
Not the story but certain aspects of its presentation are modeled on Seneca’s Thyestes (c. 40-55 c.e.; English translation, 1581): the prologue spoken by divinities and a ghost in act 1, the horrors of the final act, and the use of a messenger to narrate offstage events. A discussion between Sulmone and his counselor Malecche, in which the latter tries to persuade the king of clemency, derives from a similar scene between Seneca and Nero in Octavia. The lyric choruses at the close of each act are also Senecan, as is the theme of tyranny versus clemency, while nobility of lineage is a theme of the dolce stil nuovo that is central to Boccaccio’s short story. The first prologue, detached from the play, which serves to present the views of the author and the circumstances of the play, was taken from the prologues of Terence and his Italian...
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