(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Ludovico Ariosto was a dramaturge as well as a poet, his drama has long been obscured by the well-deserved fame of his epic masterpiece. The chief reason for this traditional slighting of Ariosto’s drama, however, probably lies in the five comedies’ supposedly excessive reliance on Roman models for their plots, themes, and characters. (Although Virginio Ariosto wrote that his father “was not very studious and searched for few books,” Ariosto’s dramatic works demonstrate a thorough knowledge of Plautus and Terence; similarly, his Cinque canti of 1545 is proof of his extensive familiarity with Cicero, Ovid, Statius, Horace, and Catullus.) Roman comedy typically included stock characters (such as domineering and/or aged fathers, furtive young lovers, scheming slaves, and swaggering soldiers) and love affairs (full of mistaken identities, disguises, tricks, and reversals), and employed a prologue, versification, and many monologues and asides. Unquestionably, numerous parallels to classical comedy exist in Ariosto’s dramatic corpus (and, although generally unacknowledged, in much modern European comedy as well). The crucial point here is that the Italian dramatist fully intended that the classical influences should shine through his text even to the cursory reader or casual observer. His primary goal was the creation or establishment of a tradition of learned comedy. Any analysis, however, that emphasizes only classical sources and analogues invariably negates much of the originality of the comedies, regrettably neglects much of the social commentary in the plays, and usually overlooks any evolution from the first to the last play, all of which frequently discourages a close examination of the influence of Ariosto’s work on the later cinquecento comedy. These aspects—especially the question of originality—are issues that should be considered in any assessment of Ariosto’s contribution to the dramatic genre.

The view, shared by critic Franceso De Sanctis and others, that Ariosto’s plays are unoriginal and lacking in freshness is a criticism not easily dismissed, but one that nevertheless misses the point of what Ariosto was attempting to achieve in his drama. It fails in large part to take into account the nature of the vernacular dramatist’s task at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the composition of erudite comedies, Ariosto was intent on re-creating a classical literary genre in his native tongue, and such a feat required him to draw extensively on popular Plautine and Terentian models. In the prologue to The Pretenders, he even states his desire “to imitate the celebrated classical poets as much as possible, not only in the form of their plays, but also in the content.” He refers to this action as “poetic imitation rather than plagiarism”; consequently, it should be considered in the spirit of Renaissance imitatio. Just as Latin playwrights made use of Greek writers to create a viable Roman theater, Ariosto drew on the Latin tradition in order to initiate an Italian dramatic repertory. His role, therefore, was that of a pivotal adapter and initiator and, as such, was not totally devoid of originality. Even as he imitated, he made important modifications and innovations in order to reflect and comment on Ferrarese society and Italian courtly life. (His comments range from remarks on ducal penalties for poaching to statements on the vanity of women, the latter of which constitute a repeated theme.) Furthermore, although debts to Plautus and Terence are immediately apparent in the first two plays, they become progressively less evident in the later plays as the number of contemporary allusions increases and as ubiquitous classical prototypes are transformed into ever more realistic individuals. As Edmond M. Beame and Leonard G. Sbrocchi note in the introduction to their 1975 translation of the plays, with each successive play, Ariosto “became more daring and more original, introducing comic characters that never had appeared on the Roman stage, dealing with nonclassical themes, exploring human foibles, and placing his comedies in a contemporary Italian setting.”

In his comedies, though not as skillfully as in Orlando furioso, Ariosto attempted to treat popular themes in classical...

(The entire section is 1755 words.)