Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3389
As a historical figure, Torquato Tasso appears to embody two cultural eras: the High Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation. Some critics divide his literary production evenly and narrowly along such lines, assigning Aminta to the Renaissance, the Gerusalemme liberata to a transitional mode, and the last works to the triumph of...
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- Critical Essays
As a historical figure, Torquato Tasso appears to embody two cultural eras: the High Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation. Some critics divide his literary production evenly and narrowly along such lines, assigning Aminta to the Renaissance, the Gerusalemme liberata to a transitional mode, and the last works to the triumph of the poet’s conservative Catholicism. This division is too facile: Like all great artists, Tasso was a complex figure. Immersed in the humanistic culture of his time, Tasso had an extraordinary facility in assimilating the works of others and integrating them in his own works. Echoes of Vergil, Horace, Homer, Sophocles, Dante, and Petrarch resound through his works, recognizable but transfused. At best, Tasso’s borrowings are poetic references and cultural commentary, enriching his text, infusing it with the familiar reverberations of tradition. His emulation is as much art as erudition. At worst, the writer can be pedantic, weighed down by his learning: Art gives way to artifice, and knowledge substitutes for inspiration. In all situations, Tasso has control of his language and mastery of his style; his verse is fine-tuned, polished, and elegant.
The taste of the Renaissance elite formed Tasso’s style. It manifests itself in his predilection for pomp, ornamentation, and decorum, and in his esteem of honor, heroism, and power. The sheer musicality of his poetry is legendary; the sound obliterates the everyday meaning of the words, freeing them to create new meanings through rhythm. His mastery of the Italian literary tradition led Tasso to experiment, to circumvent intentionally the prevailing Petrarchism of his age and play with the poetic devices available to him. His use of metaphor, conceit, hyperbole, and musical phrasing predates the Baroque, when poets sought to astonish the public with their manipulation of language. Tasso was both the heir of an ancient literary tradition and the prophet of a new style and a new approach to the written word.
As a teller of stories, whether in epic poetry or in drama, Tasso was again a harbinger of new attitudes and an inspiration to future artists. His characterizations are often unique. Drawn from traditional models, Tasso’s protagonists possess an interior life, rich in contradictions and marked by introspection. The tone of their lives is neither epic nor Arcadian, but melancholy, suffused with a voluptuous sense of death and loss. The heroic nature of the Crusaders is modified by a lingering atmospheric evanescence. They are warriors fraught with inner demons, beset by illusions, destined to disappointments. An existential angst surrounds the men and women of his poetic world. Joy, love, pleasure, and success are all fleeting or tainted. Even the bucolic world of Aminta is elegiac, tinged with melancholy and nostalgia; its happy ending cannot erase totally the various protagonists’ considerations on the loss of love, the fear of rejection, the onset of old age, and the ambiguous attractions of death.
One of Tasso’s greatest talents lies in his ability to infuse nature with a mood akin to the emotional state of the characters. The bees, the plants, the birds mate in a paean to the same instinctive love that draws Aminta to Silvia, just as the raging storm of Il re Torrismondo, in act 1, denotes the furious and confused state of mind of the protagonist, caught in the whirlwind of his guilt-ridden passion. As often, the protagonists find no outlet or communion, becoming trapped in themselves, victims of their own subjectivity. The warrior Clorinda’s femininity is hidden beneath her armor, her “external” self; Rinaldo’s suppressed sexuality develops into effeminate passivity in Armida’s garden; Aminta’s frustrated love is transformed into a death wish. Tasso’s world is peopled with individuals hungering for recognition, reaching for the unattainable, frustrated and frustrating. His ability to capture psychological nuance is matched by his mastery of the poetic form. At his best, as in Aminta, form and content merge in perfect symbiosis, achieving the harmony of great art. Whether in the epic, the pastoral, or the lyric, Tasso emerges as the voice of humankind’s inner, emotional self speaking in the language of renewed tradition.
Although Tasso did not consider himself a playwright and gave relatively minor attention to his dramatic production, Aminta is universally considered a masterpiece in its genre. The piece was the fruit of a particularly happy, peaceful period in the writer’s disturbed life. The work flowed easily and naturally from Tasso’s pen during a two-month period in the spring of 1573, whereas his second play, Il re Torrismondo, took fourteen years from inception to completion. This short compositional time, highly unusual for the perfectionist Tasso, reflects a conceptual ease that makes Aminta the most unified of the writer’s longer works. Probably meant as a divertissement for the court, the play responds to the taste and expectations of its intended public. It is a stylistically refined drama in which Tasso effortlessly incorporates numerous literary references that blend easily with his own poetry. The entire pastoral tradition, both classical and Renaissance, runs through the play. Traces of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il ninfale fiesolano (1344-1346; The Nymph of Fiesole, 1597) and Il ninfale d’Ameto (1341-1342; also known as Commedia delle ninfe), Poliziano’s Orfeo (pr. c. 1480; English translation, 1879; also known as Orpheus), Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia (1489; English translation, 1966), and the poetry of Dante, Petrarch, and Lorenzo de’ Medici combine with traces of Vergil’s Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.; also known as Bucolics; English translation, 1575), Theocritus’s Idylls (1566; English translation, 1684), and the poetry of Ovid and Catullus and Greek romances. Sixteenth century Ferrara had also seen a revival of modern interest in the dramatic pastoral. Despite these debts, Aminta is also an original work, difficult to categorize and unrestricted by its sources.
Tasso’s contemporaries variously defined the work as a pastoral comedy or fable, an eclogue, or simply a pastoral. The playwright termed it a favola boschereccia, or woodland fable. The play contains elements of comedy, tragedy, bucolic poetry, and the dramatic eclogue. Written in an extraordinarily effective mix of seven-and eleven-syllable lines, known as polymetric verse, the work follows the classical unities rigidly. Its Italian blank verse is often quite musical and occasionally rhymed, constituting the foundation and inspiration for the recitative of eighteenth century melodrama and opera. This hybrid play is lyric, descriptive, and narrative, rather than dramatic. It is theater without action.
The plot, divided into the standard five acts, is extremely simple. Set in a metahistorical world of shepherds, Satyrs, nymphs, and gods, it is timeless. The general tone is serene, although tragic, comic, and satiric elements are present. Aminta, a young shepherd, is desperately in love with Silvia, his childhood friend. She has forsworn all men, rebuffed the boy, and chosen service to Diana and the hunt. Dafne, an aging nymph, seeks to convince the girl of her error, urging her to give up the state of useless virginity in exchange for the joys of love. Tirsi attempts to console Aminta but neither he nor Dafne are able to sway their young friends. The third act initiates a series of crises. Aminta, incited by Tirsi, has decided to act with more boldness in his courtship, only to discover that the Satyr has abducted his love, tied her to a tree, and is about to assault her. Silvia is saved and liberated by her devoted lover but does not stop to thank him. A second blow to the youth soon follows: Silvia’s bloody veil has been found, and it is presumed that the girl has fallen victim to wolves. In act 4, Silvia is safe and sound but Aminta has gone off to die. It is only at this moment that the huntress, overcome by pity for the dead shepherd, acknowledges her love for him. All ends well, however; some vegetation, an appropriately bucolic deus ex machina, had broken the youth’s fall from a cliff. As the play ends, he is contentedly lying in the arms of his love. It is important to note that all the action is narrated, not seen, in a series of conversations, monologues, and commentaries from the chorus, the protagonists, and a few minor characters. As is common in Renaissance theater, there is a prologue, recited by Cupid masquerading as a shepherd. Some editions also include choral and individual intermezzos and an epilogue by Venus, although these were probably not included in the first productions and in some early printings of the text.
The partition of the drama into five acts, the series of tragic misunderstandings and vicissitudes, the suicidal desperation of the hero, and the continuing references to violence would place the work in the realm of tragedy were it not for its idyllic atmosphere. The natural setting tempers all negativity. Indeed, nature itself is one of the text’s presences, if not an actual protagonist. Aminta’s world borders on anthropomorphism: The tree helps the Satyr bind the nymph with its pliable branches while the grasses and branches weave a net to break the shepherd’s fall. It was only appropriate that the first performance took place on a small island in the middle of the Po River—an actual woodland setting for this Arcadian fable. The major theme of the work—love—is also presented in natural and naturalistic terms. As Dafne points out to Silvia, love is instinctive, while its rejection is abnormal: Does not the dove kiss its companion? Does not the nightingale sing of love? Does not the serpent abandon its poison to mate? Silvia’s enforced virginity is defined as aberration, not virtue. Even the Satyr’s unbridled lust is not actually condemned because lust is appropriate to his essence. In contrast to the girl’s rejection of her sexual nature, Aminta’s gradual shift from playmate to enamored youth is both understandable and acceptable, an inevitable transition from childhood to adolescence. Love is valued not as a means of spiritual enlightenment but as a sensual pleasure; possession is gratification; chastity is frustration. This message both Tirsi and Dafne seek to communicate to their young friends, but Aminta is too timid to seek satisfaction and Silvia, too obdurate. Eros is the god of this world, presented in the guise of Cupid in the prologue. The only law is that of natural instinct, introduced by the chorus at the close of act 1. The Golden Age, the chorus declares, was not so called because of flowing milk and honey, fruit-laden trees, eternal spring, or tranquillity, but because nature’s single law was still observed before the existence of suffocating honor: “What pleases, is permitted.” In Tasso’s presentation, the Golden Age is an era of freedom, unfettered by societal impositions, where people could live according to their instincts rather than by synthetic rules of conduct. Aminta’s underlying philosophy is fundamentally amoral, but it does not shock because it operates in a timeless dreamworld of primitive innocence.
Love is the major concern of all the characters of this Renaissance pastoral. Taken together, these characters represent different attitudes toward love and variations on the act of loving. On the most primitive level, there is the Satyr, with his animalistic needs. Aminta’s love is rarefied, his passion sublimated by his devotion. He is the despair of love, its proximity to death. Silvia is the rejection of love, the reluctant virgin destined finally to capitulate. In the older protagonists, experience has created skepticism but the expert and aging Dafne still hopes to love again, whereas Tirsi has known only love’s pain and desires sensual fulfillment, not emotional involvement. The two couples formed are quite different. The adolescents symbolize youthful idealism, whereas the mature confidants are worldly-wise, even cynical, representatives of sophistication and experience. All celebrate the right to love and to make love by the conclusion of the work. Only one character, however, undergoes any change: Silvia. Psychologically, Aminta is a static play with few emotional chords. Its enchantment lies in its representation of a simple, serene, and sensual idyll, an interlude from reality.
Tasso’s mastery of language makes this world come to life. His musical, smooth, and persuasive poetry is the perfect linguistic accompaniment to this sensual and airy tale. His lyric expertise and mastery of prosody is put to excellent use in creating a sensual environment. The vocabulary, phrasing, and sentence structures are kept simple, agile, and graceful, in keeping with his protagonists’ world. The language is refined and elegant but not affected or pompous. Nothing appears forced or artificial, although Tasso’s art is always at work. The very musicality of the verse merely emphasizes the dreamlike quality of the play. The shepherds may speak like courtiers, but they exist in a mythic, not a realistic setting. As Cupid points out in the prologue, love enobles, inspiring primitive hearts and sweetening rough speech. Art also inspires, and Aminta proved tremendously successful as a literary stimulus to future generations. The French, English, and Spanish national literatures were all affected by the publication of the play in the original, in numerous translations, and in paraphrased reworkings. In Italy alone, E. Carrara estimates, eighty-five pastoral plays existed by 1615, while there were more than two hundred by 1700. The popularity of Aminta was partially responsible for this significant growth. It is not excessive to state that the pastoral genre—lyric or dramatic—was renewed and strengthened by Tasso’s contribution.
Il re Torrismondo
Il re Torrismondo was neither as successful nor as influential, although it, too, enjoyed popularity in the sixteenth century. Begun in 1573, the play was left incomplete in the middle of its second act, probably because of the playwright’s obsession with his epic poem. More than a dozen years later, after his mental collapse and incarceration, Tasso returned to his tragedy. The work, however, proved to be tired and uninspired. Influenced by Poetics, Tasso hoped to create a modern classical tragedy, as similar as possible to Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) in theme and structure. The Aristotelian canons are strictly observed: five acts, the three unities, a chorus, elevated theme and style, no death on stage, sudden changes of fortune, vicissitudes accompanied by unexpected recognitions, religious significance, and a final catharsis. In this respect, the play is similar to other Renaissance attempts at tragedy. It also reflects the era’s predilection for horrible actions and gloom, as well as the tendency to moralize on stage. Tasso’s insistence on the use of ancient standards added to the lack of spontaneity and energy in his second dramatic effort. Although the playwright praised the Greeks’ simplicity of language, he himself opted for a rhetorical work devoid of their tragic severity. From first to second draft, the play had also changed title, if not basic plot. Two classic motifs run through Il re Torrismondo: incest with resulting misfortune and the enduring bond of male friendship. Because of two coexisting moral themes, the story line is contrived and complex.
Germondo is hopelessly in love with Alvida, princess of Norway. They cannot marry, however, because of political animosities. Torrismondo has agreed to ask for Alvida’s hand, bring the princess back to his kingdom, and there present her to Germondo, who is his great friend. Unfortunately, during the sea voyage, Torrismondo and Alvida fall passionately in love. She, presuming that they are betrothed, allows their mutual passion to be consummated. The tragedy begins on the eve of the wedding. The “false” groom is distraught with love for Alvida and with guilt at having betrayed his friend. Thus, he is quick to accept his consigliere’s suggestion that Germondo be married to Torrismondo’s sister Rosmunda as compensation for his loss. This second marriage would strengthen their political and personal ties and permit him to wed Alvida. Germondo agrees to the consigliere’s offer, sacrificing his fruitless love to his friendship for Torrismondo. Just as all appears resolved, Rosmunda rejects the alliance. Forced to explain her action, she informs the family that she is not Torrismondo’s sister but a substitute. Nymphs had predicted that the baby sister would cause her brother’s untimely death. The father had secretly taken the newborn away and put a false Rosmunda in her place.
In Aristotelian fashion, a series of sudden recognitions and revelations follow. It is learned that Alvida is the true Rosmunda: The young couple have unwittingly committed incest. Torrismondo rejects his biological sister, offering her hand once again to his good friend. The young woman, feeling rejected by the man she loves, chooses to die. It is only on her deathbed that Alvida learns the truth, discovering that her passion is still shared by her brother-lover, who joins her in death. For both, life had become unbearable and unacceptable without the presence of the beloved. Indeed, all Tasso’s characters are doomed to an unhappy fate. Germondo loses both the woman and the friend. The queen, his mother, learns the identity of her real daughter at the moment that the newly discovered child dies, followed by the sorrowful mother’s only son. Rosmunda is destined to a celibate life, when she actually would prefer the love of her false brother. Indeed, the dead lovers appear to have chosen the better fate.
As a tragedy, Il re Torrismondo possesses all the trappings and none of the soul of classical drama. According to the Aristotelian definition, tragedy is meant to elicit pity intermixed with terror from the spectators, who experience their own catharsis through their passive participation. Tasso’s lovers do evoke a sympathetic response: Unknowing victims of circumstance, they are doomed without true guilt. The elements for a successful tragedy are present, but the playwright does not succeed. He himself lacks the moral outrage necessary to produce a shocked reaction from the audience. The motive of fraternal incest does not serve this function, because it is not felt. There is no catharsis in either Alvida or Torrismondo’s deaths because their motivations are not suitable. Alvida’s suicide is not the result of spiritual guilt, as was Jocasta’s, but of unrequited love. She feels scorned by the man who had possessed her body and her affections. Having given all, she believes herself bankrupt. Death is her escape from unhappiness. Torrismondo is closer in spirit to Juliet than he is to the guilt-ridden Oedipus. While suspicion, doubt, and anguish torment these protagonists, the moral issue is subservient to the development of the love motif.
The tragedy resembles Aminta in its atmosphere of gloom and fatalism, possibly because both works were conceived at the same time. Both plays emphasize the pain of unrequited love and the joys of satisfied passions, the frustrations of amorous doubts and the fear of betrayal. Both are sensual in their description of physical closeness—in fact, the first draft of Il re Torrismondo stressed the erotic implications, an emphasis that Tasso suppressed in the final work—and posit the enduring nature of sexual passion. The lovers are the truly interesting characters, especially Alvida. The other protagonists are wooden abstractions of the types they personify: perfect friend, grave virgin, motherly wet-nurse, maternal queen. The only novelty is the consigliere, or correspondent figure, who will regularly reappear in seventeenth century French tragedy; he is the amoral voice of convenience in opposition to the chorus, the collective spokesman for virtue and moral conventions. Unfortunately, even the positive characterizations are often uneven. While in the throes of guilt, Torrismondo is given to long digressions on proper etiquette for his banquet or lengthy unsuitable descriptions, as in act 1, when he spends considerable time recounting the force of the storm that shipwrecked him while explaining his passion for Alvida. These undramatic moments recur, slowing the text and destroying the symmetry of the action. Such tangential dialogue is destructive of the simplicity that Tasso admired in the Greeks and sought to imitate.
Like all Tasso’s major works, Il re Torrismondo was written under the sign of love and death. Unlike Aminta, Gerusalemme liberata, and many of the poems, it lacks the artist’s inimitable lyricism. Yet the last few lines of the tragedy’s close, intoned by the chorus, serve as a fitting epitaph for Tasso, the man and the writer, a commentary on a spent existence and a tired poetic vein: “Of what use is friendship, of what use love? oh tears, oh sorrow.”