Italy – Luca Beltrami

SHAKESPEARE AND THE ITALIAN NOVEL

IT is familiar knowledge that Shakespeare hewed many of his plays out of Italian stories. The most superficial studies of his plots show him to be beyond doubt a close student of a very distinctive species of literature which is peculiarly characteristic of Renaissance Italy. Boccaccio, of Florence, the herald of the new Italian movement in many of its directions, may be reckoned to have rendered his most conspicuous service to the amenities of civilisation by his creation of the art of the short story. In musical language, which eliminated once and for all the crudities of the old Tuscan dialect,

Boccaccio pictured, with a softly glowing serenity, experiences of love and life of which he had read or heard or seen. He treats human nature with a frankness which often shocks the prudish. He is prone to dwell with a cheerful irony on the infidelities of husbands and wives. Yet he is a master of pathos as well as of gaiety, and blends varied ingredients harmoniously. Boccaccio the novelist founded in Italy a long-lived school, and though none of his scholars equalled his own powers, many who were especially active in the sixteenth century caught some touch of his vivacity. Bandello, a Lombard, who was a bishop in the south of France at the time of Shakespeare’s birth, turned into lively fiction of Boccaccio’s type episodes in the social life of his day. Although he lacked his master’s gift of style Bandello excelled Boccaccio in lubricity. Another sixteenth-century Italian novelist, Giraldi Cinthio, of the cultured city of Ferrara, also enjoyed a wide reputation in his day. In his methods, merits, and demerits he may be linked with Bandello. The Italian novel, indeed, engaged almost as much energy in Renaissance Italy as the drama subsequently engaged in Elizabethan or Jacobean England. It found readers, not in Italy alone, but, either in the original or in translation, in all countries of Western Europe. Imitations as well as translations soon abounded in France, Spain, and ultimately in England.

The Italian novel rendered the English drama the practical service of supplying it with a treasury of plots, and Shakespeare, like all the fellow-dramatists of his time, welcomed with enthusiasm such practical help. Most, but not all, the Italian stories which he employed were ready to his hand in his own language or in French. His indebtedness to Italy is not, however, greatly reduced thereby. The English and French renderings at his command, though differing among themselves in efficiency, were usually literal. Their temper was little changed. In whatever shape Shakespeare gained access to them, the main stories of All’s Well that Ends Well and Cymbeline, of which Helena and Imogen are the respective heroines, remain the ripe fruit of Boccaccio’s invention. Bandello is the parent of the leading episodes of Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado about Nothing. Cinthio was the first to tell the tragic adventure of Isabella in Measure for Measure, and the tragic trials of Othello and Desdemona. Even where Shakespeare seeks his plots in romances of English authorship, as in As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale, the Italian influence is not wholly absent ; for the English novelists commonly marched along the Italian road ; they rarely travelled far from it.

The Italian fable, it goes without saying, formed as a rule the mere basis of Shakespeare’s dramatic structure. Having studied the Italian tale and examined its dramatic possibilities, Shakespeare altered and transmuted it with the utmost freedom as his dramatic spirit moved him. It is by his changes rather than by his literal transferences that the greatness of his faculty, the breadth of his intuitive grasp of human passion and sentiment, may best be gauged.

Yet the scenes of his chief comedies and of many tragedies rarely leave Italy. The episodes are assigned to Venice or Verona, to Milan or Mantua, to Florence or Padua. He rarely takes the names of his characters from the Italian novels of his immediate study. He rechristens his dramatis personae, but the new designations are no less Italian than the old. It is curious to observe that, when in As You Like It Shakespeare is dramatising a piece of English fiction by his fellow-countryman, Thomas Lodge, he rejects Lodge’s amorphous name of Rosader for his hero and substitutes a name so rooted in the traditions of Italian literature as Orlando. I think it provable that Shakespeare’s Orlando, the hero of As You Like It, was deliberately christened after the Orlando of Ariosto’s great Italian epic. Shakespeare’s Italian nomenclature may not always suggest quite so much as that ; but it invariably proclaims him the pupil of an Italian school, paying homage to his masters.

At times Shakespeare’s choice of Italian plot sets his work in the full tide of the Italian literary stream. The story of Romeo and Juliet, which Bandello first told to Europe, was made familiar to Italy by earlier pens. The tale, which has a right to be reckoned a national legend of Italy, was the theme of Shakespeare’s earliest venture in tragedy of the great romantic kind. In his dramatic treatment of it, he gave indubitable promise of his glorious fertility and power. Manifold are the original touches of poetry, insight, and humour in Shakespeare’s version of the Italian novel. Yet who can deny the Italian glow which lives in Shakespeare’s radiant picture of youthful love ?

The play of Twelfth Night is cast in a very different mould from that of Romeo and Juliet. Everybody knows the main plot, how a girl is disguised as a page ; and how, while her master moves her love, she is sent by him to plead his suit with a proud beauty, who on her part is fascinated by the supposed boy. The fable is a fantasy of which all the elements are dyed in Italian colours. Bandello, although he gave the story its European vogue, was, as in the case of Romeo and Juliet, but one of its Italian narrators. No English alchemy could free the sensitive and intricate amours of their Italian note. Shakespeare’s play, in spite of his manipulation of the Italian plot, and his fusion with it of much original comic episode, echoes the strains which Boccaccio’s youths and maidens voiced in the garden overlooking Florence at the dawn of the Italian Renaissance. What atmosphere save that of sensuous Florence does Duke Orsino breathe when in the first speech of the play he makes languorous appeal to the musicians :

” That strain again ! it had a dying fall :

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour.”

Shakespeare’s tragedy of Othello, the best constructed of all his tragic dramas, presents life in its sternest aspect and passion in its fiercest guise. Yet it is based as directly as Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night on Italian foundations ; and, unlike the other Italian stories whence Shakespeare drew his plots, the fable of Othello is not known to have circulated out of Italy, or rather out of the Italian language, before Shakespeare handled it. The author of the story of Shakespeare’s tragedy of Othello is the sixteenth-century novelist, Cinthio of Ferrara. Some of his tales had been rendered into French, and at least one into English. Before Shakespeare wrote Othello he had himself made a first draft on Cinthio’s store of fiction. The plot of Measure for Measure was of Cinthio’s devising ; but that painful Italian story was ready to Shakespeare’s hand in an English version. Not so the little novel of the Moor of Venice. In the Italian alone was that tragic history to be studied. In adapting the incidents to his purposes, Shakespeare here if anywhere exerted all his powers. With magical subtlety he invests the character of Othello with passionate intensity, of which the Italian novelist knew little. Iago is transformed by the English dramatist from the conventional Italian criminal of Cinthio’s page into the profoundest of all portraits of hypocrisy and intellectual villainy. At every point Shakespeare has lifted the theme high above the melodramatic level on which the Italian had left it. New subsidiary characters are added. The catastrophe is wholly reconstructed. The master spirit is everywhere at work with magnificent energy. Yet Cinthio’s guidance is not to be disparaged. His story holds the sparks which Shakespeare’s genius fanned into brilliant flame.

Shakespeare’s indebtedness to Italy has many parallels in the history of English poetry. Chaucer, Shakespeare’s greatest poetic predecessor, was an admiring disciple of the work of both Dante and Boccaccio. Milton, Shakespeare’s successor on the throne of English poetry, was an appreciative and grateful student in many Italian poetic schools. When we leap a century and face the great revival, of which Byron and Shelley were two exponents, we meet in English poetry with a passionate devotion to Italy, which was accentuated by Italy’s con-. temporary suffering and oppression. The Brownings bore on high the same torch until it reached the hand of Swinburne, who was stirred by Italy’s past and present fortune to his noblest poetic utterances. Swinburne was profoundly sympathetic with Italy in her manful struggles for liberty and unity, and he greeted exultingly her restoration to a place among the great nations. He saw in the colours of her flag, green and white and red, symbols of hope and light and life. Had he lived to be with us to-day, we may say with confidence that he would have applied to Italy at this moment his own words of earlier date :

” She feels her ancient breath and the old blood Move in her immortal veins.”

Swinburne’s poems on Italy worthily pursue a great tradition of English poetry. The Italian allegiance of Shakespeare, emperor of English poets, gives that tradition its most dazzling glory.