The Italian Actress and the Foundations of Early Modern European Theatre: Performing Female Sexual Identites on the Commedia dell'Arte Stage


  • Rosalind Kerr University of Alberta



This article introduces my ongoing research into the emergence of the professional actress on the commedia dell’arte stage in Italy in the 1560s, a century before their arrival on the English stage. It charts the rise of the Commedia dell’Arte at the intersections of carnival and the piazza and shows how this early form of commercial entertainment used the phenomenal introduction of female performers to sell not only products but the theatrical institution itself. It argues that the conflicting contemporary debates which on one hand condemned the use of actresses as mere sexual attractions and, on the other, lavished praise on them for their accomplished performances, encapsulate the inextricable intertwining of this new theatrical art form with its commercial viability. My emphasis here will be on laying out the theoretical framework I use to explore the introduction of the actress as an early form of commodity fetish whose spectacularized body becomes a contested site of meaning. Documents relating the early actresses’ close connections to their mountebank origins and the responses their appearance elicited from the antitheatricalists will be cited to trace their progression towards professional status.






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