Back to the Future: A Review of Twentieth-Century Commedia-Shakespeare Studies


  • Robert Henke Washington University in St. Louis



Future work on the comparative question of Shakespeare’s relationship to the commedia dell’arte must depart from several well-documented studies from the early twentieth century, whose archival and bibliographical riches have not yet been fully plumbed. The documents uncovered by Smith, Lea, Chambers, Wright and others yield the following assertions. 1) The visits of Italian actors to England, mostly confined to the 1570s, were probably initiated at the courtly, ‘supranational level’ via English ambassadors visiting in Paris. 2) The English seemed to have been rather scandalized by the perceived sexual frankness of the Italian actresses and female acrobats whom they witnessed. 3) English travelers and observers of the commedia dell’arte perceived arte improvisation to be distinctly different from the rhyme-based extemporizing performed by Will Kemp and others. 4) As the examples of The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona demonstrate, Shakespeare and other English dramatists did not make a sharp distinction between scripted and improvised Italian comedy. Following the important studies of Clubb and Andrews, comparatists should consider not only whether English actors occasionally practiced the arte method of improvisation but, more broadly, should investigate the more extensive arena of methodological homology: the modular ‘composition', by English dramatist and Italian actor alike, of speeches, dialogues, scenes, and plays.






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