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The Politics of a Theatrical Event: The 1509 Performance of Ariosto's I suppositi

From: Mediaevalia
Volume 33, 2012
pp. 195-228 | 10.1353/mdi.2012.0003

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Ludovico Ariosto is traditionally considered the founder of new vernacular comedy, but this title has in some ways been detrimental to a full understanding of Ariosto's plays. In general, sixteenth-century Italian comedy has enjoyed few critical accolades from the seventeenth century down to our own, and is often faulted for being "formulaic, immoral, socially pointless, stereotypical, and repetitive." Although Ariosto's comedies are rich in interpretative possibilities, studies generally have not taken into account the plays' proper context, which links Ariosto's work to a theatrical practice rather than only to literary genres and traditions. These plays were not primarily conceived of as literature, and their principal destination was not the printed text. In fact, Ariosto's La cassaria and I suppositi were published in Florence, without the author's approval, only after they had been performed. Since the nature of these plays was not strictly literary, they require consideration as elements of a more complex and composite event. Graham Holderness has claimed that drama has too often been treated—in literary and cultural analysis—as written text; he argues for the need to reconfigure critical analysis with a different conception of Renaissance drama, as theater: "as dramatic materials that were devised specifically for performance . . . as 'texts' that have a performance history often separable from their history as written texts," and "as cultural products that are designed for mobilization in theatrical rather than literary-critical ways."

If this is so, how can one do justice to texts that were designed for mobilization in theatrical ways? How is it possible that texts or events that were relevant for their coeval audiences have become "socially pointless" when historians understand them as a series of writings? To put it another way, how can one recover those synchronic factors that once made these texts so relevant? As Thomas Postlewait has recently pointed out, theater studies today too often fail to give adequate consideration to the ways in which political factors, values, and forces are at work in the theater. In the study of theater and drama, he argues, the idea of the political has been too simply defined and dealt with in two ways:

We can investigate the political topics, themes, issues, viewpoints, and agendas that get expressed in plays, productions, theatre groups, and artistic movements. Or, by shifting the focus, we can describe the political conditions within the historical matrix that shape dramatic literature, the theatrical arts, performance events, and cultural practices . . . In the first case, we usually locate the politics in the dramatic text . . . or the theatrical event . . . In the second case, we situate the politics within the shaping environment or culture which the work or event supposedly reflects, embodies, expresses, realizes, fulfills, resists, or subverts.

Both cases set up a familiar polarity between text (or event) versus context: one defines the relationship as an opposition, and the other implies some kind of correspondence through mimesis or representation. Thus, an artist of the Renaissance such as Ariosto, usually operating in and writing for a court, is seen either as a "royal apologist" or a "crypto-subversive" critic.

So, again, how can one do justice to these plays critically? How can one move beyond the basic polarity between event and context? In order to illustrate the ways in which courtly theatrical performances are related to structures of power and resistance, it will be useful to explore them by taking into consideration a specific event. The event I consider here is the performance of Ludovico Ariosto's I -suppositi that took place in the Ducal Palace of the Este court during the 1509 carnival celebrations. Following Thomas Postlewait's suggestion that "the idea of location [of politics] needs to be multiple," I will investigate four possible critical perspectives for this theatrical event.

First, I will investigate the frame. The word theater, during the early modern period, designated two simultaneous and distinct actions, seeing and being seen; thus, any critical understanding of the "visions" of this notion of theater must first articulate the structure of the frame, and not simply focus on the content of these visions. In the first part of this essay I will offer a brief overview of the social...

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