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"Her filthy feature open showne" in Ariosto, Spenser, and Much Ado about Nothing
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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 39.1 (1999) 41-67

Scholars have long identified Ludovico Ariosto's famous tale of Ariodante and Ginevra as the primary source for Edmund Spenser's Phedon-Claribell episode in book 2 of The Faerie Queene. They also typically cite Spenser's and Ariosto's versions of the story among probable subtexts for the Hero-Claudio plot in William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. Recently, Much Ado's concern with the violence underpinning chivalric romance ideals, on the one hand, and the affinity between its representations of theatrical practice and those found in contemporary attacks against the stage, on the other, have been noted by John Traugott and Jean Howard respectively. This article, too, will discuss Shakespeare's comedy together with epic-romance and antitheatrical rhetoric. In so doing, however, it will examine not only the familiar motif of a beautiful woman falsely exposed as a whore but another juxtaposed with it in both Ariosto and Spenser and appropriated, in turn, by English antitheatricalists: the beautiful enchantress exposed as a whorish hag.

The enchantress herself has a long literary history, one in which erotic pleasures and dangers frequently stand, in part, for the pleasures and dangers of representation itself. Plutarch is perhaps the first explicitly to employ the analogy between a romance hero confronting a temptress's wiles and a reader facing literary seductions. His "How the Young Man Should Study Poetry" admits Plato's charge (in the Republic ) that even allegorical poetry may corrupt young men: "'Bad may be found in the head of the cuttle-fish; good there is also,' because it is very pleasant to eat but it makes one's sleep full of bad dreams and subject to strange and disturbing fancies, as they say. Similarly in the art of poetry there is much that is pleasant and nourishing for the mind of a youth, but quite as much that is disturbing and misleading, unless in the hearing of it he have proper oversight." Plutarch nonetheless goes on to defend poetry's role in education. Central to his argument is the example of Odysseus tied to the mast while listening to the Sirens' song. "Shall we then stop the ears of the young," Plutarch asks, "as those of the Ithacans were stopped, with a hard and unyielding wax, and force them to put to sea in the Epicurean boat, and avoid poetry and steer their course clear of it; or rather shall we set them against some upright standard of reason and there bind them fast, guiding and guarding their judgement, that it may not be carried away from the course by pleasure towards what will do them hurt?" Rather than stopping their ears to poetry in the manner of Odysseus' lesser companions, young men ought to bind themselves to the mast of reason and "use poetry as an introductory exercise in philosophy, by training themselves habitually to seek the profitable in what gives pleasure, and to seek satisfaction therein." Such Odyssean right readers will "seek what is useful and salutary" in pleasing fictions and discard the rest. For Christian humanists, following Plutarch, the Ulysses-Siren myth proved equally germane to the defense of imaginative literature. Clement of Alexandria, for example, takes the hero's encounter with the Sirens as an emblem of how to use rather than reject pagan literature by reading it allegorically: "most of those who subscribe to the name of Christian are like the companions of Odysseus . . . It is not so much the Sirens that they sail past and put behind them as the rhythms and melodies (of the genius of Greece) . . . They stop their ears by their rejection of learning . . . Yet he who seeks to choose what is serviceable . . . should in no wise turn aside from the love of wisdom . . . like a beast without reason . . . All that we must guard against is that we should dally there and go no further instead of returning home again to the true philosophy." Such allusions to Ulysses' interactions with Circe and the Sirens proliferate in Renaissance apologies for poetry by writers such as Giovanni Boccaccio, Torquato Tasso, Arthur Golding, and Philip Sidney. In an important strand...

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