- Comparing Poverty: Fictions of a “Poor Theater” in Ruzante and Shakespeare
Early modern drama has always been a propitious, if underexplored, terrain for transnational, comparative study.1 Positivistic source studies that track the influence across borders of one playwright upon another, the preferred method for many years, in the late twentieth century ceded place to approaches, such as that of Louise George Clubb, that examine systems and structures of genres and "theatergrams" (theatrical "moving parts" such as character types and alignments, dialogue structures, verbal and gestural lazzi, topoi, plot mechanisms, etc.).2 Investigation of systemic commonalities and theatergrams between different geolinguistic theaters better serves the collaborative and social nature of theater in the early modern period, when acting practices such as the commedia dell'arte in Italy and English clowning could render the actor an "author."3 Systemic homologies, for example, between English and Italian early modern comedy, did not just magically appear; their genealogy can be explained, if not positively identified, by one of at least two causes: the precedence and prestige of Italian theater as an exfoliating "influence," and the general dissemination of humanism and humanistically inspired theater throughout the continent.
In the particular domain of theater history, the archival precision demanded by the discipline does not encourage border-crossing, although some notable exceptions to this have arisen in the work of Siro Ferrone, M. A. Katritzky, and Otto Schindler on the commedia dell'arte—work, it might be added, that adequately matches the positivist's demand for direct contact (an actor, or a troupe of actors, crosses a geolinguistic border and affects in some way the theater of the host country). Schindler and Katritzky both chart the Habsburg-Gonzaga networks that enabled the [End Page 193] Mantuan-based Italian actors to travel to the German-speaking regions, and Katritzky has also followed English touring companies into the Low Countries and Germany. In the case of Hapsburg influence on commedia dell'arte international travel, by which the virtual road created by dynastic alliance made possible the real roads that actors plied by horse or mule, a set of common audience expectations must have emerged among the aristocratic audiences. Giovanni Tabarino, a Venetian actor, performed in Linz in 1568, Prague in 1570, Paris/Blois in 1571, and Vienna in 1574—each performance, even the Parisian one, enabled by a Habsburg connection.4 The aristocratic audiences enjoying the international lingua franca of acting and acrobatics that Tabarino and other transnational performers like Aniello Soldino, Zan Ganassa, and Tristano Martinelli deployed probably had more in common with each other than with artisans or merchants from their own country. At the very high end of the social structure, a kind of supranational parity obtained.
Considering the extreme opposite end of the social spectrum, could a grim version of "supranational parity" and commonality also be ascribed to the beggars and vagrants that thronged the roads and streets of England and continental Europe during the early modern period? Could homologies be then identified in the ways that beggars, vagrants, and impoverished urban criminals were represented in early modern drama? Could Stephano Sartorelli, a displaced Bergamask begging the streets of Venice in 1545 (according to the Provveditori della Sanità archives), have had more in common with an English vagrant than he did with an Italian gentleman?5 Can one construct a comparative study, enlisting both the margins of theater history and the resonances of dramatic text, that might explore homologies of poverty?
In any claims regarding theater history that might be ventured here, the methodological model would be Siro Ferrone's analysis of large-scale demographic urban migration throughout mid-sixteenth-century Europe—demographic flussi that generated a critical mass of exchange and circulation sufficient to generate, all in the mid-1570s, permanent or semi-permanent theaters in London, Madrid, and Florence.6 For Ferrone, the pan-European phenomenon of urban migration made possible the circulation of social energy (in Greenblatt's terms), as materially communicated in the bodies of actors and audiences, coins, and clothing.7 As with [End Page 194] the phenomenon of humanism, the genealogy is principally homological rather than linear-causal: James Burbage didn't build the Theater in...