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ELH 70.3 (2003) 625-651



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Black Beauties, White Devils:
The English Italian In Milton And Webster

Lara Bovilsky


I. Reading Italian

"I am to learn what that Italian means."
—John Webster

When she disguises herself as a young doctor of the law during the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice, Portia takes the name "Balthazar," the name of the youngest Magus to visit the Christ child, a Magus conventionally represented as African. It is also the name of her trusted servant who, because of his name, is possibly African as well. 1 Portia's selection of this particular name can help specify some of the associations her crossdressing might possess for a sixteenth-century English audience. In particular, "Balthazar" supports an interpretation in which crossdressing is seen as generally analogous to racial darkening, and gender difference as analogous to racial difference. 2 In the argument that follows, I will pursue the implications of a further determinant of Portia's identity—Italianness—for her figuration here, for the figuration of countless other characters in English Renaissance drama portrayed, like Portia, by English actors, and, indeed, for the self-figuration of several generations of English poets.

In what ways might Portia's Italian identity also enable her cross-racial figuration? Elsewhere, Portia is described according to the classical terms of a Petrarchan blazon (3.2.115-29) and lauded for her golden-haired beauty (which, partly thinking of her fortune, her suitor Bassanio calls a "golden fleece" [1.1.170]). "Fair" Portia's ability to be figured both as a Petrarchan beloved (1.1.162) and, however faintly, as an iconographic African king indicates, I would argue, the range of associations Italy possessed for the early modern English: simultaneously the site of radical, racialized and/or immoral otherness, a center of international trade and wealth, and the origin of [End Page 625] intellectual and courtly high culture which exerted a definitive influence on the English. 3 As an icon popularized in Italian Renaissance painting, indebted to scenic norms encouraging varietà (norms corresponding to Italian experiences of international diversity), the figure of Balthazar himself combines elements of all three components of Italian signification. 4 The Italian setting of the play thus facilitates the possibility of Portia's brief instantiation of this icon, even as her transformation complicates the meanings of her own Italian identity.

Racial and national overlap, such as that between Portia and Balthazar, is especially prevalent in English Renaissance drama when the setting is foreign. Indeed, foreign settings, somewhat symptomatically, are fertile sites for the depiction of racial and national difference. It is no accident that The Merchant of Venice, which stages conflicts between religions and ethnicities, is set in Italian venues. But Italian settings do not merely serve as places where difference can exist, conveniently distanced from England: thematized Italian diversity is itself located within London and enacted on behalf of English playgoers. The popular, public context of their enactment in London means that English Italianate dramas effectively testified to and promoted experiences of diversity and alterity within the imagination of the English subject.

Such experiences are the more remarkable in that they occurred with surprising frequency; as is well known, English playwrights routinely set comedies and especially tragedies in Italy, France, and other Mediterranean countries. 5 The strangeness of using foreign, Catholic settings as routine, even default, locations for English fictions is difficult, I think, for us to fully appreciate, though a consideration of the relentlessly nationally domestic settings of our own popular entertainments, on television and in film, can perhaps begin to evoke its estranging potential (imagine thinking nothing of Friends, Sleepless in Seattle, or Seven set in Florence or Rome and featuring Italian characters played by American actors). Moreover, the English convention was a native one: it is worth pointing out that other European dramatic canons lack corresponding foreign settings—Italian drama is set in Italy. To be sure, London's own urban scene generated ample occasion for (and helped to motivate) dramatic representations of international encounters. 6 Yet Mediterranean settings evidently provided playwrights with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 625-651
Launched on MUSE
2003-10-22
Open Access
No
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