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Sforza Oddi and the Commedia Grave: Setting the Stage for Shakespeare Robert W. Leslie Shakespeare is popularly regarded as the central figure in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical practice, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish an authorial line of descent for him within the English tradition. While his plays to some extent echo the pioneering work of such playwrights as Marlowe, Kyd, and LyIy, his comedies in particular have a richness in their plotting and characterization which none of his predecessors or contemporaries can match. The mixture of noble and humble casts, powerful female roles, psychological complexity, disguise, sexual ambiguity, tragic potential, pastoral sojourn, self-sacrifice, and providential dénouement which wholly or partially typifies Shakespearean comedy—and which is particularly evident in the later works—seems to identify Shakespeare as something of a sudden mutation within the body of English comic drama. A generation previously, however, the same rich mixture had come into being in Italy as the writers of commedia grave (serious comedy) and pastorale struggled to evolve a dramatic formula more compatible with the moral and political climate of the Counter-Reformation than the neo-classical bawdiness typical of the Humanist Renaissance . I have previously indicated something of Shakespeare's debt to pastorale and specifically linked A Midsummer Night's Dream to Guarini's // pastor fido} In the present article I shall present the conventions and concerns of the commedia grave as demonstrated in the work of an author who, although now largely forgotten, was not only immensely popular in his day but also a key figure in the promulgation of the controriformista dramatic code: Sforza Oddi.2 Oddi wrote three best-selling comedies: the Erofilomachia (c.1561—twelve printings between 1572 and 1622), / morti vivi (c.1576—fourteen printings between 1576 and 1617), and Prigione d'amore (c.1585—twenty-two printings between 1590 525 526Comparative Drama and 1634).3 While Oddi's small output and reputation as a dilettante playwright may have contributed to his neglect by Anglophone theatrical historians, there can be little doubt of the importance of his contribution to the theater of his day. M. H. Corrigan sees the publication of the three plays as having given a definite boost to commedia grave. She notes the greater focus on women in Raffaello Borghini's La donna costante (c.1578) and L'amante furioso (1580), and in Francesco Podiani's Fidi amanti (1599), Schiavi d'amore (1606) and Malia d'amore (1618). Degli Angeli, in his Amor pazzo (1596), uses a central female character and repeats Oddi's device of the supposedly dead lover. Centio's Padre afflitto (1578) and Mazza's Ricatto (1588) both show friends vying with each other in generosity, while Giovanni Villifranchi reveals in the prologue to La greca schiava (1618) that his comedy was modeled directly on / morti vivi. Pico's Honesta schiava is mainly a contaminatio of / morti vivi and Erofilomachia , and, as late as 1664, Cicognini rewrites / morti vivi as Verità riconosciuta? Sanesi also indicates a possible Oddian influence on the serious comedies of Della Porta, which however cannot be confirmed owing to the uncertain chronology of the Neapolitan dramatist's oeuvre? As far as English awareness of these plays is concerned, Sanesi notes that John Marston's What You Will was based on / morti vivi;6 John M. Lothian proves Erofilomachia to be the source of Walter Hawkesworth's university comedy Leander (1598);7 and John Florio's Queen Anne's Worlde of Wordes (1611) cites Prigióne d'amóre as one of its source-works.8 It is therefore almost certain that all three plays found their way to England and thus possible that Shakespeare had some awareness of them. I am principally concerned, however, to illustrate the tradition within which Shakespeare was working by demonstrating the thematic and structural principles which define commedia grave and therefore will not at this stage attempt to prove definitively any direct connection between the works of Oddi and those of Shakespeare (although it should be noted that the setting and general tone of Oddi's Prigione d'amore do, in fact, have much in common with those of Measure for Measure). Since, as shall...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 525-551
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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