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  • The Dangers and Virtues of Theatricality in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso
  • Jack D’Amico

In his essay “Alle origini della commedia,” M. Apollonio identifies the Renaissance court, particularly the Estense court and its leading playwright Ludovico Ariosto, as the institution that stabilized the multifaceted comic spirit inherited from fourteenth-century Italy. From a more critical angle he suggests that the unity and order derived from classical models eliminated some of the vitality of the origini della commedia. In an essay that addresses both the importance of classical models and the multifaceted variety of life outside the court, Giulio Ferroni makes the related point that Ariosto’s commedia erudita added vitality and complexity to the classical models by drawing on the urban world outside the courtly space where the plays were staged (Il teatro 188). In this essay I shift the focus to the Orlando Furioso where, in a number of markedly theatrical episodes, Ariosto reshapes elements of plot, character and setting typical of commedia erudita to explore the nature and uses of theatricality within the court and city spaces of his narrative.1 [End Page 42]

To begin with an obvious example, in the Ariodante-Ginevra (Guinevere) episode from canto 4, Ariosto alters the typical plot structure and setting of commedia erudita by initiating the action with an impending catastrophe set in the selva immensa of Scotland, far from the urban world typical of Renaissance comedy. In the land of knights errant such as Tristan and Lancelot, the residents of an abbey direct Rinaldo to a cause worthy of fame, the defense of Ginevra, the king’s daughter, who has been accused of fornication and condemned to death by an unjust law (4.59, on source theatricality Valesio 20, and the law Hanning 222). Rinaldo agrees that the law should be revoked, for how can it be a capital offense, he asks, for a woman to allow her true love to “discharge” his desire in her loving arms: “Una donzella dunque de’ morire / perché lasciò sfogar ne l’amorose / sue braccia al suo amator tanto desire?” (63, 2–4).

Directed by something between good luck and providence, Rinaldo rescues Ginevra’s maid Dalinda (4.69–70), who fills in the details that lie behind the accusation, details more important to the reader than to Rinaldo who does not set out to test the veracity of the accusation but to free Ginevra and to challenge the law. We learn that Polinesso, who plotted Dalinda’s murder, has seduced the maid in order to exact revenge for being rejected by her mistress Ginevra, who loves Ariodante. Polinesso turns Ginevra’s prized bedroom (5.8–9) into a stage where the gullible Dalinda, costumed as Ginevra, will act out a sexual rendezvous before the equally gullible spectators Ariodante and his brother Lucranio (5.51).2 Unable to possess Ginevra in effetto, he enjoys her vicariously while making love to Dalinda and uses his performance to slander the princess.

In addition to altering the plot structure of comedy, Ariosto reshapes familiar character types. Polinesso becomes a more complicated blocking figure and Dalinda, the female servant of the innamorata, takes on greater complexity as a maid who resembles her mistress and enjoys becoming her substitute but remains unaware that she too is being victimized by Polinesso (5.7, 49). The dangers of theatricality emerge in this perversion of a romantic balcony scene where Polinesso controls both the performance and the point of view of the spectators, Ario-dante and Lucranio, who witness the rendezvous from ruined houses near the palace (5.10) and imagine the consummation that takes place inside the bedroom. Their readiness to believe that Ginevra’s virtue [End Page 43] has been no more than an illusion points to the law Rinaldo sets out to change, a law based on the ingrained mistrust of women. Ariosto uses the theatrical analogy to connect Polinesso’s methods with the laws and attitudes that constitute the prospettiva of his scheme, the context that makes it convincing.

Dalinda’s narration begins and ends with reference to her attempted murder, an act that mirrors other tragic elements in the story—the imminent execution of Ginevra, the destruction...


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