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Shakespeare, Goldoni, and the Clowns Eugene Steele As Giuseppe Ortolani observes, “No one would ever dream of mentioning Goldoni and Shakespeare in the same context.”l All the same, Ortolani felt compelled to demonstrate in his essay “Goldoni and Shakespeare” that Goldoni had read at least some of Shakespeare’s plays in the Théâtre anglois of La Place (Paris, 1745-46), and even saw David Garrick perform some scenes from Shakespeare in Paris in 1764. “Reminiscences” of Shake­ speare have been observed in a few of Goldoni’s plays, but need not concern us here. What Goldoni and Shakespeare did have in common was, of course, that both were essentially, and indeed exclusively, men of the theatre, writing for audiences, not for literary critics or scholars, for highly detached players, not for automatons fos­ silized in their assigned parts. As many critics have pointed out, Shakespeare’s proper context is the London commercial theatre and the organized professional troupe. J. Dover Wilson has re­ minded us more than once that Shakespeare wrote “not books, but prompt books.”2 In this sense, the playscripts are only an incomplete record of the original performance. As we know, “Shakespeare himself was not too much troubled to produce a perfect manuscript. This fallacy of the perfect manuscript taints a great deal of our attempts at reconstruction.”3 In actual per­ formance the side of the player was apparently in the most prag­ matic of players’ shorthand, with nothing but the barest essen­ tials, the one full copy being jealously guarded by the book­ keeper. Meddling with the text was not beyond the players, who were prepared to do extensive patchwork, despite the evidence that Shakespeare shared the scorn of the late sixteenth-century theatre establishment for the player out of his part and found it vexing that the Elizabethan Clowns, like the Commedia dell’Arte players, cared so much and no more for the sanctities of his set209 210 Comparative Drama down script. The texts as we have them are full of such extran­ eous elements as “the introduction of gratuitous exclamations, vocatives, the use of etc, metrical breakdowns, omissions and patching,”4 not to mention the topical allusions, songs and puns, which might well be the result of improvisation by actors, especi­ ally in passages attributed to Clowns.5 There is no reason to believe, however, that Shakespeare would have wanted to fossilize his players in one style of acting on the stage. As J. L. Styan notes, the Elizabethan player was no more an automaton than the player of today, and the certain fact stands out about the Elizabethan stage conventions that from 1576 to 1642 the London stage was an arena of vigorous theatrical activity in which experiment and change were unexceptional .6 Styan further suggests that there is every reason to believe from what we know of Shakespeare’s stage practice that he was fighting to free himself from “conventional restrictions,” and that “with each new play his drama is enlarged, the actor forced to review his craft, the spectator forced to a new response, the possibilities of the stage are flexed.” One such “conventional restriction” was the traditional, improvising, disruptive Clown. There is much evidence to indicate that the leading Clown of the company enjoyed unequalled autonomy and that he wellnigh usurped the playwright’s role, a license with the rigid shap­ ing of the text which Shakespeare deplored again and again in what was to become almost a personal vendetta against bravura clownage throughout his career, though his relations with his players, and especially with his principal Clowns, were complex. Goldoni, for his part, never forgot he was writing for the stage, and the demands made upon him by the extemporizing Clowns are more obvious. The troupes of ad-libbing Commedia dell’Arte players considered the Italian comic stage their own by right of inheritance, but very few of them, like Antonio Sacchi, the celebrated Arlecchino, took the trouble to give variety and snap to their dialogue. By the middle of the eighteenth century they frequently offered wearisome and deadly reincarnations of worn-out scenarios, mere plot-and-circumstances skeletons, in which, at their worst, “Trivellinos, Fritellinos...


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