How direct is the relationship between Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and Commedia dell’Arte?
Probably the funniest production of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew you will ever see harks back to 1976 in a production by the American Conservatory Theatre directed by William Ball & Kirk Browning. (You’ll find it on my YouTube channel, Shakespeare on YouTube.)
What makes this production unique is that it’s presented in the style of the Commedia dell’Arte, and gives us the kind of knockabout, physical, bawdy and highly stylised comic performances the original Elizabethan audience would have enjoyed. At the same time, it takes a feminist approach which makes it appealing to a modern audience.
Young, strong and agile, Petruchio (Marc Singer) is all masculine bravado. He and Katherina (Fredi Olster) are strongly attracted at first sight, but stubborn pride keeps them apart. Katherina gives as good as she gets and those occasions in which she agrees with Petruchio are performed with heavy irony so that, rather than submitting to him, she is showing him how idiotically he is behaving. Much of the comedy in this production comes from the Bianca subplot, which is played very much for absurd comedy rather than romance.
This production was broadcast on the American Public Broadcasting System as part of their Theatre in America series. In his introduction to the play, Hal Holbrook says:
One of Shakespeare’s early plays, it’s done in the period when he borrowed freely from the forms and styles of other writers and other cultures. For this one he turned to the Commedia dell’Arte of Italy, with its great tradition of knockabout comedy and larger-than-life clowns.
Commedia dell’Arte came to maturity in Italy in the mid-sixteenth century. It was a form of improvised theatre based on comic stock characters and situations. Many of these stock characters can be seen in The Taming of the Shrew. Bianca and Lucentio as the young lovers. Tranio, the shrewd servant. Gremio as Pantalone, the stingy and absurdly lustful old man. The fraudulent pedant. Petruchio as il Capitano, the braggart. Petruchio’s bumbling and terrified servants as the zanni.
The ease with which The Taming of the Shrew can be performed in the style of the Commedia dell’Arte shows that there is some connection between them, but it isn’t as direct as Hal Holbrook tells us.
Throughout his career, Shakespeare did indeed borrow freely from other writers and other cultures. However, spending all his life in England, Shakespeare didn’t have access to the forms and styles of other cultures except through their written work. It was on these written sources that he based much of his work.
The Taming of the Shrew has two main plots, the marriage of Kate to Petruchio and the courting of Bianca by her three suitors. Scholars agree that while the Kate and Petruchio plot has its roots in the folk tradition, the Bianca plot has a recognized literary source in the Italian play, I Suppositi by Ludovico Ariosto written in 1509. Shakespeare probably knew it in its English translation by George Gascoigne, Supposes, first written in 1566 and re-published in his complete works in 1587 only a year or two before The Taming of the Shrew was written.
Ludovico Ariosto was the pre-eminent playwright working in the style known as the Commedia Erudita, or scholarly comedy, a style of theatre meant for the entertainment of scholars and courtiers and written in Latin or a scholarly Italian not readily understood by ordinary Italians.
Commedia Erudita imitated and emulated the classic Latin comedies of Terence and Plautus and derived its comedy from misunderstandings, mistaken identities and disguises, while maintaining the classical unities of time, place and action. The plays also depended on a cast of stock characters such as a young man in pursuit of love, his clever servant, his harsh father, a lecherous and gullible doctor, a fraudulent pedant, a pimp or panderer, a parasite, and an innocent young woman.
These stereotypes can be seen in Ariosto’s play, I Suppositi. While the on-stage action takes place over one day, the story goes as follows:
On arriving in Ferrara from his native Sicily, young scholar Erostrato falls in love at first sight with Polynesta, the daughter of Damon, a rich gentleman. In order to woo her, Erostrato exchanges places with his servant Dulypo and enters Damon’s household as a servant. Abetted by her nurse Balia, Erostrato seduces Polynesta and they become lovers. Meanwhile Polynesta is being courted by a rich elderly doctor, Cleander, who has been befriended by Pasyphilo, a parasite. In order to confound Cleander’s efforts Erostrato sends his own servant to vie for Polynesta’s hand in his name and outbid Cleander. As Erostrato’s father has been delayed, Dulypo tricks a newly arrived travelling scholar into playing his father so as to confirm his suit for Polynesta. However, when Damon finds out that Erostrato has got Polynesta pregnant he imprisons him. Meanwhile, Erostrato’s real father arrives and is denied and abused by Dulypo. However, the truth comes out and when Damon learns that the supposed servant who seduced his daughter is actually the son of a rich man, he is happy for them to marry. Meanwhile Cleander recognises Dulypo as his long-lost son and, having found an heir, withdraws his suit.
While the Commedia Erudita was entertaining the upper classes indoors, Commedia dell’Arte was developing as a popular art form in the streets and town squares of Northern Italy. Its origins are buried in time, but it may have evolved through the Middle Ages from classical Roman comedy. By the sixteenth century it was frequently borrowing themes, motifs, situations and stock characters from Commedia Erudita, thus combining the two traditions.
So, while there is indeed a strong similarity between The Taming of the Shrew and Commedia dell’Arte, this hasn’t come about through direct imitation, but indirectly via classical Latin Comedy, Commedia Erudita and an English translation, Supposes.
But even while incorporating Supposes almost in its entirety into The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare didn’t stick to simple imitation, but expanded and developed on it to bring it into the much more open and free-wheeling style of the English theatre.
Shakespeare’s first innovation was to free the story from the restraints of the classic unities of time, place and action, so that it unfolds over time and space and can be shown to us rather than retold. In doing so he had to create many of the scenes that are only hinted at in Supposes, such as the haggling between the suitors and the father, Lucentio’s wooing of Bianca, and the trick played on the passing traveller. He also brought the setting from the Graeco-Roman to contemporary Italy.
Next, he made the young lover into Bianca’s tutor rather than a servant, a logical use of Lucentio’s background as a scholar, making it easier to bring the lovers together without the need for a panderer and giving an added dimension to their courting.
Another vital change is the role of Hortensio. While he takes on some aspects of the parasite, in that it is he who comes up with the plan to get a husband for Kate and acts as confidant to both Gremio and Petruchio, his role has been expanded so that he also plays a crucial part in tying the two plots together.
Shakespeare also found a place in the cast of stock characters for Petruchio in giving him the role of the braggart and a household of servants to be the zanni. Interestingly, there was no place in the cast of stock characters for Kate, as she was no doubt unique for her time.
What The Taming of the Shrew shows us is that even this early in his career, while he borrowed freely from other sources, Shakespeare showed a great deal of creativity and artistic independence. While Ariosto constrained himself to the rules set down more than a thousand years before his time, Shakespeare was bound by no such restrictions. He took Ariosto’s play and freed it up, added his own original ideas and came up with a much better play than his source material.
© Pauline Montagna 2021