Influence of Commedia Dell'Arte on Shakespearean Comedy

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Flavy Sen Sharma (848) ; Diwita Mathivanan (132)
The Rise of the Modern West
25th March, 2013

The Influence of Commedia Dell’ Arte on Shakespearean Comedy The European Renaissance as a cultural revolution affected every sphere of life from the 14th to the 17th century. The French term ‘Renaissance,’ meaning rebirth, refers to the period of rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman texts, art and culture. This movement originated in Italy from where it spread northwards and impacted England in the 16th century. The notion of Humanism was an important feature of this period and directly related to this was the literary doctrine of ‘imitation.’ The extent of pervasion and impact of the Renaissance on society can be best noted from the theatre of period. The degree to which the Italian Renaissance theatre impacted English Renaissance theatre demonstrates the ways in which cultural ideas spread through the continent. Theatre provides an understanding of class structures in the Renaissance societies by portraying stereotyped personalities. Thus, in most of the theatrical works of the Renaissance, the society constituted a significant part of the context. This art form also appealed to large sections of the population, thus acting as means of preaching and educating the masses. By examining the influence of Commedia Dell’Arte (Italian Renaissance Theatre) on Shakespearean comedy, it is easier to comprehend the extent of the spread of ideas during the Renaissance and further understand the hierarchical nature of the social structure in Europe. The English Renaissance theatre signifies English drama which was written during the period extending from the English reformation (1517) to the puritan revolution (1642). This period of drama falls under the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), King James I(1603-1625), King Charles I (1625-1642) and accordingly came to be known as the Elizabethan theatre, Jacobean theatre and Caroline theatre. Queen Elizabeth was a patron of English drama and in her regime theatre flourished unprecedentedly. Certain measures undertaken by the queen such as issuing royal patents to performers, enacting laws that required the performers to find a patent, etc led to the empowerment of the performers and earned them recognition and respect in the society. The term Elizabethan theatre is applied more generally to also incorporate theatre of Elizabeth's immediate successors James I and Charles I. The different kinds of theaters that existed in the renaissance period were the public, private and court theaters. Public theaters were open-air buildings in which the stage was surrounded by open yards on three sides. In contrast to this, the private theaters were small indoor establishments meant exclusively for the rich with a seating capacity of few hundreds. The court theaters were radically different from these two in terms of nature of the audience and the status they granted their actors. The court theatre was performed for the royalty. The English Renaissance theatre grew out of the medieval English drama which comprised of mystery and morality plays (Anniina Jokien). The morality plays were allegoric teachings of Christian principles whereas the mystery plays were direct reenactments of stories from the Bible. These public spectacles were religious in nature and according to Robert Huntington Fletcher; they had their roots in Church services. Towards the end of the 15th century, a new type of short entertainment plays called ‘interludes’ were performed. It was a move away from the didactic medieval tradition to purely secular plays with an element of comedy. This radical shift in the nature of English drama was stimulated by the infusion reformation and humanist values into drama. As time progressed, the interludes became more elaborate by incorporating dance and music being heavily influenced by French farce and there was a changing focus from the religious to the political. These plays laid the...
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