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Menaechmi and the Renaissance of Comedy (Comedy of Errors)

Comparative Drama 2003, Fall-Winter, 37, 3-4

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If The Comedy of Errors remains, for English speakers, the supreme instance of the Menaechmi contribution to drama, that play deserves to be seen as part of a larger picture of European, including English, comedy. Consider, for example, that watershed in the history of European theater occurring at Ferrara on 25 January 1486, with Duke Ercole I's carnival entertainments honoring Francesco Gonzaga, betrothed to Isabella d'Este. Thousands witnessed, with fireworks and other holiday events, the staging of Plautus's Menaechmi. The first publicly performed play in Ferrara, this lively comedy of twins and mistaken identity appears, more significantly, to have been the first classical comedy so presented in vernacular translation. (1) A contemporary chronicler, describing the play as "beletissima e piacevole" reports that the production showed the traveling Menaechmus arriving in a galley with a sail, while the resident brother's city was realistically represented and painted in the background. (2) Enthusiasm sparked another performance of this play at the festivities for the marriage of young Alfonso d'Este and Anna Sforza, daughter of the duke of Milan, as one of three plays on successive February nights of 1491. Ercole d'Este's Ferrara, in fact, took a lead in the staging of Roman comedy. In all, between 1486 and 1505 Ercole had an active role in presenting at least fourteen different plays by Plautus and Terence. In 1493 he took three productions to the Sforza court in Lomhardy, an event which, as Thomas Tuohy observes, "suggests the preeminence of the d'Este theatre at that date." (3) We may find it difficult to believe that some ten thousand spectators saw Ferrara's first Menaechmi performance. (4) Certainly one reason for choosing Menaechmi for this occasion--both celebrating the Este-Gonzaga union and inaugurating a theatrical venture--would have been its relative unfamiliarity, being part of the manuscript discovery by Nicholas of Cusa, about 1428, of twelve hitherto unknown comedies by Plautus. The "new" plays did not become widely available until the first printed edition of the comedies in 1472, though manuscript copies had circulated. Few would have read the play, much less witnessed it, at school. How and why this comedy, among the twelve--or twenty in all--acquired such widespread favor during the sixteenth century has not as yet formed the subject of comparative inquiry. The Ferrara entertainment of 1486 also helped initiate a new theatrical wave in the Renaissance. Its audience included, among the entourage of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, the boy Ludovico Ariosto, who would himself later translate Menaechmi, though his version is lost. Menaechmi thus figures prominently in the backgrounds that led to Ariosto's writing the first widely recognized commedia erudita (vernacular comedy based on Roman models), La Cassaria, acted at Ferrara on a March evening in 1508. Once again, if indirectly, Plautus contributed to Ferrara carnival festivities, as vernacular Plautine imitations would continue to do for generations following this play. Meanwhile, surely influenced by the Este precedent, vernacular performances of Menaechmi met with applause at Bologna (where influence of the Ferrara court was especially strong) (5) in 1491, at Cesena in 1492, at Milan in 1493, and at both Mantua and Rome in 1502 for the second marriage of Alfonso d'Este, this time to Lucrezia Borgia. The Venetian diarist Marin Sanudo mentions seeing the comedy in 1508 ("bellisima") and 1526 ("non molta bella"). (6) Carrying on an Este family tradition, in 1528, Menaechmi celebrated the union of Ercole II with the daughter of Louis XII, Renata or Renee. (7) In this era royal patronage could lift the reputation even of ancient authors.

Menaechmi and the Renaissance of Comedy (Comedy of Errors)
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  • Category: Performing Arts
  • Published: 22 September 2003
  • Publisher: Comparative Drama
  • Print Length: 34 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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