Ariosto, Cervantes, Shakespeare in 2016: three writers for a centenary celebration

by Professor Jane E. Everson, Professor Andrew Hiscock and Dr Stefano Jossa

25 Apr 2016

2016 marks the fifth centenary of the first publication of the Orlando Furioso, the masterpiece of the sixteenth-century Italian poet, Ludovico Ariosto. This fascinating poem of love and adventure in ottava rima, tells the stories of Charlemagne’s paladins during the war against the Moorish assailants in France. This centenary is, regrettably, being overshadowed in the mind of the general public by two more prominent literary centenaries, those of two deaths, of the national bard, William Shakespeare and the Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, who both died in 1616. Shakespeare and Cervantes will frequently be jointly celebrated this year in the major world libraries: not so with Ariosto. William Shakespeare needs no introduction, while Miguel de Cervantes may be less well-known to some than his greatest creation Don Quixote – the renowned chivalric anti-hero who unveiled the crisis of the feudal world and gave birth to the modern novel. The works of Shakespeare and Cervantes are milestones of world literature and have certainly attracted much greater attention than Ariosto’s. Nowadays perhaps, nobody could be blamed for knowing them better than Ariosto. However, if just the happy few are aware today that both Shakespeare and Cervantes had Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in their background, in the past Ariosto was at least as prominent in the mind of the British and European public.

Ariosto’s epic was translated into Spanish as early as 1549, seventeen years after the third and final edition, by Jerónimo Jiménez de Urrea, followed by further translations, by Hernando Alcocer in 1550, and Diego Vázquez de Contrera in 1585. When it appeared in English in a version by Sir John Harington in the 1590s, the English verse translation of Orlando Furioso joined Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queenein a strikingly ambitious venture for English culture – to build on the medieval chivalric tradition to create something completely new. Interestingly, Spenser himself launched into his own undertaking armed with detailed knowledge of the epic which had travelled across the continent from Italy. Orlando Furioso was found to deal with human nature, Fate and chaos in such a modern way that a few centuries later Sir Walter Scott had no difficulty in acknowledging its primacy in the development of modern narrative, especially when it comes to the representation of simultaneity in literature. For generation after generation of readers, Orlando Furioso is the first piece of early modern literature to question the value of fiction, gender roles, sexual attraction and the complexity of the world: Cervantes and Shakespeare could not help but be attracted by its romantic vicissitudes, the ever multiplying threads to the plot, the elements of trickery, humour and the complex relations between mockery and understanding which it forged.

Shakespeare’s sources are much debated among scholars, yet his knowledge by whatever means of a key story from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, that of Ariodante and Ginevra from cantos 4 to 6 of the poem, cannot be denied. The plot of Much Ado About Nothing is clearly indebted to the story of Ariodante and Ginevra: Don John’s arrangement to make Don Pedro and Claudio believe that Hero, Claudio’s betrothed, is unfaithful by making them witness John’s associate (Borachio) enter her bedchamber. There, he has an assignation with Margaret (Hero’s chambermaid disguised as her mistress) and this encounter mirrors the similar trick played by Polinesso on Ariodante to force him to give up his aspiration to wed Ginevra. It is likely that Shakespeare’s direct source for the story (perhaps through the translation into French by François de Belleforest) was another Italian Renaissance writer, Matteo Maria Bandello (1485-1561). Bandello had himself borrowed the story of Ariodante and Ginevra in story 22 of book 1 of his Novelle (1554), telling the vicissitudes of Sir Timbreo, his betrothed Fenicia and his rival Girondo in Messina at the time of Peter the Great’s defeat of Charles of Anjou (1282). Shakespeare’s historical and geographical settings, at the time of a certain Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, in Messina, confirm that the story is rooted in Bandello’s tale. Nonetheless, Ariosto is undoubtedly part of this complex picture of textual influence and borrowing .

Things become more fascinating, and Shakespeare’s knowledge of Ariosto even more likely, when it comes to Othello. The famous ‘ocular proof’ (III.iii.360) demanded by Othello to Iago to confirm Desdemona’s infidelity seems to come from the same story of Ariodante and Ginevra, when Ariodante requests Polinesso to provide a similar proof of Ginevra’s infidelity (V, 41, 7-8: ‘ma ch’io tel voglia creder non far stima, | s’io non lo veggio con questi occhi prima’). Later on (IV.1.5) Iago’s depiction of Desdemona as ‘naked with her friend in bed’, repeated by a disheartened Othello, ‘Naked in bed’, echoes the same expression in similar circumstances in the Ariostan episode (V, 24, 7: ‘nuda nel letto’: ‘naked in bed’). When Othello asked for ocular proof, indeed, he was admonishing Iago ‘Villain, be sure thou prove my wife a whore’ (III.iii.359), which is in line with Lurcanio’s conclusion that his brother Ariodante has seen with his eyes what sort of a whore Ginevra is (‘poi che con gli occhi tuoi tu vedi certa | quanto sia meretrice, e di che sorte’, V 54, 6). Furthermore, Desdemona’s handkerchief is described as woven by ‘a Sybil […] in her prophetic fury’ (III.4.70-72) as is Ruggero and Bradamante’s pavilion at the ending of Orlando Furioso – which was made by the ancient Greek prophetess Cassandra, who had ‘prophetic fury’ too (‘Una donzella de la terra d’Ilia, | ch’avea il furor profetico congiunto’ (XLVI, 80, 4). Since Othello is one of the most Italian among Shakespeare’s tragedies, set as it is initially in Venice and derived from Giovan Battista Giraldi Cinzio’s tale ‘Un Capitano Moro’ (‘A Moorish Captain’) in his collection of stories Hecatommiti (1565, from Greek, εκατόv μύθοι = a hundred stories), references to the most celebrated among Italian contemporary authors are all too possible. The abovementioned expressions might also support the argument in favour of Shakespeare’s reading of Ariosto in the original Italian rather than Harington’s translation. The debate continues.

Things heat further up with King Lear, where, it has been suggested, another reminiscence of the story of Ariodante and Ginevra can be found. The duels that conclude Ariosto’s episode – first, between the two brothers, Ariodante and Lurcanio, and then, between the avenger Rinaldo and the evil Polinesso, could be seen to merge in the duel between the brothers Edgar and Edmund (V.iii), the former appearing at ‘the third sound’ (133) as ‘an unknown opposite’ (179) (as Polinesso appeared ‘sconosciuto […] al terzo suono’, VI 77, 3 and 88, 3). Scholars used to connect Shakespeare and Ariosto also for the writing of The Taming of the Shrew, the subplot of which is apparently derived from Ariosto’s comedy I Suppositi, either in the original Italian or in George Gascoigne’s translation. Whether Shakespeare knew Italian is still debated among scholars, yet his debt to Ariosto is undeniable and testifies to the prestige of the Italian poet in Elizabethan England.

Cervantes’s primacy in penning the first example of the modern novel, in turn, is widely acknowledged and openly acclaimed. However, most of the reasons for this accolade can be found in Orlando Furiosotoo. Irony, the combination of various threads to the plot, the awareness of the fictional character of the work of literature, the play with the alleged sources, the appearance of the author in the text and self-reflexivity are characteristics that Don Quixote shares with Orlando Furioso. Cervantes seems to acknowledge this when he makes the curate and the barber burn all Don Quixote’s chivalric romances except, among a very few, Orlando Furioso – provided it is read in the original Italian rather than the Spanish translation (book I, chapter 6). Cervantes’s novel, very much like Ariosto’s epic poem, starts with medieval romances, but goes on to convert them into something innovative. There are at least twenty references to Orlando Furioso throughout Don Quixote, to the point that homage prevails over parody. Thus, Orlando Furioso can be rightly seen as the seminal text upon which Cervantes drew to question cultural stereotypes at the time. Like Ariosto before him, and perhaps inspired by Ariosto himself, Cervantes shows the gap between life as it is lived and life as it is represented in works of imagination.

Continuity rather than discontinuity between Ariosto, Cervantes and Shakespeare was clearly acknowledged by the German thinker and literary critic Friedrich Schlegel (1772 – 1829) at the dawn of the nineteenth century, when he defined romantic modernity as the outcome of playful wit and arabesque as opposed to classical harmony and equilibrium. We find the three major writers of early modern Europe intimately linked when Schlegel suggests ‘the divine wit, the imagination, of an Ariosto, a Cervantes, a Shakespeare’ as the main source of modern literature (Letter about the Novel, 1799). Once notable among the classics of an aristocratic education in Britain, Orlando Furioso is now rather forgotten by the general public and his epic can seem unattractive if described solely by its plot summary. Nevertheless, put to the test, Ariosto’s poem proves much more in line with Cervantes and Shakespeare’s modernity than expected: a notion of modernity based on humour rather than just progress, evolution, revolution, freedom, democracy, science and technology would help us understand that modern literature is more concerned with the joining and separating of the ideal and the real than with the ideological celebration of set values.

Time has split the trio. Ariosto is now certainly less famous than Shakespeare and Cervantes worldwide, with the possible, yet not certain, exception of Italy. However, his name would perfectly fit to complete the title of the recently published and already very popular book Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve stories after Shakespeare and Cervantes, with an introduction by Salman Rushdie: after all, wasn’t he the one who first reinvented the journey to the Moon, represented the widest variety of love cases and questioned the truthfulness of poetry in early modern Europe? Why should we not urge that Ariosto deserves to be as much celebrated as Shakespeare and Cervantes? Ariosto’s poem has reached its fifth centenary, while Shakespeare and Cervantes have only reached the fourth in both cases. Shouldn’t numbers have the acknowledgement they deserve? So 2016 is proving a most animated year for remembering – for remembering key anniversaries of the births of monarchs and celebrated writers such as Charlotte Bronte, for remembering those who lost their lives on Flanders fields, and for remembering the passing of literary giants in the English and Spanish literary traditions. It seems now more than ever we must make a little more room in our commemorations for Ludovico Ariosto andOrlando Furioso which transformed epic writing and ideas of heroism across Europe for centuries to come.

Further Readings:

Charles P. Brand, ‘Ginevra and Ariodante: A Deception motif from Ariosto to Shakespeare’, in Essays in honour of John Humphreys Whitfield , ed. by H. C. Davis et al. (London: St. George’s Press, 1975), pp. 120-36.

Andrew S. Cairncross, ‘Shakespeare and Ariosto: Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, and Othello’, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer, 1976), pp. 178-82.

Thomas R. Hart, Cervantes and Ariosto: Renewing Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

Leonard Barkan, ‘What did Shakespeare read?’, in Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 31-48.

Frederick A. De Armas, ‘Cervantes and the Italian Renaissance’, in Anthony J. Cascardi (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Cervantes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 32-57.

Donald Beecher, Massimo Ciavolella and Roberto Fedi (eds.), Ariosto Today: Critical Perspectives (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).

Selene Scarsi, Translating Women in Early Modern England. Gender in the Elizabethan versions of Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).

Massimiliano Morini, Tudor Translation in Theory and Practice (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

Michele Marrapodi (ed.), Shakespeare and the Italian Renaissance: Appropriation, Transformation, Opposition (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

Related Posts:

Ariosto and his reception in the Anglo speaking world will be discussed at the British Academy on 28th and 29th April Ariosto, the Orlando furioso and English Culture, 1516-2016.

Prof Jane E. Everson is Emeritus Professor of Italian at Royal Holloway University of London and the author of The Italian Romance Epic in the Age of Humanism: The Matter of Italy and the World of Rome (OUP, 2001). Professor Hiscock is Professor of English at the University of Bangor and the author of Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature (CUP, 2011). Dr Stefano Jossa is Reader in Italian at Royal Holloway and the author of Ariosto (il Mulino, 2009). They are the convenors of Ariosto, the Orlando furioso and English Culture, 1516-2016.

Sign up to our email newsletters