The Aretinean Intertext and the Heterodoxy of The Taming of the Shrew
Among Shakespeare’s Italian comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, partly based on Ariosto’s I Suppositi (1509) through the mediation of Gascoigne’s English version, Supposes (1566), posits an unprecedented comedic structure that has been variously evaluated by past and recent criticism. The beffa on Sly in the opening scenes, orchestrated by the noble Lord and functioning as Induction to the play proper, provides material for an amusing theatrical episode quite remote from the main action of the play. As I have mentioned elsewhere,1 this unusual construction, apparently devoid of any explicit contact with the subsequent action, can be regarded as a frame of the spectacle offered to the very same actors as internal audience, that is, a container, in Cesare Segre’s phrase, of a successive scene en abyme, “staged inside the first”;2 or, alternatively, as a dialogical prologue, a theatrical inset which proposes itself as an autonomous diegetic segment through a number of performers, centring on a character endowed with a lively clownish language, a hilarious protagonist of the comedic action who obliquely suggests the play’s motifs and developments. Such a device is not rare in the drama of the period. A kind of dialogical prologue opens George Peele’s The Old Wive’s Tale (1594), Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour (1600), and Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) and characterizes the Induction written by Webster for John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604). All of these opening insets provide examples of autonomous acting pieces, serving to introduce the play’s ongoing action.3 But a real source of inspiration from which various dramatic models are drawn is the rich repertory of Italian Cinquecento prologues, stemming from Plautus’s and Terence’s antecedents, with a frequent contaminatio from the proems of the Decameron, where we find several cases of prologue-like dialogical
1 Michele Marrapodi, “Induction and Prologue in The Taming of the Shrew”, in The Taming of the Shrew. Dal testo alla scena, ed. Mariangela Tempera (Bologna: Cluebb, 1998), pp. 47-66.