Skip to main content

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, the rediscovery of Aristotle’s Poetics and the translation of Greek and Latin comedies and tragedies into the Italian vernacular brought about the birth of modern theatre at the hands of Renaissance scholars and members of the learned academies. Not only did these writers reinvent the ancients in the context of the particular demands of their own age and their own audiences’ expectations, but they also contended with questions of performance and public reception, often engaging critically with contemporary politics. The rethinking of theatre catalyzed by the textual models of classical drama thus accompanied the institution of court theatres and was prelude to the emergence of the first public playhouses.

This paper examines the encounter with and reception of classical models in early modern Italian theatre. More specifically, I will focus on the story of Merope as treated by Pomponio Torelli (1589) and Scipione Maffei (1713). Although there is no extant Greek tragedy, a plot can be reconstructed from a few fragments of Euripides’ lost play Cresphontes and by the accounts of Apollodorus, Pausanias, and Hyginus: Queen Merope’s husband and son were killed by the tyrant Polifonte, who now wishes to marry her. She had, however, managed to save one of her sons, Cresfonte, who was hidden when he was a baby. When he returns, Merope, unaware of his true identity, tries to kill him because she believes that he murdered her son. In the end, Cresfonte revenges his father by killing Polifonte, thus saving his mother from a forced wedding. The early modern attraction to the Merope theme was generated by Aristotle’s Poetics, in which Meropian play serves as an example of the best way to treat the recognition scene.

Torelli and Maffei’s political tragedies – the former written for the court stage and the later for the public playhouse – both contributed to a revival of classical tragedy on the Italian stage and constituted the model for modern Italian tragedy. By exploring these plays, this paper aims to investigate a set of intriguing questions, namely:

1) What are Torelli and Maffei’s approaches to their sources? Is their manipulation of classical sources influenced by the horizon of expectations of a new and critically sophisticated theatre-going public?
2) How and to what extent did the rediscovery of Aristotle’s Poetics, the resulting Renaissance commentaries, and the transformation they generated in discourse on aesthetics and poetics influence the development of dramatic genres in early modernity? 3) What is the relationship between literary poetics and, on the one hand, theatrical practices; on the other hand, the symbolic structures of power?

Through this analysis, I hope to provide fresh insight into how the textual models provided by classical drama influenced the complex development of early modern Italian theatre in its unique social, institutional, and political context.