A Barbarian not Lacking in Wit (Manzoni on Shakespeare)

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RomeoEjulieta

Romeo e Giulietta

In his Lettre to Chauvet, Alessandro Manzoni’s entire argument on historical drama revolves around Shakespeare, his ability to represent his characters truthfully, conveying the psychology and passions of real life. In the first draft of his Lettre, written in Paris, Manzoni had criticized only one aspect of Shakespeare’s theatre: his mixing the serious and the comic. But in his letter to Fauriel of 12 September 1822, he revised this idea, admitting the possibility of such a mix in a writer with poetic genius. Moreover, in his novel Manzoni was to represent a social and historical world in which the serious and the comic were connected, unlike in tragedy.

IpromessiSposiIn Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed, “The Promised Espoused”, 1827), there is more than one allusion to Shakespeare. For example, the Innominato’s anguished self-questioning on the afterlife (while on the verge of suicide) recalls Hamlet’s doubts. An explicit reference to Shakespeare occurs towards the end of Chapter VII of the novel when, referring to the moments preceding the “surprise wedding” and the experience of its protagonists, Manzoni writes: Tra il primo pensiero d’una impresa terribile e l’esecuzione di essa (ha ditto un barbaro non privo d’ingegno), l’intervallo è un sogno, pieno di fantasmi e di paure. [Among the first thoughts of a terrible business and running it (it has been said, a barbarian not devoid of wit), the range is a dream, full of ghosts and fears.] Manzoni was referring here to Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (Act II, scene i), but describes Shakespeare (in brackets) with reference to Voltaire, who considered the English poet vulgar, even though a genius. Charles Swan, the first English translator of Manzoni’s novel, did not perceive the irony here, angrily thinking that Manzoni he was insulting the great Shakespeare. Manzoni had to clarify his meaning in a letter to him.

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“L’Innominato”, the Unnamed, with Cardinal Federico Borromeo