A “Stratfordian Homunculus” Forged And Distilled From Italian Comedy?

An artist’s impression of a Commedia d’elle Arte performance, Baron Gerard Museum & Art Gallery, Bayeux, France.

It has often been intimated by Shakespeare scholars, dramatists and reviewers that a great number of Shakespeare’s early plays display or contain elements of the Italian street players known as the “Commedia d’el Arte”, who were extremely popular during the early part of the Italian Renaissance between the 15th and 16th centuries. Among the main male characters were Pantaloon, a Doctor, the Inamorato, the servants Harlequin and Brighella, and Scapino. The main female characters featured were the confidant of Inamorata, the Soubrette, Columbina, Canterina and Ballerina.
Other European countries, including the British Isles of course, had similar travelling performers for example; the “Comedias de Capa y Espada” (lit. trans “Cape & Sword”) from Spain were domestic intrigues acted out by nobles for the amusement and entertainment of other nobility. Similarly the “Comedia de Figuron” were a genre of Spanish drama with stock themes, plots and characters (both male and female) from everyday life but on the whole somewhat bombastic, pompous or pretentious in their presentation. The Spanish “Comedia de Ruido” were another dramatic genre meaning “Noisy Plays”, which required a great deal of props, supporting scenery, sound contraptions and mechanical devices. Many of these plays had as their principle subject the life of monarchs or saints in days gone by with mythological or historical subjects or themes. However, in France the acting troupes had long been inspired by their own home-spun “Comedié”, not necessarily a “comedy” as such but rather a play that was “not serious” and their very own “Comedié de Mœurs” which translates as “Comedy of Manners”. These plays explored the social mores of different classes and types of characters as Shakespeare does in “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Love’s Labours Lost”. For example the character Armado corresponds to the “bragging soldier”, the Miles Glorioso of Plautus, Moth corresponds to the “Zanni”, a companion to the braggart, Holofernes corresponds to the “Pedant” and Nathaniel to the “Parasite”. France’s own state theatres did not arrive until 1622 (Le Theatre Francaise & La Maison Molière), but another genre in France was known as a “Tearful Comedy” or “Comedié Larmoyante” intended naturally to be “tear-wateringly sad or tragic” depending on your perspective. What was accepted as “tragic” or tearful for some was indeed a source of “comedy” and laughter for others. The word Comedy actually derives from the Greek word “Komos” meaning “to revel” or “make merry” and was associated in ancient Greece with the ritual dramas and worship of the Greek god Dionysus who is featured strongly as an emblem in the introductory pages of William Shakespeare’s 1623 Folio of plays. The Italian poet Dante in his “Divine Comedy” defined comedy as “Com”, meaning village and “Coda” meaning song, (ie; “Village Songs”) which usually began sadly or tragically but finished with a happy and unexpected ending. The arcane “Satyr Plays”, as they were named are unfortunately a misnomer because the Elizabethans thought that the satyr plays of ancient Greece were literally a term to describe their own satirical dramas of the time. The term satire actually derived from the Latin “satura”, meaning a mixture or medley in performance, song, poetry, burlesque etc. Not unlike the Elizabethan revels, the genre described a genial, often mocking/laughing and light-hearted comedy whose diametric opposite in form was the “Juvenal Play” which was more scathing and critical lit: “railing or lashing out” at some character, trend or behaviour in society or among the aristocracy.

Eight of the stock characters who perform in the Commedia d’elle Arte, Italy

This was akin to another form, “Comedy of Morals” which traditionally derided the follies and sins of “the common man” such as hypocrisy, deceit, pride, avarice, pretention, simony and nepotism. Shakespeare’s contemporary, the poet and playwright Ben Jonson favoured the satirical form with his “Every Man Out Of His Humour” and other similar plays, while Shakespeare explored the romantic comedy and tragic-comedy in his “Comedy of Errors” and “Much Ado About Nothing”. The ancient Greek medical theory of four temperaments which was known to Italian physicians such as Vesalius as the “Four Humours or Temperaments” suggested that human beings were subject to certain compulsions, passions, traits and dispositions eg: the melancholic (Earth-depressive), the choleric (Fire-bad-tempered), the phlegmatic (Water-hysterical) and the sanguine (Air-cold-hearted). The seven major planets as well as the zodiac signs themselves were similarly defined as fiery, watery, airy, and earthy which allowed the Italian Neo-Classical Commedia d’el Arte to introduce them as a series of eight or sixteen archetypal characters in professional theatre (The Hermetic Tarot of Mantegna-The archetypal social stations of humanity). These were often performed by aristocratic, trained actors as opposed to the “Commedia Erudita” which was crude, popular, improvisational theatre, farce or burlesque performed by enthusiastic amateurs from local provinces. They were often described as “a learned imitation of classical comedies” like those composed by Terence and Plautus; a good example of which can be found in the work of Ariosto, who was followed by Machiavelli (in his own “La Mandragola”, 1520) and Aretino. Another popular form, which developed in Spain was the “Comedy of Intrigue” favoured by Lope de Vega (1562-1635), Tirso de Molina (1571-1648) and Alarçon (1581-1639).

A set of Commedia d’elle Arte masks

The touring groups or troupes of Commedia (Troubadours) travelled as far as Western France but never actually travelled on their tours as far as the British Isles. On a small number of occasions however they did perform at court with the invitation of the reigning monarch or some English aristocrat but never did they perform publically in the streets, in pageants or the theatres as dramas or masques. The narrative plot of the Tempest bears some similarities to several Commedia plays, for example “La Nave” (The Ship), “Il Mago” (The Magician), and “Tres Satiri” (Three Satyrs). The Shakespeare research academic, Allardyce Nicholl draws comparison of the storyline of The Tempest with an Italian play entitled “Arcadia Incantada” (The Enchanted Arcadia). William Thomas’s “History of Italy” (1549) mentions a certain Duke of Genoa, Prospero Adorno who could have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s own character of Prospero in the “Tempest”, and who was deposed in 1460 and returned sixteen years later to rule as deputy for the Duke of Milan. A recorded visit of Italian Commedia d’el Arte actors to perform in Nottingham as early as 1573 was followed a year later from an account in “Court Revels” of a performance for the Queen at Windsor and Reading. Furthermore, on the 27th February 1576 one Italian troupe performed at court while another under Drousiano was given dispensation to perform during Lent in 1578. William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon would have been a young boy of nine to twelve years-old during those occasions. While the Earl of Oxford having failed to escape to the continent in 1574, was finally allowed to tour France, Germany and Italy in April 1576 at the age of twenty-six with his own acting company performed several plays at the English court having spent a year touring in Padua, Verona, Venice and Sienna. The Elizabethan play “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, revived by William Davenant with the title “The Rivals” (later attributed to William Shakespeare) bears some similarity, especially with the clownish characters, Launce and Speed to a Commedia play entitled “Flavio Tradito”. An early version of which has been recorded as performed at Whitehall (19th February 1577) in the “Revels Accounts” as “The Historie of Titus and Gissipus” based on Bocaccio’s novella.

Precise historical and geographical detail in the play suggests a direct personal experience or knowledge in Northern Italy of the canal network in Lombardy and an actual reference to “Saint Gregory’s Well”, which was a customary staging post on any journey from the north to Milan. But the biggest anomaly encountered by academics is Pantino’s outburst in Act Two, scene three when he scolds Lance for tarrying and in danger of missing the boat which Proteus intends to board from Verona to Milan, they being both land-locked cities with no tidal flows?

“Lance away, away! Aboard!
Thy master is shipped, and thou art to post after with oars
What’s the matter? Why weepest thou, man?
Away ass, you’ll lose the tide, if you tarry any longer
…Tut, man, I mean thou’lt lose the flood, and,
In losing the flood, lose thy voyage, and
In losing thy voyage, lose thy master, and, in losing thy master,
Lose thy service, and, in losing thy service-“

In an article written by Catherine Hatinguais in the Oxfordian Newsletter (volume 21) the author, having meticulously researched the canal network between Verona and Milan during the 16th century, describes how the river Adige was regularly maintained and used for transport alongside the canal network as well. However, since the 16th century the landscape had been radically changed by those involved in flood management and farming. So, while academics originally thought that Shakespeare had made a gross geographical error (Sidney Lee 1907 and Andrew Dickson, later in 2016) it seems that the author of the 1623 Folio had actually travelled to Italy and knew first-hand the lay of the land and water transport in that particular region of the Po valley.

In the other “Italianate” play “Taming of a Shrew”, which is mostly located at Padua the author makes reference to all the cities visited by the Earl of Oxford, namely Venice, Pisa, Florence, Verona and Mantua.


“Tranio, since for the great desire I had
To see fair Padua, nursery of arts,
I am arrived for fruitful Lombardy,
The pleasant garden of great Italy;
And by my father’s love and leave am arm’d
With his good will and thy good company,
My trusty servant, well approved in all,
Here let us breathe and haply institute
A course of learning and ingenious studies.
Pisa renown’d for grave citizens
Gave me my being and my father first,
A merchant of great traffic through the world,
Vincetino come of Bentivolii.
Vincetino’s son brought up in Florence
It shall become to serve all hopes conceived,
To deck his fortune with his virtuous deeds:
And therefore, Tranio, for the time I study,
Virtue and that part of philosophy
Will I apply that treats of happiness
By virtue specially to be achieved.
Tell me thy mind; for I have Pisa left
And am to Padua come, as he that leaves
A shallow plash to plunge him in the deep
And with satiety seeks to quench his thirst.”

“Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray;
Or so devote to Aristotle’s cheques
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured:
Balk logic with acquaintance that you have
And practise rhetoric in your common talk;
Music and poesy use to quicken you;
The mathematics and the metaphysics,
Fall to them as you find your stomach serves you;”

“Give me thy hand, Kate: I will unto Venice,
To buy apparel ‘gainst the wedding-day.
Provide the feast, father, and bid the guests;
I will be sure my Katharina shall be fine.”

And later:
“Father, and wife, and gentlemen, adieu;
I will to Venice; Sunday comes apace:
We will have rings and things and fine array;
And kiss me, Kate, we will be married o’Sunday.”

“Of Mantua, sir? marry, God forbid!
And come to Padua, careless of your life?”

“My life, sir! how, I pray? for that goes hard.”

“‘Tis death for any one in Mantua
To come to Padua. Know you not the cause?
Your ships are stay’d at Venice, and the duke,
For private quarrel ‘twixt your duke and him,
Hath publish’d and proclaim’d it openly:
‘Tis, marvel, but that you are but newly come,
You might have heard it else proclaim’d about.”

“Alas! sir, it is worse for me than so;
For I have bills for money by exchange
From Florence and must here deliver them.”

“Well, sir, to do you courtesy,
This will I do, and this I will advise you:
First, tell me, have you ever been at Pisa?”

A painting by Artist James Durno, of a scene from ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’; Sir John Soane’s Museum;

Moreover, it seems the character of Falstaff, (particularly in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and in “King Henry IVth Part Two”) itself was derived from the Italian School of developed stage archetypes where he was known as “El Capitano”, the braggart soldier who was in turn derived from Plautus’s own “Miles Glorioso”. One is therefore inclined to inquire; how on earth did the Stratford Shakespeare, who never travelled abroad and is still purported or assumed to be the author by conventional academics, get to know and imitate so precisely an Italian dramatic genre? William Shakspere, reputed to be the author of the 1623 Folio by Stratfordians, travelled exclusively between Stratford-upon-Avon and London, he never visited Italy; in fact he was never recorded as travelling abroad by ship, road or horse. The strong influence of Italianate comedy and drama In Shakespeare’s work is the major source of serious doubt of the supposition that he wrote poetry and plays without travelling to Italy of for that matter France. The Earl of Oxford meanwhile left Sicily embarked for Marseilles and from there up the Rhone before finally arriving in Paris. A reference to which would have been found in “All’s Well That Ends Well”: “Marseilles, to which place we have convenient convoy” or “He comes by post from Marseilles” and in “The Taming of a Shrew”, “an argosy that now is lying in Marseilles road”. Furthermore, in Act Five, scene One Portia mentions taking a letter by “tranect” (a word which has puzzled academics) and can only be placed to a locality in Venice, a type of ferry or gondola for transporting people, goods or messengers.

An artist’s impression of a scene from “The Taming of a Shrew”

“Take this same letter,
And use thou all the endeavour of a man
In speed to Padua: see thou render this
Into my cousin’s hand, Doctor Bellario;
And, look, what notes and garments he doth give thee,
Bring them, I pray thee, with imagined speed
Unto the tranect, to the common ferry
Which trades to Venice. Waste no time in words,
But get thee gone: I shall be there before thee.”

While its opposite dramatic tragedy, at least from an historical perspective, is derived from the Dionysian revels and ritualised plays of ancient Greece. Romance had its roots in the European pagan rituals performed usually at seasonal transitions eg: summer, autumn, winter, springtime. For a romance to work it required some aspect of allegory to define and translate the nature of the quest of the hero or heroine to an audience. In this instance it was important for an audience to identify strongly with the leading character (hero/heroine). The psychological development of a specific character through trial and error within a set series of acts was pivotal to the dramatic theme extemporised. We immediately detect the influence of Italian theatre in some of Shakespeare’s most early plays such as “A Comedy of Errors” and similarities in performance and staging style to L’Ammalata (1555) by Giovanni Cecchi and to Gl’ Inganni (1549) by Nicolo Secchi. According to several sources the stage set was constructed of three doors with perhaps two balconies above, the entire action taking place in the urban setting within one day. This required the installation of scaffolding, panels and folding screens so that it could be staged in any city or regional playhouse. The central door had the sign of the Phoenix (Antipholus of Ephesus), while the doors to left and right had the sign of the porcupine (Courtesan) and the sign of a cross (Abbey). Exits to stage left and stage right represented the roads to the harbour or bay and roads to the rural countryside respectively. This type of stage setting could be dismantled or repainted for future use in other plays.

A famous court scene from “The Merchant of Venice” when Shylock defends his right to justice and “a pound of flesh”.

Shakespeare’s other early play, “The Merchant of Venice” is derived from a translation of an Italian drama , I Suppositi -1509). It seems a similar version was performed at court in January 1579 entitled “A Moral of the Marriage of Mynde and Measure” written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. In his book “The Mysterious William Shakespeare”, the Oxfordian academic and author, Charlton Ogburn mentions the discovery of an Italian review (published in 1699) of a pageant by the researcher, Julia Cooley Atrocchi of “Tirata della Giostra” (Tirade of the Tournament) which lists a number of foreign dignitaries and participants of Europe, most notably the 17th Earl of Oxford. This took place at the Doges palace in Venice:

An illustrated perspective view of Venice in the 16th century.

“The horse of Milord of Oxford is faun-coloured and goes by the name of “Oltramarin” (beyond the sea). Edward carries a sword (spadone). His colour of costume is violet. He carries for device a falcon with a motto taken from Terence: “Tendit in Ardua Virtus” (Valour Proceeds Arduous Deeds).”

Apparently the Earl took part in a mock tourney or tilt against Alvida (ie; “The Masque of Amazons & Knights”), the Countess of Edenburg who, dressed in a costume of lemon yellow, was mounted on a dapple-grey horse and armed with a Frankish lance. The result of which both competitors were thrown off their horses, landing embarrassingly face-down, rolling in the dust to the amusement of the crowd. As a prize for his participation in the Doge’s procession Edward de Vere was awarded the “Horn of Astolf” (a possession that goes back to Charlemagne) and coincidentally a “spear to shake”. From Venice the Earl travelled to Palermo by way of Naples by ship where the “Tempest” and “Othello” takes place and from there to Sicily. A report by Edward Webbe, an English army officer who was present when the Earl made his visit describes how:

The logo for the Oxfordian cause who support the claim that Edward de Vere wrote “Shakespeare”

“The Right Honourable the Earl of Oxford, a famous man of chivalry, at which time he travelled in foreign countries, being then personally present, made there a challenge against all manner of persons whatsoever, and in all manner of weapons…to fight a combat with any whatsoever in the defence of his Prince and Country….and yet no man durst be so hardy to encounter him, so that all Italy over he is acknowledged the only Chevalier and Nobleman of England.”

No one stepped forward to address or accept the Earl’s challenge and the academic E. T. Clark suggests that the Earl’s challenge was actually intended for Don Juan, the champion of another tournament at Piacenza and the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles Vth. Incidentally the Earl of Oxford was present in Sicily where he commanded the fleets that defeated the Turks at Lepanto. Subsequently the Duke of Florence proclaimed the Earl to be General of the Horse:

“The General of our Horse thou art; and we, great in our hope, lay our best love and credence upon thy promising fortune.”

The performance of comedies, at least in England appears to fall into that transitional period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday which leads onto Lent (Shrovetide). This was a period between the darkness of winter and the advent of Spring when boredom and despair had to be propitiated by amusement or light entertainment. It was known in Italy as Carnival, (literally “carne lavare”-the washing of flesh). A great number of Romance plays have their origins in fertility rites performed in April/May which were known popularly as Fabliaux or Picaresque. Theatrical processions in celebration of an event or sovereign were known as Tableaux or Triomphs. Very rarely were plays performed during the more serious Lenten period, which was a time of abstinence and preparation for Easter. The period following Harvest festival and through to Hallow’s Eve in preparation of Winter and Saturnalia was another period (Revels) when either serious or light-hearted plays would be performed. Other middle plays which indicate an influence from the Commedia d’el Arte are “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, and “Love’s Labours Lost” since no written source for the plot has been found only the influence of the Commedia d’el Arte and the biographical history of Henri, King of Navarre who succeeded his cousin in 1589. Historically a masque performed for the visit of the Duke d’Alençon on the 6th of January 1579 entitled “A Maske of Amazones & Maske of Knights” could have been an earlier version of “Love’s Labours Lost”.

A scene from William Shakespeare’s play, “Love’s Labours Lost”

In England there was probably a greater variety of festivals, fetes, fairs, and an even greater spectrum of dramatic presentations than on the continent where travelling minstrels and troubadours provided the entertainment. The dating of these festivals on which plays were performed relied on a cycle of feast days that had been gradually appropriated by the Roman Catholic Church to become their so-called “Saint’s Days” and many Protestants were anxious to repossess and re-instate them as arcane traditions that pre-dated the institution of Romanised Christianity, a view suitable to non-believers, whilst taking care to acknowledge that these festivals were in accord with English cultural and mythical traditions. Some royal tournaments, feasts, revels and masques were part of the solar calendar, the so-called fixed days while some were part of the lunar calendar, the so-called movable feasts of the liturgical cycle.

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,