Isidore and the Theater


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Modern readers of Isidore's works have difficulty reconciling what they know about ancient drama with the accounts of theatrical matters extracted from the Visigothic bishop's Etymologies.1 Isidore seems to say, for example, that a play, or at least an ancient play, was always recited by one person while mute actors gesticulated; that theaters served as brothels when the audience had left; that the Song of Solomon is a drama; that Horace was a dramatists; and so on. Such notions were actually widespread in the Middle Ages, surviving well into the sixteenth century, and scholars from the Renaissance to the present, with their ever-increasing knowledge of Antiquity, have blamed Isidore for perpetuating a distorted view of, among other things, Classical drama. Isaac Casaubon, for instance, in a 1605 essay on the satyr play, says with Olympian condescension that "poor Isidore" or his sources entirely misunderstood Greek comedy and satire.2 Nevertheless, both the learned bishop's views and his sources are worthy of respectful consideration, and for untold numbers of students from the seventh to the seventeenth centuries, his Etymologies in particular provided, as E. R. Curtius notes, "a stock of information concerning the theory and history of literature which the middle ages could find in no other writer."3 Indeed, to understand medieval views on any subject, according to Curtius, one must "read the Etymologiae as the medieval reader did-as a book which is all of a piece and of binding authority" (p. 455). The study which follows consists of excerpts and translations of Isidore's data on theatrical matters, with observations on the sources and on analogues which help to "reconstruct the meaning" (Curtius, p. 439) on Isidore's sometimes puzzling statements. What emerges is not, as the reader will see, a complete picture of the theatrical practices of the ancient world but random notes which are generally accurate, or at least are reasonable deductions, given the state of classical learning in Visigothic Spain. The medieval determination to see them as coherent and "all of a piece" is the source of certain misconceptions of which Isidore himself is entirely innocent.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.