Article Title

Comparing Poverty: Fictions of a “Poor Theater” in Ruzante and Shakespeare


Robert Henke


A comparative investigation of Ruzante and Shakespeare is proposed (after an initial inquiry into comparative methodology) based on historical homologies in social context and literary representation: the pan-European spike in poverty, and the increased representation of the poor in Italian and English literature. A social and economic background to early modern poverty is provided, and the critical question of historical veracity is raised in regard to literary and theatrical representations of the poor. If fictions were constructed about the poor, the poor also deployed their own narrative and theatrical fictions, which are viewed as viable and important “productions” in their own right. Ruzante’s visceral and embodied theater continually counterpoints raw material reality with fictional and metatheatrical responses to it. On the one hand, external biological and social constraints inexorably press upon the characters, constituted by the famished body as often as the eroticized body. On the other hand, and in dialectical relationship to the constraints, Ruzante’s protagonists demonstrate an apparently inexhaustible capacity for auto-poesis, theatrical self-fashioning. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus produces various complex theatrical and narrative fictions comparable to those of Ruzante, but deployed in a more favorable environment. The same agon between material constraint and metatheatrical poesis is examined in Shakespeare’s King Lear, which not only represents a virtuosic “theater of the poor” (especially in Edgar’s virtuosic fictions) but also a theater of charity, in which the productions of “poor theater” enable Gloucester and Lear to “see feelingly,” recognizing material suffering in the larger world.

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