'She speaks poniards': Shakespearean Drama and the Italianate Leading Lady as Verbal Duellist

Eric Arthur Nicholson


As studies of Castiglione's Libro del cortegiano and Stefano Guazzo's Civil' conversazione and their historical context have shown, one major objective of early modern “courtliness” and “civility” was to sublimate aggression and potentially hostile competition towards aesthetic ends. “Civil conversation” became almost synonymous with the civilizing process itself , as articulated in Castiglione's and other widely influential Italian “conduct books” which urged men and women to practice decorum and moderation even as they displayed their superior wit and classically-based learning.

In contrast, for several Italianate female protagonists in Shakespeare's comedies, conversation or “chat” with men rejects courtly politeness and “sprezzatura,” promoting instead a mode of open confrontation. For example, Katherina of The Taming of the Shrew and Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing engage in boisterous verbal duels with voluble, more or less blustering soldier/courtiers. In each case, an indecorous mixture of rhetorical registers—including the bawdy, the intellectual, the wittily and often aggressively punning/equivocal—marks the women's language. My paper argues that this “theatergram” (Clubb), of male-female verbal duelling derives from the “amorosi contrasti” (amorous debates) practiced by Isabella Andreini and other leading sixteenth-seventeenth century Italian actresses, which themselves ironically evoke the culture of actual sword duels between men to challenge that of the courtly “civil conversation.” Among several key questions, I pose the following one: to what extent and in what precise ways do the Italian actress-like qualities of these “shrewd”, “curst,” and/or “froward” Shakespearean leading ladies complicate and perhaps validate their outspoken mockeries of male authority and militaristic swagger?


Shakespeare; women's studies; Italian studies; early modern cultural history

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