SAMUEL Harding’s only foray into drama, Sicily and Naples Or, The Fatall Union (written in 1638, published in 1640) has attracted some scholarly attention because of its original uses of the bed-trick motif (the final one is infamous, in which Frederico unwittingly rapes and kills his own sister, who is also pregnant),1 and because of its strange choice of having Frederico disguise himself as a black man not through make-up but by wearing a black mask.2 We have a 1986 critical edition of this play by Joan Warthling Roberts,3 which, however, does not give us any information on the historical sources used by Harding. This absence should not surprise us. The author goes out of his way to make his tragedy as a-historical and topically undefined as possible. As a nineteenth-century anonymous reviewer put it: ‘it is proper to advertise the reader that there is no historical foundation for any part of the story, and that the union it celebrates is that of Eutopia and Atalantis [sic], rather than of Sicily and Naples’.4 In contrast with, for instance, the painstaking search for cultural and geographical precision in the plays of Philip Massinger, Harding does nothing to make his Neapolitan setting credible. What he wanted was to create the usual corrupt Italianate court festering with vice which had been a staple of English drama since the early Elizabethan period. Two points can be made in Harding’s defence. First, his youth—he wrote the play when he was a 23-year-old academic from Exeter College, Oxford;5 secondly, and more importantly, such a lack of contextual information was typical of the late Caroline amateur dramatists: consider, for instance, the lack of historicity of such disparate works as Suckling’s Aglaura (published in 1638), Rawlins’s The Rebellion (1637–39), Heminge’s The Fatal Contract (acted in 1639), or Habington’s The Queen of Aragon (also published in 1640). As Roberts well shows, Sicily and Naples is a clever patchwork of intertextual links and motifs coming from the tradition of revenge tragedy (including The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and The White Devil), other plays by Shakespeare, and especially the tragedies of Harding’s precursor at Exeter College, John Ford.6 This article does not aim to disprove the self-evident lack of historicity of Harding’s play: there never was in history a princess of Sicily named Calantha, or an heir to the throne of Naples named Charintha (both are Italianate names that can be found in Ford and Davenant). The one aspect that has some historical relevance which has not, until now, been noticed is the following. The name of the king of Naples and that of his Machiavellian favourite require investigation: Ferrando and Virginio Ursini. Roberts does not comment on these names, only incidentally stating that Ferrando, a king completely swayed by his passion for Calantha and his affection for Ursini, ‘ironically [means] the “iron man” ’.7 What Roberts does not signal is that Ferrando was a normal alteration of Ferdinando, the name of many kings of Naples. More interestingly, a Virginio Ursini (or Orsini) really lived and was one of the most powerful men in Renaissance Italy, at the head of the Roman family whose members have included three Popes and 34 cardinals. After an initial conflict (culminated with the Battle of Campo Morto, 1482, in which he led the papal army to victory), Gentil Virginio Orsini, lord of Bracciano (c. 1445–97),8 served under Ferdinando I, King of Naples, also known as Don Ferrante or Ferrando (1424–94). Orsini sought and obtained Ferdinando’s favour following the feud between the Orsini family and the Borgias, which came to a climax in 1492, when Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. Ferdinando trusted Orsini with his army, named him Constable of Naples, and helped him become lord of Cerveteri and Anguillara. Orsini, however, turned on the kingdom of Naples in a Machiavellian style, indeed: he backed Charles VIII, king of France, when he demanded that the Pope should crown him king of Naples. After his defeat at the Battle of Fornovo, Orsini was captured and died at the Castel dell’Ovo in Naples; chroniclers were sure that the Pope had had him poisoned. Harding very probably read of Orsini’s life in Fenton’s widely popular translation of Guicciardini’s History of Italy (first published in 1568),9 which investigates this figure in detail.10 Moreover, Gentil Virginio Orsini’s name was known in early modern English drama via his descendants. The tragic vicissitudes of his great-grandson, Paolo Giordano Orsini, first duke of Bracciano, and of Vittoria Accorombona were the source of Webster’s The White Devil. Paolo Giordano’s son, also called Virginio, ‘was sent as envoy to England by his uncle Ferdinand de’ Medici; at the court of Elizabeth he witnessed a play, probably performed by Shakespeare’s company’.11 As Elam notes, it has often been surmised that Shakespeare decided to call the Duke of Illyria in the Twelfth Night Orsino after this royal guest. Nonetheless, we should be wary of an exact identification of Ferrando and Virginio Ursini with these historical figures, because it clashes with the play’s vague temporal setting. Frederico disguises himself as Zisco, a moor, and Ursini, orchestrating his desire for revenge, has him prepare ‘a forged Commendamus from his Holiness’ (I.iv, 66), in which he declares to have turned Christian when he fought against the Turks at Lepanto (1571), almost a century after Gentil Virginio Orsini’s death. The play contains a metaliterary reference which would also seem to set the play in the 1570 s. Contareno states that their situation ‘deserves not to come i’the Chronicle; though Holinshed or Hall, those voluminous foreigners, should write our annals’ (V.i, 111). While Hall’s Chronicle was first published in 1548, the first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles dates to 1577. On the other hand, such references do not lead to historical precision. No Ferdinando, king of Naples, ever married a Sicilian princess named Calantha (though Ferdinando I’s second wife Giovanna di Trastámara was the daughter of the king of Aragon and Sicily). Frederico and Felicia’s father, Alberto, marquess of Durazzo, never existed (no Durazzo was ever a Southern Italian marquess, but some of them were dukes of Genoa), and all the names of the other dramatis personae are either typically Spanish-Italianate (Charintha, Gonzalo, Valenzo, Petrucchio, Violetta, etc.), or grotesque in the tradition of Jonson and Marston (Fungoso, Grutti, etc.). The only Italian toponyms that occur in the play besides Naples are Messina (e.g. ‘Messina’s plains’, III.vii, 99) and Mazara (ibid.).12 As already said, the whole plot is built on common motifs of revenge tragedy. The play’s vagueness probably permitted James Shirley to draw on ‘Harding’s background of warfare, devious plans for revenge, his heroine’s distracted mind, and her fear of being poisoned by the king’s Machiavellian favourite’13 for his own tragedy, The Cardinal (licensed for performance in 1641). Finally, it is interesting to note that the Catholic Church does not receive any harsh treatment in the play: the only allusions are the aforementioned papal document, and a priest that officiates Ferrando and Calantha’s wedding. The Borgias would have provided juicy material for a dramatist (think of Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter, 1607), but Harding surprisingly does not touch on the topic—perhaps because of the general tolerance of Catholicism under Charles I and Henrietta Maria. To recapitulate, while this article does not refute the historical vacuity of the setting of Harding’s tragedy, it proves that the playwright wanted his audience to be reminded at least of a couple of well-known Italian historical figures. This is important considering the political context of Great Britain in those years: as Adrian Streete points out, ‘Italianate tragedy [was] the obvious genre to explore a state ill at ease with its religious and political direction’.14 The Italian Wars could be selected as a setting exactly for these political resonances. Footnotes 1 See Marliss C. Desens, The Bed-Trick in English Renaissance Drama: Explorations in Gender, Sexuality, and Power (London and Toronto, 1994), 87–8, 134–7; Wendy Doniger, The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (Chicago and London, 2000), 46–8. 2 See Virginia Mason Vaughan, Performing Blackness on the English Stage: 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 2005), 89–92; Peter Hyland, Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage (Burlington and Farnham, 2011), 150 and ff. 3 Joan Warthling Roberts (ed.), Sicily and Naples Or The Fatall Union. A Tragœdy, by S. Harding (London and New York, 1986). All my quotations from the play refer to this edition. 4 Anon., ‘Sicily and Naples; Or, The Fatal Union’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, v (April 1819), 33. 5 See Francis Burns, ‘Harding, Samuel (1615/1616–c. 1643/1699), playwright’, ODNB (September 2004), <http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/12262>, last accessed 1 November 2017. 6 See also Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587–1642 (Princeton, 1940), 244–7. 7 Roberts, Sicily and Naples (1986), 21. 8 See Stefania Camilli, ‘Orsini d’Aragona, Gentil Virginio’, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (2013), LLXIIX, <http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/orsini-d-aragona-gentil-virginio_(Dizionario-Biografico)/>, last accessed 11 November 2017. 9 On Guicciardini’s presence and uses in early modern England, see Michael J. Redmond, Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the Jacobean Stage (Burlington and Farnham, 2009), 75–120. 10 See Carlo de Frede, La Crisi del Regno di Napoli nella Riflessione Politica di Machiavelli e Guicciardini (Naples, 2006). 11 Keir Elam (ed.), Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (London and New York, 2014), 157, n. 5. 12 Apart from Naples and Sicily, the only other countries that are evoked are France and Genoa with which Ursini forges an alliance. Gonzales, the general, obtains a ‘naval victory’ over them (V.i, 111). This meddling of France might allude to the invasion of Charles VIII, king of France, in 1494, allied with the Republic of Genoa, which triggered the Italian Wars (1494–1559). 13 E. M. Yearling (ed.), The Cardinal by James Shirley (Manchester, 1986), 4. 14 A. Streete, Apocalypse and Anti-Catholicism in Seventeenth-Century English Drama (Cambridge, 2017), 182. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 5, 2018
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