King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

'Ariosto' and Much ado about nothing

Opening showing a page of text and a plate from item, with the bedchamber depiction shown bottom left on the plateOpening showing a page of text and a plate from item, with the bedchamber depiction shown bottom left on the plateThe year 2016 heralded an anniversary not only for Shakespeare and Cervantes, but also for Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), whose immensely popular and influential romance epic Orlando Furioso was first published in 1516. The Orlando was one of the first pan-European texts of the early modern era, influencing not only Shakespeare but also the development and style of Edmund Spenser’s The faerie queene, and the structure of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.

The Orlando first appeared in English in 1591 in a translation by Sir John Harington (1560-1612), godson of Queen Elizabeth I who, the story goes, banished him from court for circulating a salacious version of one of the tales from the Orlando, readmitting him only when he had translated the entire 33,000 lines of the epic.

The image reproduced here is from a reprint of this first edition, from 1607. The translation sold well; however, Harington’s fame today rests perhaps as much on being the inventor of the flush toilet, which he installed as a gift for both his godmother and her adviser Robert Cecil.

Past scholars considered Shakespeare’s knowledge and use of the Orlando as a source to be based on Harington’s translation, with the assumption that the product of a provincial grammar school was unlikely to be conversant with Italian. The obvious parallels between the plot of Much ado about nothing and the episode of Ariodante and Ginevra (the bedchamber deception is depicted bottom left) could have come from Harington’s translation, although they are more likely to be derived from an Italian retelling of the story from 1554. However, closer textual borrowings in both Othello and King Lear point to a familiarisation on Shakespeare’s part with the original Italian texts of the Orlando, ensuring that the influence of this once ubiquitous but now little-read exemplar of European epic poetry continues to be felt.

In this exhibition

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