Performing Outside the Box: Don Quixote, Shakespeare, and Commedia Dell’Arte

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By Mary Ann Koory, Ph.D.

Marin Shakespeare Company’s production of Don Quixote, on a stage that usually features the works of Cervantes’ fellow writer, Shakespeare, in the style of the Italian Renaissance theater, the Commedia dell’Arte, gives us an opportunity to watch the intersection of stories and performance traditions usually kept apart by various kinds of walls, physical and geographical. Plays in Renaissance England, for instance, were shaped by actual, architectural walls, especially the walls of buildings specifically and newly designed for plays, and the ancient Roman wall surrounding the City of London beyond which, by necessity, most of the theatres were located.

Cymbeline, you’ll remember, was written for Blackfriars, an indoor stage that Shakespeare’s company took over at the center of London. By contrast, the Globe Theatre was located across the Thames, in the unregulated neighborhood of Southwark, also home to bear-baiting, cock-fighting and prostitution. Cymbeline shows the marks of being conceived near the center of courtly culture, where naked political ambition is dressed up in fairy tale happy endings and – because Blackfriars had rafters that could support stage machinery — gods descend from the sky to contribute to the spectacle.

But in Italy at around the same time, the theater of Commedia dell’Arte flourished neither inside nor outside walls. The great Italian theater was street theater: Its performances took place outside architectural boxes. Instead of performing inside a specialized building, outside the city limits, to which audiences had to travel purposely, the Commedia dell’Arte created temporary islands in the stream of everyday commotion and commerce, transforming places that you might otherwise pass without notice into stages where you stopped for a time and watched.

The actors of the Commedia Dell’Arte played recognizable types, stock characters, like the whacky neighbor in American sitcoms. Capitano is the braggart soldier, with a big belly and a big mouth, a coward whose survival and pleasure are his top priorities. One of the Capitano’s English cousins is Falstaff. Pantalone is an old miser, cuckolded by a beautiful young wife, like Hortensio in Taming of the Shrew, a play influenced as a whole by Commedia Dell’Arte (Petruchio is another version of the Capitano). Arlequino is the sad clown and the clever servant, like the Fool in Twelfth Night. The troupe would invent a scena or scenario before a performance, and then improvise together, without a playbook, staying in character, but reacting like quicksilver, alive in the moment in a way that scripted characters are not.

The plays of the Commedia Dell’Arte never existed in books, and the words spoken (or shouted or whispered or sung) in their performances were ephemeral, living for a while in the memories of the actors and the audience, but then gone forever. The characters, on the other hand, remained stable, reincarnated in different performances by different actors, identified by characteristic masks and body language, but not by speeches in iambic pentameter. In fact, the stock characters of the Commedia dell’Arte persisted well into the 20th century, as, for instance, puppets Punch and Judy in Britain, and the iconic Harlequin on the Continent.

Shakespeare’s words were written for verbatim performance and then preserved for us in printed books. We tend to encounter Shakespeare’s plays today between the covers of books, inside the walls of classrooms and projected into the glass rectangles of entertainment screens. These kinds of boxes predominantly define Shakespeare’s plays for us today.

But at least one play of Shakespeare’s was never captured between the covers of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare and, as a result, though we know he wrote such a play, we do not have a word of it except its title. That play was called Cardenio, a knight whose story is told in none other than Don Quixote. The one play Shakespeare wrote based on Cervantes’ novel is the very play that slipped the net of the First Folio and has become no more than a chimera, a legendary creature, in the literary reality of our culture.

As you know, Don Quixote pursued fictional characters from the books he loved (romances like those that Cymbeline borrows from) in the real, contemporary landscape of La Mancha. The necessary and authoritative mental walls between fiction and reality collapsed for him in the first book that Cervantes wrote, and in the second, Quixote becomes a character that people in the countryside recognize from having read the first book. Don Quixote and Cervantes’ imaginations, like those actors of the improvisational street theatre of the Commedia dell’Arte, like that of the playwright who wrote Cymbeline and the legendary Cardenio, take us into a present divided by fewer walls, where the unpredictable, the improvisational, might happen. If we are willing to travel with them and become knights errant of a sort ourselves, then we might, if only for a little while, slip past the walls that surround our mundane reality.