When Tasso met Shakespeare


Good golly, is it that time of year already? Gosh, what a summer that was, probably the best in my decade & a half of living in Scotland. But yes, it is now early September, the brambles are out & its time to get back to work. I’m in the process of getting my two epics properly online (update to come), while over the summer I have decided to present my Chisper Effect book as a series of chronicles, very much easier on the eye & doubles the informativeness of the materielle. Of course, the Shakespeare sections are already in said format, which leads me to this next essay, which I hope to compose in the next day & a bit in the NLS. A couple of days back, while working on the final stages of Axis & Allies, I had in front of me several epic poems to dip into; The Kalevala, the Kalevipoeg, Don Juan, The Inferno, & also Tasso’ Jerusalem delivered. Casually glancing at his brief biodates, as we got closer to the Shakespearean Grand Tour period, my sense began tingling, & then BOOM! Tasso was in the Venuto Plain in the exact period as Shakespeare (according to my calculations). A couple of googles later & there were enough linking strands to support a fresh hyperfact – Shakespeare & Tasso met each other in 1586.

The following chronicle entries are the results of my studies between 3PM on Thursday the 6th September 2018, & 5PM on Friday the 7th. With three hours to go I discovered, from a nineteenth century life, that Tasso left prison in early July. Through this I was able to reach the conclusion that after Algiers, Shakespeare returned to northern Italy ,en route to Prague, which is indeed the natural route.

330px-Torquato_Tasso5th or 6th July 1586: Tasso released from the asylum

After seven years of poor mental health, Torquato Tasso is finally released from Hospital of St. Anna at Ferrara at the request of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Prince of Mantua. Gonzago was a major patron of the arts and sciences, and turned Mantua into a vibrant cultural center.
On his release, Tasso was given a beautiful apartment in the palace of the old duke of Mantua, William, furnished with all the conveneinets & comforts he would need. Perfect conditions for poetry, then, & such an encouraging climate inspired Tasso to rework his 1573 tragedy Galealto Re di Norvegia into a new drama, Torrismondo.

1586: Shakespeare & Tasso meet in Mantua

Also appearing in Mantua (on inheritance business) in August 1586 was the great musician & librettisT, Allesandro Striggio. Just as he was about to leave for Florence,  Duke William invited him to stay & reside in Mantua as a gentleman of the table, ‘including the expenses of three servants and three horses, and the salary which he usually gives to his other gentlemen.’ Analyzing the letters of Striggio, in the one sent to Federico Cattaneo, Mantua, 21 August 1586, we learn that Duke William was looking for young instrumentalists, &  gives a lovely flavour of the age;

I have received from Messer Flavio Riccio Your Illustrious Lordship’s note and I have informed him that in Florence there are two lads, aged 16 or 17, but they are poor and brought up by Franzosino of the Abandonati. They play cornett, transverse flute, viola and trombone. Franzosino has them play constantly, every day on the Grand Duke’s balcony [on the Palazzo Vecchio; or the Loggia de’ Lanzi] and at table. They also performed at the comedy which the Grand Duke put on for the Ferrara wedding (Florence, 1586). They do not have a regular salary from His Highness, although they are constantly in service. But they go about playing in churches, accompanied by the organ, wherever necessary, in Lucca and Pistoia and elsewhere, as requested. One of them would be suitable for His Highness [Guglielmo Gonzaga], and although they are not altogether excellent they are at least more than passable. Because they are dependent and obligated to Franzosino, who has taught them, it is necessary to refer to and come to an agreement with him; also to clothe and provide shoes for them, for they are still supplied with clothes from the Ospedale, and they still eat and sleep there, unless things have changed since I left Florence.

There are several pointers which suggest that Shakespeare encountered Tasso while visiting Mantua. Tasso’s sister was called Cornelia, the same name as Titus Andronicus which I suspect Shakespeare was comping at the time. The birth of the bard’s version of Hamlet may have also been born from this prodigious meeting. We have the dramatical Scandinavian regal motif, the clear connections between Hamlet’s madness & that of Tasso – both occasionaly feigned – & we can trace a connection between Hamlet’s drawing of his sword in his stepmother’s chamber, where he killed the chief counseller Polinus; & Tasso’s drawing of a knife on a servant in the Duchess of Urbino’s apartment in 1577. The famous play-within-a-play embedded within Hamlet concerns the very family into which Tasso had been released. It appears in Act 3 scene 2 as a play called The Murder of Gonzago (or The Mousetrap), during which we hear;

He poisons him i’ th’ garden for ’s estate. His name’s Gonzago. The story is extant, and writ in choice Italian. You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.

It is a delightful thought to imagine the Italian poet reciting some of his magnificent poem, Jerusalem Delivered, to Shakespeare in Mantua. One character in the epic that may have stuck was the Saracen sorceress, Armida, who in the strongest moments of emotion forgot her spellcraft & resorted to tears & prayers & persuasions. A few years later, when Shakespeare was writing Anthony & Cleopatra, he has the latter do just the same;

O my lord, my lord,
Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought
You would have follow’d.

Egypt, thou knew’st too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after: o’er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knew’st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
Command me.

O, my pardon!

Now I must
To the young man send humble treaties, dodge
And palter in the shifts of lowness; who
With half the bulk o’ the world play’d as I pleased,
Making and marring fortunes. You did know
How much you were my conqueror; and that
My sword, made weak by my affection, would
Obey it on all cause.

Pardon, pardon!

Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates
All that is won and lost: give me a kiss;
Even this repays me. We sent our schoolmaster;
Is he come back? Love, I am full of lead.
Some wine, within there, and our viands! Fortune knows
We scorn her most when most she offers blows.

index1586: Tasso inspires Hamlet

I would now like us to look introduce Hamlet into the mix, a play supposedly from Shakespeare’s middle period. The Hamlet story initially burst into literary life with Saxo Grammaticus in the 13th century. Could it be that during Shakespeare’s time with Tasso that he began to court the same affection for Scandinavian royal dramas of the Middle Ages as the Italian poet. Perhaps Shakespeare had picked up a copy of François de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques (published in 1574) while in France, in which Saxo’s story was given great embellishment. Perhaps meeting Tasso was the catalyst for Shakespeare to create what is called by scholars the ‘Ur-Hamlet’ (the German prefix means primordial). No copy of the Ur-Hamlet has survived, but its existence must date to before  1589, when Thomas Nashe in his 1589 preface to Greene’s prose work Menaphon entitled To The Gentlemen Students of Both Universities, referred to the ‘English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences, as ‘Blood is a beggar,’ and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches.’ The Seneca-Hamlet connection can be clearly seen with;

the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns (Hamlet, III. i. 78-80)

sera nos illo referat senectus.
nemo ad id sero venit unde numquam,
cum semel venit, potuit reverti (HF. 864-6)

dic sub aeternos properare manes
Herculem et regnum canis inquieti
unde non umquam remeavit ullus.
(HO. 1525-7 altera versio, remeabit ill)

By 1596, Thomas Lodge would be writing of ‘the Visard of the ghost which cried so miserably at the theatre, like an oister-wife, Hamlet, revenge.’ Two years later, Dr Gabriel harvey recorded, ‘the younger sort take much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis; but his Lucrece, & his tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke, have it in them to please the wiser sort.’ Finally, & after a long road of development which began in the 1580s, Hamlet as we know it would eventually be entereed into in the Register of the Stationers’ Company in 1602.

Back in Mantua – or Bergamo – let us imagine Shakespeare being inspired by Tasso’s work on the Torrismondo to create Hamlet. Louise George Clubb describes in both plays, ‘a preoccupation with genre, with experimentation with hybrids & structure is made manifest by conducting a critical action simultaneously with a dramtic fable, underlaid with a paradigmatic myth calling attention to genre. In both, the choice of Scandinavian medieval chronicle is the sign of the sequence to come: from history to myth to genre to critical contemplation of structure. In short, Shakespeare & Tasso were upping their game with some pretty innovative drama, whose familial offerings in the history of theatre are with each other & each other only. ‘The materials of Torrismondo & Hamlet, adds Club, ‘allowed for a confrontation of ostensible history with undeclared myth in plots which silently claimed kinship with the very arguments cited by Aristotle.’ It certainly feels as if Shakespeare was inspired by Tasso’s Torrismondo, which was being created in the very moment & the very city where I am placing the William Shakespeare of 1586.

1586: Tasso & Shakespeare in Bergamo

It is distinctly possible perhaps that Shakespeare’s knowledge Shakespeare’s knowledge of sail-making at Bergamo given in The Taming of the Shrew came from a visit there with Tasso. It was Tasso’s paternal town & the reception was said to be splendid.

1586: Shakespeare sees Tasso’s ‘Aminta’ at the Mantua Carnevale

Following its quiet debut in Ferrara in 1573, & more public performance at the 1574 Pesaro Carneveal, Tasso’s Aminta became a highly influential success, with Lisa Sampson observing, ‘Aminta was rapidly seized upon for scenarios, episodes & characterisation by a wide range of writers from all over the peninsular.’ A 5 act play, it seems that Shakespeare witness, & was enriched by, the play at first hand. Love’s Labours Lost borrows from the Intermedio II chorus of Aminta, which first appears in a printed edition in 1665, while As You Like It also contains direct translations & numeorus echoes. Shakespeare must have witnessed the play at first hand. Shakespeare seems also to be heavily influenced by Tasso’s mythology-steeped Renaissance Pastoralism, described by Cody as, ‘the Platonic theory of a good inner life, accomodated to the literary myth of the courtier as lover & poet. In the Italian Renaissance… pastoralism becomes the temper of the aristocratic mind: the reconciling of discors & contradictions in the medium of the work of art, that shadow of the ideal.’ Cody also describes Shakespeare as integrating Love’s Labours Lost into the, ‘Elizabethan aesthetic Platonism under its pastoral-comical aspect,’ adding, ‘the advantage of recognizing that the orthodox, elegaic Italians & the festive English comedian speak a common language of pastoral Neo-Platonism is considerable.’

Other plays to possess a strong streak of this consciously artificial, highly allegorical, hyper-mythomemed Pastoralism are Twelfth Night & the Two Gentleman of Verona, the latter worldscape described by Cody as ‘clearly the Italianate courtier-lover’s world, translated,’ adding, ‘the series of groups into which the play resolve sitself is pastoral & kinetic in the  manner of the Aminta.’ There is a clear connection, for just as in Aminta, the heroine is called Sylvia; & just as in 2GV Silvia is pursued & threatened with rape by Proteus, so in Aminta a satyr kidnaps & nearly rapes Sylvia. Cody also compares 2GV’s Silvia scene to Tasso’s work, stating, ‘it is the one scene in which Shaksepeare successfully invokes the ‘magic potency of the theatre,’ seeking as Tasso does in his third intermedio in the Aminta to gather up his audience into the art of his play by reminding them of  a reality beyond their own.’ Perhaps the most pastoral of the plays, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream was created in 1595 – for William Stanleys wedding – & includes a passage heady in the language of pastoral myth, which also seems to nod at the early death of Tasso, also in 1595,

The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung
By an Athenian eunuch to the harp.”
We’ll none of that: that have I told my love
In glory of my kinsman Hercules.
“The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals,
Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage.”
That is an old device, and it was played
When I from Thebes came last a conqueror.
“The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of Learning, late deceased in beggary.”

The passage above also makes reference to Hercules, allusions to whom also crop up in the other two early Pastoral comedies, LLL & 2GV. ‘Not that the comedies are the earliest of his plays,’ writes Cody, ‘in which pastoralism appears. In the histories there is at least one important pastoral theme among the cluster of commonplaces concerning Fortune, Nature, & the Prince: it has been termed ‘the rejection of the aspiring mind.’ It is central to the Henry VI trilogy, as witness the scene on Towton Field (2.5); & Shakespeare continues to develop it, more satisfyingly than anywhere perhaps in Henry IV.’ Cody also connects the garden scene of Richard II to the Renaissance habit of observing nature on a divine plane, stating, ‘It is to this aspect of the tradition – a Neo-Platonic landscape of the mind, mythopoeically conceived, as by Tasso in his Aminta – that appears to have been the model for Shakespeare’s orginiative experiments in romantic comedy.’

Shakespeare sketches the Tempest
One word in the play particularly stands out, ‘amazement,’ used in a context as confusion in a labyrinth. This same usage appears in both Venus & Adonis & The Rape of Lucrece, supporting an early date for at least an Ur-Tempest. Gary Schmidgall describes Prospero’s, ‘guiding & moderating task‘ with, ‘Tasso’s old wizard for the mariners, whose reason has been baffled by human frailty, greed & ambition. The mariner’s maze is ultimately of their own making, & Prospero’s project has been to cure them of this ‘affliction’ through the power of reason. Shakespeare’s allegory is the same as Tasso’s: reason (Tasso’s ‘soveraigne part of the minde’) is the only true guide in the labyrinth of human expoerience.’
Shakespeare’s recent brush with Tasso & Pastoralism also worked its way via osmisis into the bellyflesh of The Tempest in the form of the Arcadian romancings of Ferdinand & Mranda.


Butchart, David: The Letters of Alessandro Striggio (in) Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, No. 23 (1990),

Clubb, Louise George – Genre in Torrismondo & Hamlet (in) Shakespeare and the Literary Tradition (1999)

Cody, R : The Landscape of the Mind (1969)

Lawrence, Jason : Tasso’s Art and Afterlives in England: The Gerusalemme Liberata in England (2017)

Leavis, FR:  The Common Pursuit (1952)

Preeshl, Artemis Shakespeare and Commedia dell’Arte: Play by Play (2017 )

Sampson, Lisa : Pastoral Drama (in) A History of Italian Theatre (2006)

Schmidgall, Gary: Shakespeare and the Courtly Aesthetic ( 1981 )

Ward, AW: History of English Dramatic Literature, v2 (1899)

Wiffen, JH: The Life of Tasso (1859)



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