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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IV. Early English Tragedy

§ 3. Giraldi Cinthio’s Orbecche

The predominant influence in Italian tragedy was, unquestionably, that of Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio, whose Orbecche (acted at Ferrara in 1541) is the first known regular tragedy in the vernacular produced on a modern European stage. Its adoption of the Senecan form, and of the Senecan rhetoric and sensational horrors, decided the fate of Italian tragedy, and greatly influenced that of other nations. Luigi Groto, a generation later, speaks of it as the model of all subsequent tragedies, and Giraldi himself writes of it in his Discorso sulle Comedie e sulle Tragedie:

  • The judicious not only have not found fault with it, but have deemed it worthy of so great praise that in many parts of Italy it has been solemnly presented. Indeed, it was so much the more pleasing that it speaks in all the tongues which have knowledge of our own, and the most Christian king did not disdain the command that it should be solemnly performed in his tongue before his majesty.
  • It is difficult to establish any direct connection between Giraldi and Elizabethan tragedy except through his novels, which furnished plots to Whetstone, Greene and Shakespeare; but the influence of his disciple Dolce is clearly proved. Early French tragedy developed features of the Senecan model which were alien to English taste and tradition—restriction of the action to a single incident and expansion of the choral lyrics —and this is probably the reason why its influence on the other side of the Channel was slight. Jodelle’s Cléopatre Captive (acted 1552, and printed 1574) was, doubtless, known in England; and, at a later date, the countess of Pembroke, with the assistance of Thomas Kyd and Samuel Daniel, supported the classical theories of her brother’s Apologie by translations and imitations of Garnier; but Elizabethan tragedy was not to be turned aside from the way marked out for it by stage tradition and popular taste.