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Anthony Ellis, Old Age, Masculinity, and Early Modern Drama. Comic Elders on the Italian and Shakespearean Stage (Ashgate, 2009)

Anthony Ellis, Old Age, Masculinity, and Early Modern Drama. Comic Elders on the Italian and Shakespearean Stage. Anglo-Italian Renaissance Studies Series. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7546-6578-6.  190 pp. Hbk. £55.

Reviewed by Rory Loughnane

[1]  In Anthony Ellis’s Old Age, Masculinity, and Early Modern Drama, the early discussion of intertextuality (11-13) indicates the problematic nature of reconstructing early modern Anglo-Italian cultural exchange. This study of the comic old man (senex) character in English and Italian comedy situates topical readings of a selection of plays within their individual historical contexts, rather than actively seeking out points of transmission, or borrowings or processes of contaminatiofor what is an identifiable transnational phenomenon. Intergenerational tensions are central to Ellis’s treatment of older male characters in Florentine and Venetian drama, as well as in plays written for the ‘Shakespearean stage’, and play readings are supported appositely with social and historico-political material. Early modern English conceptions of the aging process are discussed in detail, with the author describing Galenic humoural theory and its reception, and drawing on contemporary medical material from writers such as Thomas Elyot, Timothy Bright, Thomas Wright, André du Laurens and Robert Burton. As the list of authors indicates, Ellis’s discussion braids together senescence and dotage (or ‘madness of old age’) with melancholy, and he describes how the consensus of medical opinion held that as human bodies age they grow steadily colder and drier, the characteristic qualities of that humour (19). As melancholia was considered a female disease ‘in the popular imagination’ this threatened to ‘render men effeminate’ (23), and, moreover, to jeopardize the ‘patriarchal system’ (27). An extended analogy that Ellis draws out from this material is between a failing body politic (and social) and the processes of old age. Thus, visible evidence for degeneration in 1500s England reaches a peak at the turn of the century. These factors include rising inflation, high unemployment, and ‘frightening levels of poverty, vagrancy and crime’ which enable an analogy between the figure of the old man and the larger social unit, ‘suffering its final ailments that presaged death and apocalyptic redemption’ (29). With this extended analogy in mind, Ellis’s later readings of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor as an economically parasitic outsider (58) and love-melancholic (59-61) are particularly insightful.  This analogy is returned to again in the sixth chapter’s comparison of Jonson’s The Alchemist and Dekker’s Old Fortunatus, where the private corruption of the elderly male characters Doctor Subtle and Fortunatus (through the promises of alchemical gold) takes place ‘in the context of a depleted, nearly exhausted world’ (151). In the final chapter, Ellis turns to The Tempest and Middleton, Rowley, and Heywood’s The Old Law and describes ‘world-creating projects’ in the light of the tumultuous conditions of Tudor and early Stuart England. In a rather downbeat reading of The Tempest (as comprising a failed utopian model with a sense of loss at its conclusion), Ellis compares how, like an aging body with no answer to ‘debilitating changes’, the utopian vision ‘cannot accommodate change’ (164).

[2]  The real strength of this book lies, however, in its treatment of intergenerational conflicts in cinquecento Florentine and Venetian comedy. If there is a crisis of the elderly in England manifested by ‘a widespread social malaise’, in Florence the crisis is an intergenerational struggle about the rights to, and forms of, governance between young and old.  These ideas are introduced through a reading of Cardinal Dovizi da Bibbiena’s La Calandra (first performed 1513), where — while relying on Richard Trexler’s Public Life in Renaissance Florence (New York: Academic Press, 1980) — Ellis describes how youthful disenfranchisement was a chronic problem, with Florentine law forbidding anyone under 29 from holding an important office. The frustration of career stagnation for the giovani (or young men) led to widespread feelings of anger towards older generations. The Medici family harnessed the support of the younger generation upon their return to power in 1612, and this, as Ellis notes, ‘is the period of Calandra’. But despite their support for the return of the Medici, the problems continued for consecutive younger generations. La Calandra is interpreted with the most recent Medici return to power in mind, and the titular elderly figure is described as ‘stupid, self-deluded, reckless (and) carnally motivated’, personifying ‘all the vices hated by moralists and intellectuals alike’ (52). As Ellis astutely notes, in Bibbiena’s decidedly unsympathetic rendering of the play’s eponymous elderly figure, it seems significant that Calandra is excluded from the play’s comic denouement. Ellis neatly ties in other topical references in the play to demonstrate convincingly how Bibbiena’s treatment of the stage senex is best viewed through the subtext of contemporary Florentine intergenerational conflict.  Chapter Three, focusing on Niccolò Machiavelli’s Clizia (1525), Danato Giannotti’s Il Vechio Amoroso (1536) and Lorenzo de Pierfrancesco de’ Medici’s (Lorenzino) Aridosia (1536), develops the political allegory of intergenerational struggle as outlined in Bibbiena’s earlier play, and through readings of the plays’ senex figures, Ellis demonstrates the authors’ varied political concerns and ambitions.

[3]  In the fourth and fifth chapters, Ellis’s attention switches to Venetian society, and particularly to the dramatic output of Andrea Calmo and Flaminio Scala’s Commedia dell’Arte scenarios. The sixteenth century ‘gerontocracy’ of Venice suffered little from the type of youthful rebellion or civil agitation that haunted Florence, where the giovani ‘accepted the slow passage to the inner circle as an inalterable face of upper-class Venetian life’ (98). However, while drawing on Meyer Fortes’ conception of two types of aging, Ellis points to the distinction between the domestic and public spheres for adult males in Renaissance Venice, where ‘the deferral of age-specific satisfactions was so pronounced’ — for example, a male noble could marry and be head of a household in his twenties, but many prestigious positions were ‘legally off-limits’ until he reached forty (99). Ellis then draws out the significance of Calmo’s series of wayward senex amans in Rodiana (1540), Il Travaglia (c.1546) and Il Saltuzza (1551). Turning to the character of the Pantalone in Scala’s Commedia dell’Arte scenarios, Ellis details his stock appearance (with an interesting sub-section on early modern physiognomy) and then compiles a chart listing ‘Traits and Behaviours of Pantalone’ in 40 of Scala’s scenarios. The chart reveals a complex view of the Pantalone figure at odds with its reductive iconographical figuration in the Western imagination. The comedy of Scala and Calmo is shown to repeatedly support the status quo of the Venetian Republic, which was founded, as Ellis observes, on ‘the idealization of old age so as to minimize intergenerational conflict [and so as] to ensure smooth political and dynastic transition’ (135).

[4]  This reader was unconvinced by Chapter One’s reading of Lear as senex amans, driven by an effeminizing and inappropriate psychosexual drive, and surprised by the relatively small number of contemporary English plays referred to over the course of the book (less than twenty, fourteen of which were Shakespearean). Also, despite the comparative aims of the monograph, La Calandra seemed misplaced alongside The Merry Wives of Windsor in Chapter Two, and otherwise, English and Italian comedies are discussed in distinct chapters. References to texts from 1987 (26) and 1993 (15) as ‘recent’ also jarred slightly. The absence of a conclusion to the book was most surprising, when even a brief chapter might have tied together many of the disparate elements of the book’s mostly excellent expositions.

[5]  However, there is much to admire in Ellis’s fluid prose, and his book will prove to be a valuable aid to scholarship on attitudes towards, and medical advice upon, the aging process in the early modern period. Moreover, the book is important in providing the first full-length study of concepts and depictions of the senex character in early modern English and Italian dramatic output, and this research will undoubtedly lend itself to further studies in this rich and interesting area.

Trinity College, Dublin, May 2010

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