How the Commedia Dell'Arte's Actresses Changed the Shakespearean Stage, with Pamela Allen Brown

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 187

English women didn’t act on London’s professional stages until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. But Dr. Pamela Allen Brown, author of The Diva's Gift to the Shakespearean Stage, argues that star actresses from Italy altered both plays and playing despite this fact, a process that began in the 1570s, when commedia dell’arte troupes first set foot in London.
Those Italian troupes featured something radically new and controversial: “divine” actresses who played the lead innamorata in vehicles and star scenes that spanned genres. After English diplomats and travelers to the Continent encountered this novelty in the 1570s, a few commedia troupes crossed the Channel to play for Elizabeth and for popular audiences, bringing actresses with them. And, Professor Brown says, the Italians’ creativity and materials and the diva’s fame and skill spurred writers to generate Italianate plays featuring strong-willed, theatrically brilliant foreign women, played by boys. In the long run this revolution in playing widened the horizons of drama and regendered the stage. Pamela Allen Brown is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
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Pamela Allen BrownPamela Allen Brown is a professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford. Her previous books include Better a Shrew than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England, published by Cornell University Press in 2003, and Women Players in Early Modern England: Beyond the All-Male Stage, which she co-edited with Peter Parolin. That was published by Ashgate in 2005. Her new book, The Diva's Gift to the Shakespearean Stage, was published by Oxford University Press in 2021. 

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published March 29, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Shall See Some Squeaking Cleopatra Boy My Greatness,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits a transcript of every episode, available at We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Josh Wilcox and Walter Nordquist at Brooklyn Podcasting Studio in Brooklyn, New York. 

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Women Performers in Shakespeare's Time
Women didn't act on London's professional stages in Shakespeare's time. But they did perform in court masques, dance across tightropes, and take star on the stages of the Continent.

Folger Finds: Receipt from Tristano Martinelli's Troupe of Italian Comedians
From our collection, check out a receipt signed by Martinelli and his fellow performers.


MICHAEL WITMORE: In England during Shakespeare's time men played women on stage. But by 1661, women did. What happened? To hear some people tell it, the first place to look for an answer is Italy.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.

As we’ve shared on previous podcasts, there were certainly women performers in Elizabethan England. But not on Shakespeare’s stage or any of the other mainstream, public stages at the time.

Cover of The Diva's Gift to the Shakespearean StageAccording to Dr. Pamela Allen Brown of the University of Connecticut, the first nick in that armor may have appeared in the 1570s. That’s when bands of commedia dell'arte performers first set foot in London. The troupes featured something most English people hadn’t seen at that point: the Divina—a woman who played the Innamorata role: the leading character in what today we’d call “romantic comedies.”

English diplomats had seen the women who played these parts—women who would later be called “divas”—but in the 1570s, divas started coming to England. And, Professor Brown says, their presence began to change attitudes on what theater could be, on what topics plays should be about, and—maybe most importantly—about what kinds of people could play female roles. Dr. Brown’s new book is called The Diva's Gift to the Shakespearean Stage. The gifts she enumerates are ones you’ll recognize; ones that might cause you to understand English theater in an entirely new way.

Professor Brown came into a studio to explain some of this for us in a podcast that we call, “I Shall See Some Squeaking Cleopatra Boy My Greatness.” Dr. Pamela Brown is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


I'd like to start with this term “diva,” if we can, because in modern times, we think of it as meaning a big demanding celebrity or a big ego or just an opera star, I guess. But it's original meaning, it sounds like, was very different. So why don't you define it for us and maybe run through the types or the specialized roles that it encompassed in early Italian theater.

BROWN: It's really a contraction from Divina. In the time in the 16th century, “diva” was not in use yet except as a Latin adjective. So that would be, Elizabeta Diva: Elizabeth the Diva, Divine Elizabeth. So, it's an adjective.

It sort of morphs into the usage we know as a noun, really when opera gets really going. When I'm using it, I'm really appropriating and using it because it's such a well-known, extremely ambivalent, term. A diva, we know as usually pejorative today. I'm saying, no, there was a pre-history of this extreme fame, a star who was a prodigy and who was considered quasi-divine.

BOGAEV: So, there's so many layers to “diva.”


BOGAEV: And divas also encompassed certain roles in Italian drama. Could you run them down for us in Shakespeare’s time?

BROWN: Mm-hmm. I would say, the diva's the person; the diva's the actual actress. And that some roles are written in the style of the diva. The best way to put it is that the innamorata role—the woman in love—as played by the great diva, the stars of the Italian troops, those were the diva roles.

If you were playing, for example, Lelia in Ingannati or you're playing Medea, the ways in which they made those roles their own, even re-writing the tragic roles and the comic roles and adapting them to their starring and stellar capacities like singing or going mad. Those were the diva roles.

In other words, it wasn't that, okay, when we think about Shakespeare, we have a particular role, like Juliet or Cleopatra or Beatrice or Portia, that I'm calling a diva role. In the Italian drama, it was, what did the divas play? And that's a little different because they created their own dramas. They wrote, they adapted, they shaped. They took written drama and they included improvisation and writing together. Sometimes they wrote their own parts.

So, when I'm naming these great tragic roles and this great comic role like Lelia, right, in Ingannati—which is a predecessor for Twelfth Night and Viola—it is the diva who brought the diva-ness to the role. So, I'm trying to bring in the performance aspect rather than all the scripted part of those roles.

BOGAEV: And it's really wild how early this was happening. I think you identify the first known professional female stage star or diva in Italian drama, and you date her to… first of all, who was she? And I think you date her to, what, 1564?

BROWN: ‘60… Yes. Well, there's both Barbara Flaminia and Vincenza Armani. They put on a variety of plays, like pastorals, comedies, tragic comedies. They attempted to get, each one, create a fan club for themselves. And so, the divas, as soon as they appeared—as soon as women appeared playing roles, all kinds of roles in Italian professional troupes—divas quickly appeared who were the leaders of the—the primadonnas—of the company.


BROWN: You might have three or four women, but only one would emerge as the primadonna.

BOGAEV: So, that's wild. I want to get to Shakespeare soon, but I have to ask you, why was the Catholic Church in Italy okay with women performing on stage and leading these companies?

BROWN: Well, they weren't all happy and okay with it. They had a lot of opposition, but I think that the key thing to recognize is that they quickly gained powerful patrons. So, if you have the Duke of Mantua, if you have the Medici behind you, you also bring pressure to bear on the Catholic church, who are connected. And also, have Gonzaga and—you know, they're all connected by family, right?

So, it's not so clear that the church is anti-theatrical or anti-actress. In some places, especially Rome and the Vatican territories, they are forbidden. But yet, there are still private performances for Cardinals, who bring in actresses into Rome, and there's accounts of that. So, you see, their stardom is making them quite powerful, and their connections quite early on.

BOGAEV: Well, you're right about one, who sounds really interesting. Isabella Andreini.

BROWN: Andreini. Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Andreini.

BROWN: Andreini. Andreini. Yes.

BOGAEV: And she was called the greatest actress of the Renaissance? She sounds amazing. She dies young but the still somehow had time to have seven kids.

BROWN: Absolutely. I know. To perform for years pregnant—you know, think about that— and then stop, have the child, go back on the stage. She was truly a prodigy.

Other divas like her main rival, Vittoria Piisimi, had huge followings and were huge stars before her, but she managed to displace her. It's pretty clear that she displaced her in the Gelosi troupe, the famous troupe she was in.

She was a singer, a writer, a poet, and an intellectual. She managed to create a persona that was sort of purified and chaste and above the dirty connotation of the whoreish-ness of the stage. She had a much older husband, Francesco, and they played on stage opposite each other. He played first the lover, then when he got too old, the capitano. And they had many, many scenes together, many plays together. And so they led their troupe.

So, it's a very interesting thing, you know, to think that they could protect their reputations by being married and traveling together. That was one of the main complaints about the actresses, that they were whores because they traveled with men. Marriage was a way of protecting their reputation.

BOGAEV: Huh. Now, maybe I'm making too big a deal of this, but it seems as if before women were on the stage, men were playing women's parts, and everybody was masked. So, it must have been a huge switch when women actors came on the scene and the masks came off because then the audience could see facial expressions of everyone.

BROWN: That's right. Absolutely.

BOGAEV: That's so much more… theater. It must have been a revolution in theater.

BROWN: Yes. You put your finger on it because it's hard for us to imagine a mix of masked and unmasked, but that is what they did. So, you're going to have the pantalone, arlecchino, the capitano, will have half mask, or maybe a little bigger than a half mask. Whereas the lovers are called the serious roles and they have no mask and they can show all of those emotions, that wonderful range. You know, the passion, the pathos.

BOGAEV: Ah. Uh-huh.

BROWN: That, of course, allows you to do a lot of different kinds of drama and expand your generic range into pastoral, tragicomedy, even. And then eventually into tragedy.

BOGAEV: Okay so, women in Italian theater, all of this is going on in Italian theater. How did English playwrights and also audiences first either hear about or experience Italian actresses performing all these parts?

BROWN: I think it's the French connection. France is the key. You know, there was a lot of competition between Elizabeth's court and Catherine Medici—she was really the cultural leader of the Valois court.

When the commedia dell'arte actors and the best troupes became favorites at the French court, the English ambassadors and diplomats would see them perform and send word back to Elizabeth. She quickly brought Italians to her court. She wasn't going to be bested. This is my theory.

She then—and she was always very Italophilic. She spoke Italian fluently, that was her favorite of all the languages she knew and spoke. And she played favorites of people who could speak Italian and were Italian at her court.

When you brought the Italian—you know, here you're bringing the Italian actress to England, that's a very important moment in the mid-1570s. But I think the first way they heard about them, was via these reports from France and some from Italy. Because they traveled constantly, the Italians.

BOGAEV: Okay, so Elizabeth was primed to love Italian theater and this, as you say, what's happening in the ‘70s. I love how your mind thinks of the ‘70s as the 1570s.

BROWN: The 1570s, yeah. Right.

BOGAEV: But you also… so these troupes are coming, and you write about one troupe in particular. The Martinelli troupe coming to England.

BROWN: Right. Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Why was the Martinelli troupe so significant?

BROWN: There are actually two troupes. One where we have records are showing women in the troupe. There are more records of Italians coming—Italian actors—coming in small groups and larger groups. But the very important thing is that the large troupes will have the range of genres. They'll offer a variety of plays. And they have women.

So, the Martinelli troupe has the longest stay, which is in 1577 – 78, a ten month stay, which is accounted for as documented. And they have a license to appear in, it's called, “in London and the Liberties.” Which, that's exactly when the theaters are opening in the Liberties and in London. So, that's a very key moment for the uptake of any foreign drama that you're having in London.

BOGAEV: It also sounds pretty spicy. One of the divas, or there was a diva in the troupe, it was Angelica Martinelli.

BROWN: Angelica, right.

BOGAEV: The wife.

BROWN: Now, Madonna Angelica, right. The wife of the leader.

BOGAEV: Of the leader. So, she's married, but she was having an affair, allegedly, with the company's patron, the Duke of Mantua. This is, like, hot tea from the 1570s.

BROWN: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And like, the troupe advertised this scandal? It sounds like it used it as a marketing draw to get people to buy tickets in the guise of all publicity is good publicity, right?

BROWN: Right.

BOGAEV: Even then?

BROWN: Yeah. They took a very different route then: Isabella and Francesco in the Gelosi, who took the high road, right?

BOGAEV: This is pretty low.

BROWN: Yeah. I think that there's a scandalous aspect to the actors being on stage that was always present, that was a draw. That was not something to be denied but which was to be used.

BOGAEV: I was also thinking maybe it's the idea that the English thought badly of Italians anyway, right? And that Italian theater is low and vulgar. So, it's playing it up?

BROWN: Mm. That's…

BOGAEV: Is that how they thought? The English audiences thought of Italian theater?

BROWN: I think that, at this point, there is a fear. Sophie Tomlinson calls it the, “threat of the actress.” It's not only about gender, not only about, “We have an all-male stage, and these actresses are threatening it.” There's something to the idea that the Italians are the leaders in the theater period. So, we have to catch up. The way that we're doing it is we actually adapt, steal, we take everything from the Italians, and then we claim it's ours. Or that we say, “Yes, we got a few plots, but basically, the Italians are just whores and zanies, and so we're not learning anything from them as theatrical professionals. We're only taking some texts, some stories, and then we make them into genius.”

I really think that they were actually quite fearsomely superior, and they had the first professional troupes before the English ever did. Their drama and their literature was what was to be admired and attempt to rise to. See, so I don't think it was exactly… there's a lot of envy there.

BOGAEV: I want to dig into the women performing on stage aspect of this though because I know from our other guests that we've had on the podcast that women were performing in the streets of London as acrobats and rope walkers and the like.

BROWN: Right.

BOGAEV: And it just wasn't unheard of for women to be entertainers. When English audiences saw women acting in these productions, how did they react? Was it no big deal?

BROWN: I think there's a question of level of theater, and where you are claiming a more elite or at least exclusive status. Like the all-male stage, the professional stage, part of its claim to quality is that, you know, “We don't use women” and that female performance out there is unprofessional. They are parish—they're doing jigs.

BOGAEV: Right.

BROWN: So that when the—and this is, I'm saying “local.” When I say “local,” I mean non-foreign, I mean English performance. So, when these foreigners came and they were so dramatic and glamorous and spectacular and the Queen is hiring them and paying them and displacing English playwrights and players, their reaction is sometimes very hostile and negative. The idea that they're just whores is, you know, a pushback. Whereas other people go to…

BOGAEV: A defensive move. Yeah.

BROWN: Yeah, defensive move, but also that others go to Europe and come back with very positive or more neutral reports about the actress.

BOGAEV: Okay, so we're now up to Shakespeare and Marlowe seeing these Italian comedies and tragedies and many of which featured this female role known as the innamorata, the lover, who sometimes often takes the guise of a man to woo a woman. So, is that why so many of Shakespeare's comedies feature this plot line?

BROWN: I think the root reason is that the audiences wanted Italian comedies. And Italian comedies are about love, you know? So you kind of have to take it a step earlier.

When the theaters opened, they could not just continue with the material they had. There was a really, sort of desperate need for more plays. And where they turned to is Italy. The plot lines, the characters, so many came from Italian sources, but they also came from Italian theater and theater professionals.

When you make a love story, it's composed of scenes. My take on it, and my analysis, is that what you do is you put together, just like a Lego, a story. You don't necessarily take the entire play and just translate it. They took different pieces of different plays, and especially scenes. So, for lovers or for a love plot, you might take all kinds of different things: a disguise scene, a mad scene, a lament scene, a woman fighting with her father, and these would be put together in different shapes. But a lot of that material was lifted from the Italians.

BOGAEV: That explains why you write that the love story was moved to the center of the plot in the dramas that these troupes created. This was the effect of the Italian theater on English theater. Which makes me wonder, what had English plays or playwrights focused on before? Before the… what were they? What was the focal point?

BROWN: Yeah. It was very… there were sort of moralities, in which the female roles especially were virtues or vices of various sorts, and there were romances that were sort of rumbustious.

I don't know if you remember, like, Shakespeare in Love? There was Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, this kind of play in which, this is really much more of what they were like. Where it would not be kind of the, what we consider to be romantic comedy. That was not what they were. They were heavy on spectacle.

BOGAEV: It was more spectacle. Spectacle?

BROWN: Yeah, dragons and, yes. And sword fights and women, you know?

BOGAEV: Big speeches.

BROWN: Yeah, women who had to be saved from monsters, you know. And also, moralistic. Or also heavily moralized and symbolic so you didn't have…

Italians truly brought new focus on character as governed by passions. And that is, I think I can stick with that. I think that's very important when we think about… you know, just think of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, and especially the woman of passion.

BOGAEV: Well, let's hone in on the impact all of this had on two of Shakespeare's Italian adjacent plays. Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing. So, looking at Romeo and Juliet, is Juliet just a clear diva type then? An innamorata?

BROWN: I think so. And I think this is probably the toughest case I have in my book. I mean, the Juliet chapter, I think that case is the hardest case to make because most people think of her as an innocent young girl who was carried away by passion and that's her role. She is a diva type who is a prodigy diva, and that makes her truly unique because the Italian actresses, I don't think any had achieved their status of being an international star by 13, you know?

But she becomes this tragic heroine of very special stature and the boy who plays her also has to rise to this. So, what her diva-ness consists of is her intense poeticism.

Her androgyny that one of the characteristics of the Italian divas, the great actresses, is they had masculine and feminine qualities that they would flow in and out of. They were highly gender-mobile. Not only did they play in and out of various disguises, their own characters were so dominant that they were often called virile. So, we have this more-than-woman, and certainly Juliet is dominant in the relationship from the very start. She's the one who brings up—

BOGAEV: She proposes.

BROWN: She proposes.

BOGAEV: She proposes, she's the poet.

BROWN: And she comes back and treats Romeo… It's clear that she's the better poet almost from the very beginning. And then her great star scene, “Gallop apace,” it is so intensely literary, it is so intensely artificial in a good way. There's Ovid, there's Marlowe, there's all kinds of allusions and it's woven together so beautifully, so artfully, that it’s one of the greatest soliloquies in all of English literature. It's given to a 13-year-old girl. So, what is more a diva than a prodigy who is, just like we say a prodigy ballerina or prodigy musician, right? She's a prodigy actress.

She knows that she has the status of, and she conceives of herself as an actress because we know that when she has to take the poison, she says, “This tragic scene I needs must act alone.” You have a feeling that she doesn't just need to do it, she wants to do it alone. She has the stage and she's center stage and she revels in that position.

She gets to die twice. That's another thing divas always do. You think about Cleopatra, you think about Desdemona. I just find her to be this marvelous child diva. Yes.

BOGAEV: Now, very different character in Romeo and Juliet, the nurse. Not answering any questions directly and drawing out scenes for comic effect and all that. Are these also lifted from Italian theater, or standard bits borrowed from Italian theater?

BROWN: Absolutely. The nurse is a type, but Shakespeare makes her more than this. But it's still the back-and-forth thing between Juliet—the back and forth between the nurse and Mercutio. She is so much from the Italian theater.

BOGAEV: Okay, running down my list then. The very idea of battle between daughters and fathers?

BROWN: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Also straight from Italian drama?

BROWN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BOGAEV: Okay and so, now I’m going to pile them all together because if you don't know about the relationship between Italian theater and Shakespeare, you'll watch Romeo and Juliet and say they turned to suicide at the drop of a hat. It's crazy.

BROWN: Right.

BOGAEV: Yet that's also another Italian theater trope, right?

BROWN: Absolutely. It's played for comedies, but it can also be a very tragic moment, you know, with mistaken deaths, etcetera.

BOGAEV: And Othello. That he becomes immediately jealous for no reason.

BROWN: Huh. Yes, and we see this in Winter's Tale as well. So, a lot of the things we think, “Oh this is unmotivated, what is going on here?” That there's a way of fitting these, as I said, these pieces together that are part of character type and character systems rather than what we consider to by psychologically, you know, consistent plotting.

BOGAEV: And now onto Beatrice of Messina in Much Ado.

BROWN: Okay.

BOGAEV: She's not just Italian, she's Sicilian, so tell us how we know that first of all.

BROWN: Right. Well, we tend to say Italy, Italian, we know what that means. But it was certainly not a unified state at all, and a Venetian is quite different from a Sicilian. At the time, they knew these distinctions. I mean, the English had certainly had an idea of northern and southern Italy, for example.

So, Sicily had the reputation of being extremely violent, volcanic—you know, they had volcanoes. It was a place, myth, where Hades was, where there were devils, demons, and monsters, and where things were quite primitive.

I think we see that reflected in Much Ado, in several ways, but specifically with Beatrice. She constantly talks about eating people. She's cannibalistic. I mean, she says, you know, “I promise to eat all of his killing.” And then at the very end she says, “Oh that I were a man, I would eat his heart,” in the marketplace. I mean, how raw, how bloody, how bloody-minded, right?

I think it's treated as light comedy in those productions, but I think it's meant to be intensely strange, foreign, and Sicilian. And I say that with a Sicilian mother, I'm quite aware of the Sicilian—the cast of what Sicilian means in that play, I think. Maybe hyper-aware.

BOGAEV: Well, so stepping back now and looking at the big picture of these early divas and this tradition in Italian theater, what is the big import or significance or impact, or the biggest one, on the English playwrights? Not just Shakespeare?

BROWN: Okay. Well, I think that, you know, when you have a limited palette… if you're an artist, you know, if you only have three octaves, for example, you can only do certain kind of music. Then, if you double or triple your range, it gives you so much more to work with. It also stimulates your imagination, and it satisfies your audience with variety. The variety and versatility is what the divas were all about. They were not...

BOGAEV: So, the Italian theater ramped it up to 11, you're saying. For the English.

BROWN: The Italian theater, right. You couldn't have… when you think about the truly great, the canon of what's most taught and studied today, I'd really think it would not be possible without the impact of these actresses who wrote, who created, who expanded plays, who were able to carry it across borders. And who showed that they had social power and were able to get patrons, were able to fight the church, and were able to make really good livings and to be called “Divina,” you know, get poets writing poems about them.

I think this is a new kind of role for women in public, and it's a different kind of professional identity than had ever been available. I think that that's fascinating, and it's very good stage material.

I mean, what would the theater be without, you know, Lady Macbeth or The Dutchess of Malfi or White Devil or Cleopatra? I mean, it would be enormously impoverished. And I think that none of those roles would have taken place, would've been conceived without the model of the great divas.

BOGAEV: What a pleasure to talk with you. You really answered some long-standing questions for me. Thank you.

BROWN: It was my pleasure, really. Thank you, Barbara.


Pamela Allen Brown is a Professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford. Her previous books include Better a Shrew than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England, published by Cornell University Press in 2003, and Women Players in Early Modern England: Beyond the All-Male Stage, which she co-edited with Peter Parolin. That was published by Ashgate in 2005. Her new book, The Diva's Gift to the Shakespearean Stage, was published by Oxford University Press in 2021. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast, “I Shall See Some Squeaking Cleopatra Boy My Greatness,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Josh Wilcox and Walter Nordquist at Brooklyn Podcasting Studio in Brooklyn, New York.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts. Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.