Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in English, 1591


This is the first full English translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s vast epic poem, Orlando Furioso, a source for Much Ado About Nothing. The Italian poem, first printed in 1532, recounts the adventures of a knight named Orlando and a beautiful woman, Angelica. She lures him away from his duty defending Europe against the African Saracens and ultimately drives him to madness. This English translation was made by the courtier Sir John Harington (c. 1560–1612), who is shown on the title page with his much-loved dog Bungey.

A censored copy of Harington’s translation

Harington dedicates the lavish illustrated volume to his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. According to an anecdote (first recorded in the 18th century), the Queen caught him sharing a translation of a racy section of canto 28 with her ladies-in-waiting, and punished him by demanding a translation of all 33,000 lines. This particular copy was one of several presentation books created especially by Harington for potential patrons at court. It has beautiful gold-tooled binding stamped with the arms of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor; but it also has a censored illustration for canto 28, with the three sex scenes blacked out by hand!

Canto 5 as a source for Much Ado About Nothing

The fifth book of Orlando Furioso is the tale of a wrongly slandered woman – a hugely popular theme in the drama, prose and verse of Renaissance Europe. It is one of the most likely sources for Shakespeare’s Hero-Claudio plot, though the Benedick-Beatrice subplot is Shakespeare’s own invention.

As set out in Harington’s short ‘Argument’ (p. 32), the Scottish princess Genevra is falsely accused of ‘fornication’ and cast off by her lover Ariodante. The Duke Polynesso has tried to woo Genevra for himself but has been rejected by her. As revenge, Polynesso tries to sabotage Genevra's relationship with Ariodante by making her seem unfaithful. To do so, Polynesso persuades her maid Dalinda (the narrator of this section) to impersonate her in a loving rendezvous with him.

Cross-class disguise

Like Hero’s waiting woman Margaret, Dalinda appears at her mistress’s window wearing her clothes, rich jewels and hairstyle (as shown in the engraving, p. 31, and described pp. 34–35). The scene is staged deliberately by the villainous Polynesso to be witnessed by Ariodante and his brother Lurcanio. Similarly, the ‘bastard’ Don John ensures that Don Pedro and Claudio witness Margaret’s performance in ‘Hero’s garments’ (5.1.238) wooing Borachio at her ‘chamber window’ (2.2.43). In both, the theme of cross-class disguise and visual proof of deception is crucial to the story. Importantly, however, in Shakespeare’s play this scene is only described in words, not depicted directly.

Male honour and combat

Shakespeare also preserves elements of male combat, honour and chivalry from Ariosto’s romance. When Ariodante is rumoured to be drowned, Genevra is accused by Lurcanio of causing his suicide with her ‘unchast’ behaviour (p. 36). The King feels duty-bound by ‘hard’ Scottish law to sentence his own daughter to death, unless a warrior can be found to kill her accuser and defend her innocence (p. 37). Similarly, Leonato initially assumes that his daughter Hero is guilty and resolves to ‘let her die’ (4.1.154), but he is persuaded by the Friar to question those who ‘wrong her honor’ (4.1.191). Beatrice is convinced of her cousin’s purity and demands that Benedick should ‘Kill Claudio’ for slandering Hero (4.1.289).

In fact, in Ariosto’s tale, Ariodante is still alive and returns disguised in black armour to fight his brother Lurcanio. But the combat is averted just in time by the heroic knight, Renaldo (p. 38). Like Hero, Genevra is revealed to be chaste and reunited with Ariodante, while Polynesso is killed in combat and Dalinda is sent to a nunnery. As in Much Ado About Nothing, a comedic ending dispels the threat of tragedy.

Full title:
Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse. By Iohn Haringtō.
1591, London
Book / Folio / Manuscript annotation / Engraving / Illustration / Image
Lodovico Ariosto, John Harington [translator]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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