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Romance, Masks and Traditional Texts in 16th Century ‘Talmudic Comedy’

‘The Comedy of Betrothal,’ written in the 16th century in the style of Italian Renaissance comedy, is full of sexual innuendo and sophisticated plays on words, together with verse fragments from the Bible and Talmudic texts
A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Yair Lipshitz is currently completing a doctorate at Tel Aviv University on the body as a hermeneutical site for Jewish textual culture in theater and drama. He is a lecturer in the Theater Department of Tel Aviv University and at Alma College for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv His book, The Holy Tongue, Comedy’s Version: Intertextual Dramas on the Stage of “A Comedy of Betrothal,” is forthcoming from

By Yair Lipshitz
In the world of Hebrew literature, "The Comedy of Betrothal," the oldest Hebrew play that we possess, is without doubt a surprising work. The play, written in the 16th century in the style of an Italian Renaissance comedy which heralded the advent of the commedia del’arte, is a romantic comedy full of sexual innuendo and sophisticated plays on words, together with verse fragments from the Bible and Talmudic texts. It presents scandalous halakhic ploys, lust-crazed slaves and an arch-villain who stages a rape scene for monetary gain.
Neither was the play’s creator, Leone de’ Sommi (Yehuda Sommi is his Hebrew name), a conventional character in Jewish cultural history. De’ Sommi, an Italian Jew from Mantua, who wrote and directed plays for the aristocratic courts of Italy and who headed the theater productions organized by the members of the Jewish community of Mantua for the Duchess, was involved in all aspects of theatrical endeavor during the Italian Renaissance and was highly respected in the world of the theater during that period.
My comprehensive study of the play analyzed the use made by de’ Sommi of quotes and allusions to classic Jewish texts as raw comic and dramatic material. I believe that the quotes and allusions to the Bible and the literature of the Sages appear in de’ Sommi’s comedy not merely to be read but rather to be embodied by the actors and in the theatrical space as an integral part of the overall theatrical creation.
Iin this way de’ Sommi examined, perhaps for the first time in Jewish cultural history, how the textual and exegetical tradition, which is so central to Jewish culture, can function in theater – an artistic medium that combines the text with other dimensions, visual and dramatic, and requires that words function outside the scholarly space that characterizes the Jewish discourse.
De’ Sommi’s play suggests a new and refreshing reading of the textual tradition and demonstrates how to embody it in space, in material, in movement and in the physical body and thus reveal new meanings within this tradition.
For example, two of the characters – the servants Yekara and Pashur – appear in a comic scene of sexual flirtation, in which Pashhur tries to place his hands on Yekara’s lap while she is trying to fend him off. This scene is written in the best tradition of servant scenes in Italian comedy; however, during the scene, the two characters quote fragments of verses from within the dialogue between Jacob and the angel in Genesis 32. These quotes are able to focus our attention on the fact that the dramatic scene is similar in many ways to the Biblical scene: in both cases, there is a physical struggle (between Jacob and the angel and between Pashur and Yekara) and in both cases this struggle focuses on the area of the hips.
Thus, while the formative mythical moment in which Jacob becomes “Israel” is reincarnated as a sexual Renaissance servant scene, the embodiment of Biblical verses through the actors exposes the comic, physical and erotic potential within them.
And perhaps even homoerotic if one takes into account that on the stage, as in the Biblical text, two masculine bodies are struggling with one another: the scene is probably written to be played by two male actors as was the convention in Italian theater during the first half of the 16th century.
There are no direct accounts describing how this unconventional play was received by the Jewish audience in Mantua. In fact, there is no solid proof that the play was ever performed during this period, even though it was clearly written to be performed on stage (unlike other Jewish plays written prior to the 19th century, which were intended primarily to be read). Nonetheless, a prologue to one of the play’s manuscripts, which is dated to no later than 1626 (about 30 years after de’ Sommi’s death), provides evidence that the text was still known to the Jews of Mantua even after the playwright’s death.
The writers of the prologue, apparently yeshiva students, state that they received the play from their teacher in order to keep them busy during their vacation so as not to waste “precious time in doing nothing and boredom.”
The testimony that a Jewish-Italian teacher did not hesitate to hand over this daring comedy to his students in order for them to be “kept busy” and perhaps even to rehearse it for the purpose of performing it, proves that even if it is not known exactly how the play was received among the Jews of Italy, it certainly wasn’t rejected by them.
"The Comedy of Betrothal" is not just a refreshing suggestion to deal with the Jewish textual canon and the Hebrew language through theater, which does not require structured, uniform and unambiguous interpretation; it is also an especially fruitful moment of intercultural dialogue through which de’ Sommi’s audience could reexamine its canon by way of Italian Renaissance theater and find possibilities within it that would not have been revealed other than by means of a full theatrical performance.
The participation of Italian Jewry in the culture of its period, including theatrical endeavor, enabled them, at least in the case of "The Comedy of Betrothal," to revisualize their texts in a way that they probably could not have in other cultural settings, such as the synagogue or the beit midrash.
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Yair Lipshitz is a PhD student in Theater at Tel Aviv University where he also teaches. He a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and lecturer at the Alma College for Hebrew Culture. His book, The Holy Tongue, The Comic Version: Intertextual Drama in The Comedy of Betrothal, will soon be published by Bar-Ilan University. A more in-depth article on this topic will be published in the next issue of the periodical, Renaissance Drama.

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