The plays of Vittorio Alfieri have not been brought into English effectively. I say this on the basis of reading one of them – Saul (1784) – twice, meaning I do not know what I am talking about. Some supporting quotations from Ford Madox Ford, who would have read Alfieri in Italian:
His plays can hardly be considered literature at all. (655)
… there is hardly a word of poetry in the whole tragedy.
In their baldness – and they are as bald as the plays of Ibsen at their most commonplace – they achieve a sort of marmoreal atmosphere of tragic gloom. The reader need hardly give time to reading them, but he should certainly not miss any opportunity to see them played, for he will get from them something of the sensation produced by the great Greeks, with an added agitation caused by the lightning flashes of the exclamations. (all from p. 656, all from The March of Literature)
Yet Ford also quotes an Italian critic who ranks Alfieri with Aeschylus: “Tragedy, born sublime, terrible, vigorous, heroic.”
To my knowledge there is really just one English translation of Alfieri, the 1876 E. A. Bowring revision of the 1815 Charles Lloyd of Alfieri’s tragedies. I have just read the revised one. I doubt they are so different. Maybe they are. Lloyd moved Alfieri into a choppy, energetic blank verse that makes him sound like simpler, watery Shakespeare.
For example, see this speech near the end of Saul, where the king is being tormented by ghosts of the prophet Samuel and by another priest he has ordered killed:
SAUL: Incensed, tremendous shade, ah, go thy way!
Leave, leave me ! . . . See: before thy feet I kneel . . .
Where can I fly ? . . . — where can I hide myself?
O fierce, vindictive spectre, be appeased . . .
But to my supplications it is deaf;
And does it spurn me ? . . . Burst asunder, earth,
Swallow me up alive . . . (Act V, Sc 3, all ellipses in original)
This speech is witnessed by his grieving daughter (and David’s wife) Micah, making Saul resemble King Lear even more, although the Cassandra-like who Saul has rejected figure is David.
The Biblical subject helps, but few English readers will not hear King Lear. Ford Ford does just what I did – I am ripping him off – with a scene from Alfieri’s Agamemnon that sounds like a rejected speech of Lady Macbeth.
Going by his Memoirs, Alfieri was not imitating Shakespeare at all, but rather modeled himself after Seneca (also a model for Shakespeare) and Latin translation of Classical Greek tragedies. He also had a negative model: he rejected the static drama of Racine and Corneille, with their gigantic protagonists declaiming long, intense monologues. My own experience with Saul in translation, though, is that it is most effective when poor, mad King Saul, doomed by his resentment of David and his sense that he has been abandoned by God, takes the stage alone and reveals his fears and humanity:
SAUL: But no; on this side a prodigious stream
Of blood restrains my steps. Atrocious sight!
On both its shores in mountains are up-piled
Great heaps of recent corpses: all is death
On this side: thitherward I then will fly . . . (same scene, still seeing visions)
Alfieri’s psychology and imagery can rise to a high point in these “exclamations” whatever trouble the English might have.
The ideal translation would involve Percy Shelley not dying, losing his energy for original poems, and turning his attention to translating Italian literature. His version of Alfieri would have been something to read.