Ludovico the relationships between characters which are based on

Ariosto’s La Lena was performed in Ferrara in 1528, at the time of Ercole II d’Este’s rule. During the 15th and 16th century
Ferrara was a unique example of social, political and economic stages which
Northern Italy was undergoing. Ariosto, who began his career as a cortigiano at the court of Ferrara’s prince,
gives his spectators a first-hand
experience of tensions encountered between the court and the city which was
drowning in corruption, debt, and
immorality. La Lena is a reflection of a morally and monetarily depraved
society written in satirical condemnation under a complex social and political
structure with many flaws. The representation of Ferrara’s society that Ariosto
portrayed in the comedy shows Ferrara’s citizens of different social layers as
individuals utterly concerned with protecting their own interests, brutally
engaging in potentially disastrous schemes and creating a rather
disadvantageous environment for the community. The strongest point of critique
in the comedy is the commercialisation of human nature and the commodification of human experience. I wanted
to divide the essay into parts which rationalise different aspects that Ariosto
wanted to demonstrate in the comedy and find out how far the moral critique
develops. Thus, firstly, I want to focus on the commodity that the female
bodies represent and the relationships between characters which are based on
the exchanges. The second part of the essay will be focused on the distrust of
authorities and the system of injustice which characterised
the city of Ferrara. Thus, we will be able to establish if it is the society as
a whole that Ariosto criticises or the social system and the structure of the
society that is condemned by him.


this part of the essay, I would like to concentrate on the moral critique that
La Lena represents of the social conditions that citizens of Ferrara found
themselves in during the 16th century. Many relationships in the comedy are characterised by an exchange or a trade of any
sort. Women, in particular, come across as being critiqued by Ariosto for the
commercial nature of their experiences throughout the comedy. We see women,
Lena mostly, to be accepting of the position she has been put into and putting
aside any of her needs in order to cover the financial needs of her husband.1 The moral critique in this part of
the comedy lays within the human ability to disregard and facilitate the commercialisation of self as well as others. I
decided to begin the essay with the way Ariosto portrayed the critic of this particular
matter as it is featured in many acts throughout the play. Particularly
important is that we consider the fact that Ariosto chose to put this matter on
display from the very first act of the comedy. In the first scene of the first
act of the comedy our main characters Flavio and Corbolo discuss the upcoming
meeting where Flavio is going to in secrecy, so he can meet the girl he is
supposedly in love with – Licinia. When questioned by his servant Corbolo as to
how he managed to convince Lena to aid him in secretly meeting a girl he is not
married to, Flavio responds that everything has a price, even people’s morals.
We can reaffirm this when reading the first scene of the first act:

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“Disposta l’ho con quel
mezzo medesimo, con che piu’ salde menti si dispongono
a dar le rocche, le citta’, glie eserciti, e talor
le persone de’ lor principi: con denari; da quel mezzo il piu’ facile non si potrebbe


tension in regards to human commercialisation
begins with the exchange that Flavio and Lena conducted from the very
beginning. The low morals of the society have acted as the catalyst for all
further ‘transactions’ of integrity and sexual favours
between the characters. The root of critique in this particular instance comes
from the idea of female bodies as commodities, the idea that they can be
accessible like Lena is to Fazio in her house, as argued by Martinez.3 Furthermore, the first controversial
act that Ariosto demonstrates to the reader in the first scene, later on, leads to further critiques of the way
humans are treated as commodities. In the first scene,
Flavio’s unethical actions are impulsive and driven by the sexual desire. In
the next scene, however, the spiral of unethical actions continues. In the act,
later on, Lena’s actions are purely
motivated by the selfish desire for revenge and inability to outsource the
resources she needs to pay off her husband’s debts. Right away in the second
scene of the same act, we encounter the
conflict between Fazio and Lena, where the dialogue focuses on the exchange of
services. Lena believes that what she provides Fazio with – her company and
time – is not sufficiently repaid with regards to the money she receives in
exchange. She tells Fazio directly:


ho mai fatto
altro per voi,
ch’io meriti nove
lire di piu’? In nome del diavolo, che
se dodici
volte l’anno dodici voi
me ne dessi,
non sarebbe premio sufficente a compensare la infamia
che voi
mi date; che i vicini dicono publicamente ch’io son vostra femina.”4


demonstrates how she does not mind the act of exchange, even if it is herself
that she trades, but she demands that she is to be better compensated. The
ultimate goal for Lena is a better life without the debt that her husband’s
activities lead to. She is not criticised by Ariosto for being who is, however,
she is criticised for going down that path out of pure need, which will leave
her moral principles questioned. Ariosto’s critique here comes into the light
with regards to the moral compromises that the characters who represent the
society of Ferrara at the time are willing to make. Ludovico Ariosto wishes to
demonstrate the extent to which people are willing to go to and the aspects of
their personality that they are willing to display or sacrifice. All in order
to achieve the ultimate goals that they set for themselves or were pushed into setting, with little regard as to the moral
damage that it causes the society as a whole. Thus, as argued by Scaglione,
this shows the social structure of the described society which pushes the
individuals to do despicable and immoral acts in order to survive in the
culture they were forced to live in. It is not only the individual that Ariosto
condemns, it is the social structure that imposed such behaviour on its citizens.5


in the first scene of the first act, we
have Corbolo, the servant, judging Lena for her lack of integrity by exposing
how she chooses to cope with her
situation – by ‘selling’ Fazio’s daughter to Flavio, consequently betraying
Fazio’s trust. Corbolo expresses his opinion rather directly when saying:
“Porca! Ch’ardere la possa il fuoco! Non ha
coscienzia, di chi si fida di lei, la figlia
vendere!”6 In this scene, Lena is being directly
criticised for the way she behaves by another character in the play. Ariosto
wants to paint the picture of the misery of human existence in a society that
gives an individual no other way to survive but to only protect their interests
while causing injustice. Aristo does condemn the behaviour that Lena displays as to how she uses humans and their
experiences as commodities. However, at the core of moral critique that Ariosto
wanted to show is the disintegration of favourable
social conditions caused by the unequal
social structures, enforced by the authorities. Therefore, according to
Scaglione, we can argue that Ariosto had a conflicting relationship with such a
society that Aldo Scaglione describes as feudal. He argues that Ariosto both
accepted the reality of the society he wishes to portray but that he was also
able to resist simply allowing it to
exist without pointing out the flaws.7


the second part of the essay, as mentioned before, I would like to focus on the
portrayal of authorities as the root of all that is undesirable with regards to
the Ferrara’s social situation. It is not the characters in the play who were portrayed
as evil – they were only acting out the parts they were handed out. That put
them in the situation where they did what they had to in order to survive. In
certain instances, their survival depended on the compromise they thought they
needed to make and the sacrifice of their values and morals in order to sustain
themselves and improve their living conditions.


may have criticised the social behaviour
of the characters but it was only developed by the means of social injustice.
It is the characters who act in a morally questionable way, but the critique
can be directed to the injustice and inefficiency of the way that the court
administration runs the social business. Thus, this causes the moral chaos as
each person is cornered to defend and look after their own interest, knowing
that anyone above their social level will not do so, as argued by Stefano
Bianchi.8 I do not believe that Ariosto meant
to make a serious critique of the way that the lower layers of the society were
living at the time. Nevertheless, he did want to illustrate the way that those
in power promoted and enforced corruption, not only of social morals but of
financial needs of the population as well. This is demonstrated by Corbolo when
he is boosting about his trickery of the Duke. In the third scene of the second
act, Corbolo prides himself on how he cheated the Duke by re-selling him his
own game which was stolen from his own reservoir by his serfs.9 This does not only show the despair
that the lower layers of the society were facing. It is also an evidence as to
what extent the citizens were willing to go to in order to provide for
themselves. The unequal distribution of wealth, which was criticised in the
play, promotes the culture that dictates to find alternative ways of supporting
oneself. We see the example in Corbolo who may have been caught as well as in
Lena does not deny that she sacrificed her personal freedom in order to find
ways of living more comfortably.10 Hence the relationships between
people can only be seen as an exchange of favours
or an act of merchandising.  


the undeniable mistrust in authorities and the lack of concern on their part
when it comes to protecting Ferrara’s citizens can be seen in the play further
on. In the second scene of the third act when Corbolo talks to Ilario about his
son’s stolen gown. Not only did Flavio’s father believe that some thieves stole
his son’s robes in the alley, he also did not wish to report the incident to
the authorities as it would only make the situation worst. His dialogue ends
with: “…Appresso, chi vuoi tu pensar
che siano
li malfattori, se non li medesimi, che
per pigliar li malfattor si pagano? Col cavallier de i
quali o contestabile,
il podesta? fa parte; e tutti
rubano.”11 Such behaviour is suggestive of the
cruel and abusive use of power where lower classes were exposed to the
intimidation from those in power. They do not seem to have any other choice but
to accept it or in some cases embrace it and try to make a profit out of the
already existing disorder, as Corbolo tried to do.


the system, which is based on the ill-treatment of those who posed a threat to
the Duke as well as the corrupt way of dealing with the offenses using scapegoats to absolve the Duke of any unethical
methods, is strongly criticised in the play. In the eleventh scene of act four, we are confronted with one of the Duke’s
policemen who is caught stealing Torbolo’s
cloak. The policeman is questioned by his fellow officer on how he could do
such a thing, to which he answers that it is his way of providing for himself.
He claims to be heavily underpaid for his services but ends up being beaten up
after Torbolo defends the Duke saying
that this could not be true.12 This can be seen as ironic
considering how any effort to bring the responsible party to justice is
immediately nullified. And the reason for this is that the authorities who are
meant to be concerned with the interest of those under the ducal rule are
simply protecting the wrongdoings of their ruler. Ariosto seriously criticises
the social approach to compromises which put the moral integrity of the society
in question. Yet Ludovico Ariosto does
not condemn the society for having to live this way – the author wishes to show
us that such compromises are necessary for survival. Ariosto provides us with
the context in which we can see that the authority that was supposed to protect
its citizens either uses the power for their own gain or follows the order of
the Duke, who also only has his own interests in mind. According to Classen,
Ariosto had contradictory feelings towards his patron.13 This is one of the instances where
Ariosto goes as far as to include a covert critique of the ruler in his play.
Duke is absolved of responsibility by Torbolo
in the play. However, the fact that such situation was included in the play in
the first play may suggest strong inclinations towards a serious moral critique
of the social structure in the Ferrara society of the time.


Ariosto did provide us with the moral
conflict of who is to be blamed for the city’s misery. The critique of the
authorities in Ferrara is apparent, but how far does the moral critique of the
society as a whole extend is the question
that is to be addressed. In the eleventh scene of the fifth act, we are confronted with Lena and Pacifico
discussing the question as to who is to be blamed for their misery.14 And while Lena takes an easy and
apparent approach to blame the person who led
them onto that path of despair and absolve herself of moral liability, Pacifico
seems to be able to take responsibility for his actions. He takes personal
responsibility for being the one whose
debts, greed and questionable attitude towards his wife’s life lead to the path
of destruction and misery. This can be considered Ariosto’s way of absolving
the character or at least softening the
critique that was more apparent at the
beginning of the play. In the end, Pacifico and Lena were not able to resolve
their problems but Ariosto showed us that even though he does imply a moral critique of the society at the time, it
does not extend towards the complete condemnation of the whole population.


conclusion, Ariosto’s La Lena does provide an extensive critique of Ferrara’s
society at the time, covering individual issues in the social environment of
Ferrara and extending it to the structural levels of the authorities. At first, the critique seems to be only addressed
at certain characters. As we are first
introduced to Lena which leaves the audience with a conundrum about the female commercialisation and the facilitation of such.
However, as Ariosto takes us through the play the moral critique of the society
extends towards the problem of the feudal society which is structured by the
unjust and unequal authorities. The moral critique that the writer presents to
the audience extends to the layers of the society with the most influence, such as the Duke and the
police. Thus, we can see that at the heart of moral critique that Ariosto
provides is not the way individual characters treat each other but is more
connected to the idea that individuals adapt to the unfortunate circumstance in
which they were forced into. Hence, we can conclude that the extent of moral
critique of the society is rooted in the social system which leaves the
individuals with little choice as to how to survive but not compromise their
morals values.


1 Bianchi, Stefano. “The Theatre of Ariosto.”
Ariosto Today: Contemporary
Perspectives, edited by
Donald Beecher et al., University of Toronto Press, 2003, pp. 176–194.
JSTOR, P.186


2 Ariosto, Ludovico. Opere Minori. Milano: Rizzoli
Editore, 1964. Act I, Scene I;
p. 504


Martinez, R. (2016). Taking the
Measure of La Lena: Prostitution, the Community of Debt, and the Idea of the
Theater in Ariosto’s Last Play. p.3; p24 online Available at: Accessed 24 Dec. 2017


4 Ariosto, Ludovico. Opere Minori. Milano: Rizzoli
Editore, 1964. Act I, Scene II;
p. 506


5 Scaglione, A. (1991). Knights at Court: Courtliness,
Chivalry & Courtesy from Ottonian Germany to the Italian Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California
Press, p.39


6 Ariosto, Ludovico. Opere Minori. Milano: Rizzoli
Editore, 1964. Act I, Scene I;
p. 505


7 Scaglione, A. (1991). Knights at Court: Courtliness,
Chivalry & Courtesy from Ottonian Germany to the Italian Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California
Press, p.269


8 Bianchi, Stefano. “The Theatre of Ariosto.”
Ariosto Today:
Contemporary Perspectives, edited by
Donald Beecher et al., University of Toronto Press, 2003, pp. 176–194.
JSTOR, P.186


9 Ariosto, Ludovico. Opere Minori. Milano: Rizzoli
Editore, 1964. Act II, Scene
III; p. 519


10 Ariosto, Ludovico. Opere Minori. Milano: Rizzoli
Editore, 1964. Act V, Scene XI;
p. 569-570


11 Ariosto, Ludovico. Opere Minori. Milano: Rizzoli
Editore, 1964. Act III, Scene
II; p. 539


Martinez, R. (2016). Taking the
Measure of La Lena: Prostitution, the Community of Debt, and the Idea of the
Theater in Ariosto’s Last Play. P.16 online Available at: Accessed 24 Dec. 2017


Classen, A. (2012). Rural Space in
the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: The Spatial Turn in Premodern Studies. Berlin: De Gruyter, p.748


14 Ariosto, Ludovico. Opere Minori. Milano: Rizzoli
Editore, 1964. Act V, Scene XI;
p. 569-570