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Eleonora Duse as Juliet and Cleopatra


From her debut as Juliet in 1872 onwards, the career of Eleonora Duse (1858–1924) is marked by an evolving, changeable approach to her Shakespearean roles. In different ways and under diverse circumstances, each of her Shakespearean parts represented something of a turning-point in her cursus. Scholars have argued that life and art, emotional instinct and theatrical performance, coalesced seamlessly throughout her Shakespearean repertoire, and in particular in her interpretation of Cleopatra (Puppa 2009). Yet while this theory that she acted out her own personal life, and that her characters’ feelings coincided with her own, is an attractive one, it is also reductive. New evidence——the discovery of her personal library, housed in Cambridge and now known as the Murray Edwards Duse Collection (MEDC)—and an appreciation of the declamatory theatrical code of la drammatica (Sica 2013) reveal Duse’s intensely erudite work in preparing for these Shakespearean roles. The MEDC offers the clearest record that, first, her literary education began—or became active—around 1886; secondly, that it assumed an ideological character in the early 1890s; and, finally, that the development of her thinking informed her acting. So pronounced was her artistic and literary prowess that she was considered one of the foremost Italian aesthetes of her time, and the reconstruction of the MEDC has helped to reshape our understanding of her intellectual profile, shedding fresh light on the art of her acting (Sica 2012). The two principal subjects of analysis to be discussed in this chapter are, first, Duse’s early mannerist medievalism, which can be traced to her performance of Juliet, and secondly her variegated, contradictory interpretation of Cleopatra, a cornerstone of her repertoire that led to her being immortalized as “absorbingly interesting” (Symons 1903: 55–56) and an “exquisitely sympathetic actress” (Shaw 1952: 38).