Shakespeare and Italy

Shakespeare and Italy

  • Article by: John Mullan
  • Themes: Shakespeare’s life and world, Global Shakespeare
  • Published: 15 Mar 2016
John Mullan explores how Italian geography, literature, culture and politics influenced the plots and atmosphere of many of Shakespeare’s plays.

So frequent and thorough is Shakespeare’s engagement with Italy in his plays that it has been suggested that he travelled to Italy some time between the mid-1580s and the early 1590s – the so-called ‘lost years’ when we have no reliable information about his whereabouts. There is no evidence to support this claim, but it is clear that Italy was his primary land of the imagination. Unlike other countries – such as France, Austria or Denmark – in which he set particular plays, his representations of Italy are diverse and usually precise. Different cities in Italy are chosen for different plays and given distinct qualities and associations.

When he so often chose Italian settings for his plays, Shakespeare was exploiting his contemporaries’ lively interest in the country. It was the destination of many Elizabethan travellers and the subject of many travel writings. (In As You Like It, when Jaques tells Rosalind that he has the ‘humorous sadness’ of a ‘traveller’, she naturally assumes ‘you have swam in a gundello [i.e. gondola]’ (4.1.19–21). Any serious traveller would have been to Venice.) If Shakespeare did not know Italian, many of his educated contemporaries did. It is likely that he encountered educated Italians in London – he might well have known leading humanist scholar John Florio, an Italian who was tutor to his patron, the Earl of Southampton.

Discussion of Venice and London in Florio's Italian language manual

Discussion of Venice and London in Italian-English language manual

John Florio describes Venice as a ‘fayre citie, riche, sumptuous’ and ‘adorned with fayre women’.

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Italy and the poetics of love

Italy had a special hold on poets. The very forms of Elizabethan verse and the terminology of its patterns (stanza, sestina) often came from Italy. The sonnet (from the Italian sonneto) was introduced to English in the 1550s in explicit imitation of Italian models, and especially of the Italian poet Petrarch. In Romeo and Juliet, a play whose very prologue is a sonnet, Mercutio, mocking Romeo for his lovelorn posturing, tells Benvolio to expect from him the poetry of unrequited passion: ‘Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flow’d in’ (2.4.38–39). The 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (known as ‘Petrarch’ in English) was greatly admired in England, especially for his sonnets, which elaborately expressed his hopeless love for the nearly divine ‘Laura’.

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

The 14-line sonnet form is originally Italian, but many English poets like Shakespeare adapted the rhyme scheme.

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Mercutio invokes the object of Petrarch’s adoration to make fun of Romeo’s idealisation of Rosaline. ‘Laura to his lady was a kitchen wench (marry, she had a better love to berhyme her)’ (2.4.39–41). Shakespeare expected his audience to get the joke and to know that Italians were specialists in the poetic language of love. When Romeo and Juliet first meet at the Capulets’ masked ball, they exchange rhyming lines that go together to make up a sonnet. In Much Ado about Nothing, also set in Italy, Benedick and Beatrice are finally revealed to be secretly in love with each other when each is discovered to have been writing ‘a halting sonnet’ to the other (5.4.87).

Italian sources

Shakespeare may or may not have been able to read Italian, but he was able to use Italian sources for many of his plays because they had often been translated. The narrative of Bianca and her suitors in The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, is taken from George Gascoigne’s translation of Ariosto’s I Suppositi. The main story of Romeo and Juliet can be traced back to Luigi da Proto’s Istoria … di due nobili Amanti (c. 1530), but Shakespeare took his details from Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562). The source for Othello is a novella by the 16th-century Italian writer Giraldi Cinthio, which Shakespeare might have read in a French version. The very fact that we are unsure as to Shakespeare’s grasp of Italian is testimony to the currency of Italian literature in Renaissance England.

Passing references to Italy

Indeed, Italy is often present even in those plays that do not have Italian settings. In The Tempest, Prospero broods on his past life as duke of Milan, from where providence and magic bring him his usurping brother Antonio, along with Antonio’s ally Alonso, King of Naples, and his brother and son. They are travelling back to Italy after the wedding of Alonso’s daughter to the King of Tunis, and are caught up in a storm that Prospero has raised. Shipwrecked on the mysterious isle they set to conspiring, as Italian courtiers always do on the Jacobean stage. All’s Well that Ends Well is set in France, but in its second scene we learn that Florence and Sienna are at war, and that venturesome young Frenchman are travelling to the Italian wars. In The Winter’s Tale, the miraculously life-like statue of Hermione is said to have been made by ‘that rare Italian master, Julio Romano’ (5.2.96), for where but Italy would one go to find the most skilful sculptor? Italy figured vividly not just in Shakespeare’s mind but in the minds of many of his characters.

Carnival

Sometimes the preconceptions about Italian culture that Shakespeare exploits are rather general. For instance, Elizabethan audiences are likely to have known little about Sicily, the setting for Much Ado about Nothing, which takes place in Messina. Yet it matters that the drama takes place in Italy. The play exploits masks and revels, and conjures up an Italian location where festivities permit the concealment of identity. The masked ball in Act 2 allows for flirtation and comic mistaking of identity, yet, in a darker vein, disguise also allows Don John to trick Claudio into thinking that Hero is unfaithful to him. Shakespeare clearly wanted to use the association of Italy with carnival-like entertainments.

Friendship album of Gervasius Fabricius zu Klesheim

Friendship Album of Gervasius Fabricius zu Klesheim

Masked players and musicians entertain diners at a table, while a dog watches from the side-lines.

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A place of learning and cultivation

His early comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, seems to dramatise the very influence of Italy on the English imagination when, in its opening scene, Christopher Sly goes to sleep in England and wakes to see a play, set in Italy, performed for him. The drama that follows is, in a sense, his dream of Italy. Here Shakespeare uses his Italian settings with notable precision. Arriving in Padua from Pisa in the opening scene, Lucentio calls it ‘nursery of arts’ (1.1.2) and declares his intention to study philosophy there. Padua, site of a renowned university and medical school, was famed for learning. Petruchio comes from Verona with the design of marrying a rich woman in Padua. Shakespeare turns the idea of a city dedicated to polite learning to comic use when he has Lucentio disguise himself as Cambio, a teacher of languages who will be able to spend his time in the company of the beautiful Bianca. His ridiculous older rival for her hand, Hortensio, to the same end disguises himself as a teacher of mathematics and music. Padua is a place where young ladies can be assumed to aspire to learning and cultivation. The dialogue of this play is enlivened with Italian words and phrases, treated as the patois of courtly conversation.

Cities: rules and rituals

Here as elsewhere in his Italian plays, Shakespeare exploits the idea of Italy as a land of city states, each with its own separate rules and qualities. In one of his earliest plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Verona is the city where the true mutual love of Proteus and Julia is nurtured, before Proteus travels to Milan and betrays her. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare returns to Verona for a tragedy of love. His picture of warring families has the sanction of stereotype but acquires an utterly credible texture and authority. The sense of a place with its own rules and rituals, liable always to descend into violent chaos, is vividly imagined. Many of those who watched at the Globe Theatre would have been familiar with urban violence, yet the blood feuds of Verona corresponded to nothing in Elizabethan London.

View of Verona in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

View of Verona in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

View of 16th-century Verona in Braun and Hoggenberg’s opulent atlas of the world’s cities, c. 1600–23.

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Shakespeare used the fact that different Italian cities, each with a different regime and ethos, were often within easy reach of each other. In Romeo and Juliet we go from Verona to Mantua; in Two Gentlemen of Verona the main characters move between Verona and Milan. Different cities have different reputations. In Much Ado about Nothing, Claudio is made ‘a young Florentine’ (1.1.10–11), a man whose disastrous misinterpretations of what he sees and hears are the more likely because he comes from a different state. In Othello the fact that Cassio is a Florentine is constantly used by Iago to invite the suspicion or contempt of other characters.

Venice

The city with the most complex reputation for the English was undoubtedly Venice. First of all it was a famous – and famously prosperous – centre of international trade. It was not only Shakespeare who tapped into this. Ben Jonson’s satire on greed Volpone, first performed in 1605–06, is located vividly in this fabled city, where everyone bends to the power of riches. Jonson’s protagonist, Volpone, feigns sickness in order to extract flattery and gifts from those fellow Venetians who think that they will inherit his fabled wealth. In a blasphemous opening soliloquy, he praises ‘my Gold … my Saint’ (1.1.1–2). A Jacobean audience found it easy to associate this extreme avarice with Venice. From the very first exchange of The Merchant of Venice, where Salerio supposes that the distracted Antonio’s mind is ‘tossing on the ocean’ (1.1.8) with his ‘argosies’, Shakespeare draws on its mercantile associations. According to Bassanio, Antonio’s ships bring cargos ‘From Tripolis, from Mexico and England, / From Lisbon, Barbary and India’ (3.2.268–69). The key location in the city seems to be the Rialto, where commercial rumours are swapped and deals are done. ‘I understand moreover, upon the Rialto,’ (1.3.19) says Shylock, that Antonio has ships sailing from dangerously distant lands. ‘What news on the Rialto?’ (3.1.1.) asks Salanio as well as Shylock. The Rialto is the place where Antonio has insulted Shylock, the commercial centre of a commercial city.

Carpaccio's Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge

Carpaccio's Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge

This 15th-century painting shows a bustling multicultural scene at the Rialto, the economic heart of Venice.

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As a maritime state, committed to international trade, Venice was also thought of as a place where different nations and races met. As Antonio says, ‘the trade and profit of the city / Consisteth of all nations’ (3.3.30–31). Strikingly, the Shakespeare plays that are set partly in Venice are his two plays that feature ethnic outsiders, Shylock the Jew and Othello the Moor. The Venetians rely on both these men to provide what they do not have themselves: military prowess, in the case of Othello, and money lent at interest, in the case of Shylock. The particular drama of The Merchant of Venice would simply not have been possible in an English setting: Jews had been expelled from England at the end of the 13th century. There were a small number in Elizabethan London, though they could not openly avow their religion. There were also some so-called Marranos, descendants of Jews from Spain or Portugal who had been forced to convert to Christianity (as Shylock eventually is). There was, however, a large community of Jews in Venice, as Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries knew.

Contarini's Commonwealth and Government of Venice, translated by Lewkenor

Contarini's Commonwealth and Government of Venice, translated by Lewkenor

Gasparo Contarini comments on the ‘wonderful concourse of strange and forraine people’ in 16th-century Venice.

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For the English, Venice was a place of impressive but suspect sophistication. Iago calls Desdemona ‘a super-subtle Venetian’ (1.3.355), at once lying (she is a person of simple honesty) and drawing on this idea. He uses assumptions about the cosmopolitan immorality of Venetians to goad Othello:

I know our country disposition well:
In Venice they do let God see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands. (3.3.201–03)

Othello is a foreigner, and Iago pretends to offer him the advice of one who knows all about the ways of Venetian women. Here, as elsewhere in Shakespeare’s plays, a fascination with and an anxiety about the properties of Italy and Italians has become the stuff of the drama itself.

Description of the Jewish Ghetto and the courtesans of Venice in Coryate's Crudities, 1611

Description of the Jewish Ghetto and the courtesans of Venice in Coryate's Crudities, 1611

A man is propositioned by one of the famous courtesans of Venice. A hand-coloured illustration from Thomas Coryate’s quirky account of his travels, 1611.

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  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

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