Shakespeare’s Italian journeys

Shakespeare’s Italian journeys

Shakespeare set many of his plays in Italy, though he almost certainly never went there. Andrew Dickson assesses how much Shakespeare knew about the country and its people, and describes how the playwright drew from myth and reality to create a rich imaginative space.

Plot Shakespeare’s plays on a map and it’s easy to picture his world. A dense freckling of dots mark English cities and battlefields, the real-life locations for the history plays: Tewkesbury, Wakefield, St Albans, Canterbury, Towton, York. A looser cluster indicates sites in Scotland, France and the Low Countries, both historically exact (Agincourt, site of the climactic conflict in Henry V) and semi-mythical (Birnam Wood near Dunsinane in Perthshire which, courtesy of Malcolm’s army, uproots itself near the end of Macbeth).[1] Other territories are stranger and more mysterious: Bohemia in modern-day central Poland, magically gifted a sea coast in The Winter’s Tale; or the nameless ‘isle’ ruled by Prospero in The Tempest, which according to the play’s geographical logic should be in the middle of the Mediterranean, yet seems also to be the Americas (Shakespeare’s main source was an account of a real-life shipwreck in Bermuda).[2]

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

A gondola cruises past St Mark’s Square in Venice, from the friendship album of Moyses Walens, 1605–15.

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Yet if the playwright has a favourite imaginative haunt, it is surely Italy. His earliest surviving script, The Two Gentleman of Verona (c.1590), sets the tone – and no fewer than eight plays are set in Italian locations, ranging from Padua (The Taming of the Shrew) and Sicily (Much Ado About Nothing, half of The Winter’s Tale) to Venice, the great cosmopolitan trading city that is the setting for The Merchant of Venice and the opening of Othello. If you factor in scripts set at least partially in ancient Rome – Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra – the number swells even further.

Italy crops up in the unlikeliest of places. An Italian character, the dastardly Giacomo, sneaks into the otherwise stolidly British world of Cymbeline. In All’s Well That Ends Well, Italy is the destination for the fun- and fame-seeking Bertram, eager to escape a marriage he does not want. Even Richard II, which dwells at poetic length on the ‘blessed isle’ of England, sneaks the odd envious glance eastwards: the foppish Richard and his flattering followers are condemned for being obsessed with ‘fashions in proud Italy’.[3] While Shakespeare almost certainly never left Britain, it’s easy to see how legends of him having travelled on the Continent as a young man – or, more wildly, being half-Sicilian – have gained currency in the centuries since his death.[4]

View of Messina in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

View of Messina in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

Hand-coloured view of Messina in Sicily, from Braun and Hoggenberg’s opulent atlas of the world’s cities, c. 1600–23.

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Enter Italians

But are these Italies literal, or purely figurative? Does Shakespeare’s conception of a place he never visited bear any relation to the reality, or does it reveal more about the creative worldview of a superlatively intelligent but poorly travelled man from the English Midlands?

As always with Shakespeare, the answer is both and neither, and also everything in between. The playwright must surely have come into contact with people who were either Italian or had travelled there: as well as living for a time in Bishopsgate, an area teeming with immigrant families from mainland Europe, it seems probable that he knew the great translator and lexicographer Giovanni (John) Florio, the first translator of Montaigne into English.[5] He may well have been acquainted with the Bassanos, a family of Italian Jewish musicians.[6] Traders and travellers, diplomats and tourists passed with great frequency through London, many with Italian connections, and some even went to the theatre: indeed, the first time we hear of a performance of Shakespeare’s late play Pericles is in the diary of the Venetian ambassador Giorgio Giustinian, who entertained his visitors lavishly in a private box at the Globe.[7] If the playwright wanted to put flesh on the bones of Italian locations mentioned in his sources – in the 16th century a loose configuration of warring city states rather than a unified nation – he knew whom to call.

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

Discussion of Venice and London in Italian-English language manual

John Florio describes the many foreign traders in London. He even notes that they enjoy the Comedies and Tragedies on show there.

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But it was primarily in printed sources, in the pages of books and pamphlets, that Shakespeare conducted his most intensive Italian explorations. Travel literature was one of the great publishing successes of the Elizabethan period, and a surprising number of the plays are based on texts that were originally written in Italian, or passed through the language. The story collection Gli Hecatommithi (1565) by the Ferrarese scholar Giambatista Giraldi, nicknamed Cinthio, was one Shakespeare certainly knew: the main narrative of Othello is borrowed from the tragicomic tale ‘Disdemona and the Moor’, while the motif of the corrupt magistrate who propositions an eloquent young woman in Measure for Measure comes from another Cinthio story, ‘Epitia’ (Epitia is the woman in question; Shakespeare adjusts her name to Isabella). Another key source is the famous collection Decamerone by Boccaccio, which provides Cymbeline with the wager between Giacomo and Posthumus over Imogen’s faithfulness and the main story of All’s Well. Poetic forms made their presence felt, too: Shakespeare was profoundly influenced by Petrarch’s sonnets, fertile ground for Elizabethan sonneteers and first ‘Englished’ by his Tudor antecedents Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and Thomas Wyatt.[8]

Though the ever-pragmatic (and manically busy) Shakespeare certainly worked with translations and adaptations where they were available, some of these volumes he appears to have read in the original. Though he may well have been less competent in Italian than he was at other languages – a good portion of the wooing scene in Henry V is written in passable French – it will have been bolstered by humanistic schoolboy drilling in Latin, which will have taken him to the level of a modern-day classics graduate.

Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi, an Italian source for Othello and Measure for Measure

Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi

Shakespeare borrowed the plots for two of his plays from this Italian story collection, which explores the pros and cons of different kinds of love.

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Creative convenience

Even so – and as is always the case – Shakespeare couldn’t resist changing what he found. Sources are ransacked for ideas, then abandoned or altered almost beyond recognition; even more frequently, they are combined with other raw materials to create glittering new amalgams. While his world is often a collage of other people’s worlds, it is never anything other than Shakespearean.

That goes for the playwright’s conception of Italy, too. Sometimes the setting seems mere creative convenience – The Two Gentlemen of Verona may have the name of one city state in its title, and be otherwise set in Milan, but it contains little in the way of plausible local colour (not a piazza or basilica, nor any mention of the famous River Adige). Something of the same is true of the Padua of The Taming of the Shrew, which despite its cast and setting – and the fact that its subplot comes originally from Ariosto – seems to live and breathe in the world of English folklore, from where the brutal story of a man taming his wife into compliance derives.[9] The fact that the turbulent relationship between Katherine and Petruccio and everything that surrounds it is technically a play-within-a-play acted by a company of professionals attests how Italy was often figured in Elizabethan popular culture: a sunny land of entertaining conceits and commedia dell’arte-like devices, full of love intrigues and comic (if sometimes buffoonish) goings-on.[10] Where more stringently anti-Catholic dramatists such as John Webster and Thomas Middleton employed Italy as a shorthand for incense-soaked revenge, for Shakespeare – at least in the world of the comedies – Italy seems to be a more summery and innocent destination, a place where nothing bad is likely to persist.[11]

Masked players in the friendship album of Alexander Faber

Commedia dell'arte figures in the Friendship Album of Alexander Faber

A travelling troupe of entertainers known as commedia dell’arte players, from the friendship album of Alexander Faber.

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That said, he permits shadows to fall. Part of the shock of Romeo and Juliet is that the Veronese world of the play, with its masqued balls and carnivalesque atmosphere, seems so infectiously comic until the action is wrenched violently into tragedy. Shakespeare may never have visited Sicily, the notional setting for Much Ado About Nothing and the first section of The Winter’s Tale, but he has a keen sense of how a powerfully misogynist culture punishes women who are perceived to step out of line: both Hero and Hermione are accused (wrongly) of being unfaithful, and publicly shamed before being forced to undergo symbolic rebirths to atone.

16th-century costume guide

16th-century costume guide

A Venetian bride before her wedding, wearing a black silk veil, from Cesare Vecellio’s guide to global fashions, 1598.

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To Venice

But it is in the great city state of Venice that Shakespeare found a location that fed his dramatic imagination and mirrored a metropolis he knew much more intimately: London. Famously cosmopolitan, Venice is able to accommodate what to English audiences must have seemed the astonishing fact of marriage between a wealthy Venetian girl and a Moorish general, the scene that opens Othello. Despite Iago and Roderigo’s racist taunts, Shakespeare is careful to indicate that the match has been consensual, and that the ‘stranger’ Othello is not merely tolerated but highly valued by the Venetian powers that be. Only when the action shifts to the remote and claustrophobic island of Cyprus does the relationship collapse under the pressure of suspicion (it is a tantalising question what would have happened to Othello and Desdemona had they remained in Venice).

Yet in The Merchant of Venice we get a much stronger sense of why Venice, too, might be a prison. On the one hand, this is a glittering global capital, the nexus of the commercial networks that dominated the Renaissance world – there is insouciant chatter about Tripolis, Mexico, the Indies, the market at Frankfurt, ‘argosies’ (merchant ships) dispatched to every port imaginable. On the other, the folk who saunter up and down the Rialto are shown to be money- and status-obsessed, showy, perhaps rather shallow (‘I know not why I am so sad,’ Antonio laments; the only answer his fellow Venetians can provide is that he’s worried about cashflow).[12] Despite the city’s apparent open-mindedness, for ‘aliens’ such as its Jewish population, legally oppressed and crammed into the demeaning conditions of the Ghetto, Venice is not a city that offers much freedom – as Shylock, forcibly converted to Christianity, learns to his bitter cost.

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

Hand-coloured frontispiece for Coryate’s Crudities, a quirky travel narrative which devotes a whole section to the Jewish Ghetto of Venice.

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Scholars have sometimes pounced on Shakespeare for perceived geographical errors – that rogue Bohemian seacoast, the fact that As You Like It can’t quite make its mind up whether it’s set in the English forest of Arden or the great French-Belgian forest of the Ardennes. As well as being Adige-less, The Two Gentlemen is the site for an embarrassing and persistent cartographical howler, Valentine’s belief that he can travel between landlocked Verona and Milan by sea.

It might be pointed out that on the bare Jacobethan stage, where transcontinental travel is as simple as announcing you’re there rather than here, here rather than there, it hardly matters. To adopt a phrase used by the scholars Virginia and Alden Vaughan about The Tempest, Shakespeare’s ‘ambiguous geography’ is creatively ambiguous – a realm of teasing suggestion rather than concrete, mappable reality.[13] Like so many things in Shakespeare, Italy is right there in front of us, and also whole worlds away.


[1] A useful map is indeed included in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 530.

[2] For The Tempest’s sources, see the introduction to Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan’s Arden third edition (London: Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury, 2011).

[3] Richard II, 2.1.21. All Shakespeare citations are from The Complete Works, 2nd edn, gen. eds Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[4] Many of these legends sprang up during the 19th century, an outflow of Romantic autobiographical readings of the plays, and perhaps Romantic writers’ and critics’ own Italian adventures. On the (equally spurious) Sicilian connection, see Sonia Massai, ‘Why Shakespeare is ... Italian’, The Guardian, 25 April 2012 <>. Most modern biographers remain unconvinced.

[5] Shakespeare and Florio shared a patron, the Earl of Southampton, and Shakespeare certainly knew Florio’s work; some biographers have speculated he used Florio’s extensive library.

[6] The Bassano connection is more speculative, but some have set great store by it; A L Rowse famously – if improbably – argued that Emilia Lanier, née Bassano, was the original ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets. See A L Rowse, Shakespeare the Man (London: Macmillan, 1973), and Marshall Grossman, Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998).

[7] See Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, 3rd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 83.

[8] Major sources are reprinted in Geoffrey Bullough’s monumental Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957–75), and often in individual editions of the plays. See also Stuart Gillespie, ‘Shakespeare’s Reading of Modern European Literature’, in Andrew Hadfield and Paul Hammond (eds), Shakespeare and Renaissance Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), pp. 98–122.

[9] See Jan Harold Brunvand, ‘The Folktale Origin of The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare Quarterly 17 (1966), 345–59.

[10] Confusion surrounds the early texts of The Shrew, but in the Folio version of 1623 the play opens with a framing device in which as part of an elaborate joke a drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, is persuaded to watch the players perform what emerges as the ‘main’ action, the Katherine–Petruccio story. Although the framing device is left incomplete in the Folio, the earlier quarto versions retain it.

[11] Shakespeare and Renaissance Europe, pp. 123–49, for a useful account of the Italian comic conventions used and abused by Shakespeare.

[12] The Merchant of Venice, 1.1.1.

[13] See the Vaughans’ edition of The Tempest, p. 44.

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is