450 years on, Shakespeare’s plays are still considered pinnacles of English penmanship. Italian locations populate his plays – Venice to Verona, Rome to Sicily – but do they suggest only fictional Elizabethan imaginings, or could they illustrate a personal knowledge of the country? Could the grammar school-educated son of a Stratford glovemaker have written plays about a country he is unlikely to have visited? Or is another hand behind these masterpieces – that of a certain wealthy aristocrat, perhaps?
William Shakespeare, part of the mercantile class, is unlikely to have had the wealth or status that facilitated travel. Whether his plays illustrate a personal knowledge of Italy or not is a highly contested point between Stratfordians, (who believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare) and Non-Stratfordians, often Oxfordians (who believe he couldn’t have, and that de Vere may be the playwright). We’ve spoken to lecturers and enthusiasts on both sides to highlight some key questions.
The sycamores of Romeo and Juliet
In Romeo and Juliet, we see the warring Montagues and Capulets against the backdrop of Verona, then Romeo’s solitude in Mantua. Famous for “Juliet’s balcony” as well as its inspiring Roman arena, Verona has monopolised on Romeo and Juliet. In Verona’s countryside at a beautiful Palladian villa like Villa Zambonina, you can almost imagine throwing the Capulet ball yourself. Neighbouring Palladio’s own villa, Zambonina’s original owners were closely acquainted with the architect. This is the Italy Shakespeare’s plays conjure.
Although few suggest that “Juliet’s balcony” is the real balcony envisaged by the playwright, Richard Paul Roe’ s 2011 book The Shakespeare Guide to Italy does suggest that the bard may have had intimate knowledge of the region.
In Act I Scene I, Benvolio tells Romeo’s mother:
underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city’s side,
So early did I see your son…
Roe discovered that the remnants of a sycamore grove are to be found, seen here outside Verona’s west wall.
Many plays are based on traditional tales or novellas. The 1562 Arthur Brooke poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was the first English version of the tale, following Italian versions by da Porta and Bandello, who told the story of feuding families Montecchi and Capelletti in the 1550s.
None of these preceding sources, however, mention the sycamore grove, so why would Shakespeare have added it? Is it lucky coincidence, inserted for narrative colour and semantic depth, or was it for geographic authenticity? If this is mere luck, it is intriguing, nonetheless.
The life and times of Shakespeare
Stratfordians and Non-Stratfordians often divide over a key point – should Shakespeare’s biography mirror the content and context of his plays? Michael Egan, editor of The Oxfordian explains that “[t]he strongest element in the (…) non-Stratfordian argument is the disjunct between Shakespeare’s work and his life”. For many Stratfordians, whether sycamores were or weren’t found is irrelevant. For them, plays are not guidebooks but imaginative locations – the details included are determined by the direction necessary for the plot, not a reliance on reality. Could sycamores have been chosen, instead, for their potent pun? Romeo is lovelorn over Rosalind, so could Romeo’s escape to “sick” “amour” be another way in which the narrative portrays his unhealthy courtly love? It is worth noting that sycamores appear again in Othello, in Desdemona’s song about lovesickness: “[t]he poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree”.
But did the playwright visit Italy?
Many Stratfordians doubt he could have, suggesting that he could’ve “read political treatises, novellas, tourist books, published traveller’s reports or unpublished ones in manuscript”, as well as relying on “oral sources of all kinds: personal acquaintances with visitors at court, Italian merchants living in London, scholars, musicians, a cultural mediator likes John Florio, or visual aids like maps and pictures of costumes and festivals” (Professoressa Laura Tosi, Ca’Foscari University, Venice). There was also the musician Alfonso Ferrabosco, the poet Emilia Lanier (daughter of an Italian), and Englishmen who had visited Italy to acquire information from. Professore Valerio di Scarpis (Ca’Foscari University, Venice) agrees. “I believe that there were so many travel guides on Venice scattered around Northern Europe at that time, that Shakespeare could have easily gathered all the necessary information from London”. There is still a tiny possibility that he reached Italy – both aristocrats and companies of English players on tour moved across the continent at the time. English clown William Kemp, for example, visited Rome in the 1600s. There is no evidence, however, that Shakespeare ever made it to Italy.
Education and Language
John Hamill, president of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship, points to Cossolotto and Cutler’s top ten list of reasons to doubt Shakespeare’s authorship. Number four focusses on education. Though it is agreed that Shakespeare attended Stratford grammar school, he didn’t attend university. Hamill highlights that his works are populated by an
extensive knowledge of mythology, literature, legal terminology, astronomy, philosophy, heraldry, horticulture, mathematics, art, music, and aristocratic pastimes such as tennis, bowling and falconry. The works derive from myriad works in French, Italian, and Greek not yet translated into English. No one has yet explained his knowledge of languages.
Some Stratfordians continue to chart Shakespeare’s Italian through the chapters of Florio’s dictionary.
The Italy presented
England was captivated by the Italy imagined. Laura Tosi explains that the Elizabethans viewed Italy as “the most advanced civilisation of the time in the fields of art, music and literature as well as banking, fencing and political science”, a fantasy we discover in many of Shakespeare’s comedies. They also, however, imagined Italy as “the cradle of political, religious and sexual corruption”; the Machiavellian basis of so many revenge tragedies. Warren King (founder of NoSweatShakespeare) notes that “other Elizabethan, and particularly Jacobean, writers – of which Shakespeare was one – set their plays in Italy. One of the most prominent characteristics of Jacobean plays,” he goes on, “is their almost unpalatable violence. Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences associated Italy with heat, extreme emotion and violence.” King explained that as soon as [the audience] realised that a play, for example Romeo and Juliet, Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, or Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, was set in Italy, they knew that they were going to be drenched in extreme heat, extreme emotions and treated to the portrayal of extreme violence. It is unlikely that Middleton, Rowley or Webster visited Italy either. Those playwrights would, like Shakespeare, have been acutely aware of the subtext of Italian settings in a play, just as they would have been aware that romantic love would be the subtext of a play set in Paris.
Portia’s Brenta estate
In The Merchant of Venice, Portia is based at her family estate, “Belmont”. Whilst many Stratfordians consider Belmont a fictional location, many Oxfordians delve into possible locations, focussing on “Belmonte” and “Montebello”. Noemi Magri and Roe even state that Villa Foscari “Malcontenta” is the location of Portia’s “Belmont”.
Both sides agree at least that a( real or fictional) “Belmont” would be located along the Brenta, as this was the location of Venetian merchants’ country estates. Villa Michiel near Mirano is a perfect example of such a place, as family home of the Michiels, who arrived in the Venetian Republic as exiles from Rome in the fifth century. The politically-active family provided the Venetian Republic with three doges. Just like the villas on the Brenta which inspired ‘Belmont’, Villa Michiel has two main entrances, one through the lagoon. 200m from the residence of renowned painter Tiepolo, it’s another example of an Italy which embraces and preserves its past.
There is no evidence that Shakespeare had a literary patron. His household was illiterate and his biography doesn’t echo the content of his plays. Are these stumbling blocks in the authorship question? Carry on the debate below; let’s keep the curiosity and exploration surrounding this enigmatic playwright alive!