The Young Shakespeare (8): Shakespeare in Italy
Discovering the fascinating truth
Of Shakespeare’s missing years
November 1585: Shakespeare Reaches Italy
Like all art, poetry grows naturally out of accumulated materielle, to which is added an individual poet’s personality & technique. Their creations should be seen as the fragrant flowers of a bush, the roots of which are buried deep under the earth. By following these roots to their sources of nourishment, we can slowly create a picture of the poet’s unseen life, the one that lives beneath the surface of the page. If Shakespeare had accompanied Stanley, the sheer wealth of scenery & culture that Europe contains should have found an eventual memorial among his plays. When the English poet Lord Byron visited the Continent in the early 19th century, his composition of a long poem called Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage is more or less a record of his travels. In the same fashion, it is through the Chisper Effect that we can see how the plays of Shakespeare are a metacreative journal of his travels with Stanley. Doctor AW Titherly concurs with such a notion by stating,
Shakespeare’s geography, being ubiquitous in its range, is evidentially inconclusive, except in so far as its abiding realism manifestly betrays extensive travel experience as distinct from mere book-learning.’
It is time, then, to proceed with the upmost joy unto the Italian peninsular, the greatest of all the Shakespearean hauntlands. It is in the famous Shelleyan ‘Paradise of Exiles,’ that Shakespeare would set more than a quarter of his plays, such as the seminal classic, Romeo & Juliet. Shakespeare & Italy are like pasta & wine – they go together so darned well. A great deal of their connections were unearthed by an amiable Californian, Richard Paul Roe, who sadly departed this world in 2010. The last twenty-five years of his life were spent wandering about Italy with a well-thumbed copy of Shakespeare in his hands, hunting down clues as to whether the Bard had visited the country or not. To say his efforts were a success are a clear understatement, the Indiana Jones of Shakespearean studies, he dug out & polished many prime artefacts, concluding;
The ‘imaginary’ settings for the ten Italian plays of Shakespeare have presented both specific, and strikingly accurate, details about that country, as a result of dedicated sojourns within it by the playwright. The author’s journeys took him from its Alpine slopes to the toe of its peninsula, across the length and breadth of its great island of Sicily, and included sailing trips on both the adjoining Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas. For the last four hundred years, nearly all of the playwright’s descriptions of Italy’s places and treasures have either gone unrecognized as being true, or have been dismissed as mistaken.
Italy burned an indelible mark into Shakespeare’s creative consciousness, & throughout his works we find over a hundred scenes set in that country, alongside 800 general other references. A great study of these was made by another Bard-in-Italy aficionado, Ernesto Grillo, a 20th century teacher & lecturer of Italian studies at Glasgow University, & absolute Shakespeare nut. After a lifetime of lectures, one of his students assembled Grillo’s copious notes into a book entitled Shakespeare and Italy. Published in 1949, it quotes Grillo in conclusion:
Italy with its public and private life, its laws and customs, its ceremonial and other characteristics, pulsates in every line of our dramatist, while the atmosphere of many scenes is Italian in the truest sense of the word. We cannot but wonder how Shakespeare obtained such accurate information, and we have no hesitation in affirming that on at least one occasion he must have visited Italy
This ‘one occasion’ was in the company of William Stanley. ‘Open my heart and you will see / Graved inside of it, ‘Italy!’’ sang Robert Browning, & it makes perfect sense that our budding Bard would have visited the land of Virgil, Dante, Petrach & Tasso, for it is felt & known by the English poets the Italian influence that raises their art to its highest pitch.
The Levant Company Launch Five Ships from London
As Shakespeare was having his first frothy coffees in Italy, to promote the trade of Elizabethan England the Company of Merchants of the Levant was formed to take advantage of the declining international trade of both the Portuguese & the Venetian empires. The Company would establish ‘factories’ in the Syrian city of Aleppo (its headquarters), Constantinople, Alexandria and Smyrna. They also commissioned a small fleet of five ships to trade in the Near East, but at the very moment they were set to embark, in November 1585 Phillip II of Spain declared war on England. This forced the Company to heavily arm the fleet; the 300-ton galleon Merchant Royal, the William and John (one ship), the Toby, the Susan and the 300-ton armed merchant galleon Edward Bonaventure. They sailed later in the month, & we shall see in a short while how important this little fleet is to the unwritten history of William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare in Florence
Like any poet of substance, Shakespeare’s soul would have been fired up for his first visit to Florence; the home of Dante and a true diamond among the many jeweled delights of Tuscany. Florence is a veritable beauty to behold, especially when observed from its heights, when the weighty Duomo rises out of a sea of orange rooves like some volcanic, Polynesian island. Shakespeare would set several scenes of Alls Well that Ends Well in the city, while an accurate knowledge of Florence & the Florentines is heavily evident in other plays. In Alls Well (3-5) we hear, ‘if they do approach the City, We shall lose all the sight,’ a statement elucidated by Roe’s, ‘the ‘City’ in question is an area to north of the Arno, where stood the walled Roman colony of Florentia.’ Roe also pinpointed the description of a religious hostelry situated ‘at the Saint Francis here beside the port.’ On investigation, Roe discovered that the ‘Saint Francis’ in question was, ‘the ancient name of Piazza Ognissanti, where the Chiesa di Ognissanti (Church of All Saints), belonged to the Franciscans since 1561.’ To this we may add the findings of Ernesto Grillo who describes how Shakespeare knew, ‘the Florentines were notable merchants and mathematicians, making frequent use in their commerce of letters of credit and counting their money by ducats; and he was also aware that they were constantly in conflict with the Sienese. And here the poet uses a phrase which is pure Italian–The Florentines and the Sienese are by the ear (si pigliano per gli orecchi).’
At the time the city would have been abuzz with anticipation for the upcoming dynatsic marriage between Virginia de’ Medici, daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, to Cesara D’Este, on of Alfonso, Marquis of Montecchio, in turn the illegitimate (but later legitimized) son of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara. They would be married in Florence on the 6th February 1586, & it is possible that Shakespeare & Sytanley were in attendance. To celebrate the event the artists of Italy were in ferment; a comedy ‘l’Amico Fido’, by Giovanni de’ Bardi, was comissioned with the lyrics of Alessandro Striggio, who had been been ‘continually involved in some intermedi and musical compositions for the Grand Duke‘ for months. Meanwhile, in Ferrara the poet Torquato Tasso was dedicating a cantata to the newlyweds.
While in ever-flourishing Florence, Shakespeare connected on a spiritual & artistic level with the great Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, visiting his natal house which still stands to this day. It would have been a grand transferance of the Parnassian baton, for Dante’s contribution to world literature is the brilliant Divine Comedy, a most beautiful epic poem through which the poet explored Hell, Purgatory & Heaven, embroidered by some of the most sublimely beautiful language. So gorgeous were his words, in fact, that when the fragmented Italian principalities were searching for a national language; out of the many dialects on offer it was Dante’s Tuscan that won the day. In the same fashion, Shakespeare’s influence over the English language has been equally meritorious, for there is something about a song sung on the highest slopes of Parnassus that reverberates along the tongues of a poet’s fellow countrymen for forever & a day. John W. Draper, in his Shakespeare and Florence and the Florentines (Italica: December 1946) elucidates excellently the Shakespeare-Florence connection;
What did Shakespeare know of Florence? That it bred great men, and also great gentlemen, as appears in Claudio and Cassio; that it sometimes depended on France in wars against its neighbors, apparent in All’s Well; that it was a leader in the new theories of warfare and in the mathematics that they required, for otherwise Othello’s appointment of Cassio is absurd and perhaps Claudio’s success in war owed something to such knowledge; that it was a great financial center, is evidenced in the Pedant’s bill of exchange and in lago’s slurs against his rival; and perhaps Shakespeare thought of Lucentio’s “philosophy” as distinctively Florentine. These are all cultural or intellecutal things; of the physical aspects of the city and its peculiar customs, he offers nothing: for Venetian local color, he uses the Rialto, the special police, the gondoliers; but Shakespeare’s Florence, though he thought of it no less than Venice as a center of commerce and culture, has no Ponte Vecchio, no churches, no palaces, no markets; it is a mere ghost city. In All’s Well, he lays eight scenes in or near the city, yet never refers to the Arno; and the “Duke” who gives Bertram the command of horse is not mentioned as a Medici. Surely young roistering nobles would have given him a much more vivid picture of the city; and even a single book on Florence, like Contareno’s Venice, would have supplied a fuller and more balanced view. One is led to the conclusion that such local color as was not in his sources
Shakespeare visits Rome
In 1586, the Eternal City was a shadow of the epic metropolis of the Ceasars, but still held the same charm & fascination as it does to the tourist of today. ‘Of the ground contained within the walls,’ remarked Shakespeare’s contemporary, William Thomas, ‘scarcely the third part is now inhabited, and that not where the beauty of Rome hath been but for the most part on the plain to the waterside and in the Vatican, because that since the Bishops began to reign every man hath coveted to build as near the court as might be. Nevertheless, those streets and buildings that are there at this time are so fair that I think no city doth excel it.’ The digs were also of a high quality & were remembered by Montaigne on his tour of the continent, 1581-82; ‘the lodgings in Rome are generally furnished a little better than at Paris, as they have great abundance of gilt leather, with which the lodgings of any pretence are upholstered.’
For Stanley, a visit to the Italian capital was truly relish’d, where the Vatican City especially would have been a most soulful draw for our pro-papal party. In the England of 1585 it was a treasonous offence to be, or even harbor, a Catholic priest; while £20 fines were handed out to anybody who failed to attend a protestant service. What a relief for our party who would have been overjoyed to step into any Roman church they liked, to worship their version of Jesus in the open. Shakespeare might even have taken the opportunity to examine the Vatican library, as Montaigne did & recorded a few years previously.
There was also the Jesuit connection, who had built another ‘English College’ in Rome itself. What is fascinating is that in 1585, a leather parchment kept by the college names a certain in ‘Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis.’ In 1587 we then see a “Shfordus Cestriensis” while 1589 saw the residence of a certain “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis.” Are any of these Shakespeaere? Possibly, probably not, but the Stratford = Catholicism -Rome connection is here assured. At the college in late 1585 was Robert Southwell, a young & talented Jesuit with a tendency for the pen & the creation of excllenet poetry. That he & Shakespeare connected at some point i sreflected by a small notice in Southwell’s Saint Peter’s Complaint (1595), published on the Continent after the martyr had suffered. The significant passage read: “to My Worthy Good Cosen Master W.S.” and the conjecture that the W.S. is indeed William Shakespeare. Southwell remonstrates with his good cousin about the abuse of poetry: “Worthy cosen, Poets, by abusing their talent, and making the follies, and faygnings of love the customary subject of their base endeavours, have so discredited this facultie, that a Poet, a Lover and a Lyar, are by many reckoned but three words of one signification.”
Shakespeare Begins Titus Andronicus
Stanley & Shakespeare delighted in seeing the ruins of the ancient city, which according to the Brief Account reflected Stanley’s, ‘credit on his taste.’ It was upon these walks that Shakespeare’s creative connection to Rome was forged, as reflected by his four Roman Plays; Julius Ceasar, Anthony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus & Titus Andronicus. While wandering the remains of the Forum & the Colosseum, already 15 centuries old, Shakespeare’s innate enthusiasm was fired into tackling themes of grand antiquity. Of these, it is the play Titus Andronicus that was begun in earnest on the spot, a brutally violent revenge play in the style of the Roman dramatist Seneca. Most poets have several pieces going on at any one time, & when the epic Shakespearean scholar Walter Raleigh relates, ‘his early play of Titus Andronicus, which is like the poems,‘ we obtain a feeling that Shakespeare was writing a proto-Titus at the same time as he was penning Venus & Adonis. Philip C Koln observed in them a ‘close kinship’ where ‘both Titus & Venus contain rape (or attempted rape), Ovidian in origin, transformations, heavily embellished poetry to express the deepest physical & psychic wounds, the curse of doomed love, & the powerlessness of gods & goddesses to protect.’ A 1585-86 date for Titus also fits well with Ben Jonson who, writing in 1614, describes Titus as being, ‘these twenty five or thirty years,‘ old; i.e. 1584-89.
It had not been so long since Shakespeare had stood in the Alcazar gazing deeply at the brushwork of Titian’s Rape of Lucrece. As he combobulated his new play, Lucrece’s enforced ravishment became the inspiration for a similar rape. Indeed, in Titus, as the sexually molested and mutilated Lavinia reveals the identity of her rapists, her uncle Marcus invokes the story of Lucrece in order to invoke an oath of vengeance;
And swear with me—as, with the woeful fere
And father of that chaste dishonoured dame,
Lord Junius Brutus swore for Lucrece’ rape
That we will prosecute by good advice
Mortal revenge upon these traitorous Goths,
And see their blood, or die with this reproach
On an allegorical level, in her excellent book, Shadowplay, Clare Asquith notes how the rape of Lavinia seems to represent English Catholocism in the early 1580s. This wasan appropriate choice of metaphor, reinforced by Lavinia’s lopped off hands, reflecting the Catholic inability to worship freely in Elizabethan England. In the wake of the Tudor Reformation, Asquith reminds us, ‘the faces, arms & attributes of thousands of images of the Madonna & the saints were still being mutilated in exactly this way all over England; some of them, faces slashed & hands removed, still remain in parish churches.’ Such hidden, pro-Catholic layers would have resonated powerfully with a sympathetic 16th century audience. ‘A related similarity between Tamora & Elizabeth is inescapable,’ writes Asquith, & it is through Titus’s hidden Catholic layer that she finds an allusion to events of the year directly preceding that in which Shakespeare began writing the play. ‘In 1585,’ states Asquith, ‘Richard Shelley… was imprisoned for presenting a petition for toleration, dying later in jail without trial. The demented Titus accosts a simple countryman & asks him to deliver a letter that… also contains a weapon… a knife – a hint at the barbed attacks contained in the appeals. The message is twice called a ‘supplicatio.’ For running this errand, the poor clown, who delivers the letter with a cheerful invocation to God & the martyr St Stephen, is hanged on the spot.’
That Titus was Shakespeare’s first dramatic production is also cryptically embedded in the play itself. The plot has no historical basis, but the name of its chief character seems based upon Livius Andronicus, a Roman poet & dramatist of the third century BC, also known as Titus. The Roman writer Livy describes how Livius Andronicus had been an inspired dramaturgical innovator, who ‘was the first, some years later, to abandon saturae and compose a play with a plot. Like everyone else in those days, he acted his own pieces; and the story goes that when his voice, owing to the frequent demands made upon it, had lost its freshness, he asked and obtained the indulgence to let a boy stand before the flautist to sing the monody, while he acted it himself, with a vivacity of gesture that gained considerably from his not having to use his voice. From that time on actors began to use singers to accompany their gesticulation, reserving only the dialogue parts for their own delivery.’ It would have been apt for a forward-thinking playwright to name his first play after a similar-minded dramatist of the past, & a nod to the Roman may be seen in the cutting off of Lavinia’s tongue, mirroring the mute dramaturgy as utilised & made famous by Livius Andronicus.
In 1687 Edward Ravenscroft was the first to question Shakespeare’s authorship in the introduction his own adaptation of the play, stating; ‘I have been told by some anciently conversant with the Stage, that it was not Originally his, but brought by a private Author to be Acted and he only gave some Master-touches to one or two of the Principal Parts or Characters; this I am apt to believe, because ’tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works, It seems rather a heap of Rubbish then a Structure.‘ In the modern age the academic community agrees that Titus Andronicus was only co-authored by Shakespeare – whether actually agreeing, or massively polarized in the ‘he wrote it/he did’nt write it’ camps. There are clear discrepancies in style & vocabulary rippling all throughout the text; the blank verse especially doesn’t feel like Shakespeare’s. The earliest commentary on the play’s origins, made by Edward Ravenscroft in 1687, describes Titus as, ‘the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works; It seems rather a heap of Rubbish then a Structure.’ This creative jumbling forwards Stanley as a candidate for co-authorship, that Titus was the product of a collaboration between our erstwhile, literary-minded travelers. Stanley, of course, was a good old Lancashire lad, who would have spoken in that broad, Elysium-dripping accent of the North, & his presence during the penning of Titus which would account for its numerous dialectical idoms, such as; blowse, brabble, brat, caterwauling, chaps, codding, egall, faire-fast, gald, leere, luls, ruffle, slonke, tawnt, trull & welkin. That Stanley was involved in the creation of Titus would also help to explain why his family’s private troupe of players were the first to perform the play. When it was printed in 1594 – the year Stanley became the Earl of Derby – the title page of the first quarto edition reads; ‘as it was Plaide by the Right Honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Suffox their Seruants.’
There is one more angle to the composition of Titus, & that is a leaning by certain scholars towards George Peele’s co-authorship of the play J. Dover Wilson writes of the repetition of phrases and sentiments in Act 1 that “most of the clichés and tricks are indubitably Peele’s. No dramatist of the age is so apt to repeat himself or so much given to odd or strained phrases,” while Robertson identified 133 words and phrases in Titus which he felt strongly indicated Peele. Many of these concern Peele’s poem The Honour of the Garter (1593). One word in particular has advanced the Peele argument; “palliament” , meaning robe and possibly derived from the Latin “pallium” and/or “palludamentum.” If Peele & Shakespeare were collaborating, there are two possibilities as to the why. The first is that he helped with the play on Shakespeare’s return to England, just as they had worked on the Arraignment together. The second possibility is the most intriguing – Peele disappears from the annals for three years; in 1585 he was employed to write the Device of the Pageant borne before Woolston Dixie on his becoming Lord Mayor of London (October 1585), & in 1588 he writes a play on the Spanish Armada. It is possible that Peele joined our tourists at some point, & may have been invited along by Stanley, who had been studying at Oxford in the exact same period as Peele.
Shakespeare Travels Through Italy
Leaving the Eternal City, let us now head north once more in the company of Shakespeare, Stanley & perhaps the 12-year-old John Donne. It was on this journey that Stanley, according to Thomas Aspen, ‘assumed the garb of a mendicant friar for the purpose of gaining information and the more readily getting through the country.’ This circumstance would one day found its place in Measure for Measure, where Vincentio also disguises himself as a friar. Meanwhile, Shakespeare was skimming through through the openly homoerotic sonnets of Michaelangelo. In that great painters’ old age he addressed a series of the most passionate sonnets unti two handsome young noblemen of his intimacy; Tommaso dei Cavalieri & Vittoria Colonna. ‘A great theme,’ Shakespeare thought as he looked up from the pages to idolize his dear Stanley.
Between Terni and Rome, according to Smollett, the inns were `abominally nasty’, generally destitute of provisions; and when provisions were found the guests were ‘almost poisoned by the cookery’. Samuel Sharp (The Horrors of an Italian Journey) confirmed this verdict:
Give what scope you please to your fancy, you will never imagine half the disagreeableness that Italian beds, Italian cooks, Italian post-houses, Italian postilions, and Italian nastiness offer to an Englishman in an Italian journey; much more to an English woman. At Turin, Milan, Venice, Rome, and, perhaps, two or three other towns, you meet with good accommodation; but no words can express the wretchedness of the other inns. No other bed but one of straw, and next to that a dirty sheet, sprinkled with water, and, consequently, damp; for a covering you have another sheet, as coarse as the first, and as coarse as one of your kitchen jack-towels, with a dirty coverlet. The bedsted consists of four wooden forms, or benches; and English Peer and Peeress must lye in this manner, unless they carry an upholsterer’s shop with them, which is very troublesome. There are, by the bye, no such things as curtains, and hardly, from Venice to Rome, that cleanly and most useful invention, a privy; so that what should be collected and buried in oblivion, is forever under your nose and eyes
Shakespeare in Padua
In 1545 a troupe of communally-funded traveling performers of the new-fangl’d, definitely not medieval ‘commedia erudite’ went to a notary office in Padua to make their existence official. The theatrical traditon was about to explode into Europe & by the end of the century permanent playhouses were springing up all across the continent. Shakespeare’s knowledge of the fair city of Padua, perched upon those perfect plains of north Italy, transcends anything he could have acquired through bookish lore. In the Taming of the Shrew, where Biondello says, ‘my master hath appointed me to go to Saint Luke’s, to bid the priest be ready to come against you come with your appendix,’ Paul Roe tracked down the actual church, declaring it to be the Saint Luke’s Church of via Venti Settembre 22. Only a stone’s throw away, Roe was delighted to pass through the arched Porta Barbarigo & straight into Act I, Scene I of the Taming of the Shrew; with its waterway, landing place and wide open space with clustering buildings. That Shakespeare stayed in the city just feels right; Padua was home to one of the greatest universities of the Renaissance, & a trip to such an academic environment fits in with Stanley’s intellectual itinerary. At the time of their visit, the majority of Europe’s greatest medical doctors & teachers were based in Padua, & a period of erudition in the city by the young Shakespeare helps account for the high level of medical knowledge in his plays. An example comes in Love’s Labours Lost, when Holferness states;
This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish, extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion
This passage shows a remarkable insight into the obscure biological material known as the ‘pia mater,’ a Latin term for the inner lining or membrane of the brain and spinal cord, along with its neurological connections to the brain’s activities. The key to the conundrum comes with an English physician known as William Harvey (1578-1657), the first man to describe to the English the processes of the circulation of the blood about the body. His book, De Motu Cordis, was published in 1628, yet Shakespeare was hinting at this very process decades before, where in Julius Ceasar we read, ‘you are my true and honourable wife, as dear to me as are those ruddy drops that visit my sad heart.’ How on earth could Shakespeare & Harvey both have obtained this select & secret knowledge? The answer can only be at Padua, whose university Harvey entered in 1592. While there he developed a relationship with Hieronymus Fabricius of Acquapendente, who had held the chair of Medicine and Anatomy at the time of Stanley’s visit. Back in the 1570s, Fabricius had discovered that veins possessed valves which kept the blood flowing in the direction of the heart, & one expects that is was in his private lectures that men like Shakespeare would have first heard of the pia mater & the circulation of the blood. Shakespeare would have enjoyed his stay in Padua, in part down to the ‘pensions of the highest class’ recorded by Montaigne a few year’s previously;
Shakespeare in Lombardy
Being now at the beating heart of the Veneto Plain we find ourselves within striking distance of several more of Shakespeare’s Italian plays. Of these productions, his most famous is Romeo & Juliet, which sees the Montagues & Capulets playing out their tragic feud in Verona & Mantua, while The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is set in, well, Verona. These two cities, along with Milan, are sited in what Shakespeare accurately describes as ‘fruitful Lombardy, the pleasant garden of great Italy.’ That Shakespeare spent time in Mantua is hinted at in The Winter’s Tale, where he describes Queen Hermione’s statue as; ‘a piece many years in doing and now newly perform’d by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom.‘ Julio Romano was actually famous for being a painter, not a sculptor, but in Vasari’s Lives of Seventy of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, we are given two (now-lost) Latin epitaphs on Romano which confirm his status as both sculptor & a painter! Such obscure & minute details like these only serve to reinforce Shakespeare’s personal observations of his time in Italy.
We have previously seen through Shakespeare’s creation of Venus & Adonis how the great art of Europe inspired our impressionable young poet. Likewise, we may also assume that he saw a famous painting by Correggio while visiting Milan. From 1585, the Jupiter and Io was exhibited in the palace of the sculptor, Leoni, of which viewing experience Shakespeare writes, ‘we’ll show thee Io as she was a maid / And how she was beguiled and surpris’d / As lively painted as the deed was done.’ While in Milan, Shakespeare certainly discovered the city’s Well of St Gregory, for he understood that it was a burial pit for plague victims, rather than a water-storage unit. To these Milanese connections we can add another observation, this time made by Grillo, who writes; ‘despite being 100 miles from the coast, the city of Bergamo, near Milan, produced sails. In the Taming of the Shrew, Vincentio says to Tranio, ‘Thy father! O villain! He is a sailmaker in Bergamo.’
By placing the young Shakespeare in Verona provide the thoughtseeds which would blossom into the plays of Romeo & Juliet & The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Of these, the latter is thought by many scholars to be the first of Shakespeare’s fully written plays. Two Gentlemen is an immature play whose “dramatic structure,” declares Stanley Wells, ‘is comparatively unambitious, and while some of its scenes are expertly constructed, those involving more than, at the most, four characters betray an uncertainty of technique suggestive of inexperience.” The play oens with the love-obsessed Valentine talking to Proteus, with Valentine preparing to leave Verona for Milan so as to broaden his horizons.
Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus:
Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.
Were’t not affection chains thy tender days
To the sweet glances of thy honour’d love,
I rather would entreat thy company
To see the wonders of the world abroad,
Than, living dully sluggardized at home,
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness.
But since thou lovest, love still and thrive therein,
Even as I would when I to love begin.
Stop trying to convince me, enamored Proteus!
Young people who always stay at home are very dull.
If love didn’t keep you here—chaining you to your beloved’s sweet looks—
I would ask you to join me, so you can see the wonders of the world abroad.
That’s better than to live in a dull way,
being lazy at home and wasting your youth by doing nothing.
But since you’re in love, continue to love and let your love grow.
I’ll do the same when I fall in love.
The legacy of Romeo & Juliet has had, in Verona, a most profound effect. Every day sees a new set of star-crossed lovers arrive in the city to take a bubble-bath in its lake of wistful romanticism. Close to the imagined site of Juliet’s Balcony, explosions of graffiti & notes cover the walls on a daily basis, leading to the irate & rather staid Veronese authorities instigating 500 euro fines to anyone who stick notes up with chewing gum! Another Shakespeare-induced visitor to Verona, Paul Roe, was not looking for love, however, but was drawn there by the a singular passage in Romeo & Juliet, which contained a very distinctive topographical clue;
Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the East,
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad,
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city’s side,
So early walking did I see your son
To this day, there stands a grove of Sycamores outside the western walls of the city, which were joyously observed by Roe; ‘in the first act, in the very first scene, of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the trees are described; and no one has ever thought that the English genius who wrote the play could have been telling the truth: that there were such trees, growing exactly where he said in Verona.‘ Roe also points out that Verona’s Chiesa di San Pietro Incarnario is mentioned by Juliet’s, ‘now, by Saint Peter’s church, and Peter too. He shall not make me there a joyful bride.’ Shakespeare also understood the etymology of a minor place very much off the normal radar, ten miles from Verona on the banks of the Tartaro River. Called Villafranca, its name translates as ‘Freetown,’ & in Romeo & Juliet we hear, ‘you Capulet, shall go along with me; And Montague, come you this afternoon, To know our father pleasure in this case, To old Freetown our common judgment place.’ As details like these are absent from both the 1562 Arthur Brooke poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, & the Italian originals by da Porta and Bandello, once again we must place Shakespeare in person at the scene-setting of one of his plays.
Before we leave Lombardy, let us put to bed an Anti-Shakespearean factochisp of his time there, as told by Sydney Lee; ‘the fact that he represents Valentine in the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ as travelling from Verona to Milan by sea, & Prospero in the ‘Tempest’ as embarking on a ship at the gates of Milan, renders it impossible that he could have gathered his knowledge of Northern Italy from personal observation.’ To counter this assumption Roe rummaged ferret-like through the Verona State Archives & finally found a map dated to 1713 which show how the Adige, Tartaro, and Po rivers were once connected by a system of canals. These would have allowed the water-borne journey along the fossi as undertaken by Valentine in the Two Gentlemen. As for the aquatic ‘gates of Milan,’ the fact that a sea-going ‘bark’ such as was described in the Tempest as leaving Milan finds confirmation through the pen of Michel de Montaigne, who in 1581 wrote; ‘we crossed the river Naviglio, which was narrow, but still deep enough to carry great barks to Milan.’ Shakespeare’s select knowledge of those unexpectedly navigable north Italian river ways bolsters our touring Bard yet further.
1586: SHAKESPEARE’S ITALIAN STUDIES
The chief purpose of their visit to Italy, in fact the whole trip to Europe, was to further the party’s education. JC Collins writes of another poet’s trip to the same country a decade earlier, stating of Sydney’s twelve-month stay that, ‘before he left Italy he was master of Latin, Italian & French, & anxious also to begin a study of Greek.’ Of his travels in 1574, Sidney’s travelling companion, Lodowick Bryskett remembers the same Italy through which our Grand Tourists would have travelled;
Through many a hill & dale,
Through pleasant woods & many an unknown way,
Along the banks of many silver streams,
He with him went; & with him he did scale
The craggy rocks of th’ Alp & Appenine
Still with the Muses sportin
There are many traces of Shakespeare’s reading of Italian literature, whether at leisure or in scholarship, reading matter for the long journeys id the 16th century; on foor, horseback or even carriage. Among the many plays & prose pieces are names & the plots of which would eventually find their way into the Shakesepeareean ouvre. Many of these were untranslated into English before the plays were composed, such as those five stories by the Italian Renaissance poet, Matteo Bandello, which were later adapted by Shakespeare into Cymbeline, Othello, the Claudio subplot of Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo & Juliet & Twelfth Night, Edward III (part 2, story 29). Bandello also inspires certain motifs in Shakespeare’s Lucrece poem. Away from the enthiusiastic Bandelllo, nuggets include;
1 : Hamlet’s ‘what a piece of work is man,’ is suggesed by the ms of Leon Battista Alberti’s Delle Tranquilita dell Animo – not printed til 1843
2: Andrea da Darnerino’s ‘Reali di Francia’ is similar to Cymbeline
3: Ser Giovanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone – in which we find the debtor Antonio – inspired the Merchant of Venice
4: There are flashes of Berni in Othello
5: Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso inspired Othello, the Tempest, a Midsummer Nights Dream & Much Ado About Nothing
6: Othello’s story was taken from Cinthio’s El Capitano Moro, of which there was then no translation.
7: The Clever Wench tale found the in the 9th story of Boccaccio’s Decameron inspired Alls Well that Ends Well
8: The Hecatomiti of Cinthio would also inspire the Isabella adventures in Measure for Measure
9: The 15th century Novellino of Masuccio Salernitani influenced both the Merchant of Venice & Romeo & Juliet
10: Taming of the Shrew is inspired by the Notti piacevoli of Straparola, published in Venice in 1550
Shakespeare experiences Commeddia Dell Arte
The history of Elizabethan theater is a curious hybrid, an amalgam of continental trends & the medieval folk traditions of the English provinces. By the Elizabethan age, her playwrights had developed an uninhibited secular drama, inspired by a burgeoning humanist world-view & fueled by a constant stream of renaissance minds forged in grammar-schools & varnished in the land’s universities. It is in Shakespeare’s visit to Italy, then, that these forces were truly emblazoned upon a single individual spirit. To the Elizabethan mind, Italy was poetry, & Italian theatre the most innovative on the planet. In 1586, from the fertile fields of the Veneto Plain, directly to the east of Lombardy, a new kind of improvised comical theatre called Commeddia Dell Arte began to spring up. The full name of the form is commedia dell’arte all’improvviso, or ‘comedy of the very creative ability of improvisatio,’ & were rather like the romantic comedies of today, & were typically acted out by masked ‘archetypes’ trained to give out improvised performances. These stock characters included foolish old men, mischievous servants, brash military officers, & miserly merchants. In Act II Scene II of Hamlet, Hamlet seems to be describing a performance as he speaks to an actor;
I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted; or, if it was, not above once; for the play, I remember, pleased not the million; ’twas caviare to the general: but it was–as I received it, and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine–an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember, one said there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation; but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine.
Most of Shakespeare’s early plays – The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night & Much Ado About Nothing – were inspired by the tradition. Of Love’s Labours Lost, where Geoffrey Bullough writes, ‘there may have been an earlier play, continental in origin & affected by the commedia dell’arte tradition,‘ he is referring to the use of CDA’s archetypical characters; foolish old men, mischievous servants, brash military officers & miserly merchants such as the braggart (Armado) & ostentatious pedant (Holofernes). Another early play, Twelfth Night, utilises many of CDA’s ‘lazzi,’ a stock comic element, as when the ‘Pantalone’ is tricked by other characters into doing those daft things they have convinced him will impress the woman he admires.
That Shakespeare witnessed a performance at some point seems likely, for Verona, alongside sities such as Mantua, wasfirmly on the circuit of traveling CDELA troupes. Grillo writes that English theatre, ‘borrowed from Italian drama much of its technique–chorus, echo, play within a play, dumb show, ghosts of great men, mechanical stage apparatus and all the physical horrors which aroused in the audience feelings of awe and terror,‘ & with Shakespeare’s trip to the Continent beinf in all essence an academic pursuit, it seems that the study of Italian theater was on the curriculum.
Shakespeare in Venice
Of all the cities in adorable Italy, Shakespeare seems to know the most about the floating pleasure-palace that is Venice. When, in the Merchant of Venice, he writes, ‘what news on the Rialto?’ he was well aware of the rumor-laden tittle-tattle that flock still to that famously beautiful bridge. Elsewhere in the pantheon, just after Shakespeare introduces Cassio as a ‘Florentine’ in Othello, he has the Venetian lago become all prickly & slurry, reflecting the provincial Italian animosty our bard must have observed at first hand. In the MOV in particular, Grillo finds, ‘an inimitable Italian atmosphere… the topography is so precise & accurate that it must convince even the most superficial reader that the poet visited the country, acutely observant of all its characteristics as he traveled through its mountains & valleys. One instance is the gift of a dish of pigeons which Gobbo takes to his son’s master. Gobbo is a purely Venetian name, which must certainly have been suggested to Shakespeare by the statue of the kneeling hunchback of the Rialto, which forms the base of the pillar upon which in ancient days were affixed the decrees of the Republic.’
The inimitable Paul Roe found the very house where MOV’s Shylock lived: a ‘penthouse’ on the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, where Jewish Banks once leant the Christians money. That it was, & still is, supported by three columns, just as Shakespeare describes, is yet another incredible accuracy from our poet in Italy. The MOV gives the following directions to the house; ‘turn upon your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning of all, on your left; marry, at the very next turning, turn of no hand; but turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house,’ which is an uncanny way of describing the mazy lanes of Venice. ‘Other Shakespearean Venetian references,’ says John Hudson, ‘are to the characteristic gondolas & chopins – a kind of platform shoe – as well as to the Venetian calendar & judicial procedures.’
There is also a very subtle time-clue that Shakespeare was visiting Venice before 1589. In the MOV, we hear Portia say, ‘Tarry, Jew. The law hath yet another hold on you. It is enacted in the laws of Venice, if it be proved against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts he seek the life of any citizen.‘ This ‘law’ cannot be applicable to tha 1589 ruling made by the venetian Senate which declared the city’s Jewish residents were now full citizens of the Republic.
Another Elizabethan traveler to Venice, Fynnes Moryson, offers an accurate insight into the city which Shakespeare would have encountered. Notice how he observes the Traghetti ferries, which in the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare calls, ‘trajects,’ as in, ‘unto the traject, to the common ferry. Which trades to Venice.’
This stately City built in the bottome of the gulfe of the Adriatique sea… is eight miles in circuit, and hath seventy parishes, wherein each Church hath a little market place, for the most part foure square, and a publike Well. For the common sort use well water, and raine water kept in cesternes; but the Gentlemen fetch their water by boat from the land. It hath thirty one cloysters of Monkes, and twenty eight of Nunnes, besides chappels and alines-houses. Channels of water passe through this City (consisting of many Ilands joyned with Bridges) as the bloud passeth through the veines of mans body; so that a man may passe to what place he will both by land and water. The great channell is in length about one thousand three hundred paces, and in breadth forty paces, and hath onely one bridge called Rialto, and the passage is very pleasant by this channell; being adorned on both sides with stately Pallaces. And that men may passe speedily, besides this bridge, therebe thirteene places called Traghetti, where boats attend Gondole. called Gondole; which being of incredible number give ready passage to all men.
Through Moryson, we can really get a feel for Shakespeare’s stay in Venice; absorbing all the vibrant life & colour of the market-places, or perhaps studying in the city’s library. Here are a couple more Venetian passages from his ‘Itinerary.’
Right over against the Dukes Pallace, in the… second market place of the pallace, is the library, whose building is remarkable, and the architecture of the corner next the market place of the Bakers, is held by great Artists a rare worke, and divers carved Images of Heathen Gods, and Goddesses in the old habit, are no lesse praised, as done by the hands of most skilfull workemen. On the inside, the arched roofes curiously painted, and the little study of ivory, with pillars of Allablaster, and rare stones, and carved Images (in which an old breviary of written hand, and much esteemed, is kept) are things very remarkeable. The inner chamber is called the study ; in which many statuaes and halle statuaes, twelve heads of Emperors, and other things given to the State by Cardinall Dominicke Grimani, are esteemed precious by all antiquaries. And in this Library are laid up the Bookes, which the Patriarke and Cardinall Bessarione gave to Saint Marke (that is to the State) by his last will, and the most rare books brought from Constantinople at the taking thereof, and otherwise gathered from all parts of Greece.
This City aboundeth with good fish, which are twice each day to be sold in two markets of Saint Marke & Rialto, & that it spendeth weekly five hundred Oxen, & two hundred & fifty Calves, besides great numbers of young Goates, Hens, and many kinds of birds, besides that it aboundeth with sea birds, whereof the Venetian writers make two hundred kinds, and likewise aboundeth with savoury fruits, and many salted and dried dainties, and with all manner of victuals, in such sort as they impart them to other Cities. I will also adde that here is great concourse of all nations, as well for the pleasure the City yeeldeth, as for the free conversation ; and especially for the commodity of trafficke. That in no place is to be found in one market place such variety of apparell, languages, and manners.
While in Venice, Shakespeare would have pictorially seen the next stage in the development of his Venus & Adonis. The above painting is by Titian, his amazing ‘Sacred & Profane Love,’ in which the coat of arms of a leading Venetian politician – Niccolo Aurelio – can be seen. In the sculptural relief below the two women – one of whom is Venus – there is a man on the ground that invokes the image of a chastised Adonis. The rampant horse & the woman being checked by the hair in the relief seem to represent the halting of the passions, with the horse being the Platonic symbol of libido. This pictorial motif then turns up in the poem as;
But, lo, from forth a copse that neighbours by,
A breeding jennet, lusty, young and proud,
Adonis’ trampling courser doth espy,
And forth she rushes, snorts and neighs aloud:
The strong-neck’d steed, being tied unto a tree,
Breaketh his rein, and to her straight goes he.
Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds,
And now his woven girths he breaks asunder.
The Venice that is portrayed in Othello shows a personal appreciation by the bard. Grillo summoned up concisely much of the true Venetian atmosphere that he could see in the play, being, ‘the darkness of morning, the narrow and mysterious “calli,” Brabantio’s house with its heavy iron-barred doors, the Sagittary, the official residence of the commanders of the galleys, the hired gondolier witness of gallant intrigues… the galleys sent on a multitude of errands, the armaments, the attendants with torches, the special night guards, the council chamber, the senators, the Doge —the beloved Signor Magnifico— the discussions about the war… the history of Othello with all the sacrifices made in defence of the republic, the appearance of the divine Desdemona, fair & beautiful as a Titian portrait – all give the impression of a vivid portrayal of scenes enacted in the very heart of the Queen of the Adriatic.’ This wonderful passage brings us to the end of our search for Shakespeare’s secret Italy. He surely visited the country, for where else would he have picked up such a native phrase such as, ‘sano come un pesce / sound as a fish,’ an expression Grillo states was, even in his time, ‘still in common use in certain parts of Italy.’