Shakespeare loved Italy.
A third of the Bard’s plays were set wholly or partially in the country, with locations ranging from Sicily to Rome to Venice. Even in those plays set elsewhere, he often couldn't resist an allusion to Italy – often to praise its art or to comment on the bitter wars between its city-states. Where did his fascination with Italy come from?
Italian settings were fashionable for writers of 17th century Britain, partly just because the country was exotic as a foreign location, but Italy captured the imagination far more than any of Britain's other European neighbours.
Italians were thought to be particularly passionate, charismatic and devious, making them perfect characters both for lofty tragedies set at court, and for comedies. And its political situation, as a fragmented nation of warring factions, made it the perfect location for tales of courtly intrigue and tragic love, which wouldn't have had the same effect if set in Shakespeare's quiet hometown of Stratford.
A performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Phil Kalina for Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens/Flickr
He characterized the different Italian cities; Verona became associated with love (in Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona), while Padua, with its university, was a place of learning, or “nursery of the arts” as he calls it in The Taming of The Shrew. Venice, at the time a thriving Republic, was a place of courtly sophistication but also devious intrigue. Shakespeare capitalized on the contemporary fascination with Italian life to create vivid scenes. The Italian tradition of carnival, for example, allowed him to use masked ball settings for mistaken identity.
And some of Shakespeare’s works got quite political – if he’d set them in English court, they never would have seen the light of day – and nor would Shakespeare, in all likelihood, as he could have ended up behind bars for treason or slander. But projecting his comments on the ruling class onto a foreign backdrop allowed Shakespeare to discuss thorny issues, for example political assassination in Julius Caesar.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain
How did he make his plays Italian?
Of course, for Shakepeare's plays to have the exotic touch, it wasn't going to be enough to stick the word ‘Venice’ or ‘Verona’ in the title – he had to conjure up a sense of Italy onstage.
This he did impressively well; in The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, author Richard Paul Roe concludes that the Bard's local knowledge is spot on. He gets details such as church names and canal routes correct, and in Julius Caesar depicts the kind of summer storm which is common to the Roman capital but not in England. We know that the playwright nicked a lot of his stories from previous accounts, but in some cases he added in details which weren't in the original accounts, but Roe proves to be geographically correct.
Shakespeare also seems to have had an extensive knowledge of Italian culture and court gossip, considering he himself wasn't of noble heritage. The Taming of the Shrew is based on an Ariosto play, while Othello is one of several plays thought to take inspiration from Italian novellas. The tale of Romeo and Juliet, thought to be based on real life, was popular with many Italian writers, including Dante.
And it wasn't just in his plays where the writer was influenced by Italian culture. The sonnet was originally an Italian form, pioneered by Petrarch and adapted by Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries to better suit the rhythms of the English language. In fact Shakespeare name-checks Petrarch in Romeo and Juliet, with Mercutio comparing Romeo's first love Rosaline to Petrarch's muse Laura.
So did he ever visit Italy?
Shakespeare's intensive knowledge of the country has led many to wonder if he ever came here.
The Grand Tour – a trip through France and Italy to take in both their beautiful landscapes and flourishing culture scenes – was hugely popular with newly graduated English writers from around 1650 to 1850 who were looking for inspiration. It was the Renaissance equivalent of taking a gap year backpacking through Asia to 'find yourself'.
But at the time Shakespeare was writing, this tradition had not really taken off, and limited transport options made it difficult for all but the very wealthiest. Shakespeare certainly did not belong to this group; he had a family and balanced a few other jobs to subsidize his career as a struggling writer, and there are no records to suggest he ever left the country.
And though he seems to have had a detailed knowledge of the country, it's possible that he picked this up by reading French and English translations or adaptations, or from travellers' tales.
However, his deep understanding of Italy is one of the reasons many suspect that Shakespeare wasn’t really the authors of the plays at all. Some suggest that fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe was the real man behind the words, that he faked his own death and moved to Italy, continuing to write in secret under Shakespeare's name.
Was he actually Italian?
Others go even further, and in 2002 Sicilian professor Martino Iuvara published a book titled Shakespeare era italiano (Shakespeare was Italian) in which he argued just that. William Shakespeare was actually Messina-born Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza, Iuvara claims, who fled Italy for London and translated his surname into English – 'crollare' means 'to collapse' or 'to shake' and 'lanza' (lancia) means 'spear'. Part of the evidence in support of this are some striking similarities between Crollalanza's work, including a play called Tanto traffico per Niente (Much Ado about Nothing), but most experts aren't convinced.
The Italian obsession with Shakespeare
Still, whether they can claim him as one of their own or not, Italians certainly love Shakespeare.
Giuseppe Mazzini, a key player in the Italian Risorgimento, used Shakespeare as an example of the “ideal democratic poetry”. Italian opera legend Verdi wrote his Otello after reading Shakespeare's play (originally inspired by an Italian novella – so it came full circle).
Verona has capitalized on its Shakespeare connection, which has helped it carve out an identity distinct from its more famous neighbour Venice. Juliet's balcony – which has no legitimate connection either to Shakespeare or even the historical Capulet family – and her tomb are among the city's top attractions.
Italian translations of Shakespeare's plays are regularly performed around Italy, with Othello and Romeo and Juliet proving the most popular, and to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the poet's death, events are being held up and down the country throughout April, in collaboration with the British Council.