Over the years scholars and literature students have debated many things about the English playwright William Shakespeare. Who was he? Did he write all his plays? Did he ever travel to Italy? And if he didn’t, how come he knew so many Italian stories and got so much of the Italian detail right? Or was it simply that he was actually Italian? Yep, one scholar really has suggested that ole Billy was actually Guglielmo. Whatever the truth, Shakespeare used Italy as a backdrop for around a third of his 37 plays so as 23rd April 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his death here are the top settings for Shakespeare in Italy.
All’s Well that Ends Well
“All’s well that ends well” is a tale of troubled love. Helena loves Bertram, but he doesn’t love her so runs off to Paris. She follows and manages to force Bertram into marriage but, charmer that he is, he legs it again, this time to Florence to fight with the French in the Tuscan War. I won’t spoil the story but suffice to say that it all works out in the end!
Ancient Rome is the setting for 4 of Shakespeare’s works. And although much of the old city has long disappeared, Shakespeare’s characters would probably recognise the old Roman Forum, the birthplace of the city’s legislature and religion.
Antony and Cleopatra
Anthony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s famous tragedies. It’s based on Greek writer Plutarch’s book “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans” and follows the affair between Roman dictator Mark Anthony and Egypt’s powerful Queen Cleopatra. The play splits its time between the austere world of ancient Rome and the sensuous Egyptian world of Alexandria before the couple finally meets a sticky end (well, it is a tragedy, what did you expect!)
Coriolanus is another of Shakespeare’s tragedies and again is set in ancient Rome. It follows the life of a Roman general and would-be political leader, our protagonist Coriolanus. The general’s troops successfully defend Rome against a number of popular uprisings and victory leads him into the political arena. But whilst he’s a strong military leader he’s just not cut out for politics. And after forging some misplaced alliances, he faces downfall and death.
Cymbeline, King of Britain
Cymbelline, set mainly in Roman Britain, is based on the legend of an early Celtic leader, King Cunobeline, who ruled in Britain. It’s a hard play to classify. Some call it a tragedy, others a romance or even a comedy. Many find it complicated and hard to follow but as with so many Shakespeare works it deals with themes of hidden love and jealousy between Cymbeline, his offspring and their lovers. Old Bill goes into great detail with the twists and turns of Cymbeline’s complicated relationships, but he’s more vague with his settings. Scene notes talk simply about “a cave in Wales” or a “palace in Britain” and he only mentions 2 specific places – Milford Haven in Wales and Rome in Italy.
Similarly to Anthony & Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Julius Caesar is another of Bill’s tragedies set in ancient Rome. The play is based on historic fact and includes Caesar’s gruesome downfall. But the play is remembered just as much for its lines as for its action including some of Shakespeare’s classic quotes. So if you’ve ever seen the play you’ll probably remember “Beware the Ides of March”, “Et tu Brute?” and the iconic “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” as Mark Anthony gives the emotional eulogy in the Roman Forum.
Would you believe dear old Billy set a fourth tragedy in Rome? It makes me wonder if he have something against the city or was it just that ancient Roman history really was full of all this drama, downfall and death? Either way Titus Andronicus delivered plenty of Roman blood and gore telling the story of Roman general Titus who wants revenge on Tamora, Queen of the Goths. And although the play isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most popular these days, in its heyday it was exactly what bloodthirsty Tudor audiences wanted!
The Merchant of Venice
Shakespeare didn’t only set his plays in Rome, thankfully! The Merchant takes place in Venice, as the name suggests, and follows the story of a young Venetian who needs a loan so he can woo a wealthy heiress. He asks his friend Antonio to help him but although he was a wealthy merchant on paper, all Antonio’s assets were tied up. So the merchant turned to a Jewish money lender, Shylok, with whom he had history. Shylok is no fan of Antonio, however, as he’s been on the receiving end of the merchant’s anti-semitic behaviour, so he adds an extra clause to the loan. If Antonio can’t repay it within 3 months Shylok will take a pound of the merchant’s own flesh. I’ll you to find out how it ends for Antonio but ultimately it’s an interesting insight into what life might have been like for Jews in Venice’s Ghetto and nobles back in Venice’s trading heyday.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice
More tragedy takes place in Venice with Othello. Its actually based on an old Italian story, Un Capitano Moro meaning a Moorish Captain by Cinthio but Shakespeare’s version tells a tale of a Moorish general in the Venetian Army who is tortured by gossip of his beautiful wife’s infidelity. And just as in The Merchant of Venice, Othello talks of racism and revenge although this is a much more violent play with a powerful and bloody end.
Much Ado About Nothing
At last, a comedy! And a good one at that! Set in Sicily’s north-eastern post of Messina, Much Ado About Nothing is a tale of fun, gossip and the classic Shakespearian mix-up. Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into admitting they love each other whilst Claudio and Hero’s love trips up at the alter. It’s a common theme from stories of the time and Shakespeare is suspected of drawing on Italian tales including Novelle (Tales) by Mantuan writer Matteo Bandello or Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Ultimately, there’s much to-ing and fro-ing but, thankfully, as this is one of old Bill’s lighter works, the fun, frolics and frippery all resolve with a happy ending for everyone. Hurrah!!
Romeo and Juliet
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? It’s a line quoted countless times by young lovers, especially at Juliet’s House, in modern day Verona. But there’s much more to the play than a few romantic lines. Romeo and Juliet is the quintessential tragic Shakespearian love story and is thought to have been based on an old Italian tale translated into English around the time of old Billy Boy. The action takes place in fair Verona, with the young lovers coming from two noble families at war with eachother; the Montagues and Capulets. Their love is a clandestine affair, carried out under the cover of darkness or via love notes, and is known only to a few trusted confidants. And all seems to be going well as the couple manages to find a priest willing to marry them. But this is a tragedy, so when a romantic trick goes wrong, each believes the other dead, we just know its not going to be a rosy ending.
The Taming of the Shrew
Fortunately the next tale is a comedy to lighten the mood! The Taming of the Shrew, based in both Padua and Verona, revolves around the unlikely courtship of the 2 main characters; Petruchio and Katherina. The girl is extremely headstrong but gradually Petruchio “tames” her with his guile and wit until finally she falls in love and agrees to marry. Viewed through modern eyes, many believe it portrays the misogynist idea that women and wives need to be compliant, servile and obedient. Or maybe we should view it as an insight into old attitudes. I’ll leave you to decide.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
I know, I know, the name says two men of Verona! But whilst some of the action does take place there, much more is set in Milan too so it should be called Two men of Verona travel to Milan! The play itself is a comedy and the first of Shakespeare’s works to include a woman dressing as a boy which was revolutionary considering that most of his plays were performed by men-only casts. It deals with friendship, love and betrayal as the 4 main characters – Valentine, Proteus, Silvia and Julia – try to find love. The play takes many twists and turns, revealing the mistakes and missteps we all make when blinded by Cupid until finally we have a happy ending! At last!
The Winter’s Tale
Originally categorized as a comedy, The Winter’s Tale is a psychological tale of jealousy, suspicion and accusation. Set in Sicily at the court of the fictional King Leontes, the play revolves around the king, his wife and his childhood friend Polixenes King of Bohemia. Despite a lifelong friendship, Leontes becomes consumed by a mistaken suspicion that his wife and friend are having an affair and that his wife is pregnant with the result of the liaison. The two innocents escape to Bohemia and a daughter is born but Leontes disowns his wife and the child, ordering the babe to be abandoned in a desolate place. His son and heir then dies of a broken heart. Do you still think this is a comedy? No, me neither although there Leontes is finally redeemed, to a point, and there is a happy-ish ending for some of the family.
Tracking down Shakespeare in Italy
Ultimately there is no concrete evidence that Shakespeare ever set foot in Italy but he certainly appears to have been familiar with Italian writing, history and legend. Around a third of his plays are partly or entirely set in Italy drawing on ancient history and fiction for inspiration. So whilst you might not be able to track down all of the locations from his plays in terms of houses or palaces, you can still visit much of the ancient Roman Forum where plays such as Julius Caesar were set and all of the cities that provided a backdrop for the action. Leave me a comment with your favourite Shakespeare quotes and don’t forget to subscribe via email or join us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram so you don’t miss out on everything Italian from DreamDiscoverItalia. And in the meantime I hope your travels to discover Shakespeare in Italy include much more comedy and romance than tragedy! Buon viaggio, happy travels!