By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

Over 450 years after they were written, Shakespeare’s plays are still pinnacles of English literature. Italian locations populate his plays — Rome and Sicily, of course, and many you can visit from our luxury villas near Venice and Verona. But do they suggest only his vivid Elizabethan imaginings, or could they prove a personal knowledge of the country? Could the grammar school-educated son of a Stratford glove-maker have written plays about a country he’s unlikely to have visited? Or is another hand behind the masterpieces?

William Shakespeare was part of the mercantile class, and so would not have had the wealth or status that facilitated travel. Whether his plays illustrate a personal knowledge of Italy or not is a 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 spoke 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 so-called “Juliet’s balcony” as well as its inspiring Roman Arena, Verona has monopolised “Romeo and Juliet” tourism. At a beautiful Palladian mansion like Villa Zambonina, you can imagine throwing your own Capulet ball. In fact, Zambonina’s original owners were closely acquainted with Palladio, who lived nearby. This is the Italy conjured up by Shakespeare’s plays.
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 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 remnants of a sycamore grove are really 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. It followed 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 a coincidence, inserted for narrative colour and semantic depth, or was it for geographic authenticity? If this is mere luck, it is intriguing, nonetheless.

Plots and puns

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: “[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 a direction necessary for the plot, not 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 also 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 Shakespeare visit Italy?

Many Stratfordians doubt he could have, suggesting he “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” (Professor 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. Professor 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 he reached Italy — both aristocrats and contemporary companies of English players toured the continent. English clown William Kemp, for example, visited Rome in the 1600s. There is no evidence, however, that Shakespeare ever made it.

Speaking the language

John Hamill, former president of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship, points to Cossolotto and Cutler’s top-10 list of reasons to doubt Shakespeare’s authorship. 

Number 4 focuses on education. Although it is agreed Shakespeare attended Stratford Grammar School, he didn’t go to 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.”

Yet some Stratfordians chart Shakespeare’s Italian through the chapters of Florio’s 1611 Italian–English dictionary.

England’s idea of Italy

England was captivated by its imagination of Italy. Laura Tosi explains that 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 “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 explains that as soon as the audience realised a play — for example “Romeo and Juliet” or Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi” — was set in Italy, they knew they were going to be drenched in extreme heat, extreme emotions and the portrayal of extreme violence.

It is unlikely Webster visited Italy, either. He would, like Shakespeare, have been acutely aware of the subtext of an Italian setting, just as he would that romantic love should be the subtext of a story set in Paris.

Portia’s Brenta estate

In “The Merchant of Venice”, Portia is based at her family estate, “Belmont”. While many Stratfordians consider Belmont a fictional location, some Oxfordians delve into possible locations, focusing on “Belmonte” and “Montebello”. Noemi Magri and Roe even state that Villa Foscari “Malcontenta” is “Belmont”.

Both sides agree at least that a (real or fictional) “Belmont” would be 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 5th century. This politically-active family supplied the Republic with three doges.

Just like the villas on the Brenta which inspired “Belmont”, Villa Michiel has two main entrances, one via the lagoon. Just 200m from the residence of Rococo painter Tiepolo, it’s another example of an Italy which embraces and preserves its past.

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