It’s not known for certain whether Shakespeare ever visited Italy, but what is certain is the world’s most popular playwright was certainly influenced by the Bella Paes.
Shakespeare’s engagement with Italy in his plays is frequent. As a result, many have suggested he travelled there in his ‘lost years’ (mid 1580s-early1590s). However, whether Shakespeare set foot on Italian soil or not, he was certainly informed about the country. Out of his 38 plays, 13 were based or part-based in Italy.
Each of the cities in which the English playwright places the action offer distinct association and qualities.
Origins of storylines
Many of the ideas for the plays had their roots in Italian novellas.
The story collection Gli Hecotommithi (1565) by the Ferrarese scholar Giambatista Giraldo (Cinthio) proved to be rich pickings for Shakespeare. The main narrative of Othello is taken from the tragicomic tale ‘Disdemona and the Moor’. Similarly, the corrupt magistrate propositioning a young woman (Measure for Measure) comes from a Cinthio tale entitled ‘Epitia’.
Boccaccio’s Decamerone is another source exploited for inspiration. From there, the wager betweeen Giacomo and Posthumus in Cymbeline, and the main story of All’s Well that Ends Well, are derived.
George Gascoigne’s translation of I Suppositi, provides the narrative for The Taming of the Shrew. The story of Romeo and Juliet goes back to the tale by Luigi da Porto, Istoria di due nobili Amanti (1530).
If Shakespeare didn’t visit Italy, how did he come to know these tales? Quite simply, Italian literature was popular in Renaissance England. Hence the availability of Italian sources, as many were translated into English.
This is not to say, however, that Britain’s greatest playwright was a low-level plagirist. By his use of language and imagination, Shakespeare elaborated the stories into the masterpieces we know today.
Italian locations in Shakespeare’s plays
Shakespeare also knew how to use locations to their full effect. His choice of cities and states was carefully considered. These are the primary Italian locations used in Shakespeare’s plays.
The tale of the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, is set in the northern town of Verona. The city also made it into the title, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In both cases, Verona is the location of a love story; but the movement of Proteus to Milan in the latter play shows how Shakespeare used the idea of Italy as city states to create the sense of disparateness in rules and qualities.
The opening to Othello is based in Venice. However, it is the fact that Cassio hails from Florence which is a tool in the hands of Shakespeare – allowing the difference of origin as a reason for the misinterpretation of what he sees and hears.
Likewise, The Merchant of Venice is also located in one of the time’s greatest ports. A key trading post, Venice is the ideal city to locate a tale of avarice around commercial transactions. Venice was also a place where different races, as well as Italian states met. Jews, Moors, Florentines… it was possible for all to come together in the city of Venice without it seeming contrived.
The city of Padua is the setting for The Taming of the Shrew. Located between Venice and Verona, it was home to the first Western university. A centre of learning – Galileo and Casanova were both alumni – it is where Lucentio comes to study. It was also a city in which noblewomen recevied education.
In fact, less than 100 years after the play is believed to have been written (1590-2), the first woman in the world to receive a degree, Piscopia, graduated from Padua University. This city of learning, therefore, was the perfect backdrop for Shakespeare’s story.
Sicily may have been less known to Elizabethan/Jacobean audiences, but that didn’t prevent Shakespeare basing Much Ado About Nothing, and part of The Winter’s Tale, there.
In the city of Messina, the carnival is the key element of Much Ado. The concealment of identity through masks and revelry could really only take place in Italy.
Perhaps more tellingly, Shakespeare used Sicily’s misogynistic culture in order to show how such cultures punish women who ‘step out of line’.
Naturally, Rome comes into the frame for Shakespeare’s Roman history plays. The stabbing of Julius Ceasar on his way to the theatre could only take place in the city. The other Roman histories – Coriolanus and Anthony and Cleopatra – are also partially based in Rome.
Titus Andronicus is the fourth of Shakespeare’s Roman plays and is also based in Rome. However, it is entirely fictional, not historical. According to the prose version of the play the events are “set in the time of Theodosius“. He ruled from 379 to 395. However, the general setting does not appear to tally with that time, but arund 150 years later, in the “late-Imperial Christian Rome” period.
Italy in the character’s minds
Even when Italy is not the setting of the play, there are many instances where the country is referred to.
Prospero in The Tempest broods on his prior life as duke of Milan. magic brings his brother Antonio, and Antonio’s ally the King of Naples, from the Lombard city.
Whilst All’s Well that Ends Well is primarily based in France, it is not long before we hear that Florence and Siena are at war. Italy is also the ideal escape route from marriage for Bertram.
In As You Like It, Rosalind assumes Jacques has “swum in a gundello” (gondola) when he talks about the life of a traveller.
Convenient country for creativity
What can be summarised is that William Shakespeare found Italy a convenient location for placing moral stories, or insights into English life, without incurring the wrath of those in power at home.
The disunity of Italy into city states, allowed for different ideas and attitudes to be presented without having to move too far. The country also provided inspiration with many of its novellas being reimagined by the Bard.
Whether Shakespeare travelled there as an accompaying tutor, or learned about the country, its traditions and culture from his patrons and translated works, Italy certainly had an impact on the mind and works of England’s finest playwright.
2023 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works.