Today is the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.
The great poet and playwright is part of the life-blood of any person brought up in an English-speaking culture.
It’s not just the amazing variety in Shakespeare’s plays that continually captures us. Our greatest writer enriched the English language with over one thousand seven hundred new words he invented and that we now commonly use. Here’s just a few from A to H. What would we do without them!
- control (as noun)
I was, fortunately, brought up enjoying (rather than enduring) Shakespeare thanks to two of my Secondary school teachers. We queued up all night at the National Theatre (then at the Old Vic) to get tickets for ourselves and our English master for a performance of Larry Olivier as ‘Othello’. I don’t know whether we got better marks in our next essay but it just shows the devotion our teacher instilled in us for Shakespeare that, while he was sleeping comfortably in his bed, we were freezing on ‘The Cut’s’ pavements.
‘Othello, the Moor of Venice’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ….. Shakespeare isn’t just about the finest writer of the English language. He’s also about Italy. No less than fourteen of his plays have scenes set in Italian cities and some plays are completely set in Italy.
I went through my complete Shakespeare and came up with the following Italian places:
ANZIO AND CORIOLI
Coriolanus. Locations: Rome, Corioli and Antium.
All’s Well that Ends Well. Locations: Rousillon, Paris, Florence, and Marseilles.
MESSINA AND SICILY
Much Ado about Nothing. Locations: Messina
The Winter’s Tale. Locations: Sicily and Bohemia.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Locations: Verona, Milan and Mantua.
The Taming of the Shrew. Locations: In Padua and in Petruchio’s villa in the country.
Antony and Cleopatra. Locations: Parts of the Roman Empire including Rome.
Cymbeline. Locations: Britain, Italy.
Julius Caesar. Locations: Rome, Sardis and near Philippi.
Titus Andronicus Locations: Rome.
The Merchant of Venice. Locations: Partly in Venice, and partly at Belmont, the seat of Portia on the Continent.
Othello. Locations: Venice and a sea-port in Cyprus
Twelfth Night. Locations: A city in Illyria, and the nearby sea-coast. (The sea-coast of Illyria was then part of the Venetian Republic).
VERONA AND MANTUA
Romeo and Juliet. (of course!)
Shakespeare set, either in part or exclusively in Italy, almost thirty eight percent, or well over a third, of his plays. No wonder so many Brits have grown up loving Italy. For the Italian settings of the plays cover some of the most beautiful cities in the peninsula.(I’m glad to say I’ve seen all of them except for Anzio and Corioli ).
Furthermore, if one takes away Shakespeare’s ten history plays which, by default, have to be set in English territory (once including northern France) then, out of the comedies, tragedies and romances, over half of Shakespeare’s plays have scenes in Italy: fourteen out of twenty-seven!
Why does Italy feature so prominently in Shakespeare’s plays? I’m not a specialist but would imagine that the main reasons are that:
- The best stories came out of Italy. If Boccaccio inspired Chaucer then Shakespeare got most of his plot ideas from Italian writers who were particularly popular at the time.
- Placing settings in Italy got Shakespeare out of censorship trouble. He couldn’t be accused of making fun of certain powerful English lords, for example.
- Italians were considered an exotic, curious, devious, cunning, creative and passionate people. (They still are, I believe, in some quarters). There was plenty of opportunity to develop these characteristics in love and war – comedy and tragedy.
- Italy was considered to lead the world in fashion and art. (I still imagine it does to a great extent.) For example, in ‘Richard II’ the Duke of York condemns the King’s disregard of the nation’s crisis in favour of “reports of fashions in proud Italy whose manners still our tardy-apish nation limps after in base imitation”.
Now why doesn’t Bagni di Lucca feature in Shakespeare’s play settings? Surely it would have been famous as the town described by Michel de Montaigne in his travel book? (Shakespeare used Montaigne in ‘The Tempest’). Slightly indirectly it does.
In the film Shakespeare in Love, a young boy is feeding a live mouse to a cat. He is the young John Webster. Shakespeare asks Webster’s opinion on ‘Titus Andronicus’ (a really gory play with hands and tongues cut off). The boy replies “I like it when they cut the heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives… Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing.”
The real John Webster certainly developed a very macabre type of tragedy. One of his bloodiest products is “The Duchess of Malfi” (short for Amalfi near Naples) in which Cariola, the Duchess of Malfi’s maid, suggest to her when planning an escape (using the polite Italian third person form),” In my opinion, She were better progress to the baths at Lucca”. Later in the play, Daniele De Bosola, described as the ‘Gentleman of the Horse to the Duchess’, says sneeringly to old Castruccio and his old lady: “you two couple, and get you to the wells at Lucca to recover your aches.”
I would give anyone a health warning if they haven’t seen or read the play. At least they could recover at Bagni di Lucca’s Terme if they live locally.
Our new bookshop and art gallery “Shelley House” celebrates the fact that Shelley lived in Bagni di Lucca when he first arrived in Italy in 1818. He was a passionate lover of Shakespeare and his play, ‘The Cenci’, set in Rome, is written in a neo-Shakespearian style.
Looking wider towards the Garfagnana and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana there is a direct connection between that area’s one-time governor, Ludovico Ariosto, and William Shakespeare. The story of Ariodante and Ginevra from Ariosto’s great epic poem Orlando Furioso forms a considerable part of the plot of Much Ado About Nothing.
(Ludovico Ariosto 1474 -1533)
So whether you are lucky enough to live near the river Avon or just a few steps away from the river Lima or the river Serchio I hope you will raise a glass to the Bard (yes, I finally used that awful word) who loved and drew so much inspiration from la bella Italia and, some say, actually visited it. (Some Italians even believe that Shakespeare was Italian but I remain rather more patriotic.)