Shakespeare and the Italians

There was something about Shakespeare that i had never noticed untill it was pointed out to me by a tv programme just now… There is a curiously large amount of Italian stuff in his plays for a late 16th century Englishman… and i don’t mean a spot here and there… I mean so much that it’s almost conspiratorial…

There are 38 Canonical Shakespeare plays according to Wikipedia. 38’s a good number… not to many but still a substantial body of work. You would expect for a Stratford Grammar school boy for a lot of these plays to be set around England or Britain… Well… Only 1 of the comedies (The Merry Wives of Windsor) All ten of the Histories and 3 of the Tragedies (Macbeth, King Lear, Cymbeline). Making a grand total of… 14! Not a lot all things considered.

Ok… so what about Italy? Where does that come into it? Well… it’s funny you should ask…

Let’s start with the comedies (which total 16…) 2 are set in france, (As you Like it, All’s Well that End’s Well,) 1 is set in Lebanon, (Pericles Prince of Tyre,) 1 in Croatia, (Twelfth Night,) 1 is set in Greece, (Two Noble Kinsmen,)  1 in Spain, (Loves Labours Lost) 1 in Austria (Measure for Measure) 1 in Turkey (Comedy of Errors) and a grand total of 5 in Italy/Sicily (which i’m counting as one here like the programme did) (Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew and The Winters Tale).

That leaves out The Tempest and A Midsummer Nights Dream which are set in magical lands. A midsummer nights dream involves Greeks… and the Tempest… ITALIANS. Remember that Prospero is the Duke of Milan… Which if you’re geographically inept is in Italy. So in total, since magical lands don’t exist we should amend the list to 2 for Greece and 6 for Italy.

6 is an awfully high number considering all the other comedies are exclusively set elsewhere… but it gets weirder if you take the number of Italian characters…Comedy of Errors  has characters from Syracuse in Sicilly (total: 7) And Measure for Measure has curiously named characters considering it’s set in Vienna… (Vincentio, Claudio, Angelo) Notice they’re all Italian sounding? If it was set in Vienna why not give them Germanic names? If Shakespeare knew Italian, Greek, French and Spanish Names surely it can’t have been that much of a stretch that he knew some German names… It doesn’t really make sense. But what if it was originally meant to be set in… I don’t know… Florence and then it got changed to Vienna at the last minute? Apparently it did come from the same source as Othello which is more than possible… so I’ll add that one to the Italian pile i think. . (Making 8)

And then we have 12th Night which is set in Illyria… or as it’s now known, Croatia. Funny thing was… Croatia in Shakespeare’s time was a province… a province of the REPUBLIC OF VENICE! Coincidence? Well almost all the characters again have Italian names… So at a push we can bring the total number of Shakespeare Comedies with Italian stuff in them to 9… which makes it even more curious… Why Italy?

Ok… we’ve considered the Histories and The Comedies… 26 of Shakespeare’s plays. (Forget i mentioned the tragedies earlier for now) So Far the number stands at 11 involving Britain and 9 involving Italy… which leaves 6 involving neither. and 12 tragedies remaining. We already know three of those are set in Britain (which brings us to the full 14) so what about the other 9? Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens are greek… leaving us 7. Knock Hamlet off that (in Denmark) and we have 6… Guess where those 6 are set? I’ll give you a clue… They are: Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra (Roman Empire so it counts). All Italy… with the Roman Empire for the most part… Which, counting things up leaves a total of 14 for Britain, 15 for Italy and 7 involving neither (or Greece/France and Spain if you prefer) But really… there is one play that involves both Britain and Italy… Cymbeline… where the daughter of the main character runs off to Italy.

So err… we should knock Cymbeline from Britain since it involves Italy… which takes Italy to 16 and Britain to 13…. Out of 38 plays therefore… 42% of those are Italian themed, 34% are British and the remaining 18% can be regarded as Other.

The majority of Shakespeare’s Plays… are Italian? That really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense does it… Why would a an English Author write plays mostly about Italy? There are some people who claim Shakespeare was actually Italian… if that’s true then Napoleon won at Waterloo, Harold won the Battle of Hastings and Henry IV didn’t look like Ming the Merciless… It’s nonsense, as are the claims that he was the earl of Oxford or a woman named Brian who came from somewhere in Essex… Shakespeare was really a man called William Shakespeare and he was born in Stratford upon Avon… There.

But why all the Italian? Well… It was fashionable. Fashionable to have Italian things in late Elizabethan England… remember that this was the height of the renaissance and Italian things were considered ‘cool.’ Shakespeare wasn’t the only one to do it… There was what Wikipedia describes as ‘a conspicuous community of Italians in London’ who were influencing the playwrights… And as a playwright Shakespeare would have come into contact with them…

Which brings me onto another point… Where did Shakespeare get his ideas from?  Did he think ‘I know… I’ll write about a merchant in Venice!” The short answer is no. Most of it comes from a 14th century called Il Pecorone by a man called Giovanni Fiorentino. And his other works? The Histories aren’t original… A lot of the Tragedies are based on myths or legends or real events… and even then from earlier plays… for example there may be an earlier version of Hamlet written by someone else… Romeo and Juliet came from a piece of prose called Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke. If you think Shakespeare was a master of plot… think again. A lot of his work just ends suddenly without closure (Twelfth Night, Much Ado, Loves Labours Lost) and Characters just appear, disappear or just get forgotten about and never mentioned again. Take the ending of Romeo and Juliet… the Montagues and The Capulets suddenly decide to put their differences aside because their children are too stupid to keep themselves alive. IT MAKES NO SENSE IN TERMS OF CHARACTER OR PLOT THAT TWO FAMILIES WHO HATED EACH OTHER BECOME FRIENDS JUST LIKE THAT! If anything it would make it worse. I’m sure there are more if you look… Like the Italian character names in Measure for Measure and Falstaff being alive long after he died (Merry Wives of Windsor) Scratch the surface and, although certainly a master of language, Shakespeare isn’t the literary genius he’s made out to be.

We’re all told that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English Language…  Well looking at this i’d say not. He might be the greatest linguist… but writer? Not a chance… He didn’t come up with his own ideas for a start as this Investigation proves… his work is crammed with so many holes and bad plotting it’s unbelievable. We all know the Histories are badly researched (Richard III for one thing…) There may be people who wax lyrical about how great Shakespeare is but… once you look…

And i guess that changes the landscape of British Literature now that Shakespeares been demoted… It leaves Dickens at the top lording it over everyone else… And i’m almost certain that given a little push and a bit of hard graft i’ll be able to wrestle him from his perch and become the best…

What was that J.K Rowling? You’ve got a new book coming out that’ll prove you can write more than just kids books about magic? What’s it about? A parish council election… It’s called what? The Casual Vacancy… Ha ha ha… ha ha haha ahahahahahahahhh ahahaha ha ha ha ha ha aha ahahaha!



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