Shakespeare and the Italians

There was something about Shakespeare that I had never noticed until 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 thirty eight Canonical Shakespeare plays according to Wikipedia. Thirty eight is a good number. Not too 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. Only one of the comedies (The Merry Wives of Windsor) All ten of the histories and three of the tragedies (Macbeth, King Lear, Cymbeline). Making a grand total of fourteen! 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 sixteen.) Two are set in France, (As you Like it, All’s Well that End’s Well,) one is set in Lebanon, (Pericles Prince of Tyre,) One in Croatia, (Twelfth Night,) one is set in Greece, (Two Noble Kinsmen,)  one in Spain, (Loves Labours Lost) one in Austria (Measure for Measure) one in Turkey (Comedy of Errors) and a grand total of five 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 Winter’s Tale).

That leaves out The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream which are set in magical lands. Midsummer Night’s involves Greeks and The Tempest… ITALIANS! Remember that Prospero is the rightful 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 two for Greece and six for Italy.

Six 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 Sicily (total: seven) 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 Twelfth Night which is set in Illyria, or as it’s now known, Croatia. Funny thing was, Croatia in Shakespeare’s time was a province and 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 settings or characters in them to 9- Which makes it even more curious. Why Italy?

We’ve no considered the histories and the comedies, twenty six of Shakespeare’s plays. So far the number stands at eleven involving Britain and nine involving Italy, which leaves six involving neither. and twelve tragedies remaining. We already know three of those are set in Britain so what about the other nine? Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens are Greek, leaving us seven. Knock Hamlet off that (in Denmark) and we have six… Guess where those six are set? I’ll give you a clue. They are: Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra. All Italian, with the Roman Empire for the most part. Which, counting things up leaves a total of fourteen for Britain, fifteen for Italy and seven involving neither (or Greece/France and Spain if you prefer)

But… There is one play that involves both Britain and Italy… Cymbeline, which in a very convoluted way involves Italy.

So err… We should really knock Cymbeline from Britain since it involves Italy? Well it involves both but since it has Italian themes we’ll lean it towards the Italy pile- Which takes Italy to sixteen and Britain to thirteen…. Out of thirty eight plays, therefore… 42% of those involve Italian settings, characters or themes, 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 definitely come into contact with them…

Which brings me onto another point. Where did Shakespeare get his ideas from?  Did he just think ‘I know… I’ll write about a merchant in Venice!” The short answer is no. Most of it comes from a fourteenth century tome called Il Pecorone by a man called Giovanni Fiorentino. And his other works? The histories aren’t original. They were based on Tudor propagandas by the likes of Thomas Moore and Raphael Hollingsworth. A lot of the tragedies are based on myths or legends or real events and even from earlier plays by other people. 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 complete 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- Nym in Henry V. As for 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?  If anything the deaths of Romeo and Juliet should make the feud 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 a master of plot. He’s not original either.

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