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Shakespeare - from England to Italy: work in progress

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small market town in Warwickshire, England, William Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays, 54 sonnets and several poems. Impressively, a third of his plays are set totally or partly in Italy, whilst still others include Italian characters and references to Italy.

My interest in the work of Shakespeare and his English roots and Luigi’s Italian blood gave rise to the idea of a drawing exploring these two aspects: the places associated with what we know of his life in England and his love of Italy represented in many of his plays. The drawing will illustrate this by means of places associated with his life and scenes and some verses from his ‘Italian’ plays.

You may ask why was Shakespeare so interested in Italy? Where did his knowledge come from? Many of our drawings require a bit of research and reading around the subject is essential to get a general feel for how the drawing might look, so the following summary gives you some clues to what will be in the finished drawing.

Italy had gained a reputation in Elizabethan and Jacobean England from a variety of sources - travel, trade and literature being particularly important fonts of knowledge. It was known as a land of warring city states, each with its own character, populated by charismatic, passionate and devious Italians! What better a back-drop could there be for staging the drama of warring factions, courtly intrigue and love – the subjects of so many of Shakespeare’s plays? Italy, therefore, held all the ingredients for a box-office hit at theatres such as the Globe in London. Some say that Shakespeare travelled to Italy during his ‘lost years’ between the mid-1580s and early 1590s, when no records have yet come to light of his movements. However, this seems unlikely as only merchants or the very rich had the means to travel. ‘The Grand Tour’ through France and Italy - a kind of Elizabethan ‘gap year’, was yet to gain popularity outside the elite classes. However, the writings of some of those who did travel were published and available to Shakespeare. In ’As You Like It’, for example, Rosalind assumes of Jaques, who has the ‘humorous sadness’ of a traveller, ‘you have swam in a gondola’ (Act 4,1). Shakespeare may have also known Italians living in London, such as John Florio, Italian tutor to his patron, the Earl of Southampton.

Many of the educated classes in England knew the Italian language, though we don’t know if Shakespeare did. He had, however, access to many translated works of Italian literature and borrowed from many in the writing of his plays and sonnets. Elizabethan poetry was strongly influenced by the Italian ‘sonetto’ or sonnet, introduced in England in 1550s, where it imitated the poetry of the Italian Francesco Petrarca (‘Petrarch’ in English – who was, incidentally born in Luigi’s home town of Arezzo!). Shakespeare even mentions Petrarch in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, comparing Rosaline to Petrarch’s Laura.

The Italian poetic language of love became very popular and Shakespeare used it widely. Translations of Italian sources became a rich source of ideas, for example, in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, the narrative of Bianca and her suitors originates from Ariosto’s ’Suppositi’, whilst the principal story of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ comes from Luigi da Porto’s ‘Istoria…di due nobili Amanti’ (C.1530). In other plays, though not set in Italy, there are Italian characters: in ‘The Tempest’ we meet Prospero, the former Duke of Milan and Alonso, King of Naples. Passing references to Italian culture are also common, such as in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, where the amazingly life-like statue Hermione was made by ‘the rare Italian master, Julio Romano.’ (Act 5,2). There are several uses of the tradition of Carnival and the masked ball for scenes of mistaken identity, as in ‘Much Ado about Nothing’, which is set in Messina, Sicily.

Four cities stand out as the back-drop for a number of plays: Rome, Venice, Verona and Padua. Several of Shakespeare’s plays have ancient Rome as a back-drop, principally ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘Titus Andronicus’. Shakespeare has Caesar murdered on the steps of the Roman senate, with Brutus, later justifying the murder with the line ‘not that I loved Caesar less, but I loved Rome more.’ (Act 3,2)

Venice, on the other hand, was a world trade centre and a place of mixed race, intrigue and sophistication. Characters such as Shylock, the Jewish money lender from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Othello the Moor from ‘Othello’, would have immediately sparked the interest of playgoers back in England. The Rialto bridge, which had been re-opened in 1591 after being rebuilt in stone, was renowned as a great wonder. Shakespeare portrays it as the centre of business and gossip, as immortalized by Shylock’s demand: ‘Now, what news on the Rialto?’ (Act 3,1). The back-drop of the Jewish ghetto would have intrigued the English playgoer, as Jews in England had been expelled or lived undercover since the late thirteenth century.

Then of course, there is Verona, where millions of tourists flock each year to follow in the footsteps, albeit of dubious origin (the balcony for example), of the world famous lovers Romeo and Juliet. The feud between the Montagues and Capulets, borrowed by Shakespeare from Italian sources, captures our attention from the prologue: ’Two households, both alike in dignity /( In fair Verona, where we lay our scene) / From ancient grudge breaks to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hearts unclean’ (Act 1, Prologue).

Not far from Verona, Shakespeare moves to Padua, describing the city in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ as the ‘fair Padua, nursery of arts’ (Act 1,1). An apt description for a city famous for its university and medical school.

These are just a few examples of Shakespeare’s Italian connections which we plan to weave into our drawing. But what of his English roots? This will be illustrated in the left half of the drawing – which as you know, measures 100 x 70cm, so there is some space to work with!

Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, England, has become a tourist attraction due to it being the place where Shakespeare was born, married, saw the birth of his children, where he lived off and on and probably wrote some of his works and was finally buried. The surviving records do not give us any great details of his life. We know he was born on or around April 23rd 1564. His father, John, was a glove-maker and he and his wife, Mary Arden, lived in their Henley Street property which still stands today. John went on to become mayor and would have had the means to send William to the local grammar, King’s New School, where he would have learnt Latin and studied the classics. Shakespeare met Anne Hathaway, whose home can be visited in nearby Shottery (Fig.1) and married her when he was 18 and she 26 - and pregnant. They had three children, Susanna, Hamnet (who died at 11) and Judith.


At some point, Shakespeare went to London (Fig.2 - old London Bridge over the Thames) and his career as actor and playwright began in earnest when he joined the company of 'The Lord Chamberlain's Men'.


The Blackfriars and the Theatre, now lost, saw productions of his earlier plays and after a dispute over the use of the latter in Shoreditch, it was taken down overnight and the oak frame re-erected as the Globe theatre, which opened in 1599 (Fig.3). This was the stage for many plays until it was burnt down in 1619 during a production of Henry VIII, when sparks from a cannon set fire to the thatch. Excavations of lost theatres and old illustrations have given archaeologists clues as to how these theatres looked and functioned, as exemplified by the reconstructed Globe theatre on the banks of the Thames.


During the years of the Globe theatre, Shakespeare became wealthy enough to buy New Place, the largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon, unfortunately later demolished, but to be reproduced from archaeological evidence in our drawing.

Later, during the reign of King James I, the company, now known as ‘The King’s Men’ after their patron, a new and more intimate theatre was built in London and has recently been reconstructed near the Globe by the late Sam Wanamaker, founder of the Shakespeare Globe Trust. This Playhouse was a small, enclosed, intimate space, lit by beeswax candles, as it is for productions today. The Globe and the Playhouse will form the centre piece of the drawing, with a scene from a play re-enacted below. This, along with a number of verses to be reproduced throughout the drawing, pays homage to the great body of work known and enjoyed around the world, thanks to the publication of the First Folio by fellow playwrights after Shakespeare’s death.

In 1601, Shakespeare inherited his family home in Henley Street, which is open to the public. He was to die aged 52 on 23rd April 1616 and was buried in the Holy Trinity church of his home town – that is if he was not actually born ITALIAN, as some believe!

Whatever the truth of his Italian connections, The Bard loved Italy and Italy has loved him back, with many of his plays regularly performed, with Othello and Romeo and Juliet being amongst the most popular plays. We think this is a story worth drawing - watch this space as it evolves!

8 February 2021

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