William Shakespeare is universally acknowledged as one of greatest poets and playwrights of all time. Yet we know virtually nothing about the inner man or the experiences that formed him. The people we believe to be his friends never reported a single conversation with him, he kept no diary, and if he wrote and received letters they have not survived. But thanks to twenty years of detective work by a retired lawyer from Pasadena, California, we now know one thing for certain. The author of Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear once stood on the corner of the Piazza Goldoni and the Borgo Orgnissanti, in Florence, Italy.
The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels by Richard Paul Roe was published in the US and UK by Harper Perennial (an imprint of HarperCollins) at the end of last year. The idea that Shakespeare knew Italy well has been raised before, notably by Ernest Grillo, but has been generally dismissed by orthodox Shakespearean scholars, who suggest that the man from Stratford was a geographical ignoramus who gleaned what little European information he could from travelers in London taverns. Through analyzing the texts of Shakespeare’s ten Italian plays and seeking evidence of specific locations on the ground, Roe’s book demonstrates, repeatedly and decisively, that whoever wrote these works knew Italy intimately.
Roe shows how amendments of the texts by Shakespeare’s editors over the centuries have removed vital clues which exist in the original Quarto and Folio versions of the plays. It is interesting to note that something as small as changing capitalization can make a difference to our being able to identify where, in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helen meets Widow and the other women as they wait for Bertram and the soldiers returning from the Tuscan wars. Roe triangulates the place exactly by analyzing what the trumpet calls in the text signified, identifying the gate through which the soldiers would have entered and where they were heading, and locating the landmarks that Widow points out as she talks to Helen. This is not information one would – or could – glean through a conversation with a Florence merchant.
There are numerous other revelations which demonstrate the author’s personal knowledge of Milan, Verona, Mantua, Venice (and the Veneto), Padua, Lombardy, Florence, Pisa, and Sicily. As Roe says, “the author has this trick of pointedly naming or describing some obscure or unique place that might look like an invention or mistake but which turns out to be real: a one-of-a-kind place which reveals an unusual, intimate knowledge of Italy.” One might almost think he were deliberately laying a trail. One of the most powerful moments – and a slightly shocking reflection on the character of one of the Two Gentlemen of Verona – is when Roe unveils the horror of the place Proteus is sending Thurio – his rival in love – when he directs him to "St Gregory’s Well": not a well or a fountain (as orthodox scholars have assumed), but a mass grave.
Roe has more surprises: the "imaginary" settings of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are shown to be both real and Italian, the latter identified by “a particular combination of characteristics found nowhere else on earth.” If the happy coincidences of geology, geography, flora and fauna are not convincing enough, Roe finds that the names of both Ariel and Caliban (the meaning of which has long been debated) were sourced from the local dialect – in Catalan, caliban means outcast, or pariah. And "in popular Catalan tradition, an ariel is a spirit of the air and of the water, generally mischievous." The author, then, not only travelled in northern Italy; he set four plays in, or near to, the southern isle of Sicily.
This book makes fascinating reading for any lover of Shakespeare’s works, no matter whom they believe to be the author. Roe, although apparently an Oxfordian, does not use his research as a basis for arguing that "Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare." Those who believe the author was William of Stratford can choose to chalk these extraordinary travels down to the infamous "Lost Years." But I suggest that to enjoy the book as it was meant to be enjoyed, those of the orthodox persuasion should skip straight to Roe’s text and avoid the introduction written by Daniel Wright of Concordia University. The Shakespeare Guide to Italy has only two major flaws, and this is one of them. (The other is the absence of an index). Wright’s preface is inappropriately aggressive and triumphant, given the current state of the Shakespeare authorship question. Roe’s book may indeed be a game-changer, but unfortunately Wright’s contribution may prevent this book from getting into the hands of those one would most want to read it.
© Ros Barber, 2012
Dr. Ros Barber holds a PhD in English Literature and is the author of forthcoming book The Marlowe Papers, which will be published in the UK by Sceptre on 24 May 2012 and in the US by St Martin’s Press in January 2013. She is the also the author of three volumes of poetry, the latest being a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. She is joint winner of the 2011 Hoffman Prize for a distinguished work on Christopher Marlowe. Her scholarly work on Marlowe and Shakespeare is published in academic books and journals including Rethinking History, Critical Survey and Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman (Ashgate, 2010), and has been delivered at conferences and public lectures at venues including the Institute of Ideas and The Globe. She is an Associate of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust and a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society. TED HUGHES MARLOVIAN