Tracing Shakespeare in Italy

Shakespeare in Italy:  Shakespeare set 15 of 37 plays in Italy, but where did the characters go and did Shakespeare himself ever visit the country?

For centuries Shakespeare scholars have been debating the role of Italy in Shakespeare’s plays and especially whether or not the old Bard had personally visited the country and thereby acquired the knowledge displayed in the texts. Some online literary forums even discuss the possibility of Shakespeare being born in Messina, Sicily, under the name of ‘Crollalanza’. A rather cute theory.

Shakespeare set fifteen of his thirty-seven plays in and around Italy, and in many cases the titles can be seen as a satiric comment on the location. Comedy of Errors takes place in Syracusa. Messina diverts with Much Ado about Nothing. In Naples we face The Tempest. Rome takes the imperial lead with Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus. Siena, Pisa and Florence appear in All’s Well that Ends Well. Mantua and Verona are home to heartbreak and infidelity in Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Padua handles The Taming of the Shrew.  And Venice is home for justice and betrayal in The Merchant of Venice and Othello.

The locations spice up the plays and vice versa. I wouldn’t mind going on an itinerary looking for old-school drama. Could be fun to see dramatic actor guides impersonate Shylock on the Rialto Bridge in Venice where dramatic actor guides impersonate Shylock. Hearn Romeo’s words echo inside and outside of Verona walls. And try to recall Mark Antony’s speech in Forum Romanum.

Never mind that most contemporary scholars agree that Shakespeare based his descriptions of Italian places and customs on second hand sources, which are supposed to have been readily available to Elizabethans. Goes to prove that you don’t actually have to visit the places you write about – If you’ve got Shakespeare’s genius.

Shakespeare in Italy

Roman impersonators in front of Colosseum


12 replies
  1. Francesca
    Francesca says:

    …and I have even heard the story that Shakespeare was even Italian!! Sicilian in fact…His original last name was “Spezzalama” which translated is “Shakespeare” and this would explain the reason for setting so many of his plays in Italy. Also his family was of Jewish origins, and hence also why there are a few Jewish people/families/incidents in some of his plays…and because of such origins he then had to leave Italy and rejoin his brother who had been living in England for trade for years.

    Reality or legend? Who knows…but it amuses me thinking of “Guglielmo Spezzalama”…;D

  2. admin
    admin says:

    Me too, although I had heard his Italian name was ‘Crollalanza’. Might indicate that the entertainment value ranges higher than truth in this matter – but I enjoy it all the way :)

  3. Brendan Monroe
    Brendan Monroe says:

    Always love reading your posts, absolutely fascinating. The Shakespeare conspiracies abound but he does, as you eloquently point out, have a seemingly first-hand knowledge of Italy.

  4. Luca Marchiori
    Luca Marchiori says:

    Great article, thanks for sharing. I think if Shakespeare did not visit Italy in his youth then he would have got his love of Italy and information from groups of travelling Commedia dell’Arte actors from Venice who would have toured Europe rather like the troupe of players in Hamlet. Certainly many of his plays, especially Much Ado About Nothing, seem to be based on the typical Commedia dell’Arte format. As an actor, it’s not beyond imagination that he might have joined such a troupe and visited Italy with them in his youth. When I was at University I studied Renaissance Venice and my professor pointed us to many details in The Merchant of Venice which could only be known by someone who had actually visited the city.

  5. Hastam Quassum
    Hastam Quassum says:

    ‘The Shakespeare Guide To Italy – Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels’ by Richard Paul Roe. It’s a must read. Roe spent many years visiting locations of the plays in Italy and was able to identify many specific features and buildings with surprising accuracy.

    Another interesting play not mentioned in Roe is Measure For Measure. Ostensibly set in Vienna, Austria, yet all the characters have Italian names and the locations in the play can actually be found in Padua, Italy but cannot be found in Vienna. Make you wonder if the plot was a bit close to home for certain nobles in Italy, and Shake-speare had to set the play a little bit away from Italy itself. Go figure!


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