Saturday, March 29, 2008

Did Shakespeare visit Venice? ... Does the Pope wear Prada?

[Creative Commons image by Martino Pizzol]

The Times of London this week published an article that reconsiders the "cloak of invisibility" argument: Plays like Merchant of Venice are simply too replete with Venetian lore, geography, etc. that it forces the conclusion that the author must somehow have visited the city he so accurately immortalizes. So, given Will Shakspere as the author, he must have just slipped on his invisibility cloak for a year during those fabled Lost Years and snuck off across the Alps to make his way to La Serenissima -- all, of course, without leaving a single trace in the historical record. And these days, with his place of origin seeming more and more like Speculation-upon-Avon, why the hell not?

Shaul Bassi at the University of Venice recently co-wrote a book with the Italian writer Alberto Toso Fei titled Shakespeare in Venice (published in Italy, in Italian) that weighs in with what looks like not a small chunk of the same evidence "Shakespeare" By Another Name puts forward. Here's The Times:

It was striking that he had given the name “Gobbo” to Shylock's servant, a reference to the carved figure of a hunchback (Il Gobbo di Rialto) on the bridge, a feature well known in Venice but not beyond it. Shakespeare had also used local words such as gondola, as in Act 2, scene 8 of The Merchant, when Salarino remarks: “But there the duke was given to understand that in a gondola were seen together Lorenzo and his amorous Jessica.”

...Shakespeare knew about the Venetian custom of offering pigeons (“a dish of doves”) as a gift, and showed rare insight into cosmopolitan Venice's ethnic and social relations, and its tolerance of foreigners and minorities.

Bene bene! Eccezionale! Couldn't agree more. In fact, if you want to follow "Shakespeare" through Venice -- and the rest of Italy -- there's already a free Google Earth Atlas that let's you retrace his every step from the comfort of your own virtual desktop.

One hitch, though. A slight change of byline is needed.

But if the reader is willing to take that provisional step then, hey, the world is thine oyster.


Tom Goff said...

For several years, Mark Anderson (and before him, such unorthodox Shakespeare scholars as Karl Elze and Charlton Ogburn) has been amassing internal evidence from the Shakespeare plays, elusive bits of local knowledge to demonstrate that the author of the dramas had visited Venice. At least one recent book about medieval and Renaissance Venice, written by a scholar with no known stake in the authorship controversy, adds to these bits.

The author of Venice Triumphant, Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan, writes that

In [Venetian] society [of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance] taboos of female purity were, or at least were supposed to be, maintained. Virgins were protected and closed in within the domestic space. Foreign visitors, in particular those from Flanders, were struck by how little freedom young Venetian women, or at least young women of a certain social standing, enjoyed. They rarely left the house, and when they did they were wrapped in voluminous garments and wore a veil over their heads. They might be seen very early in the morning, on their way to the nearby church accompanied by a servant woman. (234)

Such a known visitor to Venice as Edward de Vere could have perceived these wealthy young women as shrouded in mystery and innocence, like young Muslim women of today, cloaked in the hijab.

Crouzet-Pavan continues her account of the innocent young ladies (235):

When those same women became wives and took up the roles that had been assigned to them, they remained closed in within the family space, and they were still closely watched by the household and the neighborhood, were seldom seen outside the house, and were protected from danger, to the point of keeping them away from the windows.

This is the case with Desdemona, kept under close watch by her father Brabantio prior to her elopement with Othello. The passage seems also to describe Jessica’s predicament in The Merchant of Venice. Here, Shylock is leaving to dine at Antonio’s house, while forbidding his daughter Jessica even to look out the window at a passing masque:

SHYLOCK. What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica:
Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum,
And the vile squealing of the wry-neck’d fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements [windows] then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnish'd faces;
But stop my house's ears─I mean my casements;
Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter
My sober house. (2.5.27-35)

Such strict regulation of conduct, although perfectly in character for the miserly Shylock, surely reflects the morals of Venetian high society (how far Venice’s Jewish families may have followed the code is unclear).

Nevertheless, armed with Crouzet-Pavan’s information, we may see Shylock and Brabantio as next of kin, both reflecting Venice and the larger Italy around that city-state. In “Shakespeare” by Another Name, Anderson has remarked (77) on De Vere’s knowledge of the Italian commedia dell’arte, in which the stock figure Magnifico, or Pantalone,

was an old, miserly patriarch who headed, and could scarcely control, a riotous household. Often mocked, even by his servants, Pantalone was forever trying and failing to bridle his rebellious daughter. His avarice
was notorious; he was always in a quandary about his ducats.

Now, Shakespeare is at pains to establish that Brabantio, while perhaps racially prejudiced, even gravely mistaken about the nature of Othello’s influence over Desdemona (1.1.172-174), is a councillor of some dignity; he is even borne out in his forebodings about the marriage, if we keep in mind its tragic outcome. But whether Brabantio is meant as a Pantalone by the playwright, Iago, cloaked in darkness and yelling at Brabantio from outside the window, addresses him as one: “Look to your house, your daughter and your bags!” (1.1.82)

Anderson (xxx) has remarked on De Vere’s knowledge of Venice’s “special officers of night,” Othello’s term for the Signori di Notte: another touch of atmosphere suggests that “Shakespeare” is remembering the night police in their duty of fire protection (Crouzet-Pavan 21):

Roderigo: …I’ll call aloud.
Iago: Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
Is spied in populous cities. (Othello 1.1.77-79)

We are to learn that Brabantio imagines a different “fire” burning inside his daughter; Iago is quick to play upon the old man’s fears. We are also confirmed in our impression of Roderigo’s and Iago’s riotous urban nights by Crouzet-Pavan’s words on actual Venetian nights:

There is evidence of youth bands and associations of young males, perhaps organized spontaneously. They usually met at night. Their members participated in rowdy gatherings and riotous behavior; they committed acts of vandalism and goaded the police forces into well-planned confrontations; they harassed the few nocturnal passersby with pleasantries that often degenerated into violence. They spared neither the order of the city and its d├ęcor, which they vandalized, nor the order of the state and its representatives, the patrols of the Signori di Notte or the guards of the Council of Ten… (249-250)

Surely Iago embodies this standard of behavior. More important, the passage again indicates that Oxfordians like Mark Anderson can rely on unbiased scholarship when positing the real Shakespeare’s first-hand knowledge of Venice.

Ian Thal said...

Except you also have to take into account the multiple errors Shakespeare makes regarding Venice: He is unaware that Jews were relegated to the Island of Ghetto, connected to the rest of Venice only by bridges, that they were forbidden by law to have Christian servants living in their homes, and due to curfews, Shylock could not have joined Antonio and Bassanio for dinner-- there are numerous other geographical and factual errors that abound in The Merchant of Venice that anyone who had visited the Republic would not have made-- though it is possible Shakespeare read pamphlets written by English travelers to Venice.

Mark said...

Shakespeare's knowledge of Venice was in fact stunningly precise. Sorry. But your claim is incorrect. Here.

Ian Thal said...

I beg to differ. Richard Paul Roe is not a literary scholar nor a historian-- and even were he would admit that the work was speculative.

My point is that there are key deviations from actual historical Venice upon which Shakespeare hinges his plot upon-- while some of those might be explained by the likely source materials, such at the story of the Florentine merchant and Jewish money-lender from Il Pecorone, a number of these inaccuracies are elements he invented himself like the ones I listed earlier. (There's also the matter of the proximity between Venice and Belmont.)

He probably read popular accounts by travelers, but I find it unlikely, based on the text of the plays that he actually spent much time (if at all) in the Italian cities of which he wrote.

Mark said...

Everyone of course has a right to their own opinions but not their own facts. Belmont is a perfect case in point, which Portia describes as being a 20 mile roundtrip distance from the island of Venice and back. She also says a monastery is 2 miles distant from Belmont.

Richard Roe wasn't the first to discover this precisely describes the Villa Foscari on the river Brenta -- a riviera of sorts for the upper crust of Venetian society. Foscari stands to this day. As does Shylock's house. As do dozens upon dozens of precise details of Italian geography, culture, language, etc. in all the Italy plays.

Can't do the same with Shakespeare's Vienna depicted in Measure for Measure. Or his Cyprus depicted in Othello. But Shakespeare's Italy is a treasure trove.

And for those readers who might care to give Roe's Shakespeare Guide to Italy a try (this blog's review here), viagga felice!

Ian Thal said...

All of the municipalities known as Belmonte in that time period are in southern Italy-- much further from Venice than the ten miles you cite.

Shakespeare likely got the name "Belmont" from the story in Il Pecorone, which also happens to tell the story of an established merchant giving a bond of a pound of flesh to take out a loan from a Jewish usurer so that a younger man (in this case a godson) can go court a woman who lives in Belmont who then returns to Florence (in this case of the story) disguised as a male attorney to defend the merchant after he defaults.

Things fall into place more easily when one and presupposes that Shakespeare was an avid reader and examines his literary antecedents rather than assume he was a traveler who habitually renamed and otherwise misreported the places he visited.

Ian Thal said...

Let me add that I've done my own poking around into the question of Gobbo's origin and while I admit to rather freely speculating that Gobbo may have been inspired by a troupe of comic actors from the time (documented in a series of prints some years later by Jacques Callot) it's far more likely that the name comes from the Italian word "Gobbo" which not only means "hunchback" but was a popular insult in London of the 1590s due to the popularity of all things Italian.

Point is that either theory is far more plausible than the connection between Launcelot Gobbo and Il Gobbo di Rialto.

Justin Barnard said...

A portrait of Shakespeare dated 1604 has been found in Venice although I do not know whether it has been authenticated. Refer to James I by James Travers published by The National Archives.