Saturday, December 10, 2011

Guest post: How Did A Man Who Didn't Go to Italy Go to Italy? A review of Richard Paul Roe's The Shakespeare Guide to Italy

Book review of Richard Paul Roe, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels (Harper Perennial, Nov. 2011)

by John Christian Plummer

Imagine that you lived in a time in which every educated person was absolutely certain that the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn moved both forward and backward.  This is what the astronomer Tycho Brahe called “retrograde motion.”  In Hamlet, when Claudius tells Prince Hamlet that a return to Wittenberg (the alma mater of Brahe) “is most retrograde to (the King’s) desire.” 

From the standpoint of the 21st century, it requires a powerful feat of imagination to reckon that a vast celestial body like Mars would stop in the middle of space and reverse its direction.  And that it would do so consistently.  But that is precisely what many well educated 16th century Europeans thought happened, and they didn’t just make this up out of a desire for imaginative tales; they had a problem that needed explaining.  The problem was Mars appeared at one point in the east of the sky, progressed westward, but then appeared back east of its westward position.  If Mars were to move in that way as it orbited the earth…well…one logical explanation would suggest it wasn’t orbiting the earth.  But that was impossible, of course, because Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and all the other planets, as well as the sun, absolutely did orbit the earth, because the earth, as everyone knew, was the center of the universe.  So given that unassailable fact, Brahe proposed his theory of retrograde motion. Mars, like a crab, like Hamlet, moved backward.
From where we sit in the age of Einstein, it’s easy to chuckle at this absurd mental contortion which, we now know, flies in the face of not only the correct, heliocentric model of the solar system, but also basic Newtonian physics.  But let us not forget that the educated Europeans of the 16th century were operating from a working hypothesis – the geocentric model of the universe – that was powerful enough to put mortal fears into the minds of men like Copernicus and Galileo, whose more elegant, thoroughly researched and ultimately accurate explanations eventually won the day.

It is no hyperbole to call Richard Paul Roe a twenty-first century Galileo of literature.  Roe isn’t examining the stars without, but rather the stars within: specifically a third of the canon of the man some call the greatest author who ever set pen to paper, the man we call William Shakespeare.  The so-called Italy plays of Shakespeare are the subject of Roe’s tremendous inquiry, and his more than two decades of painstaking investigation and research have resulted in the landmark book, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels, just released, posthumously, under the Harper/Perennial imprint.

Roe, not coincidentally an attorney as well as an author, does something never before achieved: he proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the playwright of Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and the eight (yes, ten plays in total, to be clarified below) other Shakespeare plays set in Italy actually went to Italy.  For over 400 years, Shakespeare scholars, many of them highly regarded and well paid, have, like Tycho Brahe, gotten it completely wrong.  The playwright was in Italy.  And his descriptions of the geography, topography, architecture, custom and regional dialects of that Mediterranean land, to which a relative few Elizabethans ever traveled, are absolutely accurate.

This is nothing short of a Galilean revolution in Shakespearean scholarship.  Roe upends the centuries-old truism that would have us believe that the author invented a fanciful version of Italy filled with myriad factual errors.  In fact, Roe demonstrates, it is the scholars who have erred.  Their sin, dating from the early 18th century “biographers” of Shakespeare to modern editors of the Arden, Riverside, Folger et al editions of the plays, is to never do what Roe does: go to the source, the land in question, Italy. 
Again and again, in successive chapters, Roe travels to the purported settings of the plays and repeatedly makes the same intertwined discoveries: the playwright was there, and the scholars are wrong.

How is this possible?  How can so many people be so wrong about something that one man could, with several trips to Italy and to the right libraries, get right?  I would suggest that, like the well-intentioned, well-educated scholars of the 16th century who operated from a geocentric model, these otherwise intelligent people have gone wrong because they’re working from a flawed hypothesis.  But like Brahe, traditional Shakespeare scholars have been doggedly determined to fit their working hypothesis – the plays were written by a man who never left England – to the actual writing contained in these ten Italian plays.  The traditional, Stratford-centric scholars are aided in their pursuit by a confluence of time and ignorance, which allow them, for instance, to quite easily scoff at the notion, as scripted in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, that a water-based journey from “landlocked” Verona can be made to “landlocked” Milan.  But Roe’s painstaking analysis, not only of the text (he spends four pages on a handful of lines that concern water-based puns), but of the present-day and 16th century cities in question, seeing sights, meeting with scholars and digging up historical tracts, proves that the scoffers are wrong.  The writer didn’t fancifully invent boat travel from Verona to Milan.  The writer accurately depicted a journey, taken by countless nobles of that era, via several canals and two rivers, which allowed travel from city to city without ever touching land. As the playwright points out in Two Gentlemen, water routes were the preferred mode of travel for nobles, who would not only have a more comfortable ride but one that avoids the outlaws who haunted the roads, both in real life and in the play. Roe’s thrilling journey of discovery, a shoe-leather investigator hot on the beat of a great mystery, is itself almost as exciting as the truth at the end of his pursuit. 

Roe consistently proves how editors of the plays have over the centuries given readers – and actors, directors, and designers – information that is flat out wrong.  One reads his factual refutations and shudders to think at how many productions have been misguided by their trusted textual interpreters.  While Roe’s prose is nothing if not circumspect when pointing out the errors of others, it’s hard not to view Edward Cappell, the editor of the 1768 edition of the Shakespeare plays, as the villain in his book.  As Roe repeatedly demonstrates, Cappell more than once adds settings and stage directions, changes proper nouns to nouns and vice versa, all the while obscuring the meaning of the playwright’s words.  Perhaps a biography of Cappell is in order, so that we can learn what, other than laziness, compelled him to so often reject scholarship for invention. 

Each chapter of The Shakespeare Guide is filled with groundbreaking discoveries, but none so shocking – to Roe as well, who writes in a refreshing, clear first-person hand – as the realizations that A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are both clearly based on Italian locales and 16th century Italian history.  When Roe, on the advice of a tour guide, pays a visit to the small city of Sabionetta, near Mantua, he doesn’t draw any immediate conclusions from its nickname of La Picola Atena – Little Athens.  But at the end of his tour, he’s thunderstruck when he learns another name for the arched main gate into the city is translated as “the Duke’s oak.”  From that echo of Peter Quince’s line in Midsummer, Roe begins an explanation that demonstrates unequivocally that Little Athens, not Athens, Greece, is the setting of the Dream.  His journey to Vulcana, an extraordinary island off the north coast of Sicily, reveals a panoply of flora, fauna and landmarks that show it is none other than Prospero’s island. Roe’s research into not only the history of Italian city-states but also of England’s perspective on them, illuminates the inspirations for the people and events who inspired the creation of Prospero, Antonio, Alonso, Ariel, Sycorax and Caliban.  Reams have been written striving to tie The Tempest to Bermuda and the new world of America, via the now-debunked work of plagiarism known as the Strachey letter.  In thirty concise pages, Roe consigns all those ill-informed Tempest musings to the recycling bin. 

The Shakespeare Guide is simply required reading for any theatre company producing Midsummer, The Tempest or any of the other eight scripts The Shakespeare Guide illuminates.  For it not to begin appearing on the syllabus of every university Shakespeare studies class would be a crime against the education any university claims to provide. 

Throughout the book, Roe refers to the author simply as “the playwright.”  This is reminiscent of the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” that is the key to Sherlock Holmes’ solving of a kidnapping in the classic detective story Silver Blaze.  The dog who didn’t bark is “the playwright,” for up until now, every traditional, Shakespearean scholar was quite happy to accept the lie that Shakespeare’s descriptions of Italy proved he never went there.

Now that Roe has proved the writer was there, he has, in essence, thrown the Stratford-centric theory of authorship on the dust heap of faulty theories alongside Brahe’s retrograde motion, because there is absolutely no evidence that man who signed his name Shaksper, Shakspe, Shakspere and Shakespeare, and who hailed from Stratford, ever left the shores of his mother country.  For centuries, as with Brahe, we had a problem that needed explaining – Shakespeare never went to Italy – and we had an explanation that worked – the Italy of the Shakespeare plays is an inaccurate fantasy.  Now we have a new problem that needs explaining: how did a man who never went to Italy go to Italy?  We know what happened to Galileo in the short run, but in the long run, verity was the victor.  

John Christian Plummer is a screenwriter, director, producer and artistic director of the World's End Theatre Company in Garrison, N.Y. 

photo of Richard Paul Roe (c) 2003, 2011 by Mark Anderson


ML Hart said...

Beautifully written review of an intriguing book... especially helpful is the geocentric theory of the universe as analogy to the authorship ques-tion. Thanks for posting this

kenkap99 said...


I have a question about Roe, which I am reading and is blowing my mind. Oxford apparently did not enter Milan but knew the geography near the city quite well. Also the mystery of "St Gregory's Well" is solved, which it looks like you missed in your book.

If Oxford was in Italy before the plague hit Milan and the horror of "St Gregory's Well", was he aware of it before he left the continent? I can see him hearing about it from those who knew and gleaning that specific piece of information.

Strats are trying to portray this knowledge as derived from
"research' and "conversation", but after reading of Verona and "Taming of the Shrew", the precise detail, specificity and fluidity of the author's account makes this path appear extremely unlikely. Thanks,

Ken Kaplan

mike thomas said...

Of course it could easily have been the case that Oxford, Bacon and the other contenders, were part of a greater circle of powerful men and women. A joint effort. One theory is as valid as the next if no proof.

Carl Hagan said...

After starting reading Mark Anderson's “Shakespeare” by Another Name as a book, and switched to his Ebook as it is incomparably easier to switch back and forth with the internet sources.

For the same reason an Ebook version of Richard Paul Roe, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels would be as welcome. Is there, or is there planned to be an Ebook version of Roe's book?

Michael Prescott said...

"Is there, or is there planned to be an Ebook version of Roe's book?"

Amazon US offers a Kindle edition for $9.99. I haven't checked for other digital formats.