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Shakespeare in Italy

Updated on August 6, 2012

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Travelers to Italy may sometimes wonder if William Shakespeare ever walked the cobbled streets of Verona, or rode a gondola down a Venetian canal. After all, there are all those plays he set in Italy. If not a traveler, why would an Englishman set plays in Italy?

What is true, Elizabethan English people were enamored with Italy and most things Italian, as much as anyone who has ever tossed a coin in Rome's Trevi Fountain. That is, as long as it had nothing to do with the Catholic Church. If anything, Italian plays were good for business at the Globe Theatre.

These days, Italians do what they can to support any possible connection Shakespeare might have had with their country. There is a balcony in Verona they call Juliet's balcony. How many people go there thinking that Shakespeare shook there composing the line, "...what light through yonder window breaks?"

Today tourists crowd under the balcony like a thousand Romeos to take pictures, imagining Shakespeare's balcony scene. Couples leave notes declaring their love. The betrothed sometimes exchange wedding vows on the balcony, for a price. That would be one thousand Euros. Never mind that the play is not at all a romance, but a tragedy.

Juliet's balcony, Verona
Juliet's balcony, Verona | Source

An Italian TV documentary goes even further to make a Shakespeare connection, perhaps well beyond the limits of probability. The documentary raises the question in its title, Shakespeare era Italiano? Was Shakespeare Italian? Here he is a Sicilian nobleman who flees to England during some civil unrest in his homeland. His name is Michelangelo Crollalanza. "Crollalanza" means "shake spear" in Italian.

Getting back to the notion that the real William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon toured Italy, how good is the evidence that he ever left England? The truth is, not so good say most scholars.

Travel from England to Italy was expensive and dangerous. Because Will Shakespeare read widely, and was acquainted with other men who had traveled, he very well could have acquired enough knowledge about Italy to set some of his plays there, but not enough to avoid flubbing some geography. In The Tempest Shakespeare has Prospero taking ocean passage on a ship from land-locked Milan.


Italian TV: Was Shakespeare Italian?

On the other hand there are his lost years,1578 to 1592. No record of Will Shakespeare's presence in England survives from the time he left school until his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582, and then almost nothing during the next ten years. Two of his children were born and he was named in a lawsuit with his father, but those events can't speak for any continuous presence until 1592 when he became an actor in London.

Prior to 1592, William might have been employed in his father's dealings in grain, leather and wool. Some of the family's business ventures were on the shady side of the law. Wool dealing required a license, which the family did not possess. This could account for the lack of any documentation.

The lost years make it especially difficult to not want to believe that a person can walk in Will Shakespear's footsteps in Italy. We can say that much of England's wool was being shipped to Italy at the time. Maybe some of it illegally. Surely we can practice a little willing suspension of disbelief?

So, just for fun, lets say William's father sent his son off on a business trip or two.


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    • Roy Scarbrough profile image
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      Roy Scarbrough 5 years ago

      Thanks Suzette! A funny thing about Will's grave:

      Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare

      To digg the dust enclosed heare;

      Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,

      And curst be he that moves my bones.

      More than anything else, it seems, he wished to keep those secrets buried.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

      I love this hub! There are those lost years where he could have traveled to Italy. It is possible. I definitely do not believe for a moment he was Italian! LOL. Shakespeare did borrow many ideas for his plays from other works and perhaps they were set in Italy. Who knows? Will went to the grave with a few mysteries. That's why we are still interested in him and his plays nearly 500 years later. Great hub- voted up!

    • Roy Scarbrough profile image
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      Roy Scarbrough 5 years ago

      Hi donnah. The tutor theory is cited in E. A. J. Honigmann's book "Shakespeare: The Lost Years." There was a William Shakeshaft tutoring for the wealthy Lancashire family at the time.

      As to why he would change his name, therein hangs another tale, I guess.

      I do think he would have been a pretty good tutor.

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      There is a theory that Shakepeare was a private tutor during "the lost years." Who knows where he was. I never heard the theory that he travelled to Italy, but I suppose it is possible. Interesting idea.

      As far as setting the plays in Italy, I have read that for the Elizabethans, Italy was a place that stood out as a bit immoral. So Shakespeare could get away with more if he set the plays there and not in England. I don't know how much truth there is to that. I can't remember where I read it.

    • Roy Scarbrough profile image
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      Roy Scarbrough 5 years ago

      Yes, amazing may friend. Some people find it unbelievable that the humble son of a country glove-maker could produce that body of work. That just shows how amazing he was.

    • dwachira profile image

      [ Danson Wachira ] 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      I did Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as a set book in High school and i was amazed how talented he was in play writing. I must say anything connected with him, may it be the cobbled streets of Verona or the Juliet's balcony in Verona, must be very famous. Voted up.

    • Roy Scarbrough profile image
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      Roy Scarbrough 5 years ago

      All those theories are fun, and the way I look at them is that they are something that enriches our experiences with the plays. Like all writers, I imagine William taking advantage of ideas, input and collaboration from his contemporaries. We know there were several in his circle who had traveled more widely. Thanks for posting that.

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      gekeye 5 years ago

      One of his most prominent Italian-set plays was A Merchant of Venice. Given that there is no record Shakespeare ever left England, there is much conjecture that Edward De Vere or Christopher Marlowe--who penned the similar Jew of Malta--may have been the legitimate authors and Shakespeare only lended his name to protect the more prominent in the time when theatre was regarded by the city fathers in London as immoral and sinful. Still, there's not sufficient--or much of any, for that matter--concrete evidence that Shakespeare DIDN'T write the plays. So he continues to get the benefit of the doubt, as he has for over 400 years.