Shakespeare’s Italy obsession

Abdur Rahman

12th January, 2019 10:04:46 printer

Shakespeare’s Italy obsession

Literary works, thanks to their nature of mirroring the human and the phenomena that are too much with human, delve their ground into such land, civilization, culture, religion, history that were sumptuous , alluring and fullest to its flourish, enlightenment or darkness to pique the fancy of other nations. So was Italy to Shakespeare and his fellow Elizabethan Englanders. To any budding playwright in Elizabethan England, Italy was box-office gold. Anticipation didn’t dawn at Shakespeare of his plays’ being overwhelming read, researched as textbook at schools colleges and universities globally but staged Englandwide. Even the most illiterate drunkard in the Globe Theatre knew a play set in Italy would be salacious and sexy, featuring murder and mayhem. The elements that were needed to serve the stomach of Elizabethan audience were myriad in Italy which reasoned Italy to be entrenched in Shakespeare, his plays and his fellow Elizabethan Englanders.

Shakespeare’s literary affinity with Italy goaded millions of audiences, readers, researchers, students and professors throughout the world to dig at the deepest fathom of his Italy fixation and this wave ripples not only in English coast but also in African, Latin American, Caribbean, American, Asian and Asia-pacific coasts. The caravans of Shakespeare enthusiasts across the globe are still in onrush to explore how Italian geography, literature, culture and politics dominated the plots and ambience of many of Shakespeare’s plays. Italy frequents so ceaseless in Shakespeare’s plays that it is not spared to suggest that he travelled to Italy sometime between the mid- 1580 and the early1590- the so called ‘lost years’ when we have no reliable information about his whereabouts. Though the evidence is not strong enough to hold water to support this claim, the row over Shakespeare’s belongingness is not such short to end there rather it goes to the extent to raise question like was Shakespeare an Italian?

In his book Shakespeare era Italiano (2002), Martino Iuvara, a Sicilian professor claims that Shakespeare, in fact was not English at all, but an Italian. Two Palermo University professors from 1925 to 1950 conducted a research that drew Iuvara’s conclusion. Iuvara postulates that Shakespeare was born not in Stratford in April 1564, as is commonly posited, but actually was born in Messina as Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza. His parents were not John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, but were Giovanni Florio, a doctor, and Guglielma Crollalanza, a Sicilian noblewoman. The family supposedly fled Italy during the Holy Inquisition and moved to London. It was in London that Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza decided to change his name to its English equivalent. Crollalanza apparently translates literally as ‘Shakespeare.’

Iuvara further adds a play as testimony to his claim written by Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza in Sicilian dialect. The play’s name is ‘Tanto traffic per Niente, which can be translated into Much Traffic for Nothing or Much Ado About Nothing. He further details a book that garners credit to Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza. Some of the notions correspond to the lines in Hamlet. Once Giovanni Florio owned a home namely “Casa Otello”, built by a retired Venetian who, in a fit of jealous, killed his wife. Sir Sidney Lee, a Shakespeare biographer, in response to Iuvara’s claim, opines that believing in Shakespeare was Italian equates Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare’s works in few spare moments when she was not busy in tending to the realm. It was not unusual for an Elizabethan dramatist to set his or her play in Italy. Are we, basing this, hell-bent to accept that Marlowe, Bacon, and Johnson were Italian? Why is it easier for Iuvara to assume that Shakespeare was an Italian refugee than it is to assume that he mastered Italian on his own? Even if Shakespeare did not know Italian many of his educated contemporary knew it. It is assumed that Shakespeare met many educated Italians in London. Yet again he might be familiar with leading humorist scholar John Florio, who was tutor to his patron, the Earl of Southampton. Some argue that he could have found out about life in Italy merchants who arrived at the river Thames. Yet all he needed was access to a good library, which we know he had (he hadn’t been to Denmark either, but still managed to write Hamlet).

Shakespeare chose different Italian cities, authors, sources for different reasons and their distinct qualities. A very popular poetic genre ‘Sonnet’ Shakespeare introduced to English borrowed from Italian ‘Sonneto’ in 1550 innovated by the 14th century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (known as Petrarch in English). The narrative of Bianca and her suitors in The Taming of the Shrew locates its source to George Gascoigne’s translation of Ariosto’s I Suppositi. The main story of Romeo and Juliet (1562) traces back to Luigi da Prosto’s Istoria ….. di due nobili Amanti (c.1530) but Shakespeare borrowed his details from Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562). Othello dates back its source from a novella by the 16thcentury Italian writer Giraldi Cinthio, which Shakespeare might have read in French version. Although All’s Well that Ends Well is set in France, in its second scene we find that Florence and Sienna are at war. The miraculously life-like statue of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale is said to have been made by that rare Italian master Julio Romano. Shakespeare characterized different Italian cities for different purposes. The Merchant of Venice would not have been possible in an English setting because the Jews had been expelled from England at the end of 13th century. Some of Shakespeare’s works wore quite political and if he had set them in English court, they would not have seen the light of day or Shakespeare could have ended up behind the bars for treason or slander. But projecting his comments on the ruling class in a foreign context favoured Shakespeare to shed light on the thorny issues for instance political assassination of Julius Caesar.


The writer is a Lecturer in English,Birshreshtha Noor Mohammad Public College, Peelkhana, Dhaka. He can be reached at email: [email protected]