By Tess Brumwell-Gaze
With only a modest Stratford upbringing, Shakespeare’s knowledge of foreign cultures is an intriguing aspect of his works. Plays ensue with backdrops of rural Italy and monarchical Denmark, but very rarely Shakespeare’s English home ground. Whether this was to spur Elizabethan imaginings of exotic landmarks, or to avoid political controversy, there is also the question of how Shakespeare managed to accurately portray his oversea settings.
A first explanation for overseas settings is bound in the political climate of Shakespeare’s time. Directly portraying English politics in the Elizabethan era was a risk. Perhaps to avoid this controversy, Shakespeare could reflect his own monarchy without controversy by relocating and renaming them as foreign rulers. Macbeth exemplifies Shakespeare’s careful political balance—representing the Scottish monarch as a tyrant and the English as the righteous power.
Though a factor, this does not entirely explain why Shakespeare chose the settings that he did; stereotypes of foreign countries can to some extent explain this. For English Elizabethans, Italy was a country excelling in “the fields of art, music and literature, as well as banking, fencing and political science” explains Professoressa Laura Tosi, of Ca’Foscari University in Venice. In the same light, Italy’s culture was imagined as “the cradle of political, religious and sexual corruption.” On hearing that a play was set in Italy, audiences would expect certain characteristics. Most notable of these, Warren King discusses, are “heat, extreme emotion and violence.” What better setting for a desperate romance or bitter rivalry?
A similar account stands for Shakespeare’s Greek settings. Ancient Greece spurred associations of darkness, magic, and myth. This spiritual dimension was taken advantage of in The Comedy of Errors, as themes of witchery and immorality surface in the ancient city.
Less romantically, Shakespeare’s settings were often poached. Hamlet, for example, could hardly be taken from its original Denmark setting without being wildly reworked. This point is also especially poignant in Shakespeare’s classic plays.
A villa in Verona's countryside, close to the Capulets' imagined mansion.
How could Shakespeare articulate these settings?
Being from a modest background, the diverse history and language used in Shakespeare’s works suggests a much more fulfilled education. How did he educate himself on such specific times and places, especially if he would have been unable to visit?
Professoressa Tosi supposes that Shakespeare could have “read political treatises, novellas, tourist books, published traveler’s reports or unpublished ones in manuscript” as a way of informing his Italian works. Equally, oral sources could have aided the writer, with “Italian merchants living in London, scholars, musicians, and cultural mediators like John Florio.” Professore Valerio di Scarpis (Ca’Foscari University, Venice) added: “there were so many travel guides on Venice scattered around Northern Europe at that time, Shakespeare could have easily gathered all the necessary information from London.” There is still a tiny possibility that he reached Italy—both aristocrats and companies of English players on tour moved across the continent at the time. His precise descriptions of Italian villas, locations and even plants are often cited as evidence that he must have toured the country.
Shakespeare’s grasp of language
Only fairly recently have historians supposed that Shakespeare had a fairly good grasp of Latin. This is most likely as a result of grammar school in Stratford. At this time, grammar institutions would demand pupils learn prominent texts by heart. Most prominently, Ovid’s Metamorphoses would have been mandatory, which Shakespeare references in his poem “Venus and Adonis.”
It is largely assumed that Shakespeare did not have an equivalent knowledge of Greek. Instead, works such as Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579, would have informed Shakespeare’s own work. An exception may be The Comedy of Errors, which it is thought Shakespeare would have directly based on the original Menaechmi by Plautus.
The Comedy of Errors also notably opens with Virgil’s words;
“A heavier task could not have been imposed
Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable” (1,1.32-33)
Translations were a key source for a number of plays. Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus were written with the aid of Sir Thomas North’s translations, though there are a number of further sources expanded his classical knowledge and use of language, as Professor Panos Karagiorgos discusses.
Shakespeare’s settings can be explained by a mix of political controversy, Elizabethan romanticism and education. The Bard’s reading shaped both his choices in setting and linguistic experimentation, formed by revised translations and a disciplined schooling.
Tess Brumwell-Gaze is based in the UK and writes for Italian Villa company, Tuscany Now. She is interested in all areas of Italian culture, though is especially fond of arts and literature.
Interested in seeing how director Aaron Posner depicts Ephesus, Greece? Buy your ticket for Cal Shakes’ The Comedy of Errors, opening June 25.