Shakespeare’s Grand Tour (part 9)



Of all the Italian cities Shakespeare writes about, he seems to know the most about floating pleasure-palace that is Venice. When in the Merchant of Venice, he writes, ‘what news on the Rialto?’ he would surely have been aware of the rumor-laden tittle-tattle that flocked to that beautiful famous bridge. Elsewhere, in Othello, Shakespeare mentions Brabantio’s ‘Senatorial gown’ which all Venetian senators were made to wear in public. In that same play, the members of the Venetian night patrols were very specifically called Signori di Notte, which Shakespeare translates as ‘Officers of Night,’ in Othello;

Pray you, lead on. At every house I’ll call;
I may command at most.–Get weapons, ho!
And raise some special officers of nigh
t (1:1)
Of the Merchant, JR Mulryne notices that Shakespeare, ‘has found in his play a dramatic language for the expression of inter-communal tension that was actual uin Venice at the end of the 1580s.‘ Joe Peel notices that the bard was fully aware of the Venetian legal system & its terms, while showing, ‘that he was well informed of the privileges which strangers (that is those who did not belong to Venetian aristiocray or were not native citizens descended from the romans) enjoyed in venice,’ adding, ‘with regard to knowledge of Italian & Venetian life & legal procedures, the dramatist must have had direct experience.’
In relation to The Merchant of Venice, Grillo finds in it, ‘an inimitable Italian atmosphere… the topography is so precise & accurate that it must convince even the most superficial reader that the poet visited the country, acutely observant of all its characteristics as he travelled through its mountains & valleys. One instance is the gift of a dish of pigeons which Gobbo takes to his sons master. Gobbo is a purely Venetian name, which must certainly have been suggested to Shakespeare by the statue of the kneeling hunchback of the Rialto, which forms the base of the pillar upon which in ancient days were affixed the decrees of the Republic.’




Another Elizabethan traveler to Venice, Fynnes Moryson, offers an accurate insight into the Venice which Shakespeare would have encountered. Notice how he observes the Traghetti ferries, which in the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare calls, ‘Trajects,’ as in, ‘Unto the traject, to the common ferry. Which trades to Venice.’

This stately City built in the bottome of the gulfe of the Adriatique sea… is eight miles in circuit, and hath seventy parishes, wherein each Church hath a little market place, for the most part foure square, and a publike Well. For the common sort use well water, and raine water kept in cesternes; but the Gentlemen fetch their water by boat from the land. It hath thirty one cloysters of Monkes, and twenty eight of Nunnes, besides chappels and alines-houses. Channels of water passe through this City (consisting of many Ilands joyned with Bridges) as the bloud passeth through the veines of mans body; so that a man may passe to what place  he will both by land and water. The great channell is in length about one thousand three hundred paces, and in breadth forty paces, and hath onely one bridge called Rialto, and the passage is very pleasant by this channell; being adorned on both sides with stately Pallaces. And that men may passe speedily, besides this bridge, therebe thirteene places called Traghetti, where boats attend Gondole. called Gondole; which being of incredible number give ready passage to all men.


Through Moryson, we can really get a feel for Shakespeare’s stay in Venice; absorbing all the vibrant life & colour of the market-places, or perhaps studying in the city’s library, which had been stocked with books from Constantinople in the wake of that city’s conquest by the Ottomans in 1453. Here are a couple of more Venetian passages from his ‘Itinerary.’
Right over against the Dukes Pallace, in the… second market place of the pallace, is the library, whose building is remarkable, and the architecture of the corner next the market place of the Bakers, is held by great Artists a rare worke, and divers carved Images of Heathen Gods, and Goddesses in the old habit, are no lesse praised, as done by the hands of most skilfull workemen. On  the inside, the arched roofes curiously painted, and the little study of ivory, with pillars of Allablaster, and rare stones, and carved Images (in which an old breviary of written hand, and much esteemed, is kept) are things very remarkeable. The inner chamber is called the study ; in which many statuaes and halle statuaes, twelve heads of Emperors, and other things given to the State by Cardinall Dominicke Grimani, are esteemed precious by all antiquaries. And in this Library are laid up the Bookes, which the Patriarke and Cardinall Bessarione gave to Saint Marke (that is to the State) by his last will, and the most rare books brought from Constantinople at the taking thereof, and otherwise gathered from all parts of Greece.



Venetian fish market - still going strong
Venetian fish market – still going strong


This City aboundeth with good fish, which are twice each day to be sold in two markets of Saint Marke & Rialto, & that it spendeth weekly five hundred Oxen, & two hundred & fifty Calves, besides great numbers of young Goates, Hens, and many kinds of birds, besides that it aboundeth with sea birds, whereof the Venetian writers make two hundred kinds, and likewise aboundeth with savoury fruits, and many salted and dried dainties, and with all manner of victuals, in such sort as they impart them to other Cities. I will also adde that here is great concourse of all nations, as well for the pleasure the City yeeldeth, as for the free conversation ; and especially for the commodity of trafficke. That in no place is to be found in one market place such variety of apparell, languages, and manners.


In particular, the Venice as portrayed by Othello shows a personal appreciation by Shakespeare.  A Venetian called Cassio arrives in Cyprus on a ‘Veronesa’ ship. Verona is actually situated 60 miles from Venice, but Shakespeare knew the obscure fact that Venetian galleys were built in Verona at this time. Grillo writes, ‘the various scenes of Othello are no mere Venetian reminiscences, but pictures exhaling the very spirit of Venice, which Shakespeare has transferred to his drama. The darkness of morning, the narrow and mysterious “calli,” Brabantio’s house with its heavy iron-barred doors, the Sagittary, the official residence of the commanders of the galleys, the hired gondolier witness of gallant intrigues, the gondola where the lovers had been seen, the galleys sent on a multitude of errands, the armaments, the attendants with torches, the special night guards, the council chamber, the senators, the Doge—the beloved Signor Magnifico— the discussions about the war, Brabantio’s accusation that his daughter had been stolen and seduced by means of drugs and witchcraft, the history of Othello with all the sacrifices made in defence of the republic , the appearance of the divine Desdemona, fair & beautiful as a Titian portrait – all give the impression of a vivid portrayal of scenes enacted in the very heart of the Queen of the Adriatic.’



As for the Merchant of Venice, we have a lovely link to William Stanley, via the parish of Prestcot in Lancashire, which borders the estate at Knowsley from where the Stanleys ran their ‘Northern Court.’ In the Churchwardens Accounts of Prescot we read of one money-orientated warden whose name is highly similar to the Merchant’s money-orientated jew called Shylock.

1581 - ‘imprimis, receyved bye me, the sed Thomas Sherlock at the handes of the olde churche wardens, ouer theire accountes the last year as appereth bye this booke

1584 - item, paid to thomas sherlocke for the repairinge of the olde slate uponm the sowth syde of the church
Prescot - not as nice as Venice
Prescot – not as nice as Venice
As we shall see later in this tour, several personages from that small part of Lancashire also appear in the plays of Shakespeare, & I believe very much naming Shylock after a person the Stanleys knew about was one of the many secret injokes of Shakesperiana.

The inimitable Dick Roe has also declared to have found the very house where Shylock lived, a ‘penthouse’ on the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the the site of Jewish loan banks from which Christians borrowed money. That is (& was) supported by three colomuns, just as Shakespeare describes, is yet another incredible accuary from our man in Italy. Directions to it are given in the Merchant, as in; ‘Turn upon your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning of all, on your left; marry, at the very next turning, turn of no hand; but turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house,’ which is an uncanny way of describing the mazy lanes of Venice. Other scholars have identified many more Italian nuggets which Shakespeare could only known about if he had visited the country. Where Fynne Moryson (a 16th century traveller to Venice) reports the masque parties at ‘Carnival Time: yea the very house of noblemen & gentlemen, upon occasions of meetings to danse withy wemen & virgins of honour, are open for any masked persons to enter & behold them,’ according to MJ Levirth, ‘this describes accurately the Capulet party found in Romeo & Juliet.’





So we now find ourselves ready to leave Italy, stood with Stanley, Shakespeare (& perhaps Donne) by the glimmering waters of the Adriatic. In their luggae, as I have stated earlier in these blogposts, sat a number of books from Spain, to which I believe they had added a great deal more in Italian. Reading matter for the long voyages ahead, they would have included many plays & prose pieces which would find their way into Shakesepeare’s ouvre. Many of these were untranslated into English before the plays were composed, such as the Gl’ingannati which inspired Twelfth Night.  Five of the renaissance Italian poet Matteo Bandello’s stories were later adapted by Shakespeare, being: Cymbeline, Othello, the Claudio subplot of Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo & Juliet & Twelfth Night.  Other Italian influences on Shakespeare’s works include;

1 – Ser Giovanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone – in which we find the debtor Antonio – inspired the Merchant of Venice
2 – There are flashes of Berni in Othello
3 – Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso inspired Othello, the Tempest,  a Midsummer Nights Dream & Much Ado About Nothing
4 – The Hecatomiti of Cinthio inspired Othello & the Isabella adventures in Measure for Measure
5 – The Clever Wench tale found the in the 9th story of Bocaccio’s Decameron inspired Alls Well that Ends Well
6 – Othello’s story was taken from Cinthio’s El Capitano Moro, of which there was then no translation.
7 – The 15th century Novellino of Masuccio Salernitani influenced the Merchant of Venice & Romeo & Juliet

But that is enough of Italy, for now… its time to set sail for Africa, & Egypt,  which according to the Garland was Stanley’s next port of call.



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