'AH, good old Mantuan, I may speak of thee as the traveller doth of Venice: Venetia, Venetia, Chi non ti vedo, non ti pretia. . . . who understandeth thee not, loves thee not. (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.2.93-98)
Thus the pedant Holofernes, combining two strokes of one-upmanship: all educated people know that Mantuanus is a great writer, and all know that Venice is the place to see on one's Grand Tour. I have nothing to say about Mantuanus, whom I have neglected disgracefully. But the Grand Tour is now coming back, I note, as a shorthand ideal for travellers. And I was in Venice lately, on the lookout for traces of Shakespearean involvement.
Our idea of Venice is an image of decaying beauty. It is a nineteenth century idea, promoted by the great travellers of the era. Wherever Byron went, he turned out a canto for ChiMe Harold and his other poetic travelogues. For him, Venice was a symbol of Republican freedom, now overthrown: 'Venice is crush'd.' (Ode to Venice) Henry James saw gilded but passe beauty. I suppose we conjure up Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, the movie anyway, with its swelling Mahler soundtrack. The smell of decomposition lingers over the Venice memorialized for its sinister beauty.
And we have to strip all that away, like layers of paint, from the image of Venice that Shakespeare saw and re-created in two plays. For him, Venice was a luminous success. Beauty scarcely entered into it. Venice was the code- name for a successful commercial republic. It was also the free state of Europe, an ethnic and religious melting-pot. Standing on the Eastern borders of Europe, Venice confronted the Turks. As William Shute, the English translator of the first history of Venice, put it: 'Italy is the face of Europe; Venice the eye of Italy. It is not only the fairest but the strongest and activest part of that beautiful and powerful nation.'
Shakespeare knew a great deal about the city. He would have encountered many signs of the tiger Venetian economy in England. Verzelini acquired a monopoly to make Venetian glass in London in 1575 - an early instance of the Italian export drive in designer products. A glance at the 'Venice' entry in the Oxford English Dictionary shows the extraordinary range of Venetian products that had entered the language in Shakespeare's day. 'Venice treacle' was used by pharmacists. 'Venetian gold' was cloth of gold, much employed in expensive finery. There was 'Venetian turpentine' and a 'Venetian beam'. All such imports were of high quality and priced accordingly. And everyone knew that the Venetian envoy was high on the list of diplomatic notables. Elizabeth I reproached the Venetian envoy for there not being a resident Ambassador at her Court; and this was done in the reign of her successor, James I. (We have an excellent account of London playgoing in 1617, when the entire Venetian embassy went to the theatre and Chaplain Busino recorded his impressions. He was very taken with the fashionably-dressed courtesan who came and sat next to him.) The idea of the might and sagacity of the Venetian State was well current in Shakespeare's England.
For Shakespeare, Venice is the setting of The Merchant of Venice and the first act of Othello. He clearly knows a good deal about Venice and has assimilated his knowledge into the location-values of his two plays. There is a limited amount of local colour, detail designed to impress the audience with its show of authenticity. The contrast here is with Ben Jonson. His Volpone (1606, the year of Macbeth), set in Venice, is saturated with the sense of place. Much of it is Baedeker name-dropping. 'I, who was ever wont to fix my bank in face of the public Piazza, near the shelter of the Portico to the Procuratia . . .' (2.2.34-6) comes from Volpone's great mountebank address to the Venetian crowd, something which actually gains from being spoken with an Italian accent and rhythms. Beyond the local colour is the sense of location values. Jonson sees a city obsessed with money, in a way as much reflex as central. When Mosca, the supposed heir to Volpone's wealth enters the Scrutineo (the Venetian court of law), the immediate reaction of the 4th Avocatore (judge) is 'A proper man and, were Volpone dead, /A fit match for my daughter.' (5.12.50-1)
Shakespeare knows very well that Venice is a great City-state, whose wealth is founded on commerce between East and West. He is fairly light on local detail. There is, for example, no mention of San Marco, the greatest piazza in Europe. The Rialto is mentioned several times, not as the bridge which it is today, but as the Exchange where 'gentlemen and merchants' do business together. This Exchange is presented as a centre of news-gathering and business (and not as a building with specific architectural features). 'What news on the Rialto?' is the key line - repeated (1.3.34, 3.1.1), always a sign that Shakespeare attaches importance to the point. Shylock shares the line with Solanio. It is on the Rialto that the disgraced Antonio, according to Shylock, cannot show his face. The Rialto is the nerve-centre of Shakespeare's Venice.
That perennial adjunct to Venetian life, the gondola, gets a key mention. It is in one of those highly condensed, tight passages where Shakespeare is concerned to get a lot across in a short space. Following the flight of Jessica with Lorenzo, reports Solanio,
The villain Jew with outcries raised the Duke, Who went with him to search Bassanio's ship. He came too late - the ship was under sail, But there the Duke was given to understand That in a gondola was seen together Lorenzo and his amorous Jessica. Besides, Antonio certified the Duke They were not with Bassanio on his ship. (2.8.4-11)
The gondola is the symbol of illicit love, as well as a picturesque detail in the scene. It is placed in a context of relationships and assumptions. Shylock has clout with the authorities. He may be socially undesirable, but he is too wealthy and important to be ignored. The Duke is put to considerable inconvenience in investigating Shylock's complaint, but essentially accepts Shylock's point of view, that elopements are bad and should be stopped.
What is the nature of the relationship between Shylock and the Duke (Doge), the civic leader? Since Venice is founded on wealth, it follows that the sanctity of money and contracts is the basic law. The main plot of The Merchant of Venice turns on the enforcement of a contract. Antonio plays the futures market and gets hit, badly. He has neither insured nor hedged, just diversified. He is well liked and the Duke does what he can to help. But a contract is a contract. As we saw recently in Singapore, a City-state founded on commerce is absolutely committed to the law of contracts - and to punishing malefactors who bring into disrepute the City's high standards. Shylock is a leading representative of Venice's financial community, and an indispensable source of credit to the State. He has to be taken seriously.
Which brings us to that aspect of the matter which is still architecturally visible, the quarter where Jews lived in Venice. They still do. The word 'ghetto' actually originated in Venice, where the first one came into existence. 'Getto' means 'foundry', and it applied to the site of the first ghetto in Venice. In 1516 the Senate decided that all Jews in Venice should move to the Ghetto Nuovo, an urban islet with two access points that could be closed at night. This arrangement enabled the authorities to protect the Jews from violence and looting, and to impose an effective curfew upon them. The Venetian authorities were relatively lenient towards the Jews by European standards. But they laid down a policy which combined protection and separation.
So ghetto symbolized the segregation of Jews in Venice, and gradually became a generic term used all over Europe. (And now, of course, used loosely to denote any quarter where a given group, including diplomatic, lives together.) Today in Venice one can visit the Gheto Vechia and Gheto Novissima, and still feel the impress of architecture on the mind. Since the area for building was fixed and could not be expanded, the buildings had to reach up to the sky. They are tall for Venice, growing to six or more storeys. The windows tend to face inwards towards the square or open areas, not outward to the rest of Venice. 'The Ghetto turned a blind face to the city', wrote Mary McCarthy in Venice Observed. The overall effect of the Jewish quarter is austere, closed-off, inward-looking, not without a sense of danger.
This is what caught the imagination of a distinguished Shylock, Ian McDiarmid. He played the role for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984, and tells of his preparations: 'Before rehearsals began, I went to Venice, where I had a wonderful time and found one thing of use. In the Jewish Quarter, Ghetto Nuovo, I was fascinated to see that all the windows looked inward towards the square. None looked outward to the city and the sea beyond. So, I extrapolated, the Jew was not permitted to look outwards. He had no alternative but to look inwards. Light was shut out. He was left obsessively to contemplate the dark. Less metaphorically, inside were his possessions. His house was itself, and also the sole repository of his property: his wealth ("the means whereby I live") and his daughter Jessica ("the prop/That doth sustain my house").' (Players of Shakespeare 2, Cambridge U. P., p. 48.)
That insight explains a great deal in The Merchant of Venice, especially the meaning of 'house' for Shylock ('ghetto' does not appear in the text). House and land are security itself. Shylock's distrust of the sea comes out early, 'and then there is peril of waters, wind sand rocks' (1.3.22). McDiarmid also accounts for Shylock's distaste for Christian intruders into the ghetto streets:
What, are there masques? Here you me, Jessica: Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife, Clamber not you up to the casements then, Nor thrust your head into the public street To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces; But stop my house's ears - I mean my casements. . . (2.5.27-33).
This is historically quite correct. Christian revellers often took part in masques and street dancing in the Jewish quarter during the feast of Purim. To Shylock they are intruders, disturbers of his peace of mind. One feels this in the Gheto Vechia. And the eternal solace'? It is the synagogue, still there. 'Go, Tubal, and meet me at our synagogue, go, good Tubal, at our synagogue, good Tubal.' (3.1.102-3).
Shakespeare has accurately assessed the genius loci, and its effect on the people who dwell there. Venice updates readily. When Jonathan Miller directed his classic The Merchant of Venice for the National Theatre in 1970 (a production available on video and easily the best account of the play) he was struck with some photographs of Venice taken by Count of Primoli in the late nineteenth century. Miller thought Shakespeare's drama interestingly consistent with this new context, as Primoli preserved it, and accordingly instructed his designer, Julia Trevelyan Oman, to create nineteenth century settings and costumes. And it worked wonderfully well. Florian's, that cafe in the Piazza San Marco, with its red plush and gilt, seemed the exact setting for the business talk of the Venetians in the opening scene. Shylock (the last great Shakespearean part that Olivier played) became a Rothschild banker, blackballed at the club. A business community resists the formal impositions of time. Venice remains what it always was, a city which lauds beauty but throbs with commerce. It is the grand container for The Merchant of Venice.
As for Othello, there are strong indications that Shakespeare knew very well the background to his story. The plot he got directly from an Italian author, Geraldi Cinthio. Kenneth Muir, the expert on Shakespeare's sources, thought it probable that Shakespeare had even read Cinthio in the original Italian. There is a phrase in the Quarto text, 'as acerb as the coloquintida' (1.3.350) that is suggestive. The Italian original uses the word 'acerbe', so 'acerb' (of which there is no previous instance in English) sounds like a direct reminiscence. The word must have seemed odd to the Folio printer, for it is changed to 'bitter' there, and is retained by many editors. Again, the puzzling reference at 2.1.25 can be explained as being based on a knowledge of Italian. Most editors read 'A ship is here put in, /A Veronesa' which is absurd, because Verona is an inland city. 'Fitted-out in Verona' sounds implausible. But the Folio has 'Verenessa,' which should mean a type of ship. The Italian verb is 'verrinare', meaning 'to cut through', so that the noun 'Verenessa' would mean 'cutter' (once the standard English term for a small ship). I think we can take it that Shakespeare had a fair reading knowledge of Italian.
There's not much Baedeker name-dropping in Othello's Venice. Gondoliers, of course: Roderigo tells Brabantio, Desdemona's father, that she has been 'Transported with no worse nor better guard/But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier' (1.1.125-26) from which one gleans that no well brought up young lady should be seen unescorted in a gondola. (Jonson makes much the same point in Volpone.) The editors have filled many column-inches on Iago's instruction to Roderigo: 'Lead me to the Sagittar' (for Othello), 1.1.158. It sounds like an inn, but no inn-name of that type has survived. One scholar has proposed that 'Sagittar', or 'Sagittary', refers to the Frezzeria, the street of the arrow-markers (and today, of Harry's Bar). Some have suggested the Arsenale, the biggest group of buildings in Venice, as the location, for there was indeed a group of four statues before the Arsenale, one of them a centaur/archer. 'Arsenale' itself is too vague a meeting-point, the walls being almost two miles in circumference. My own guess is that Shakespeare had in mind an inn, hard by the Arsenale gates, and thus likely enough to take a topographical feature for its sign.
To turn from topography to the play, it is plain that Shakespeare assimilated Venetian culture into his story. The play turns on jealousy, and that jealousy has to be at least partly credible. How can this be done: Desdemona is chaste and virtuous. She comes however from a culture which has a distinctive set of sexual mores. Iago turns this to account when he says to Othello:
I know our country disposition well: In Venice they do let God see the pranks They dare not show their husbands: their best conscience Is not to leave undone, but keep unknown. (3.3.205-8).
Iago is now the insider. He is explaining to a foreigner, who does not understand these matters fully, how things are arranged in Venice. There is a striking testimony to Iago that comes two centuries later, from Byron. In late 1816, Byron came to Venice, and took up lodgings with the Segatis in the Frezzeria. (That name again!) Soon he became the lover of Marianna Segati, wife to his landlord. He wrote to John Murray, his publisher, on 2 January 1817: 'The general state of morals here is much the same as in the Doge's time - a woman is virtuous (according to the code) who limits herself to her husband and one lover - those who have two or three more are a little wild; - but it is only those who are indiscriminately diffuse - and form a low connection - such as the Princess of Wales with her Courier (who by the way is made a Knight of Malta) who are considered as overstepping the modesty of marriage... There is no convincing a woman here - that she is in the smallest degree deviating from the rule of right or the fitness of things - in having an "Amoroso". The great sin seems to lie in concealing it - or in having more than one - that is - unless such an extension of the prerogative is understood and approved of by the prior claimant.'
Byron was fairly sure that Marianna's husband knew about the liaison, but there was no clash or confrontation. It was simply a matter of keeping up appearances, and behaving according to a code that all Venetians understood. And as Byron says, I suppose rightly, things had not changed much since the Doge's time.
Othello is an outsider, an instrument of the State valued for his military prowess but not truly assimilated into Venetian ways of thought. He is a condottiere, a soldier of fortune like Bartolommeo Colleoni, whose statue by Verrocchio still stands in the square bearing his name. It is a marvellous image of power and movement, of obdurate masculinity, one of the greatest equestrian statues of the world. Even so, the Venetian authorities tricked Colleoni on its location. He wanted the Piazza San Marco, and got, after his death, a much more obscure setting. The Venetians were cool hard-headed employers. They understood Othello pretty well, and 1.3 shows the Doge handling a tricky situation adroitly. Othello did not understand them at all well.
There is no evidence that Shakespeare ever visited Venice, or indeed left Britain. But he gleaned a great deal, picked up perhaps from Emilia Bassano, if A. L. Rowse is right in making her the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Jonathan Bate's suggestion, that the Dark Lady is Mrs. Florio, retains the Italian connection. The city's values and topography are assimilated into his imaginative reconstructions. We can still recognize our Venice in Shakespeare's.…