Shakespeare's Venice

By Berry, Ralph | Contemporary Review, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare's Venice


Berry, Ralph, Contemporary Review


'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.

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