Magazine article The Spectator

Shakespears's Italian Connection

Magazine article The Spectator

Shakespears's Italian Connection

Article excerpt

In Venice the sun is shining, the swallows are nesting, the Tiepolos are back inside the newly reopened church of Sant'Alvise, the covers have come off the Valier monument in San Zanipolo to reveal its tumid grand opera of contrasted marbles (somehow the more compelling because Ruskin hated it so) and the restaurants are serving bigoli in salsa and malfatti alla panna at low-season prices. Over lunch at Montin a friend newly arrived from London produces a cutting from a newspaper she thinks I might have missed. In it we read that a retired Italian professor, Martino Iuvara, has claimed, under the somewhat implausible circumstances of an interview with the popular Hello-style magazine Oggi, that the man we always knew as William Shakespeare of Stratford was in fact a Sicillian, born Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza of Messina, who only reached England in 1588, when he was 24. For a moment the words 'April' and 'fool' come happily together, or as the Italians say, `April fish'. But then, after a few more mouthfuls of soft-shelled crab and polenta, I think `why on earth not?' Professor Iuvara, supposing the British journalist has not invented him, may be barking up the wrong tree, but this particular part of the Shakespearean forest happens, as far as I'm concerned, to be the right one.

The occupational hazard of being a great writer is that after your death (and not infrequently while you're still alive) the general reader assumes ownership, not just of your works but of the career and personality which shaped them. Auden's memorable encapsulation of Edward Lear, 'he became a land', carries a note of melancholy warning beneath the intended praise. Thus thousands of us believe we understand Shakespeare on a level whose exclusivity recalls the accolade given to the Edwardian Gaety Girl Gertie Millar: `When she sang you felt she was doing it just for you and nobody else.'

Shakespeare becomes what each of us wants him to be. No part of his life (far better documented than popular wisdom would have us believe) is more open to such territorial claim-staking than the socalled lost years between 1586, when he was last heard of in England, and 1592, which sees him making his name as a dramatist and member of a theatrical troupe. The conflicting scenarios for `this great gap of time' include everything from an abortive stint as a lawyer, a year or two at sea and a spell in the wilderness of schoolmastering, to the latest relaunch of a once popular theory that the playwright learned his craft as the protege of a Lancashire recusant family who referred to him as `Shakeshaft'. Duff Cooper devoted an entire book, Sergeant Shakespeare, well supported by reference to the plays, to trying to convince a sceptical Lady Diana that the author of Henry V had spent a ticklish moment or two as a soldier in the Low Countries.

My own private Shakespeare may have been all these things (as a schoolmaster I like to think of him gracing that lowliest and most despised among English professions), but at some stage he gave up whatever he was doing and set off, how or why will doubtless never be known, for Italy. Only of course, say critics and scholars, he couldn't have done, could he? Whole volumes have been devoted to sneering at the mixture of fantasy and ignorance apparently underlying his dozen-odd plays with Italian or Italianate settings. He got it all from books or hints from travellers or conversations with John Florio, compiler of the first Italian-English dictionary. …

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