October 14th, 2016
WANDERING IN SHAKESPEARE’S VENICE Shakespeare sets 13 of his 37 plays in Italy, an exotic land of passion, violence and intrigue, and two of them, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, a comedy and a tragedy, are partly taking place in Venice.
Shylock and Othello, the Jew of Venice and the Moor of Venice, are both outsiders in a cosmopolitan metropolis, a bustling commercial haven, that the British respected for its wealth and solid government and despised for its moral looseness, a city which was already not just a real place, but a city of the imagination (as it continues to be to our days). There are infinite discussions about whether Shakespeare ever came to Venice or not, but most likely he never traveled to Italy at all.
In London he could find quite a lot of information and inspiration , both from literary texts and from people that had been there. WANDERING IN SHAKESPEARE’S VENICE tour informs you that in The Merchant of Venice there’s no mention at all of the Ghetto, or any hint to the existence of a Jewish quarter. Also, Shylock, talking to Tubal, refers to the synagogue, without any further specification, giving the impression that Shakespeare ignored the presence of multiple synagogues in Venice.
Professor Brian Pullan, one of the major experts in Venetian Jewish history, found out that in 1589 (as to say 7 years before S. wrote The Merchant of Venice, Christian gate keepers of the Ghetto were named Gobbo, that is the name of Shylock’s servant .
However, Gobbo (as to say, ‘hunchback’) is also the traditional name of one of the most popular statues in Venice, still today located in Campo San Giacometo, around which the merchants gathered to hear State decrees and regulations . And we must not forget the fact that Rialto is the only site in Venice that the author mentions, insistently, as the place where everything important for businessmen happens.
Also, Professor Pullan also asserts that the love story of Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, who runs away with a Christian, Lorenzo, and her father’s ducats, could be inspired by the true vicissitudes of a young sailor, Giorgio Moretto, that in 1589 was sentenced at three years rowing on a galley for his romantic affair with Rachel, daughter of Isaac, and his habit of joining Jewish festivities at the Ghetto.
One more curiosity about WANDERING IN SHAKESPEARE’S VENICE: in Othello there’ s reference to a place called ‘Sagittary’, where Desdemona and Othello have spent their wedding night, and some scholars have guessed it could be the invented name of an inn. But ‘Vicus Sagittarius’ was the old name of a Venetian calle , the ‘Frezzeria ‘ (sagitta= arrow=frezza’ in Venetian), today an elegant shopping street right behind St Mark’s Square, once the street of the ‘arrow makers’. This would prove Shakespeare had a surprising familiarity with Venetian topography!
Then, on the other hand, the only other reference to a Venetian site in Othello is to the Doge’s Palace, where Othello defends himself in front of Brabantio, the Doge and some senators, and where he’s ordered by the Doge to leave for Cyprus at the command of the Venetian navy against the Ottomans.
A good help to envision what Venice was in the eyes of a British ’tourist’ in William Shakepeare’s and Ben Johnson’s times Is Thomas Coryat’ s Coryat’ Crudities’, a travelogue published in 1611, relating of a trip to France, Italy and Germany, a sort of ancestor of the ‘Grand Tour’ .
His vivid and detailed description of the Rialto Square, where merchants met twice a day, and his experience with the Jews at the Ghetto and inside the synagogues can be a great source of inspiration for anyone willing to reenact Shakespeare’s plays, or simply to any modern visitor arriving to Venice on the tracks of the Bard…
Last: a word about Shakespeare’s Venice in movies. Orson Welles’ black and white Othello (1952) recently restored, expressionistic, visionary, dark, intense, leave long lasting emotions, especially in the depiction of the Doge’s Palace interiors.
Al Pacino’s unforgettable Merchant of Venice (2004), director Michael Radford, shot in the midst of a foggy winter, transports you into a painterly Venice, visually playing on rich reds and bright lights set against dark backgrounds, reminiscent of Rembrandt illumination.