Shakespeare was an English playwright who was born in 1564 and died in 1616, aged 52; having left behind a legacy that secured his place as one of the world’s most iconic cultural figures. Shakespeare had an enormous impact on the English language and is actually credited with inventing more than 1500 new words; most of which are still in use to this day!
Whether we are tourists or expats, when we think of Italy, Shakespeare is not a word that comes to our mind. Shakespeare wrote 38 plays and more than 150 poems during his prolific career that examined tragedy, love, political intrigue, human psychology and even the world of the subconscious and mythology. Of the 38 plays that Shakespeare wrote, 13 were set in Italy, including some of his most popular works.
The Merchant of Venice is one of my favorites and was the first Shakespeare play that I had to learn in school. I was not an easy thing to do (I was probably in 5th grade and going to school in Madurai (In the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu). The ancient city of Madurai is as far as you can get from the world of Shakespeare!!
Why Did Shakespeare Set Plays In Italy?
There’s been a lot of speculation as to why Shakespeare set so many of his best works in Italy despite never having visited the country himself. During the 1500s in England, Italy was seen as a far away and exotic country that was home to many of the period’s most exciting new trends in art, culture, science and architecture. This gave the names of the cities, such as Verona, Rome and Florence, where Shakespeare set some of his plays, a magical allure to audiences in 16th Century England.
Shakespeare, like other artists of his time, was hugely inspired by the Italian Renaissance and so it would have seemed natural for him to set plays in the famous cities of Italy. On top of Italy’s cultural significance, Italians had a stereotype of being passionate and fierce; qualities which suited Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays about love, political intrigue and tragedy.
Another reason why Shakespeare would have been tempted to set some of his plays in Italy is because he was often criticizing, and even ridiculing, archetypal figures of leadership; pointing out their failings and shortcomings in a brutally honest way which was extremely rare at that time in England. By setting his plays in a foreign country he could avoid political persecution by the English leadership.
For instance, if Shakespeare had written plays about the leaders of England at the time he may well have ended up being hanged for sedition; something which he was no doubt keen to avoid! Therefore, by setting his plays in a far away land Shakespeare was able to avoid the fairly strict censorship of 16th Century England without having to curtail his creative vision or political opinions.
However, although it’s almost certain that Shakespeare never visited Italy himself he would certainly have mixed with people in society who had been to the country as well as meeting travelling Italians in England.
The Best Shakespeare Plays That Are Set In Italy.
The following are the key Shakespeare plays set in Italy:
Othello – Venice.
Set in Venice, Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most powerful examinations of political ambition, treachery, revenge and jealousy. The hero of the play, Othello, is a Venetian general in the army who is destroyed by an ambitious and jealous soldier under his command, Iago, after he passes him over for a promotion.
Othello is something of a Renaissance action thriller which includes murder, betrayal and accusations of indecency; and although it’s hundreds of years old, the plot could just as well be set in the modern boardroom of a large multinational corporation!
Venice was also embroiled in a conflict with the Turks at that time and because Othello is a Moor, his race is used against him by the plotting soldier Iago. This appreciation of racial discrimination was rare at the time and Shakespeare is one of the very few writers who tried to highlight this type of issue in society.
In Shakespeare’s time Venice would have been the perfect setting for this type of plot because it was not only a major hub of merchant wealth but it was also a serious power player in the fast changing politics of the Italian city-states.
The Winter’s Tale – Sicily.
Sicily was the setting for several of Shakespeare’s plays and the mythical Mediterranean island, full of mystery and legends, made a fantastic location for some of his most ethereal works. The Winter’s Tale tells the sad story of King Leontes who wrongly accuses Hermione, his wife, of infidelity with one of his friends.
The King’s broken hearted wife dies and the jealous Leontes then exiles his newly born daughter, Perdita, who is consequently brought up by shepherds for the next 16 years. Then, in a classic Shakespearean ironic twist, his exiled daughter falls in love with the son of the friend of King Leontes who had been accused of infidelity at the beginning of the play!
When Perdita returns home, an old statue of her mother, Hermione, magically comes to life and, rarely for a Shakespearean play, the characters reconcile their differences and lessons are learned!
Romeo And Juliet – Verona.
The most famous theatre play in the world, Romeo and Juliet, is set in the palaces and back streets of Verona. The plot of the play revolves around the tragic love story of the ill fated Romeo and Juliet who end up in a heart breaking double suicide in protest to their warring families.
It was not uncommon for noble merchant families in the Italian city states to be at war and hold intergenerational blood feuds and so marriages between their children would have been out of the question. In fact, the actual homes of the Capulets and the Montagues can still be found in Verona and although the play is probably a fictional story one can imagine that similar events may well have taken place in Italy during that era.
Romeo and Juliet ignore their parents’ wishes and decide to marry in secret but when they are discovered they are presented with a terrible decision and, in typically Shakespearean style, after some complicated plot twists and misfortunes, the pair of star crossed lovers take their own lives.
At the end of the play, the tragic death of their children, force both the Capulets and the Montague families to reassess their feud and come to terms with one another. Sadly, this comes at a high price but the tragic love story is a powerful morality play and was just as popular when it first performed at the Globe in 1597 as it is today.
Julius Caesar – Rome.
The Eternal City of Rome has seen more than its fair share of political intrigue, power plays and shifting allegiances; but none better known than the betrayal of Julius Caesar which led to his murder on the Senate floor on the 15th March, 44 BC.
The murder of Julius Caesar is the subject of Shakespeare’s play by the same name and was met with great acclaim. Everyone in Shakespeare’s audience would have heard of the story and to see it brought to life on stage would have been an amazing experience in the 16th Century.
The plot of Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, describes the downfall of the emperor of Rome, and is undoubtedly one of the playwright’s iconic masterpieces. Based on real historical events, Shakespeare used his dramatic skills to bring the characters to life in a realistic way during the violent deposition of the great leader of Rome.
It was obviously natural to set this play in Rome; not only because of the historical facts but also because it allowed plenty of scope for intrigue, betrayal and the realities of Roman politics.
Much Ado About Nothing – Sicily.
Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy whose plot revolves around misunderstandings, frivolous jokes and silly fun. The main characters of the plot, two couples, take a bizarre and meandering route to finding their true love which is highly reminiscent of a modern Romantic Comedy movie!
The perpetual mix ups and errors in understanding between the characters are used by Shakespeare to create a raucous tour de force that explores the lighter side of love and relationships.
Shakespeare’s choice to set this play in Sicily is probably a result of the lovely, Mediterranean climate and the reputation of the island, even in the 16th Century, as being a luxurious seaside holiday resort. This made it the ideal setting for a romantic comedy in which much of the action takes place in the famous outdoor gardens of palatial mansions that lined the island’s shore.
All’s Well That Ends Well – Florence.
Set in the streets of Florence, this comedic love story portrays the impossibly complicated relationship between Bertram and Helena. Helena is in love with Betram, and eventually follows him to Paris in a bid to win his affections.
Unfortunately, the feeling is not mutual although in the end, after a confusing intrigue and some lucky turns of fate, Betram sees the virtues of Helena and takes her as his wife. They return to Florence and live a long and happy life together.
There’s several elements of comedy in this play which Shakespeare used to tease his audience. Firstly, at that time, it was very uncommon for a woman to pursue a man in the hope of marriage and although it certainly occurred there was plenty of scope for comedy in the concept at the time; but Shakespeare’s intricately woven plot is still full of clever one liners and subtle jokes. Although this is not one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays it never fails to impress its audiences, even in the modern age.
The Merchant of Venice – Venice.
Set in the cosmopolitan streets of Venice, this classic Shakespearean play explores the issues of racism, family loyalties and the underside of the merchant’s world of business. The play tells the story of Antonio, a merchant, who asks for a loan from Shylock, a Jewish merchant, to help to pay for his friend to court the beautiful woman Portia. As part of the loan agreement Shylock says that if Antonio cannot repay the loan he must give Shylock a pound of his own flesh!
Antonio is portrayed as anti-Semitic throughout the play and this might be why the Jewish merchant makes such a harsh demand on him; although it could equally reflect the anti-Jewish sentiment that was quite common in Europe at that time. In the end, Antonio cannot repay the loan and Shylock demands his pound of flesh; however, at the last minute, Portia dresses up as a lawyer and defuses the situation to save Antonio!
This has been a hugely controversial play in recent decades but its exploration of racism and antisemitism was a brave plot to write in the 16th Century and is unlikely to have won Shakespeare many friends! Shakespeare portrays Antonio as narrow minded and there is an implication that he deserved his potential fate and it was by sheer luck and cunning, on behalf of Portia, that his life was spared. The infamous court scene at the end of the play is set in the Doge’s Palace, which can still be seen in Venice today.
Shakespeare’s Italian Plays – Masterpieces Of Literature.
Shakespeare’s body of work is still studied to this day with students marvelling at his remarkable use of language, poetic rhythms and the subtle interplay of concepts throughout his meandering dialogues.
Some of the playwright’s best plays are set in Italy which was the cultural hub of Europe; both in terms of creativity and scientific exploits. Watching his plays, Shakespeare’s audiences were transported into the exotic world of the Italian city states where anything could happen or suddenly be revealed at any moment in a play.
However, it wasn’t just local English audiences who enjoyed Shakespeare’s work! Giorgio Giustinian, who was the Venetian ambassador to London, wrote in his diary about how much he enjoyed watching Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe Theater, where he would entertain his guests by renting a private box at the theater to see the latest works of Shakespeare.
From tragic love stories to slapstick comedies, political intrigues to issues of race, class and business, the Shakespeare plays set in Italy are an incredible collection of his works which represent some of the best of his writing.