“Ever a shadow, he disappears, all but utterly, from 1585 to 1592….There is not a more tempting void in literary history, nor more eager hands to fill it” Bill Bryson on Shakespeare.
It is an interesting fact that thirteen of the thirty-seven plays of William Shakespeare were set either completely or partly in Italy and if we rule out the ten English history plays (which naturally have to be set in England) then half of the remainder of the major works are set in the Italian states and no one knows for sure just why. Those who question Shakespeare’s authorship make the point that he sets his plays in Venice, Milan and Florence not Warwick, Oxford and York and they just may have a point!
The plays in which some or all of the action is set in Italy are: All’s Well that Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter’s Tale.
This curious fact has led to a lot of conjecture and academic debate about whether or not the Warwickshire playwright may actually have spent some time in Italy and whether this explains the Italianate settings. The most extreme theory, by the Sicilian professor Martino Iuvara (2002), is that Shakespeare was actually a Sicilian born in Messina as Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza but the evidence is desperately flimsy and serious academics dismiss this has completely unlikely.
The obstinate bastions of Shakespeare orthodoxy refuse to consider these alternative theories and they are probably right but let’s not forget however that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust got the matter of Mary Arden’s house hopelessly wrong and for years showed visitors around the wrong property!
Having got that so catastrophically incorrect what store can be placed on their explanation that: “Italian literature was so widely read in the society in which Shakespeare lived that it would be surprising if he did not have knowledge of the Italian language”. The pace of speculation has continued to increase and most recently the Venetian TV historian Francesco da Mosto has waded into the debate with some wild and unproven theories about the travels of the bard. “Shakespeare,” Francesco claimed, “managed to capture the essence of us Italians — how we speak, how we behave, how we love.”
One reason why there is this speculation and debate is that for seven years from 1585 to 1592 Shakespeare simply disappeared and no historian or biographer can offer a really credible explanation about where he might have been.
So there does therefore remain a possibility that he was in fact on a grand tour of Italy but the truth is that unless some previously undiscovered piece of compelling evidence comes to light then we will just never know and after four hundred years this is becoming less and less likely. The most probable explanation is in fact that lots of the plays have an Italian setting because Shakespeare adapted a lot of existing stories and used Italian literature as one of his primary sources for plays like ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ so when we spent a few days in the Veneto in North Eastern Italy we may or, more likely, may not have been following in William’s footsteps.
The holiday club all wanted to visit Venice of course so the plans began with an expectation that we would be spending four days in the famous waterlogged city but during the search for suitable accommodation it soon became clear that the price of hotels was some way beyond our normal hotel room budget so I started to look for alternatives and very soon found something suitable in nearby Padova – the Hotel Grand Italia right next to the train station.
It was a late flight so we landed in the dark at nine o’clock and the first job was to arrange the transport so I asked at the public transport desk to be told that there were no buses directly to Padova and we would need a bus to the Venetian mainland suburb of Mestre where we could catch a train. This turned out to be a pack of lies because there was a bus service to Padova at a third of the price but handing out this duff advice was a Ryanair partner bus company so not knowing any better we fell for the trick. It was my fault really because I had forgotten that Treviso airport is virtually in the middle of town and the direct service SITA bus had a convenient stop just fifty metres away from arrivals.
Apart from the additional cost this didn’t inconvenience us too greatly and soon we were at the train station and buying our tickets but after we found the platform with minutes to spare before the scheduled departure there was then a twenty-five minute delay to the service which meant that we were going to be arriving in Padova too late to be able to find somewhere to eat.
The train journey took about thirty minutes and after we arrived in the city we immediately located our hotel, which was excellent but had no restaurant or bar and the streets outside in contrast to the hotel appeared run down and inhospitable with danger and suspicion lurking in the shadows of every doorway and street corner so we decided against a midnight walk and went straight to our rooms. Tomorrow we would visit Venice.