by William S. Niederkorn
Beyond the Previously Known Bard
Richard Paul Roe
The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels
(Harper Perennial, 2011)
There are a number of books relating to Shakespeare and Italy, but none like The Shakespeare Guide to Italy.
Works with Shakespeare and Italy in the title have usually concerned themselves with subjects like the reception of Shakespeare’s work in Italy or his Italian literary influences.
In his Guide, Richard Paul Roe discovers a “secret Italy hidden in the plays” and he verifies, thoroughly and persuasively, the places Shakespeare names and the information about Italy he imparts, calling into question the centuries-old view that the playwright never left England.
Having studied English literature and European history as an undergraduate, Roe worked on this book for over 20 years, after retiring from four decades of law practice. The writing is precise and unpretentious, and while focused on a scholarly subject, the book has the appeal of a personal adventure story. The treasures Roe has gathered are so numerous and striking that it is hard to choose a few to give an impression of all.
Seizing upon Benvolio’s word to Lady Montague that he saw Romeo “underneath the grove of sycamore / That westward rooteth from the city’s side,” Roe takes a taxi to the west end of Verona and finds such a grove: “Ecco, Signore! There they are!” his driver says. “It is truly here, outside the western wall, that our sycamores grow.”
In his close reading of Shakespeare in the original folio and quartos, Roe sees a principle for his own research in the playwright’s method of “pointedly naming or describing some obscure or unique place that might look like an invention or mistake but which turns out to be actual,” and notes that these place names are invariably reiterated in the text. Such is the case with St. Peter’s Church in Verona, where Juliet must marry Paris. With help from “a kind carabiniere,” Roe finds San Pietro Incarnario, Juliet’s parish church.
Roe demolishes the traditional charge that Shakespeare didn’t know his Italian geography, showing that the often-ridiculed boat trips from Verona to Milan by Valentine and Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona were not only possible but the most efficacious way for gentlemen to travel in the 1500s. With help from American, English, and Italian scholars, he investigates and maps a series of canals that don’t exist anymore but that once made it possible to go by boat from Legnago on Verona’s Adige River to Ostiglia on the Po, which connects to the Adda and a canal to Milan.
The Legnano and Ostiglia canals, he shows, were also available to Lucentio, the protagonist in The Taming of the Shrew, to get him from Lombardy to Padua, going in the opposite direction and then, instead of heading up to Verona on the Adige, sailing down it all the way through its mouth into the Adriatic and finally up the Brenta River to Padua. Or alternatively, if the Brenta’s mouth were clogged with silt, as it sometimes was, going through the Venetian Lagoon and along a canal to the Brenta.
Another church for another marriage is repeatedly named in The Taming of the Shrew. Roe writes: “Due, no doubt, to the conviction that the places and things in the Italian Plays are fictitious, no one has ever tried to find a Chiesa di San Luca (St. Luke’s Church) in Padua. But in five minutes’ time at the diocesan office, its address was in my hand.”
Portia’s estate at Belmont and her traveling to and from it in The Merchant of Venice are elucidated, along with a second principle, that “the author capitalized certain nouns to indicate that he was referring to a specific thing.”
Here and in other instances, Roe in a very practical way is helping to rescue what Margreta De Grazia, in her landmark treatise Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus, calls “Shakespeare in his own terms, Shakespeare before the late 18th century intervention.” Roe here is intently seeking to recover Shakespeare from the authenticated text ordained by the academic hierarchy and analyzed by credulous students.
The particular reference is to a place where Portia will embark for Venice, “the Tranect,” which Shakespeare editors have conceived as a variant of traghetto or ferry but which Roe, improving upon a finding in a 1932 article by the scholar Violet M. Jeffery, defines as “a strip of dry land and machinery to pull boats across it.”
Only the first act of Othello is set in Venice, and in it another capitalized name occurs, “the Sagittary.” It’s the place where Othello and Desdemona are secluded. The standard guesses were that it was an inn or a military residence. But Roe is dissatisfied with those explanations and suspects it is a street or square. Here, Roe notes, Jeffery had the answer in 1932: it’s “none other than the Frezzeria, a narrow dark street” where the arrow makers had their shops, she wrote. “In Shakespeare’s time the word arrow could be expressed in two ways in Italian. One is frezza, the other is sagitta.”
Eight Shakespeare plays that take place in the medieval period or the Renaissance are wholly or partly set in Italian locales. Besides the five above there are All’s Well That Ends Well (partly set in Florence), Much Ado About Nothing (Messina), and The Winter’s Tale (partly in Sicily and partly in Bohemia, which, Roe shows, did historically have a coast). Roe also includes The Tempest (the opening scene’s wreck of a ship sailing from Tunis to Naples occurs on an island that he identifies as Vulcano, just off Sicily), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Yes, Midsummer is literally set in Athens, but by chance Roe learned that Sabbioneta, a town near Mantua, was known as Little Athens and that in Shakespeare’s time it was ruled by a duke, Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna (1531-1591). “His walled town was his brainchild and a one-of-a-kind masterpiece,” Roe writes. A tour he took of it ended in a shaded, arched passageway, the town’s “architectural main gate,” which his guide said was known as il Quercia dei Duca. Asking for a translation of quercia, Roe was told it meant oak: “the Duke’s Oak.” Roe made the connection to Peter Quince’s line “At the Duke’s Oak we meet,” and knew at once he was standing where rehearsal for Pyramus and Thisbe was held.
The Shakespeare Guide to Italy was completed and published in a private edition shortly before Roe died last December at 88. The entire text and illustrations now are unchanged aside from a few minor corrections. The only significant difference is the addition of a foreword by his daughter, Hilary Roe Metternich, and an introduction by Daniel L. Wright, director of the Shakespeare Authorship Research Center.
Roe was an Oxfordian, believing with Wright that the primary author of the Shakespeare works was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. But he kept his enthusiasm for the authorship question in the background in writing this book, as he said in a letter before he sent out copies of the privately printed edition, wanting it to be read without inhibition by the great variety of readers.
It was perhaps inevitable, though, even without Wright’s introducing it as such, that the book would be regarded as Oxfordian. Nevertheless, it deserves to be considered not only one of the best scholarly efforts of that persuasion, but also one of the most revealing books ever written about Shakespeare—not to mention its many points of interest for students and scholars traveling in Italy.
ContributorWilliam S. Niederkorn