Richard Roe’s “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy” – Book Review

Italy seems like an amazing place to visit. There’s Ancient Rome, Pompeii, Renaissance Florence, Pisa, Venice and, for the lover of Shakespeare, Verona. (Oops, I’ve just skimmed over so many places!) When I read travel blogs, guides and websites, it all seems lovely but nothing has made me want to visit there more than Richard Roe’s The Shakespeare Guide to Italy. It’s not that Italy needs Shakespeare to be appealing, there is so much history and art there, rather it’s that seeing it through Shakespeare’s eyes is to put yourself in one of his romances.

Richard Roe’s book works as a tourist’s guide to Shakespeare’s Italy as well as a student’s reference book. Over the course of 20 years and several trips to Italy, Roe set out to prove that Shakespeare had an intimate acquaintance with the localities he chose to set his plays in. The conviction that Shakespeare knew Italy is not new. Mainstream scholars in the 19th century were convinced of it. Advocates of the Shakespeare Authorship Question are also convinced. Why is it important? It aids in our reading of the plays, it signals to the dramaturg how deeply s/he should research, and for SAQ advocates it’s a mighty strong argument against the man from Stratford.

Roe’s interpretation of which plays are Italian can be found in the beginning of the work. He then devotes a chapter each to them. His list is not arbitrary. He includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play set around Ancient Athens but excludes Julius Caesar, a play set around Ancient Rome. This is because his book deals with the Renaissance plays set on the Italian penninsula. He justifies his inclusion of AMSND by arguing that an Italian estate was the setting used to describe Ancient Athens. He puts up a strong argument to favour his researched opinion. The issue I take with this instance is that the mythology of Theseus, Hippolyta, Hippolytus and Phaedra had been dealt with by ancient writers and, no doubt, discussed by students of the classics for centuries, Shakespeare did not need to visit Italy to have written it.

It’s a trap that Roe fell into and, I must admit, I followed on his heels when I went to Thasos earlier this year. You see, looking for physical evidence from the plots becomes addictive once you have found something. The possibility that every reference is literal and not illustrative takes over and it’s hard to resist looking for it and photographing it. It becomes like historic orienteering or placing yourself in the Amazing Race where your mightiest opponent is the time dictated by your passport or travel tickets.

Where Roe really shines is when he reads the localities from a Renaissance perspective. Any student of history will tell you that towns sprouted along river systems and how important rivers were to trade. Roe clearly explains transport by river and canal systems in Italy. He delves into the history and mechanics of how they operated. Da Vinci’s mechanical gate apparatus is explained and he shows us with maps the canal systems that allowed travellers to sail overland. No, Shakespeare wasn’t wrong about sailing from Verona To Milan in The Two Gentlemen of Verona or part of the way from Pisa to Padua in the Taming of the Shrew.

He corrects editors of their clumsy translations e.g., in Othello the word Sagittary had been understood to mean an inn with the sign of the centaur. Roe has shown it to be interchangeable with the Venetian word, frezzeria, meaning the street of the arrow maker ( see p. 167).

Then there is his correction of misunderstandings of local practices e.g., the use of the word tucket in All’s Well that Ends Well. Editors have described it as a flourish. Roe emends this to the distinctive musical sentence belonging to a ranked individual that heralded their approach at a city gate. Splitting hairs? Not quite. The difference between the two alter the setting of Act 3 Scene 5. Just any old ditty would mean that the women are outside the city or in its walls to recognise Bertram by sight. A personal signature tune would place them within the walls of Florence, and in their cloistered, feminine domain. They recognised Bertram’s approach by sound from home and did not flout society’s closeting of women by being without the walls of the polis.

His regaling of local history gives a rich background that has otherwise been lost over time e.g., in Much Ado About Nothing his research into the life of Don John of Austria and his connection to Messina. Roe explains the bitterness of John the Bastard who he claims the Bard modelled on Don John.

And there is his knowledge of the law in Venice e.g., the prohibition of wearing swords in public and the law governing shipping.

Roe supports his arguments with historic maps, prints, drawings and his personal photos and specially charted maps. Where buildings still exist, the photos are the reward for walking through Italy with Roe. It’s a great book.

Reading it from the perspective of the SAQ, it feels as though it began as a fact finding mission to bolster the argument that Shakespeare was not the untraveled provincial from Stratford but a man with a sabbatical firmly under his belt. As the book progresses, challenges to the traditional attribution are thinly veiled. Roe was an Oxfordian and I can’t shake the feeling that his search was guided by the known travels of the Earl of Oxford in 1575. I am left to wonder whether an adherent of another pretender would have interpreted A Midsummer Night’s Dream differently?

Regardless of his searching rationale, Richard Roe got results. What he adds in the way of our knowledge helps to clarify many, many points of confusion. For someone who would like to understand the practicalities of living in Renaissance Italy, this is the book to read. To immerse yourself in this world, all you need do after reading this book is read one of the Bard’s Italian plays.

A fantastic Christmas gift for the lover of history, Shakespeare and mysteries.

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