He’s the English-speaking world’s most famous playwright. Credited with the (debated) invention of 1700 words, he is famous throughout the world for his work. However, this playwright from west England sure does love Italian towns.
Of his 38 plays, approximately a third of them are set in Italy. It is a well-known pattern for Shakespeare to set his plays in Italian cities. But why?
During his era, it was quite common for plays to be set outside of England, and Italy was quite a common choice. There are a few reasons he might have chosen Italy so many times, one suggestion is that it was exotic and new.
In the 1500s Italy was quite foreign and exotic to the English. This otherness adds an extra element of drama to Shakespeare’s plays. Plus, the general understanding in England was that Italians were more passionate and exciting than the British. This meant Italy was the perfect place to set a dramatic story of love or tragedy.
However, his choice to not use England may have also been an active political move. Some of Shakespeare’s plays were rather controversial in their times as they criticised powerful leaders. Had the plays been set in England, he may have faced repercussions for his work. Placing them in Italy was a very clever strategy that allowed him to express his opinions without censorship.
Where to go
Shakespeare used several cities as the setting of his plays including Verona, Padua, Venice, Messina, Rome and Sicily. We’ve highlighted some of our favourites below!
Rome – Julius Caesar
Whether you’ve seen the play or not, chances are you know the story of Julius Caesar and his rather dramatic death at the Roman Senate.
In recent years we’ve learnt more about the true location of Caesar’s death. Immediate reaction to the play could easily lead you to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. However, new archaeological findings should send you to Largo di Torre Argentina. If you’re after ancient Roman views that incite the Rome Shakespeare portrayed, head to Capitoline Hill and look out across the ancient city.
Verona – Romeo and Juliet
One of Shakespeare’s best known, and well-loved plays is Romeo and Juliet. There are no prizes for guessing where this one is set; the second line of the play says it all!
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene. It’s a line firmly planted it in the memory of middle-school students across the globe. However, Romeo and Juliet wasn’t the first play Shakespeare set in Verona. Though it would be published well after the success of Romeo and Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona was indeed the playwrights first foray into the city.
Though we are unable to know if Romeo and Juliet themselves existed, their houses of Montague and Capulet certainly did. Their passionate love story has earnt Verona the title of the city of love.
You can visit some of the plays most iconic spots such as Juliet’s balcony and Romeo’s home. Visit the place of the story’s tragic end at Juliet’s tomb. The story of Juliet and Romeo has passed through generations, inspiring love stories across the globe.
You can visit the beautiful city of love just a short drive from the floating city of Venice.
Sicily – The Winter’s Tale
Sicily has a lot to thank Shakespeare for, as the island featured in four of his successful plays!
Within the play, The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare appears to describe the ancient Greek temple at Segesta. Segesta was a major ancient city for the Elymians, Indigenous peoples of the island. Shakespeare’s plays have inspired many trips to Sicily to explore the beautiful island so many fabulous tales were set in.
Head to the island to explore the ancient streets that Shakespeare was so eager to return his stories to.
Venice – Othello
Othello is a tragedy in five acts, depicting the fallout of Iago’s jealous when he is not appointed chief lieutenant by the play’s namesake Othello. While a whole lot happens throughout the play, including some very Shakespeare-typical murder and false accusations of promiscuity, it ultimately reflects quite a modern theme of the dangers of jealousy.
But why did Shakespeare choose to set this play in Venice?
Well, there are a few theories. Firstly, the play’s plotline quite heavily relies on a single accusation of promiscuity. Such an accusation needed the right environment, and at the time of writing, Venice was known to be a hub for prostitution. Where better to make a claim of adultery than in the capital of extramarital sex. Secondly, the main characters are part of the military, and during this time there was significant conflict between the Turks and Venice. Finally, Venice is a predominantly white city. This is particularly important as Othello is a Moor, a black man. Othello’s race is a key plot point within the play and setting the story in a mostly white city aids in telling this story.
When visiting Venice be sure to head to Palazzo Contarini Fasan, opposite Saint Mary of Health Basilica. It is commonly agreed that the small and elegant gothic building was the home of Othello’s wife Desdemona. Visit the Torre dell’Orologio clock tower and see the bronze statues known as i mori or the Moors a key reference to Othello.
This is just the beginning
All these plays and we’ve barely scratched the surface! There are so many beautiful areas in Italy that Shakespeare shared in his plays. Any true Shakespeare fan could quite easily move their way from end to end, exploring each of the cities in his plays.
Related article: Regions of Italy