Shakespeare and Venice

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Bringing together Shakespeare and Venice is treasure trove for the imagination. Like many others, I am repeatedly drawn back to Venice, this miracle of city built on water. Venice makes me feel half-fantastical and half-disbelieving.

To consider Shakespeare in relation to Venice is to make connections between the genius and place, poetry, and our own imaginations.

Walking around this miracle of a city, travelling up and down the Grand Canal, and looking at the extraordinary palaces and houses, makes what Shakespeare might have seen momentarily present. ‘Might have’ is fine, because to visit Venice from a Shakespearian perspective is to experience a bright and brilliant touchstone for our own understanding of his plays and their cultural reception, even if Shakespeare himself never went there.

There are accounts of Venice from travellers in Shakespeare’s time that connect compellingly to Shakespeare’s depictions. Then there are the ways in which Venice itself has been re-appropriated over the subsequent centuries in works of fiction, poetry, and other ‘Shakespearian’ accounts. In the nineteenth century, Rawdon Brown created Shakespearian connections, for example, by identifying Desdemona’s house.

The effect of water splashing from the lagoon and lapping against boats and paddles, dramatises a world slipping away, or as Antipholus of Syracuse says:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
(The Comedy of Errors 1. 1.)

The inquisitiveness inspired by the network of alleyways can become overwhelming. Echoing footfalls make Venice full of impromptu iambs; hundreds of small bridges, like so many Shakespearian invented words, connect ideas together and lead onto new scenes, burst on to another square or theatrical vista.

Another genius of the city is Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594). Stand twelve feet away from one of his immense canvases in the Scuola Grande of San Rocco and move slowly towards it. Suddenly its reality becomes overwhelming and larger than life, a similar perspective to that of a groundling at The Globe, staring at a Shakespeare play:

Venezia, Venezia,
Chi non ti vede, chi non ti prezia
(Love’s Labour’s Lost 4. 2.: ‘O Venice, Venice,
Only those who do not see you fail to prize you.’)

From 18 to 23 October, Professor Stanley Wells C.B.E. and I will be leading ‘Shakespeare and Venice’, an opportunity to explore Othello and The Merchant of Venice, as it were, on location. The programme includes a day in Verona, too, with Romeo and Juliet in mind. Along the way, we will remind ourselves of Shakespeare’s Sonnets which address the ravages of time, a theme all too real for Venice herself. We invite you to join us as we make historical and creative connections between literature, art, buildings, and music. ‘Shakespeare and Venice’ is a real and enigmatic proposition, rather like Venice itself – just beyond reach, and incomparable – prompting John Addington Symonds’s to remark that it is the ‘Shakespeare of cities’.

The programme includes a vaporetto pass, transport to and from Verona, and three group meals, including one at Locanda Cipriani on Torcello. Please contact education1@shakespeare.org.uk for more information.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
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  • melissaleon

    I wonder how much Shakespeare traveled. Paul you could probably help with this one. By the way I totally want to go on this trip, if we are on this side of the pond we are going to try to make it!

  • melissaleon

    I wonder how much Shakespeare traveled. Paul you could probably help with this one. By the way I totally want to go on this trip, if we are on this side of the pond we are going to try to make it!

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