I’m in Venice as you read this, co-leading ‘Shakespeare and Venice’ with Professor Stanley Wells C.B.E.. The course is presented by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and invites its participants immerse themselves in the connections which can be made through literature, history, and our imaginations between the genius of place and the genius of poetry. Venice is our backdrop to re-visit Shakespeare’s work and times.
Walking around this miracle of a city, or taking a vaporetto up and down the Grand Canal (quite a good way of sitting down and resting in Venice) and blocking out – even momentarily – the mass tourism, trying to look at the extraordinary palaces and houses, as it were, from a sixteenth-century perspective, and it becomes all too possible to imagine that Shakespeare saw what we see. Certainly he would have heard about it. And to hear about Venice (of all places) is a poor substitute for an actual visit.
Professor Shaul Bassi of the University of Venice will be joining our programme to share his special insights on Shakespeare and Venice by taking us on special walking tours of some of the Shakespeare related sites and telling us about his splendid book Shakespeare in Venice: Exploring the City with Shylock and Othello (co-authored with Alberto Toso Fei). Bassi writes: ‘Shakespeare probably saw in the Serenissima a mirror of the desire, grittiness and anxieties of his English mother country’ (p. 20). His anthology of literary and historical associations traces Shakespearian connections through Venetian landmarks and legends. We learn that there are four different kinds of Moor depicted in St Mark’s Square, that a Venetian printer, Aldo Manuzio, first popularised books in octavo format, and that there were 11, 654 courtesans in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Gabriele Gomiero’s plentiful black and white photographs for the book capture Venice’s labyrinth in which Shakespeare seems always to be just around the next corner, or obscured by shadow.
Along the way we will be hearing from some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries on Venice, for example, Thomas Coryat’s fascinating 1608 account. The relationship between Shakespeare and Venice was really brought to cultural fruition in the nineteenth century by Rawdon Brown, a gentleman scholar who created myths and mapped imaginative Shakespearian connections through the city, for example, by identifying Desdemona’s house.
Bringing together Shakespeare and Venice is treasure trove for the imagination. Like many others, I am repeatedly drawn back to Venice, this miracle of a city built on water. Venice makes me feel half-fantastical and half-disbelieving.
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.
‘Shakespeare and Venice’ is an opportunity to explore Othello and The Merchant of Venice, as it were, on location; it is a moment to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, poems which address the ravages of time, a theme all too real for Venice herself. It invites us to make historical and creative connections between literature, art, buildings, and music. And, when we go to the desolate island of Torcello, where the first radical settlers fleeing from the barbarism of the mainland found a home, it is like being on the edge of nowhere. Time stops; water stands still. Torcello is very much a place in which Shakespeare’s sonnets about time take on a special resonance.
I have been to Venice many times, but each trip feels like the first. ‘Shakespeare and Venice’ is a real and enigmatic proposition, rather like Venice herself – just beyond reach, and incomparable – prompting John Addington Symonds’s to remark that it is the ‘Shakespeare of cities’.