Shaul Bassi’s fascinating account of ‘Walking Shakespeare’s Venice’ plays with an ambivalence that is as fascinating and dangerous, seductive and treacherous as Venice herself is so often portrayed in literature and film. He acknowledges that there is no evidence of Shakespeare ever having been in Venice. But he still wants Shakespeare to have been there, to have experienced Venice at first hand, and even wonders if those baffling but immediately recognisable street directions from The Merchant of Venice – ‘Turn up on your right hand at the next turning, but, at the next turning of all, on your left; marry, at the very next turning, turn of no hand, but turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house’ – originated in a personal encounter.
Such impulses of nostalgia for what might-have-been point naturally towards fiction, such as for instance Erica Jong’s depiction of Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton sojourning in Venice, in her novel Serenissima. But nowadays people tend to think that literature is just personal experience turned into writing, and might be inclined to assume that, if the plays seem to have been written by someone who knew Venice, and we know Shakespeare never went there, then perhaps they were written by someone else, who had certainly been there?
I am thinking of course of the fact that the Earl of Oxford lived in Venice for a year, had a house built there, and used the city as his base for travelling through Italy. According to Oxfordian websites, a documentary film ‘centering around Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and his Shakespearean adventures in Italy’ is currently under construction. Nothing is Truer Than Truth aspires to reveal ‘many of the sites that de Vere traveled to and immortalized in the “Shakespeare” canon’.
Shakespeare did not need to travel to acquire a knowledge of Venice, since he had access to the books, the letters, the reports, the travellers’ tales, the maps and pictures that represented Venice as fully as required by the sensitive and intuitive literary imagination.
In a note prefixed to the collection of texts with which Lewis Lewkenor supplemented his translation of Gaspar Contareno’s work, this method is explicitly defined. Here for the reader’s convenience, says the translator, are:
‘Sundry notes and collections, which I haue gathered as well by reading and obseruation, as also by conference with Venetian Gentlemen, skilful in the state of their country, for the better vunderstanding of sundry points, eyther not at all touched in the former discourse, or else so obscurely, that the reader being a stranger cannot thereby rest fully satisfied, especially if he have a curious desire to know euery particular of their gouernment. But this being added unto the former, I doubt not but the state of the whole shall be so clearly and exactly deliuered unto him, as though (if it were possible) he should see the same in a glasse.’
These, then, are the means by which a knowledge of Venice can be gained: texts, observations, talk. Here, ironically, it is the Englishman who does not go to Venice who is the ‘stranger’. And the fullest vision the stranger can gain is the image in the glass. A Venetian glass, perhaps, and an image clear and complete: but distorted, reflected, estranging.
I am convinced that Shakespeare never did visit Venice, but relied (as Lewes Lewkenor did) for his knowledge and opinion on books, pictures, maps, reports, rumours and conversations. But I too still like to believe that somewhere, in that enchanted land that lies between his Venetian plays, the inherited mythology of Venice, and the modern reader, there is a Shakespeare who somehow found his way there. A Shakespeare who lay back on the cushions of a gondola, rowed by a Saracen Moor, and trailed his hand in the water of the Grand Canal; who marvelled at the splendour of the palaces and the thronging business of the Rialto; who watched the Jews in their red and yellow hats hurrying in and out of the Ghetto, and marvelled at the beauty of the Jewish women; who followed music and laughter down dark and narrow passages in a city composed, like Calvino’s invisible cities, of desire and fear:
‘Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.’
But this is fiction. At the time Othello was written we know exactly what kind of ‘foreign place’ Shakespeare occupied: he was lodging in the house of tire-maker Christopher Mountjoy, in Silver Street, Cripplegate. Mountjoy possessed the ‘mystery’ of making and working in ‘Venice gold and silver thread’. Shakespeare was clearly familiar with the products of this craft: in The Taming of the Shrew Gremio has a ‘valance of Venice gold in needlework’. (2.1.350) In that industrious house on Silver Street, while downstairs in the workshop craftsmen and apprentices rolled, hammered and twisted metal wire into ‘Venice gold’, upstairs in his rented rooms the dramatist was busy writing Othello.
The Venetians had imported the art of making gold thread from the Middle East, hence its alternative name of ‘Damask gold’, from Damascus, and we can traced the fine gold thread that ties Shakespeare to Venice and the East. But the artistry that crafted that exotic material into dramatic poetry was practised in that nondescript tenement, north of Cheapside.
In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities Marco Polo tells Khubla Khan about innumerable cities, but they all seem to be Venice. ‘Ogni volta che descrivo una città dico qualcosa di Venezia’. Fantasy prefigures reality: recent archaeological research from the University of Naples has suggested that Polo never went further than Turkey, and merely picked up stories of the Orient from other travellers’ tales.
Shakespeare did not need to go to Venice. Venice came to him.
Graham Holderness’s book Shakespeare and Venice was published by Ashgate in 2009. He will be speaking about his new book Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (‘Shakespeare Now’ series, Continuum, 2011) at The Shakespeare Centre on Wednesday 9 November at 1pm. For further details, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org