Walking Shakespeare’s Venice

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Shakespeare in Venice

One of the pleasures of living in Venice is that many interesting people come to visit, and if you are lucky you get to meet them. Some of them are also fascinated by the Shakespeare connection and are curious to find out more about the place that inspired two of his most topical plays, The Merchant of Venice and Othello. The Moor of Venice (no other city features twice in Shakespeare’s titles, as if it was almost a character in the drama).

For a few years now, I have been walking Venice trying to see it through Shakespeare’s eyes and this has been more exciting as Shakespeare fans from all over the world have joined me, making me seek better answers for their stimulating questions. Of course, the number one is invariably: did Shakespeare actually visit Venice? My best reply is that there is no evidence that he did, but no doubt he visited it with his mind over and over again, making Venice part of his imagination as many people today dream of New York and London without having being there.

Shakespeare had less audiovisual media at his disposal than we do, but Venetians were great at marketing their city through books, images, symbols across countries and continents. It was my friend Alberto Toso Fei, a master storyteller who knows how to make every stone of Venice come alive with wonderful anecdotes, who gave me the key. Instead of searching for direct links between the playwright and the city (the ‘must have seen’ or ‘may have seen’), we started exploring the city with the more relaxed perspective of the ‘would have seen’, made it easier and equally mesmerizing by the fact that Venice today looks a lot like it did in the 16th century (some suggestions to come in my next blogs!).

Yet, if I were to find in Shakespeare a clue that he had first-hand experience of Venice, I would not quote the line “What news on the Rialto?” (which considering that the city was an international crossroads, was a rough equivalent of “did you google it?”). I would rather choose Lancelot’s naughty answer to his blind father Gobbo, who is trying to find his way to Shylock’s place: “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.”(act 2 scene 2). Today I’m delighted to walk around Venice with fellow Shakespeareans and take them to the right place but when I was a child that was the type of answer I had fun giving to tourists baffled by the Venetian maze. So I love the idea that one day, four centuries ago, a confused English visitor got lost in the narrow streets of Venice, and a wicked boy sent him even wider of the mark.

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Author:Shaul Bassi

".... speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice" (The Merchant of Venice, 1.1.121-22)

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