My Shakespearean tour of Venice usually starts in Campo dei Carmini, in the district of Dorsoduro, where the nineteenth-century erudite Rawdon Brown located the “house of Othello”. The palace belonged at some stage to a family called Guoro, that may have been misread as Moro (“Moor”). The tantalizing elements for Brown were probably the statue of the soldier and a blackened helmeted head on the façade overlooking the canal.
I believe that there was a real historical figure behind the character of Othello no more than I believe that Shakespeare actually came to Venice to substantiate his Venetian plays. So if I start in this very place it is not to demonstrate the power of reality to influence art, but to emphasise, on the contrary, the power of art to influence reality and the long tradition of passionate Shakespeareans that have come to Venice to visualize their Shylock, Othello, Desdemona, Jessica..
This is why I was pleased but puzzled by Graham Holderness’s commentary on my first post. I am indeed a bit troubled by the connection he makes between by my little fantasy about Shakespeare walking the streets of Venice and the various anti-Stratfordians who fill the inevitable gaps in Shakespeare’s biography with wild speculations about his life and identity. I fully agree with Holderness that Shakespeare did not need to travel to Venice to acquire all the knowledge he had about the city and that his many written and oral sources were more than enough. Ironically, that makes me even more childishly proud of my city, capable of travelling and striking the imagination of Shakespeare at a distance, without the aid of films and websites.
My original statement that “there is no evidence that he did, but no doubt he visited it with his mind over and over again” seems to me to go in that direction, and to be more epistemologically solid than Holderness’ firm conviction that “Shakespeare never did visit Venice”. Not because I believe that he did, but for two other important reasons.
First, the fact that Shakespeare lived in Cripplegate when writing Othello is an interesting piece of information, but hardly a proof that he was not in some other place some other time. It seems to me that the struggle against conspiracy theorists cannot be won by providing more and more biographical details against their barrage of weird conjectures – gaps will always remain –, but rather by insisting that the burden of evidence lies with them, not with those who maintain that Shakespeare was Shakespeare.
Secondly, I would never never want to leave the ambiguity and indeterminacy in the hands of the anti-Stratfordians. On the contrary, I want to reclaim that ambiguity and uncertainty as a wonderfully exciting space for fiction. My own fantasy of Shakespeare getting lost in the Venetian maze is exactly that: a fiction, no different in nature from Holderness’ vignette of Shakespeare as a mesmerized tourist on the gondola.
Yes Venice came to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare, through his readers and lovers, keeps coming to Venice. No other city, I believe, has attracted more actors, directors, scholars, readers wishing to provide visual details to support their stagings, adaptations or simply personal readings of Shakespeare. It is a rich and precious tradition where fancy theories about Shakespeare’s identity play only a negligible role.
So when I walk in Venice with Shakespeare it is in the spirit of Charles Dickens, who wrote in Pictures of Italy: “There, in the errant fancy of my dream, I saw old Shylock passing to and fro upon a bridge, all built upon with shops and humming with the tongues of men; a form I seemed to know for Desdemona’s, leaned down through a latticed blind to pluck a flower. And, in the dream, I thought that Shakespeare’s spirit was abroad upon the water somewhere: stealing through the city.”