Walking Shakespeare’s Venice 6: Can Shakespeare Save Venice?

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In my earlier posts I shared the joy of walking around Venice with Shakespeare’s lovers. As a conclusion of this series, instead of focussing on a specific site, I want to point out that Venice should not be taken for granted.

Far from feeding some of the most apocalyptic scenarios about Venice sinking and vanishing forever as a new Atlantis (an admonition that some English contemporaries of Shakespeare made to the city, irritated by her hauteur), my concern is rather for the city as a community of people, that which led Shakespeare to put Venice in his two plays less as a collection of beautiful monuments than as an incredibly vibrant and problematic society, with bustling streets, heavy trading, political and juridical maneuvering, social and cultural traffic. I wonder how many people are aware that since the 1960s Venice has lost half of its resident population, as the number of tourists has steadily grown, nearing 20 million per year according to reliable statistics.

‘Why that’s the lady, all the world desires her;
From the four corners of the earth they come
To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint.
The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds
Of wide Arabia are as throughfares now
For princes to come view fair Portia.
The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head
Spits in the face of heaven, is no bar
To stop the foreign spirits, but they come
As over a brook to see fair Portia.’
The Merchant of Venice 2.7.38-47

Now, replace the name ‘Portia’ with ‘Venice’, and the words of the Prince of Morocco will make perfect sense, possibly because they echo the propaganda that the city itself fostered in the Renaissance, enhancing its prestige while its actual political power was declining. Today we call this tourism, an activity which is indubitably beneficial both for the economy and for the international outlook of the city, but which is also threatening its existence, if not somehow regulated. When today “foreign spirits” taking the shape of towering cruise ships run through the St. Mark’s basin “as over a brook” simply because it allows a lot of people to make quick and easy profit, ignoring the environmental and aesthetic damages done to the city, an international response is necessary.

What’s Shakespeare got to do with it? A city is made of stones, and of people, and of words.

Even if you care only for the stones, you should make sure that there are enough people who know how to preserve those stones, and to tell and hand down the stories behind these stones. In other words, at a time where a tourism is implemented made of quick visits to few landmarks, and streamlined itineraries laced with clichès, there is an urgent need of more sophisticated and respectful forms of experiencing Venice.

So any university with a Shakespearian course, any high school with a theatre program, any reading group who likes to learn about a place in an original way, any company interested in experiential and cultural tourism, please come and spend a week, a month, a semester here. Live, walk and shop like ordinary Venetians and you’ll bring Venice a bit closer to the international city that Shakespeare staged, enlivened, and certainly criticized. Travel, meet and discuss Shakespeare here, and you will have done something small but incredibly meaningful for the future of Venice.

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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)
  • Linda Theil

    Before you go, read Richard Roe’s Shakespeare Guide to Italy (Harper Perennial 2011) — available in Kindle format for travel. Read William Niederkorn’s review in the Brooklyn Rail at: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2011/12/books/beyond-the-previously-known-bard

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.

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