Shakespeare in Venice

Places, people and delight in a city on stage

Were the Merchant of Venice and Othello inspired by a real journey to Venice or did Shakespeare imagine the city from a distance to write his two Venetian masterpieces? Though scholars believe he never set foot in Italy, when walking through Venice the temptation to believe the opposite is strong. Because the squares and streets of Venice have many stories to tell, and Shakespeare could not resist a good story. And there are so many places, stately monuments and hidden corners that seem to whisper: “Shakespeare was here”.


“Shakespeare in Venice” was co-authored with Shaul Bassi, a professor of English language and literature at the Università Cà Foscari in Venice and an expert in Shakespeare. The book was built on a series of very serious questions about the possible historic presence of the Bard in the streets of Venice, seeking signs of his passage throughout the city. The conclusion is that, in the end, it is not that important to know for certain whether or not Shakespeare ever set foot in the territory of the Serenissima, because the image of Renaissance Venice provided by his works demonstrates such vitality that it still remains possible to discover the atmospheres and places in which his masterpieces are set.


We have selected forty elements that are directly linked to the English playwright, all of them drawn from quotations of his works: places, people, events, situations, from San Marco to Rialto, the only place explicitly mentioned in Shakespeare’s Venetian works, from the Carnival to the ghetto, which was in fact instituted in the early sixteenth century, from the figures of the most famous condottieri to the doges and scholars of the period – all contribute to helping us see Venice through the eyes of Shylock and the Moor. A sort of “Elizabethan” Venice, unknown to most. The photographs are by Gabriele Gomiero. The book is published by Elzeviro.


The following is one of the situations described in the book:


The Carnival at Santo Stefano


What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica,

Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum

And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,

Clamber not you up to the casements then,

Nor thrust your head into the public street

To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces,

But stop my house’s ears–I mean my casements.

Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter

My sober house.


The Merchant of Venice Act II, Scene 5


Shakespeare was fascinated by masks and disguises of all kinds. Many of his polots revolve around characters who conceal or change their identity, as, for example, does Portia in The Merchant of Venice when she presents hersself as a legal expert in order to save Antonio. And it is no coincidence that one of the poet’s favourite books was Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So we can surely take it for granted that if he ever did come to Venice, Shakespeare would have been attracted by the theatrical and festive atmoshpere of Carnival. Masks and fancy dress could be worn in Venice from October until Shrove Tuesday, although the Carnival season really toook off from the Feast of St. Stephen or Boxing Day, when a sort of parade called the “Liston de Maschere” launched the city into weeks of excess.

The roots of the impulse to dress up, to indulge in drinking and revelling, reach far back in timea dn any number of theories purport to identify the origins of the modern Carnival: there are those who trace it back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, others to Dionysian orgies, and still others to long-lost Chaldean rituals. Whatever the truth, mask and costume wearing has always had a ritual significance: it inovlved being able to shuffle off one’s public identity and being free to follow one’s instincts in a strange fusion of truth and illusion; a sort of magic costume that conferred a new and unexpected power on anyone who wore it. In actual fact, this presued omnipotence was pure illusion: donning a mask may have generated an impression of being able to cast off the constraints and ties of one’s everyday life; but reality it wans’t like that, as Giustiniana Wynne de Rosenberg perceptively notes in a letter addressed to her brother: “The costume was the maschera veneziana, which you know well and which may be called a camouflage of convention rather than decoration. Its use is as much a boon to the common people as to the nobility. For a large part of the year it conceals you and gies you a wonderful feeling of freedom. People believe that sincewhen they look like gentlefolk they do in a certain way become gentlefolk. In its wisdom, the Government has granted special privileges, concerning masqueradiong , and the lower classes, poor fools, feeling flattered by this sensitive tutelage of common interests, believe that no-one is any longer of a higher rank when they have a mask to cover their face.”


Promenading was a must during Carnial and amongst the most famous was that of Campo Santo Stefano where the paraders strolled up and down a strip of stone paving laid acrosss the center of the square, the rest of which was grassed, like the other Venetian campi (incidentally, the paved strip was called a lista, hence the term for a promenade, liston). There is an engraving by Giacomo Franco, which shows “People in mask and costume in Venice during Carnival, […] who almost all congregate in Campo S. Styefano a 11 pm and stay there, strolling up and down until almost 2 o’clock in the morning”.. It was in Campo Santo Stefano, too, that the last bull-baiting entertainment to take place in Carnival was held on 22nd February 1802. This was a sort of corrida (beras were sometimes used instead of bulls) that was a feature of the latter part of Carnival, otgether with simpler events such as a wheelbarrow races. All the festivities in general – especially private events organized by and for the nobility . always had an aura of dazzling display. Amongst the msot popular of masked disguises was the Bauta, comprising a tricorn hat, a shoulder-length veil and a white mask (larva) which the uper classes took particular advantage of to move incognito around the city. This anonymmity was not always a guarantee of advantage however, as an episode of 1548 shows: after enjoying the jousting and tilting in Campo santo Stefano in the company of a bishop and an abbot, the Duke of Ferrandina went on the Murano for another festivity. His identity concealed behind his mask, he started to flirt with a local gentlewoman and aroused the anger of Marco Giustinian and another Venetian nobleman. In the ensuing b rawl Giusitinian struck a mortal blow at the head of the Duke, who in turn, by mistake, managed to stab his friend Fantino Diedo: both died within a few days.

Though Shylock derided the “shallow fopp’ry” of the Christians’ masking, which enabled them to carry off his daughter Jessica, it is also true he would shortly be takin g part in Purim, a form of Jewish carnival that celebrates the Hebrews’ deliverance from massacre planned for them by the ev il Persian minister Haman, as told in the Book of Esther. We have precise information about how Purim was celebrated in the Venetian Ghetto and the historian Brian Pullan tells the story of a young Christian sailor, Giorgio Moretto, accused by the Inquisition of failing to observe the abstinence of Lent by clebrating Purim along with the Jew. Moretto’s defence was to state that he had wished to court a Jewess, Rachel, the daughter of Isaac “the Deaf Man”, who like Shylock, locked up his doors and stopped his house’s ears. Moretto’s submission was not believed and he was given a light sentence. But he was unable to keep away and when he was again caught in the Ghetto he was sentence to three years in the galleys; “So this Lorenzo”, writes Pullan, “never managed to elope with his Jessica”.