Friday, June 22, 2012

Guide to a Guide

A well-wisher has favored Chez Buce with a copy of The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, by one Richard Paul Roe, otherwise unknown to me.  Note the sequence here: this is not (or at least not primarily) a book about the influence of Italian (Renaissance) culture on Shakespeare.  Rather, it is a laboriously constructed tour guide, designed to show that Shakespeare's plays display an exact knowledge of Italy, such that he must have spent time there.
I'll begin by confessing that I haven't read it and am not likely to.  I'll grand that the proposition  is interesting and might even be right.  That is, even the most conventional Shakespearean would have to concede that there is a gap of six-eight years in the Shakespearean time line and the possibility of a trip (or trips) to Italy can't be ruled out.  He does seem to show a lot of interest in Italiana and it may be, as Roe argues, that his references have exact analogs.  Exact knowledge alone isn't enough, of course to prove he was there; else we might speculate on whether he was at Agincourt or Bosworth Field as well.

No; the real question is "why does it" (or does it not) "matter?"   I survey two  possibilities:
  • One, proving Shakespeare "knew" Italy would make us think better of the plays.  I'd put this one down as a flat-out mistake.  Consider this statement: "It used to be that I didn't like Shakespeare, but now that I find his knowledge of Italy is accurate," I like him better."  In what wold would that proposition make any sense?   I can't think of one.  Similarly, imagine correcting one of Shakespeare's indisputable errors ("seacoast of Bohemia"--maybe make it read "mountains of Bohemia," keeping the rhythm. Would anybody say the play is improved thereby?  I can't imagine who.
  • In short, knowledge or non-knowledge about Italy has exactly nothing to do with Shakespeare's qualities as a playwright.  But we could, of course, turn the point around.  That is, it might turn out that Roe is right about Shakespeare's geography--that he does, in fact, get every Italian detail exactly right.  Would that enhance our respect for Shakespeare as a geographer?  Well, sure.  Maybe it turns out that instead of (or in addition to) being the new Sophocles, he is also the new Strabo?   Would  I then admire him for his feats of geography?  Sure, I might.  But once again, his feats of geography are unrelated top his achivements as a playwright.

So once again, it is not without interest that Shakespeare the man may have journeyed to Italy in 1586.  But the answer to that question has exactly nothing to do with the Shakespeare we know and love.


Ken Houghton said...

Depends where you take it from there. If there is good reason to believe Billy S. was hanging in Italy those years, is there any evidence the Earl of Oxford or Kit or any of the other Usual Suspects was (or was not) in Italy during that time?

Don't get me wrong; I'm comfortable with the author of Shakespeare's plays being, mostly, that dude from Stratford-on-Avon. (The mostly is for the collaborations with John Fletcher that either have become canonical or have recently been admitted as having been collaborations.) And I'm certainly not uncomfortable with the idea that he shipped onto the 16th century equivalent of the Merchant Marine and spent a few years striving in Italy (especially given that the known antecedents of the earlier works tend to be Italian works).

The usual conceit--the one that lets tone-deaf people believe that the Earl of Oxford or Ben Bloody Johnson (to take the two extremes) is the "real" author of the First Folio et seq.--is that only an aristocrat could afford to live in Italy for several years, when it is rather true that an indentured labourer with a fine eye and ear could as well. It's not exactly Slumdog Millionaire for a Country Aristocrat to become the best in the city: both the relatively penniless James Joyce and the American Peer Francis Scott Fitzgerald lived a while in Paris, after all.

It's biography, not work-related, but if it eliminates some of the more absurd "pseudonyms," more the better.

Buce said...

Must. Not. Get. Sucked. Into. Authorship. Controversy. But a couple of things: one, Ben Jonson's father was a bricklayer; Marlowe's a shoemaker. Both appear to have had fancier educations than Shax', although it is not clear that it burnished their natural ability.

There is good background info on Shakespeare and Italian culture in English and Italian Literature from Dante to Shakespeare by Robin Kirkpatrick.

My own candidate for authorship is Queen Elizabeth, preferably as played by Quentin Crisp. Must. Not. Get. Sucked. In ...