Thursday, July 19, 2012

Was Shakespeare Italian? Another Look

It's not my intention to turn this into an all-Shakespeare blog, but Ken beguiles me with a question: was Shakespeare Italian?  No, that's too flippant.  Rather, did Shakespeare visit Italy, spend time there?  Else where and how did he get all that Italian material for his plays?

As to the first--did he visit Italy? I've already given my answer: Sure.  Maybe. I don't think so, but who knows, whatever. As to the second--where and how did he get all those Italian materials?  I suppose the answer here comes in two parts.  One, Shakespeare was the world's greatest literary pillager.  Almost everything he does is a rework of something else--invariably better by orders of magnitude, but still a response, a reaction to the work of another (think "I see possibilities here").  And two: this is, after all, the Renaissance we're talking about here, and in the nature of things the Renaissance begins in Italy.  England in Shakespeare's time was awash in Italian themes, Italian works, Italian culture for export at retail,  and it cannot be surprising that the great responder found himself responding. Robin Kirkpatrick says:
Shakespeare  makes reference to Italy in at least fourteen of his pays, choosing Italian settings, or employing story-lines from ultimately Italian sources.  The range of references would be much increased if one admitted the evidence of echoes, allusions and analogy.  Plainly, Shakespeare shared with his contemporaries and immediate forebears a fascination with Italy.
Kirkpatrick proceeds to explore "the results of his fascination."  He observes that "in the detail with which he reformulates his sources ....  Shakespeare's literary craftsmanship will at once be apparent.  So, too, will his appetite for experiment..."    Moving on to consider what he calls "the myth of Italy," Kirkpatrick says that "Shakespeare may be expected to have looked upon Italy as, by turns, an exotic and sophisticated other world or as a target for patriotric satire."  But he adds:
More subtly, however, his use of the myth will display an ability to represent and analyse not only character types but also types of social and political organization.  Shakespeare did not share, perhaps, Machiavelli's oitical animus.  But he does share a profound interest in the way that human beings operate in groups, and is alert to the possibillity of institutional and cultural difference."
Kirkpatrick also weighs in on the diverting, if perhaps less important, question whether Shakespeare--though he may not have visited Italy--still understood how to read the Italian language.  Conceding that we can't know, Kirkpatrick  finds it on balance rather likely:
[A]s we have seen, English authors had never found it difficult to acquire a reading knowledge of Italian.  In Shakespeare's own time, teachers of Italian ... were active in the circles which Shakespeare himself frequented, and Italian language texts ... were being printed and published in London ... .  It seems plausible .. that in composing plays such as Othello and Coriolanus he should have been able to consult Italian texts.
--Robin Kirkpatrick, English and Italian Literature from Dante to Shakespeare 277-8 ( 1995)

For Coriolanus, I think Kirkpatrick may have meant to say Cymbeline, but it's a detail.  On the general point, I'd be inclined to agree. 

No comments: