Whispers from the Wings

Shakespeare in Venice

September 17, 2013

Ben Deery in VeniceThe last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity in the Swan as the third and final play of our rep, Mark Ravenhill's Candide, has been brought into the theatre and opened to the public. Now, as much as I'd love to give you the inside scoop on all of that, I can't.

I can't, because I'm not in Candide. So whilst my plucky comrades were hard at work with technical and dress rehearsals, first previews and press nights, I was on holiday. And, like an overbearing uncle firing up the slide projector on Easter weekend, I now propose to tell you all about my holiday.

I went to Venice. It was lovely.

Anyway. Venice, and indeed the nearby cities of Padua and Verona, clearly held some fascination for Shakespeare. This region of north-eastern Italy, the Veneto, provides the setting for a whole clutch of his plays. But walking around Venice whilst put in mind of Shakespeare is not like, say, taking a jaunt around London whilst ruminating on Dickens.

In the case of the latter, you can stroll through Lincoln's Inn Fields and imagine Jo sweeping the crossings, as another session of the interminable suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce begins in the nearby Court of Chancery (Bleak House). With those works, there's a very clear sense that London is a place that Dickens lived in and knew intricately.

Shakespeare's references to Venice, by contrast, seem a great deal more superficial and cursory. In The Merchant of Venice, there is talk of conversations held 'upon the Rialto' and mention is made of 'a knave of common hire, a gondolier', but these don't seem to me to form the same inextricable link between story and setting.

map and drink in VeniceYou could get all this from a guidebook. It adds a touch of flavour, but it's not really the meat of the thing itself. And that's possibly because Shakespeare probably never ever went to Venice.

As I tramped through the various calles, campos and piazzas of the city, I found myself marveling both at the dazzling beauty of the place, and at the audacity and flair of a man who would set a play there without ever having seen it. This is yet another testament to his extraordinary imagination.

Clearly excited by the contemporary accounts of Venice available for him to read, Shakespeare chose the city as a setting for his plays because of the ambiance and spirit that it evoked. That ability to conjure a sense of Venice's identity is his real triumph, and we can leave it to somebody else to draw a map of the canals.

In The Winter's Tale, to choose another example, does it matter that Shakespeare doesn't seem to know that Bohemia is landlocked? Not really.

All this shouldn't come as any surprise, though. After all, Titus Andronicus is set in ancient Rome, and he never went there either. Ironically, however, Shakespeare has one of his own characters, Holofernes from Love's Labours Lost, exclaim:

Venetia, Venetia:
Chi non ti vede, non ti pretia

Which translates as, 'Venice, Venice: He who does not see you cannot appreciate you'. Holofernes is often seen as a self-parody by Shakespeare, so perhaps he is indeed satirising his own habit of writing about places he's never seen.

Whatever the truth of the matter, for my part, I'm glad I've seen Venice. It's a place of staggering, sinking splendour – and my imagination's just not that good.

Venice with gondolas

by Ben Deery  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare