Why was Shakespeare fascinated with Italy? Dr Alison Shell investigates the 1600 equivalent of Hollywood.

This article first appeared in the show programme for our 2006 Romeo and Juliet


Romeo and Juliet lean in for a kiss at the masked ball
Romeo and Juliet (2006), directed by Nancy Meckler

In an age when glamour and political power went hand-in-hand across Europe, no country was seen by Englishmen as more glamorous than Italy - and in none, it was supposed, could power be more abused.

The rumours - some real, some merely imagined - which circulated about such Italian aristocrats as Lucrezia Borgia and Pope Alexander VI make one thankful for the pettiness of today's celebrity gossip. But like Hollywood, Italy was also a generator of fictions in its own right. The prevalence of Italian settings in Renaissance drama has a lot to do with Italian novelle (short stories) which, in translation, became very popular in Elizabethan England. The Romeo and Juliet story, often retold in novelle, appeared in William Painter's short-story collectionThe Palace of Pleasure in 1567, and may have been one of the sources for Shakespeare's play. This is only one of the ways in which Renaissance England borrowed from Renaissance Italy, debts of which England's intellectuals were well aware.

It was probably more common for Renaissance Englishmen to reassure themselves by emphasising their difference to Italians - reflecting wide-ranging religious and moralistic prejudice against Catholic Europeans in an England where Catholicism was officially outlawed. England's Protestant preachers were perpetually cautioning their congregations against Romish corruption, while guardians of popular morals used Venice's legendary courtesans as a means of admonishing womankind in general.

Tragedies such as John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, with its lustful cardinal and Machiavellian duke, often use an Italian background as a shorthand means of implying courtly corruption and ecclesiastical decadence - occasionally with resonances which were meant to be felt nearer home. Against this background, how is one to interpret the Italian setting of Romeo and Juliet?

Shakespeare's dramas, compared to many of those written by his contemporaries, make minimal use of anti-Catholic prejudice. While arguments about Shakespeare's own religious beliefs look set to continue indefinitely, most commentators would agree that his work hardly ever makes controversial use of religious differences. We assume a Catholic background from the Italian setting and the presence of Friar Laurence, yet Catholicism is hardly ever mentioned within the play, thus allowing it to be inferred or ignored according to individual audience preferences. This should not be taken to mean that Shakespeare was not interested in religion - rather that he recognised how even very small hints would have been precarious at a period when religious conflict was so much in everyone's thoughts, yet when religious matter was so vulnerable to censorship and censure.

There were, though, more indirect ways that Shakespeare could exploit a subject of such profound emotional resonance as religion. His plays and poems are saturated with religious allusion, and Romeo and Juliet is no exception to this. In Act 1 Scene 5 of the play, which contains Romeo's first encounter with Juliet, the lovers speak to each other in very formalised language, which includes a sonnet: one of the moments in the play where Shakespeare is most obviously conflating religious language with the language of sexual desire, as did poets as different as Petrarch - another Italian writer found inspirational by the Elizabethans - and England's John Donne.

Romeo If I profane with my unworthiest hand 
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this: 
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand 
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. 

Juliet Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, 
Which mannerly devotion shows in this; 
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch, 
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss. 

Romeo Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too? 

Juliet Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer. 

Romeo O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do: 
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. 

Juliet Saints do not move, though grant for prayer's sake.

Romeo Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take. [He kisses her]

The field of reference evokes a Catholicism which, for most Englishmen, would have belonged to the past. Pilgrimages to saintly shrines such as Thomas Becket's at Canterbury Cathedral had been officially discontinued within England under Henry VIII at the Reformation, but commentators have long noticed the resonances of the name 'Romeo' with the kind of roaming or travelling undertaken by a pilgrim; here Romeo plays on the idea himself, talking of Juliet as a saint and himself as a pilgrim or 'palmer' to Juliet's shrine.

He also evokes the practice of venerating saints, which most people in Shakespeare's audience would have been primed to condemn: a factor which surely would have complicated their reaction to the lovers at this point.

Language evoking a forbidden religious practice can only play up the illicit quality, even the naughtiness, of Romeo and Juliet's encounter. There are moments in the sonnet where, despite the play's Italian setting, we find ourselves transported to post-Reformation England. A line like Juliet's 'Saints do not move' is a slightly odd one if we read it literal-mindedly as coming from a native of Italy, a country where, then and now, supposedly miraculous statues are commonplace. Shakespeare's Protestant contemporaries disapproved of these claims heartily, believing that they encouraged idolatry and lined the Church's pocket by means of the cults they stimulated. So 'Saints do not move' is a line which gives a nod towards polemical exchanges between Catholic and Protestant, and seems to be tending towards the Protestant view; yet the very next phrase, 'though grant for prayers' sake' shifts one right back into a Catholic world-view where saints, as well as God, respond to intercessions.

Perhaps most fascinatingly of all, the lines show Juliet imagining herself into the position of a saint, something which most Renaissance women who were the object of such addresses got no opportunity to do: saying that she, a saint, responds to prayer is her way of encouraging Romeo without being forward or unmaidenly.

Shakespeare's language in this scene, and elsewhere in the play, is constantly oscillating between sacred and secular; Catholic and Protestant. It tells us little about Shakespeare's own beliefs, but reveals a very great deal about the various reactions he expected his audience members to have. Like the play as a whole, this sonnet encourages us to think of the lovers as secular saints, even secular martyrs for love, with all the emotional complexity which this would have entailed for post-Reformation Protestants and Catholics alike.

It is hardly surprising that some rewritings of the Romeo and Juliet story, such as Joan Lingard's novel for young adults, Across the Barricades, have gone one step further, and recast the play's original dynastic conflicts as interdenominational ones between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland. But Shakespeare's pacifism shines out in the affirmative final scene, where the newly-reconciled families promise to erect golden statues in memory of the pair: Oscars awarded for love, but also an admission that statues, far from being mere idols, can have an overwhelming exemplary force. For both the Catholics and the Protestants among Shakespeare's audience, saints did have the power of moving - in that way at least.

Juliet's birthday - Lammas Eve

We learn from Romeo and Juliet that Juliet's birthday is on 31 July, Lammas Eve. 'Lammas', or 'Loaf-Mass', was a church feast associated with the grain harvest, at which bread made from the new ripe corn was consecrated. Roughly equivalent to present-day harvest festivals, it can be compared to pagan celebrations of fertility.

Two puns are involved here which suggest the close involvement of Juliet's life-story with the festival calendar. The first, on 'Juliet' and July, is the more accessible to a modern audience. But in Shakespeare's time, the word 'Lammas' was sometimes popularly understood as 'Lamb-mass', evoking another Christian festival, Easter. The pet name 'lamb' which Juliet's nurse uses for her has also a more solemn significance, pointing towards the sacrifice of Christ, the Paschal Lamb.

Juliet's Lammas-Eve birthday hints at how death and life form a process as cyclical as the sowing and reaping of grain.

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