Sunday, April 15, 2012

Review: The Shakespeare Guide to Italy

William Shakespeare is universally acknowledged as one of greatest poets and playwrights of all time. Yet we know virtually nothing about the inner man or the experiences that formed him. The people we believe to be his friends never reported a single conversation with him, he kept no diary, and if he wrote and received letters they have not survived. But thanks to twenty years of detective work by a retired lawyer from Pasadena, California, we now know one thing for certain. The author of Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear once stood on the corner of the Piazza Goldoni and the Borgo Orgnissanti, in Florence, Italy.

The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels by Richard Paul Roe was published in the US and UK by Harper Perennial (an imprint of HarperCollins) at the end of last year. The idea that Shakespeare knew Italy well has been raised before, notably by Ernest Grillo, but has been generally dismissed by orthodox Shakespearean scholars, who suggest that the man from Stratford was a geographical ignoramus who gleaned what little European information he could from travelers in London taverns. Through analyzing the texts of Shakespeare’s ten Italian plays and seeking evidence of specific locations on the ground, Roe’s book demonstrates, repeatedly and decisively, that whoever wrote these works knew Italy intimately.

Roe shows how amendments of the texts by Shakespeare’s editors over the centuries have removed vital clues which exist in the original Quarto and Folio versions of the plays. It is interesting to note that something as small as changing capitalization can make a difference to our being able to identify where, in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helen meets Widow and the other women as they wait for Bertram and the soldiers returning from the Tuscan wars. Roe triangulates the place exactly by analyzing what the trumpet calls in the text signified, identifying the gate through which the soldiers would have entered and where they were heading, and locating the landmarks that Widow points out as she talks to Helen. This is not information one would – or could – glean through a conversation with a Florence merchant.

There are numerous other revelations which demonstrate the author’s personal knowledge of Milan, Verona, Mantua, Venice (and the Veneto), Padua, Lombardy, Florence, Pisa, and Sicily. As Roe says, “the author has this trick of pointedly naming or describing some obscure or unique place that might look like an invention or mistake but which turns out to be real: a one-of-a-kind place which reveals an unusual, intimate knowledge of Italy.” One might almost think he were deliberately laying a trail. One of the most powerful moments – and a slightly shocking reflection on the character of one of the Two Gentlemen of Verona – is when Roe unveils the horror of the place Proteus is sending Thurio – his rival in love – when he directs him to "St Gregory’s Well": not a well or a fountain (as orthodox scholars have assumed), but a mass grave.

Roe has more surprises: the "imaginary" settings of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are shown to be both real and Italian, the latter identified by “a particular combination of characteristics found nowhere else on earth.” If the happy coincidences of geology, geography, flora and fauna are not convincing enough, Roe finds that the names of both Ariel and Caliban (the meaning of which has long been debated) were sourced from the local dialect – in Catalan, caliban means outcast, or pariah. And "in popular Catalan tradition, an ariel is a spirit of the air and of the water, generally mischievous."  The author, then, not only travelled in northern Italy; he set four plays in, or near to, the southern isle of Sicily.

This book makes fascinating reading for any lover of Shakespeare’s works, no matter whom they believe to be the author. Roe, although apparently an Oxfordian, does not use his research as a basis for arguing that "Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare."  Those who believe the author was William of Stratford can choose to chalk these extraordinary travels down to the infamous "Lost Years."  But I suggest that to enjoy the book as it was meant to be enjoyed, those of the orthodox persuasion should skip straight to Roe’s text and avoid the introduction written by Daniel Wright of Concordia University. The Shakespeare Guide to Italy has only two major flaws, and this is one of them. (The other is the absence of an index). Wright’s preface is inappropriately aggressive and triumphant, given the current state of the Shakespeare authorship question. Roe’s book may indeed be a game-changer, but unfortunately Wright’s contribution may prevent this book from getting into the hands of those one would most want to read it.

© Ros Barber, 2012    

Dr. Ros Barber holds a PhD in English Literature and is the author of forthcoming book The Marlowe Papers, which will be published in the UK by Sceptre on 24 May 2012 and in the US by St Martin’s Press in January 2013. She is the also the author of three volumes of poetry, the latest being a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. She is joint winner of the 2011 Hoffman Prize for a distinguished work on Christopher Marlowe. Her scholarly work on Marlowe and Shakespeare is published in academic books and journals including Rethinking History, Critical Survey and Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman (Ashgate, 2010), and has been delivered at conferences and public lectures at venues including the Institute of Ideas and The Globe. She is an Associate of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust and a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society. TED HUGHES MARLOVIAN


Peter Farey said...

Yes indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed this book too, with the same reservations as Ros concerning Wright's introduction and the lack of an index. I also found it fun to read it with Google Earth open, so that I could actually 'visit' at street level many of the locations mentioned by Roe.


Donna said...

Maureen Duff (via Carlo) kindly forwarded me a copy of Roger Prior's "Shakespeare's Visit To Italy," Journal of Anglo-Italian Studies 9 (2008), and I'd be happy to forward it to anyone who requests it. Not mentioned in Roe's book, Prior's research provides additional fascinating examples of Shakespeare ties to Italy, in particular his detailed knowledge of a fresco on the side of a home in Bassano which he used in "Othello."

Isabel gortazar said...

I'd be most grateful for a copy.

Ros, that was most useful. I need to check those Catalan words.

daver852 said...

I wish my knowledge of Italian history were more extensive. It is obvious that Marlowe must have spent several years in Italy, but why was he there? It must have been in connection with his intelligence duties. What was going on in northern Italy that would have led the English government to want to have a man on the scene? I did manage to discover that England had no formal diplomatic ties to most of the Italian city-states at this time. The first "Envoy Extraordinary" was not sent to Tuscany until the year 1600. Does anyone have any ideas on this subject? What was Marlowe doing in northern Italy, and why did his base of operations shift to southern Italy at a later date?

Alex Jack said...

As Ros insightfully points out, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy convincingly overturns many scholarly assumptions. By trusting his own instincts (literally following his feet) and his intuition (hunches based on the text), Richard Paul Roe, a passionate amateur, solves numerous conundrums in the Italianate plays that have vexed readers until now.

I especially liked his explanation of Bermoothes in The Tempest. Identifying the mysterious location of Prospero’s island rivals that of Atlantis in world mythology and literature. It is widely believed to refer to Bermuda. Roe shows that it was also the name of a poverty-stricken district of London (to which Ariel was commanded), and the play takes place entirely in the Tyrrhenian Sea. In fact, Prospero’s island was Vulcano off the Sicilian coast, and the magician and his daughter trace part of the same voyage described in Virgil’s Aeneid. The misreading of “Bermoothes,” like that of the “upstart Crow,” shows how a single word or phrase can lead generations of critics down false trails.

For partisans of Marlowe, Roe’s book is a revelation. I have long believed that in exile Kit’s ultimate spiritual destination was Mount Parnassus and the Castilian spring in Greece. This was the abode of the Muses that is alluded to in many works from Ovid’s Elegies to Venus and Adonis, from As You Like It to The Winter’s Tale. Roe includes a map showing the likely route Cleomenes and Dion (and probably the poet) took to visit the Delphic Oracle in The Winter’s Tale.

Roe’s book is indispensable for filling in the blanks in Marlowe’s afterlife. It would appear that after the Deptford affair he journeyed to North Italy in the mid 1590s and wrote Romeo and Juliet and the Italian comedies. Then after returning to England from “beyond the Alps,” as the prologue of The Jew of Malta puts it (1633), he traveled to South Italy and Greece in the early 1600s and wrote Pericles, Timon of Athens, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.

From there, it’s tempting to think he pilgrimaged to Tomis on the Black Sea (present day Constanta in Romania), where Ovid was banished among the Getae. Pursuing that hunch would make a great sequel to Roe’s adventure!

Isabel Gortazar said...

A comment on the "Bermoothes". While "The Tempest" leaves no doubt as to where the ship was wrecked, as you say in the Thyrrenian Sea (that is, on its way betweenCarthage/Tunis and Naples/Sicily, of which territory Alonso was king), there is an undeniable coincidence between the reference in the play and the fact that the Sea Venture was wrecked in the Bermuda Island on July 25th 1609. The Report written by Strachey on July 5th 1610, though not published till 1625, describes various details of the wreck, including the hasty building of new vessels that would allow the stranded passengers to leave the island and continue their voyage to Virginia. The narrative, for example, about the way in which all hands had to help carrying logs, may be another simple coincidence, but it may also be that an author in close contact with one or more of the Adventurers (such as Southampton or Pembroke) might have read Strachey's letter long before it was published.

As I have proposed elsewhere, the story of Prospero was probably inspired by a book of Tales published in Spanish, in Pamplona in 1609 (Brussels 1610), written by Antonio de Eslava under the interesting title of "Winter Nights". One of these Tales is about a Magician King who had to flee his country in a small boat, with his daughter. Being a Magician he managed to build a Palace at the bottom of the sea. Add to this a great storm in which his enemies were at great risk, and the equivalent Princely suitor for the girl, and you have your Tempest. (Both Peter and myself have posted summaries of the Tale before. I now have a complete English translation that I have not published yet, but it's ready if anybody is interested. I should post it as as soon as I find the time).

As for Ovid and the Goths: at the risk of being accused of seeing references to Spain everywhere, I must remind you that the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by the Visigoths during four hundred years. The last of the Spanish Visigoth kings converted to Catholicism in 587 (the Goths were followers of the Bishop Arius). Which means that in Spanish history, Hispania had been officially ruled by "heretical" Arrian Goths until Recaredo's conversion. He died in 601. 

Therefore, we have yet another coincidence, matching the fate of the banished Ovid among the Goths, to the fate of the banished Marlowe, also among the Goths, in some Spanish territory (such as Spain, Naples, Sicily, Milan, the Netherlands, etc), where he could have read, among other things, Eslava's "Winter Nights' Tales" between 1609/10. As I have also said before, in the Revels Accounts of November 1611, the play performed four days after "The Tempest" is recorded as "A Winter Night's Tale".

So, while I agree that Marlowe was probably In Italy some of the time between May 1593 and his appearance as Mr Le Doux, sometime in 1595, and, I also agree that he may have returned to Italy several times after that, I place him probably in Brussels around 1610/1611, perhaps under the name of Thomas Shelton. 

For what it's worth, I definitely think he was in England -on and off- between March1603 and September 1604, and again in early December 1604/5. He spent the Xmas Festivities with the extended Sidney family, perhaps at Wilton House, but perhaps at Burley again. 

We might get there in the end, folks.

Alex Jack said...

For a riveting account of the wreck of the Sea Venture and its probable influence on Shakespeare, I recommend A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown by Hobson Woodward (Penguin, 2010). It is a detailed study of Strachey’s account and parallels with The Tempest. Its chronology also can be used to show convincingly that Oxford could not have written the play.

There are also strong similarities between Prospero’s island and the Azores, where Essex’s military expedition went to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet in 1597.

The Arian connection that Isabel points out is most interesting. I look forward to reading her translation of the tales by Antonio de Estava.

Isabel Gortazar said...


"Roe finds that the names of both Ariel and Caliban (the meaning of which has long been debated) were sourced from the local dialect – in Catalan, caliban means outcast, or pariah. And "in popular Catalan tradition, an ariel is a spirit of the air and of the water, generally mischievous." The author, then, not only travelled in northern Italy; he set four plays in, or near to, the southern isle of Sicily. "

The Catalan "Diccionari etimològic"  in 8 volumes compiled by Joan Coromines between 1980.1591 does not contain the word "caliban".

The Arab prefix "cali" (as in "Califa, and even "California"), variously means: great, hot, lord, king. The name Cali-ban is therefore not Catalan but Andalusian in origin.

The meaning of the suffix "ban" is less clear, but it might even be a pun on the English word "ban" so that "Cali-ban" may indeed intend to describe an outcast lord, but not because it has anything to do with Sicily or the Catalan language.

Off the top of my head, I can remember two Marlovian characters whose names start with the prefix Cali/Caly: "Calyphas" (son of Tamburlaine 2) and "Selim Calymath" (Son of the Grand Seignior":in the Jew of Malta).

It cannot be denied that Marlowe knew the origin and meaning of the prefix Cali/Caly. The proposed anagram of Montaigne's "Canibales" is absurd, among other reasons because the tribal habits of the Canibales, discussed by Montaigne in his Essay, have no relation to the Caliban in The Tempest.

As for the name "Ariel", like those of other "spirits" such as Gabriel, Raphael, Michael, it uses the Hebrew suffix "el", meaning "God". As I pointed out in my essay about The Tempest, although Cornelius Agrippa used the name Ariel to represent an earth spirit, Frank Kermode, has translated it as "Lion of God", vaguely linking to the appellative "Scourge of God". given to Timur Lanc by Pius II.

Roe's proposal for a Catalan origin for these names
is therefore false. It seems to me that, when looking at Roe's (and others') theories we might need to make sure that the "Italian-linked" names cited may not be "consequences" of Shakespearian names, and not the other way round, as is the case, for example, with the "Othello Tower" in Famagusta, Cyprus.

That said, the Kingdoms of Sicily and Naples, as well as the Duchy of Milan and the County of Rousillon (in All's Well), were part of the Kingdom of Aragon and therefore part of the Spanish Empire. If we add to that fact the Spanish Tale by Antonio de Eslava, used as source for The Tempest, we might even get to understand Prospero's Epilogue.

Ros said...

Thank you, Isabel, a very learned and interesting response. Roe's quoted source is Diccionari Enciclopedia de la Llengua Catalonia, Vol 1 (1930), Barcelona, Salvat Editores p.509. The entry, he says, reads 'Caliban, m. mena de paria de los llegendes escoceses.' From the same source, the definition of Ariel is, he says, 'en la tradicio popular, espirit, generalmente melfic, de l'aire i de l'aigua.'

Your source on the Catalan language seems the more authoritative, so I wonder if what has happened is that this book (dated 1930) has taken the names 'Caliban' and 'Ariel' from Shakespeare?

So, well done, Isabel. It is important we do not lean on an erroneous 'facts'. There is not an imperfect book on Shakespeare anywhere, but I hope that the rest of Roe's scholarship will prove more robust when exposed to this kind of scrutiny.

Isabel Gortazar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Isabel Gortazar said...

Thanks, Ros.

As you suggest, this may be another case of “Othello’s Tower”; I would trust Corominas rather than my old friends in Salvat, but I will continue to make enquiries.

For one thing, the Salvat editors are taking the name of Caliban from “Scottish Legends”, so is there any clue to suggest this may be true? If that were so, Roe’s mistake would have been just as bad.

But, the plot thickens. I have gone thro’ my old files about The Tempest and dug out the following.

"Cal" is the prefix (and symbol) for the word "calories", calor (heat), and words associate with heat in Latín-derived languages. The name of California does seem to be composed of "cal" and "forn" (Catalán for furnace, or oven; Spanish: horno; Italian: forno), too much of a coincidence for a hot área. In this respect, I find the following link interesting:

And, talking of hot places, there is a tribe in the island of Borneo, called the "iban". A map of Borneo appears as drawn by Antonio Pigafetta, a noble Venetian who accompanied the Portuguese Ferdinand Magallanes (1480-1521) and the Spanish-Basque Juan Sebastian Elcano Elcano (1476-1526), in their trip round the world. This might be a coincidence, but here is another one: We know that Magellan discovered also the Patagonia; one important Patagonian god, or devil, was called Setebos, son of Sycorax; our Caliban mentions both Setebos and Sycorax. And, for what it's worth, the names of Ferdinand (Magellan), Sebastian (Elcano) and Antonio (Pigafetta) also appear in the play.

From Internet about Magellan’s voyage: “A fellow voyager, Antonio Pigafetta, described (in Italian), the discovery in Relazione del primo Viaggio in torno al Mondo.(Relation of the First Voyage Round the World, (1536), which was later translated into English and re-published in 1555 in Richard Eden's Decades of the New World.”

Isabel Gortazar said...


So far I have been unable to check these texts for a mention of the Iban tribe and Sycorax, but Pigafetta does mention Setebos, and his map of Borneo is reproduced in his Wikie entry. “Iban” seems to mean “man” or “people”.

So, if Marlowe read about Setebos in Pigafetta's Relazione, it could be that the name of Caliban does not refer to the Arabic prefix Cali-caly + ban, but to the Latin "cal" + iban. If we take "cal" as a reference to heat, the name of Caliban could refer to a savage, such as an Iban, living in a hot island, not necessarily in Indonesia, but, for example in the Tyrrhenian Sea, somewhere between Tunis and Naples. After all, we are told in the Tempest that the witch Sycorax came from Algiers, which is incorrect if she were a Patagonian goddess. BTW, her “blue eyes” would be questionable in either place.

Nevertheless, the prefix “cal” for calories also works in Catalan, so it may seem that Marlowe was using information from all over the place. Only in this story, we get links to Borneo, Patagonia, Venice and even Valladolid (where the “sponsor” of the voyage, Charles I had his Court and where the survivors of the voyage presented themselves in 1522), plus the places mentioned in the play: Tunis, Algiers, Naples and Milan.

One small detail: (I think I already wrote this in my essay on the Tempest, but just in case): We are told that Sycorax, ("And then she died"), left Ariel trapped inside a tree-trunk for eight years, just like a witch left Merlin trapped in a tree-trunk. Queen Bess died in 1603 + 8= 1611. Did the Queen have blue eyes?

Any thoughts?

Isabel gortazar said...

One more thing.
From what you say, I assume it is Roe who has translated the Catalan adjective "malefic", in reference to Ariel, for "mischievous", which is totally wrong. Malefic means the same in Catalan as in English: Malignant, evil.

Ariel is not a malignant, evil spirit, and therefore Marlowe could not have been inspired by the word "ariel", (as Roe says is defined by the Salvat Dictionary), to give him such a name..

To resume, it seems we need to be careful with Roe' s theories.

Meanwhile, I have checked that while Pigafetta definitely mentions Setebos, I can't find that he mentions Sycorax, so that name must come from somewhere else.

daver852 said...

I tend to believe the simplest explanation is usually the best explanation. I've always thought that Caliban was probably an allusion to the Carib Indians, as it is only a small step from "Cariban" to "Caliban." And that Ariel's name derives from the fact that he is a spirit of the air, or perhaps from the angel Ariel, who is found in the Apocrypha.

For what it's worth, here's another (and completely different) explanation for the name Caliban:

Scamel said...

Vulcano is one of the Eolian islands. Aeolus was king of the air, so the name of Ariel to refer to the spirit of the air is justified.
Prospero and Miranda arrive on the island aboard "a rotten carcasse of a butt, not rigged / Nor tackle, sail, nor mast" and "By providence divine". How could they get in this condition to one of the Bermuda islands in the Atlantic Ocean without using magic? They didn't. They came to one of the Eolian Islands.Prospero once sent Ariel to Bermuda, which means that the action of "The Tempest" does not take place there. This is the only mention of Bermuda in the whole play. I think the reference is, as Roe says, a district of London. It was quoted by Jonson in "Bartholomew Fair", II, vi, 76-7, "Looke into any Angle o' the towne, (the Streights, or the Bermuda's”.

The name “Caliban” may be inspired by "cauliban" in the Romani language, which means "blackness”. (“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”).The first Romani immigrants arrived in England a century before Shakespeare wrote "The Tempest".

The city of Alghero, Sardinia, was called "Corax" in Greek times, so "Argier" could refer to Alghero, not Algiers. "Sy" may come from "sus” (sow). Both the crow ("korax") and the pig were used in magic rituals.
"This blue-ey'd hag was hither brought with child": blue eyelids were regarded as a sign of pregnancy. Cf. "The Duchess of Malfi",II, i, 68, "The fins of her eyelids look most teeming (pregnant) blue.

Scamel said...

Caliban was the son of Sycorax and Setebos. The author may have taken the name of this devil-god from Robert Eden's "History of Travaile" (1577).

Alisa Beaton said...

The first printing of the book, originally titled 'The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Then and Now' (copyright 2010 and published by Crescent Books) did not include an introduction by Daniel Wright; it contained an introduction written by Richard Paul Roe himself. I have a copy of the original publication, the back cover of which includes only this brief remark by Wright: 'Richard Paul Roe's luminous achievement is nothing short of a new revelation--a parting of clouds that, for generations, have obscured the sunshine and scale of Shakespeare's Appenine art. That Shakespeare was a well-traveled Englishman of intimate Italianate sensibilities and experience can no longer be doubted.'

The year prior to his death in December 2010, Roe contributed $350,000 to found Daniel Wright's Shakespeare Authorship Research Center at Concordia University.

Roe died before the HarperCollins publication of his book (retitled "The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's unknown Travels") in 2011, the cover of which prominently displays a blurb by the actor Derek Jacobi. Jacobi is no Shakespeare scholar, but he is an avowed Oxfordian.

Whether the author himself would have approved of the insertion in the HarperCollins version an introduction by Daniel Wright I tend to doubt, for although Roe was--and had been for many years--an Oxfordian, he appeared to me (and I knew him well) to be quite aware of the danger of falling into the trap of revealing his prejudice.

He kept that prejudice in check throughout the book, and had written all but the final chapter when he stopped writing for many weeks, saying that he was having difficulty with that final chapter. Well, one sees that he went ahead and compromised himself in the end. What a shame.