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SHAKESPEARE AND THE WATERWAYS
OF NORTH ITALY
SOME of Shakespeare's plays, in which the scenes are laid in Italy, have led to considerable misunderstanding. It is true that commentators express amazement at the knowledge which the Dramatist shows of Italian life, public and private ; the laws and customs of the country ; its ceremonies and characteristics ; all agreeing that the very atmosphere of these scenes is as Italian as it well could be. Men have wondered how this very accurate knowledge was obtained, and their wondering has led some even to contend that Shakespeare must have visited Italy in person on some unrecorded occasion.
Elze, to quote one of many, speaking of The Merchant of Venice, says: 'There lies over this drama an inimitable and decidedly Italian atmosphere and fragrance which certainly can be more readily felt than explained and analysed. Everything is so faithful, so fresh, and so true to nature, that the play cannot possibly be excelled in this respect.'
In spite, however, of their unanimity concerning Shakespeare's marvellous power of investing his Italian scenes with so true a local colouring, the great majority of the commentators go a step further, and, in a strange spirit of inconsistency with their own views, tell us that Shakespeare's knowledge of the geography of the country with which he shows such an accurate familiarity in other respects, is hopelessly at fault, and inaccurate even to the verge of carelessness and ignorance. Three well-known passages are relied on as proof of such assertions—one in The Tempest (I. ii. 129-44), another in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (I. i. 71), and a third in The Taming of the Shrero (IV. i.).
In the words of a well-known author of to-day :
But the fact that he represents Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (L i. 71) as travelling from Verona to Milan (both inland cities) by sea, and the fact that Prospero in The Tempest embarks in a ship at the gates of Milan (I. i. 129-44) renders it almost impossible that he could have gathered his knowledge of Northern Italy from personal observation.'
Sidney Lee, Great Englishmen of the Sixteenth Century, p. 299. London, 1904. Again, to quote another commentator : Shakespeare had clearly conceived the geography of the land, and accurately maintained his conception, though it was, for the most part, an ideal not a real geography. For instance, Verona is a port upon the sea, with tides that ebb and flow, and boats may sail from thence to Milan ; Valentine's 'father the road expects his coming, there to see him shipped'; and Launce . . . 'is like to lose the tide.' Verona is a seaport for Shakespeare in The T'wo Gentlemen of Verona, and it is still a seaport for him in Othello, where Cassio's ship, the first to reach Cyprus after the storm, is a Veronesa. But the sheet of water nearest to Verona is the Lake of Garda ; and though the Venetians kept their war galleys floating upon it, about which Shakespeare may have heard, yet it had not a tide that any man could miss.
If these assertions are well founded, Shakespeare is at once convicted of an inconsistency as glaring as it is inartistic, and one which in itself would go far towards showing that his accuracy in other directions was merely the result of some happy chance, arrived at by so unusual a process of penetration that it amounts to something like a miracle.
It is worth while, therefore, in the first place to examine the actual passages on which the statements are based, after which one may go on to inquire what light is thrown on the matter by contemporary records bearing on the geography of Northern Italy.
The opening scene of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is laid in Verona-Valentine is taking leave of Proteus ; and addressing his friend, he says:
Once more adieu! My father at the road
His exit follows shortly after, and Speed, his servant, enters.
SPEED. Sir Proteus, save you ! Saw you my master ?
The phrase ' at the road,' if it stood alone, might possibly suggest the sea, and an ignorance of the geographical position of Verona ; and other lines later in the play might add weight to the suggestion, as where Panthino (Act II. ii.) urges Launce to follow his master:
Pan. Launce, away, away, aboard ! Thy master is shipped, and thou art to post after with oars. Away, ass! You'll lose the tide, if you tarry any longer. ... Tut, man, I mean thou'lt lose the flood, and, in losing the flood, lose thy voyage. But Launce's reply, to the latter speech, which seems to have escaped the notice of those who are so eager to attribute ignorance to Shakespeare, triumphantly acquits the Dramatist on this count of the indictment :
LAUNCE. Lose the tide, and the voyage, and the master. . . Why, man, ifth e river were dry, I am able to fill it with my tears ; if the wind were down, I could drive the boat with my sighs.
? Studies in the History of Venice, Horatio Brown (1907).
“The river'-What river but the Adige? which was, in Shakespeare's day, as I purpose showing, the highway from Verona to many Italian cities, including Milan—a fact of which the Poet was only too well aware. The words 'tide' and 'road' may possibly have misled commentators ; but the former is explained in the text itself, and the latter, which occurs again in the same play in reference to Milan ('I must unto the road to disembark some necessaries,' II. iv.), is as applicable to a navigable river as to the sea, and is, indeed, 80 used by Harrison, the ‘W. H.' of Hollinshed's Chronicles (1st ed. 1577), of Chatham, which was then known by the name of Gillingham
The second instance of Shakespeare's suggested blundering is the passage in The Tempest (I. č.) where Prospero describes to Miranda their expulsion from Milan : PROSPERO.
There they hoist us,
On the strength of these lines we are seriously told that Shakespeare was under the impression that Milan was a seaport ! One can only conclude that those who said so were themselves unaware of the fact that Milan, in Shakespeare's day and long before it, was in direct communication by waterway with the Adriatic. To one aware of this fact the passage can present no difficulty. Prospero does not waste words in 'describing the journey by canal and river till they reached the sea; his own phrase 'in few' points significantly to curtailment of unnecessary details; the main incidents of their expatriation are all that his daughter need be told; and the very structure of the passage shows in its last two lines that it was on reaching the sea that a change was made from the bark which had brought them there to the 'rotten carcass of a boat' in which they were finally turned adrift upon the Adriatic.
Again, in The Taming of the Shrew (IV. ii.) we meet the riverhighways. Here the scene is laid in Padua, where Tranio addresses a Pedant who has just admitted that he was a countryman of Mantua :
Of Mantua, sir ? marry, God forbid !
• Sarrazin, Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, vol. xxxvii. (1900).
Your ships are stay'd at Venice, and the duke,
While, earlier in the same play, we get at least a suggestion of geographical knowledge of the same kind in the question put by Hortensio to Petruchio (I. ii.):
And tell me now, sweet friend, what happy gale
The comments I have quoted are all the more remarkable when we consider that something has already been done by one or two more enlightened commentators to show that the rivers and other waterways of North Italy were constantly used for passenger traffic in and about Shakespeare's time. Herr Sarrazin, for instance, has in recent years, contributed some interesting articles to the Jahrbuch of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft4 on this subject, though without going into the matter with much detail.
But quite independently of any interest we may take in Shakespeare's knowledge or ignorance of their existence, the waterway communications between the cities of Lombardy and the territories of the Venetian Republic played no small part in Italian history for many years before The Tempest and The Two Gentlemen of Verona came to be written. A volume might easily be filled with extracts from chronicles, social records, and other writings, to show the importance attaching to these inland water-routes in the eyes of statesmen, merchants, and private persons in early Italian days; and, as a matter of fact, no reliable history of the navy of Venice could be written in which their prominent utility in peace and war happened to be overlooked.
In the circumstances it may be worth while to give a sketch of the geographical position as it is disclosed by some quotations from contemporary documents, the subject being, from every point of view, one of extreme interest, as well as being one on which there appears to be considerable misapprehension in many minds to-day. The accompanying Map,' published in 1564, will show at a glance the course of the chief waterways, the majority of which may be taken to have been navigable at that time--for all that Shakespearian commentators have to say to the contrary.
The main river route through the Lombardo-Venetian territories in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as for many centuries previously, was the river Po; and, as might be expected, it is almost impossible to take up any book dealing with the history of the North Italian republics which does not contain copious allusions to the traffic borne upon its waters. It was the same long even before the Middle
* Band xxxvi. (1900) and xlii. (1906). • Reproduced by permission of the British Museum.
Palaze! Pouchigaa Montagnang,
Opia Melar Sergishe Crowe ligarchs
I age fauro
s felife Miranda Finale
is adgional is.com
LOMBARDIA, ANT. LAFRERII, 1564.