Review: “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy”

Review of The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels, by Richard Paul Roe.

Friends, those of you who love Shakespeare and who also know, or would like to know, Italy, do not miss this opportunity for one of the great literary adventures of all time!  Travel with my dear friend Richard Roe as he voyages through 20th-century Italy in search of the truth about the Italian plays.  One at a time, on trip after trip, he tracks down the places where things happened in Shakespeare: the window where Juliet called to Romeo (no balcony, folks; Shakespeare said “window”); the penthouse in Venice where Shylock lived, Portia’s Belmont, the forest where Proteus and Valentine are united in the final act of Two Gents, and the very place where Peter Quince and friends meet to rehearse their hilarious version of Pyramis and Thisbe.  Those of us who were lucky enough to hear Dick Roe’s lectures at conferences at Concordia University in the ’90s will rejoice with me at the publication, finally, of the book we’ve waited for for so long.

Much of the book is devoted to how Shakespeare got from one place to another.  Based on the locations of the plays, this is fairly easy to trace on the many maps from the period that Roe provides.  Specific names suggested to him that Shakespeare had particular locations in mind when he created his characters and their adventures.  Often these will be repeated twice or more, suggesting to Roe that Shakespeare was giving clues to readers in his educated and well-travelled inner circle who knew Italy, so they could visualize the action.

Orthodox Shakespeare scholars, aware of how unlikely it is that William of Stratford could possibly have seen these places and therefore assuming that he made them up, either ignored these specific descriptions or dismissed them as the products of ignorance.  Most amusing to the experts have been his suggestions that his characters travelled between inland cities by water, to them the fantasies of an ignorant man.  But, as Roe shows with this as with every other clue, Shakespeare knew what he was talking about.  A true forensics scholar, Roe travelled far and often, dug long and deep in libraries and archives, to locate what bits are left today of the extensive network of canals and waterways that connected these towns in the sixteenth century and what information he could find about those parts that are gone.

Written as a travel journal, Roe’s book takes us with him on this exciting adventure.  From town to town, insight to insight, revelation to revelation, we keep him company, fascinating to lovers of Shakespeare, doubly, triply, fascinating to those who also know Italy.   As a way of promoting what I believe to be an extremely important piece of literary forensics, and also show some of his photographs in a larger format, I’ve created a preview where you can get a taste of what’s in store for those who buy this book.  I hope he wouldn’t mind that I couldn’t resist adding some thoughts of my own, and where it seemed helpful, links to online sources, something that a book with all its virtues can’t provide.

Do get this book for yourself, and for those friends and family members who might be willing to take seriously a genuinely well-written and compelling argument for Oxford as Shakespeare.  It’s far and away the best book on the authorship question published since 2009 when Verlag Uwe Laugwitz of Germany provided us with Peter Moore’s The Lame Storyteller, Poor and Despised, and the most important in terms of new information and insights into the authorship question since Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography (2000) laid out the argument against William of Stratford.  You couldn’t find a better holiday gift for that demanding friend or relative you’ve long hoped to convince, but never yet found the right book.  This is it, I assure you. (Also available for Kindle.)

Sadly Richard Roe is no longer with us.  He died a few months ago, just as his book was being published.  But he will continue to live in the pages of this important and entertaining work as long as scholars and readers continue to debate the authorship question.  Should it ever be resolved in favor of genuine history and good old-fashioned common sense, this legal brief and travel journal will hold a high place among those arguments that helped decide the case in favor of our noble plaintiff.

11 thoughts on “Review: “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy”

  1. Thanks Stephanie. In addition to the book’s other virtues, Richard Roe plays the courteous, lively, and friendly host. He travels on his way and you get included in on the hunt through ancient time, following along just off his shoulder.

  2. Stephanie,

    We’ve run into a problem (Or potential problem) with Roe. I was very impressed with it and wanted to see the “Strat reaction” on HLAS. Tom Reedy is a Fellowship member and we began a strong discussion of the book on that site. He is pointing out what he perceives to be flaws, so far none particularly strong except for this one. (But I haven’t read all his posts) Roe insists at the beginning, because of the inland canal system, that the phrase (from Valentine( I-1)

    Once more adieu! my father at the road
    Expects my coming, there to see me shipp’d.

    refers to a landing on the canal or river. Reedy pointed out that a “road” or “roadstead” is a type of harbor that ships anchor off shore. Therefore this passage demonstrates to him Shakespeare’s misunderstanding that middle Italy had no harbors or large bodies of water or coastlines.. This might seem compounded by another phrase from the same play: Proteus- (II-4)

    Go on before; I shall inquire you forth:
    I must unto the road, to disembark
    Some necessaries that I needs must use,
    And then I’ll presently attend you.

    Shakespeare uses “road” 14 times in his works. About half refer to “roadsteads”, even as metaphor: “I think this be the most villanous house in all London road for fleas: I am stung like a tench.” Henry IV part I , II-1. (Is there a London Road?)
    Shakespeare never uses “roadstead”, only “Dock” or “Quay” (not yet in usage) and only uses “landing” twice, but never as a noun referring to dock.

    I looked up many combinations online but could find no usage for “road-nautically” for use with river or canal.

    BUT in TOS, there is this.-“ashore” which Roe refers to and Shakespeare use only 13 times. Lucentio I-1:

    Gramercies, Tranio, well dost thou advise.
    If, Biondello, thou wert come ashore,
    We could at once put us in readiness,
    And take a lodging fit to entertain.

    This can be read two ways. Lucentio is musing that BIondello, who is tarrying on a ship is holding them up. But if BIondello is close at a landing on the vessel, he is admonishing him to hurry up, One would not expect Lucentio to shout or ask Biondello if he were still on the boat in the “road” or even the craft carrying him to shore. This is complicated by four things. First, the scene is “A Public Place”, not a harbor or seaport. Second, Biondello is in the scene with no entrance que, which seems to indicate he had been quite near. Was he fussing in the boat that carries passengers? Third Lucentio says fairly quickly

    Sirrah, come hither; ’tis no time to jest,
    And therefore frame your manners to the time.
    Your fellow Tranio here, to save my life,
    Puts my apparel and my count’nance on,
    And I for my escape have put on his;
    For in a quarrel *since I came ashore*
    I kill’d a man, and fear I was descried.
    Wait you on him, I charge you, as becomes,
    While I make way from hence to save my life.
    You understand me?

    Senor Baptiste and his daughters enter the scene immediately. Why would they come to the departure or disembarking spot of a “roadstead”. It would make more sense if the “public place” was where the ferry or vessels stopped and parked and was a scene for traffic. As Roe points out, the Inn was very close. I’ll try to find out if Inns were close to Roadsteads. (I called some Maritime museums.)

    Fifth: the question I ask is twofold. Shakespeare’s knowledge as per speech or line reference must be taken into context as to his overall knowledge of the canal system. Thus for example, the reference by Portia to the “tranect” which was a land device to CONNECT inland water travel systems has bearing.

    Last: if Shakespeare never used “landing” as a noun (He uses “Pier” once-Henry V- “Hampton pier”), would he have substituted the word “road” for “landing.” Valentine could have said “My father awaits me at the pier,” unless vessels parked as well, which would make them kind of a “road.” I think these two Italian plays (TGV and TOS) are the only two in which this issue comes up.

    On the surface, it seems “road” is in traditional usage and Roe is wrong. Or digging a little, Shakespeare used the word interchangeably with landing. I found one dictionary site in which they were synonyms but only one.

    I think this s an important criticism and even though Strats are silent about the book (hoping it will go away), I think all challenges that have at least some merit need to be addressed.

    Ken Kaplan

    1. Ken,

      Since you’ve read Roe’s book you should be able to answer these questions yourself, the author having gone to lengths at more than one place to explain them in some detail. I don’t see how Reedy could have read the book either, for if he had one would think his arguments would begin where Roe’s explanations left off; instead he simply repeats the standard objections, which Roe deals with with effective common sense.

      In his chapter on Two Gents Roe explains that in Shakespeare’s day a “road” simply meant a passageway, and often a passageway by water. Since people travelled back then more often on rivers and canals than they did on land, for reasons which he also explains, a road or “roadway” could mean either. It could also mean a passageway by sea, by river, or by canal. That Launce and Proteus are travelling from Verona to Milan by river is clear from Launce’s remark, when it looks like they’ll miss the “flood” (the canals had locks that were “flooded” and emptied on a schedule): “Why man, if the 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” (42). “River,” he says. River––not sea!

      You could not find a mention of rivers and canals as roads in the dictionaries because none of them go back to a time when all of Europe was covered with canals created by human labor where there were no rivers available for shipping. By the mid-19th century, when scholars began digging through Shakespeare for what would become the OED, it never occured to them that ordinary words like road, tide or flood could refer to a river or a canal.

      A few stretches of the old canals still exist here and there, but since highways and trains now transport people and goods much faster than they ever could, most of them have long since been filled in and those bits that are left are used mainly to give tourists an enjoyable day on the water. All of this is explained by Roe in those chapters where travelling by canal is an issue: Two Gents, Merchant of Venice, and Taming of the Shrew, even providing old photographs of what canals he found that were still in operation, a masterful job of literary forensics.

      I’m amazed that you have such questions about the location of Baptista Minola’s house, which Roe deals with in detail on pages 94-97. The hotel that he photographed (page 98) stands across a small square from the landing where the boats came in on the Piovego Canal. That this could be the very same hotel that Oxford saw on his travels is only a possibility, but surely there was one beside what in his time was a busy quay where recently arrived travellers needed a place to stay, just as today train stations are surrounded by hotels. Placing Minola’s house so near it simply makes it easier for the scene to unfold onstage.

      It seems to me that Roe couldn’t be more clear. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood your question. If so, let me know.

      1. No, that’s a good answer. I missed the reference to the river. You’ve just answered my question about usage in Shakespeare’s time, which was different from our own. It was my suspicion that words like “road” and “landing” were somewhat interchangeable. The author does not use “landing” all in his works as a noun and as I said, “quay” was not invented yet.

        I don’t think Inns were close to sea “roads” anyway, and I doubt Baptiste would drag his daughters down to one.

        Antonio uses “road” in the traditional sense MOV.

        “Sweet lady, you have given me life and living;
        For here I read for certain that my ships
        Are safely come to road.”

        (Upon learning that three ships-argosies have suddenly come to harbor.)

      2. Here is our most recent exchange:

        Reedy: I can honestly say that Roe has proven that it was possible to travel from Verona to Milan via water (I won’t go into the details, but instead leave it up to readers to find out themselves). However, he does not prove that Verona has a seacoast, which is what anyone closely reading the play would think the playwright assumed. Roe himself unknowingly proves that the playwright was ignorant of Italian geography (or–more likely–he didn’t care about it).

        Roe makes a big deal out of the fact that Shakespeare never uses the word “seaport”, and he gives a long-winded explanation of the meaning of “road”, as in “roadstead” (see He also praises the playwright’s knowledge and use of nautical terms. However, Roe is mistaken in his idea that a road pertains to inland canals, even though he tries to make it so: “Along select channels of the seas, and in the large and smooth rivers the world over, there are wide places for ships to anchor called ‘roads’ (though some recent dictionaries call them ‘roadsteads’). Roads are the preferred places for ships to ride at anchor, either to be served by lighters, or else to come up, in turn, to a nearby quay, to load or unload passengers or cargo” (37). Roe even provides a photograph of what he believes a road to be on page 58, with the cutline, “…. Landings, or ‘roads,’ were located inside cities and at regular intervals along the length of each canal, much like modern bus stations.”

        Roe is mistaken. Roads, or roadsteads, are places for ships to anchor harbors. Roads are not canal quays or docks, nor are they harbors. The playwright clearly refers to roads, and if he is as accurate in his use of nautical terms as Roe claims, he cannot have meant a dock or a quay.

        Ken: In order to more fully understand Shakespeare’s usage and understanding (imo) and Roe’s interpretation, we must go beyond the modern usage. I believe there are a number of factors and context that you are ignoring. These are: The consistency of the author’s knowledge of the country, especially its topography; the existence of “roads” on rivers; the opening of TOS which would seem to contradict your assertion, that is, the dialogue between Panthino and Launce, which indicates the author’s knowledge. Here it is again:

        Panthino. Launce, away, away, aboard! thy master is shipped and thou art to post after **with oars**. What’s the matter? why weepest thou, man? Away, ass! You’ll,lose the tide_, if you tarry any longer.

        Launce. It is no matter if the tied were lost; for it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied.

        To reiterate, Panthino’s use of “tide” is NOT a sea reference but a reference to “moment, opportunity,” similar to the usage in T&C: “Diomedes I cannot, lord; I have important business,The tide whereof is now….” as in “5. A favorable occasion; an opportunity” (OED).

        Panthino continues:

        Tut, man, I mean thou’lt lose the flood, and, in losing the flood, lose thy voyage, and, in losing thy voyage, lose thy master, and, in losing thy
        master, lose thy service, and, in losing thy service—–Why dost thou stop my mouth?

        He says “lose the flood,…then the voyage”, not “lose the tide” (ships sail with the tide) which refers to the timed flooding of the canals through the use of locks, necessary when travelling up inclines.

        Launce replies later:

        Lose the tide, and the voyage, and the master, and the service, and the tied! Why, man, **if the 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.

        Here Shakespeare is both referring to actual events and punning, thus the reference to “river”; no mention of sea or ocean.

        If this were all, you might have a point, but it is only one piece of a larger picture. In Roe’s analysis, Shakespeare demonstrates knowledge of Italian topography. He knows the land north and west of Milan and is aware of the function of “Saint Gregory’s Well”. He is aware of the “tranect,” the ingenious land ferry that connects boats to canals. As we shall see, the opening of TOS indicates a canal rather than a roadstead reference. He is aware of the identity of the “Emperor” of Milan as well as several other points. Given the author’s consistency, why assume that, he would imagine unnecessarily that Milan (or Padua) has a seacoast or large ocean harbor?

        There’s more. I looked up references to “roads” and “rivers” and found that several major rivers in the world, including the Thames, have “roads.” Here is a link to a roadstead in a river in Amsterdam that shows one along the river Scheldt, a precedent that there were “”roads” on rivers.

        I looked up the glossary of terms used by Shakespeare (road (n.) 1 harbour, anchorage, roadstead), so it’s likely that Shakespeare used the word “road” broadly as a place where vessels were at anchor. Remember these Italian plays are among the few involving inland river and water travel. The author was flexible, thus Antonio’s words: “Sweet lady, you have given me life and living; For here I read for certain that my ships are safely come to road,” conforming to the usage you are explaining. Clearly the author knew that the audience would understand that Valentine and Proteus are referring to a place where vessels are anchored. Shakespeare was not writing a travelogue, and so was not interested in explaining things that puzzle us like Saint Gregory’s Well (or “falling out at tennis” in Hamlet).

        Finally we come to the opening of TOS.

        The scene is not named near a “harbor” but in “Padua: A Public Place.” We have dealt with the fact that Shakespeare uses “shore” for river in at least one other play. So when, immediately after Baptista and his daughters enter the scene, Lucentio says:

        Gramercies, Tranio, well dost thou advise. If, Biondello, thou wert come ashore, we could at once put us in readiness, and take a lodging fit to entertain such friends as time in Padua shall beget.

        Why, if Biondello were on a boat on the ocean, does he appear with no stage direction for entrance? If he were in a boat coming to shore from a “road,” why would Lucentio even make the remark? And why would Baptista and his daughters come to a roadstead? Since, as Roe points out, Lucentio is looking to be in readiness
        “at once” for lodging, the Inn must be near by. I looked online for “roadsteads” and inns” and only in Hawaii are there any inns in close proximity to “roads.” Most Inns, even in modern times are significant distances from the roads.

        Baptista clearly lives close to this “public place.” I suppose one could stretch and say it is a harbor of the sea, but that was not your argument. Plus Baptista’s appearance, as Roe points out, is much more consistent with a canal stop and the surrounding neighborhood (as Roe discovered), than a seaport. Given all these reasons, a canal stop is much more logical than any reference to an ocean harbor or “road.”

        All the evidence combined indicates that road had a broader meaning than you acknowledge and that Roe was correct in asserting Shakespeare’s accuracy in this as in so many other points.


  3. 1) Roe’s purpose is to prove that Shakespeare knew Italy, that his knowledge went well beyond what someone in England could have picked up from books. He shows this in dozens of points, not just Shakespeare’s knowledge of the canals. His explanation of terms like roads, shipped, flood, tide, and tranect all make perfect sense, proven not by dictionaries written long after such canals ceased to operate, but by maps from the period.

    2) With such extensive use of canals, there’s no reason why the terminology used for seagoing vessels would not be the same for vessels using the canals. That this usage died out with the canals is simply common sense.

    3) Although Roe doesn’t deal with it, it would be a good effort to connect his account with Oxford through his letters from Italy and the plays themselves to show his most likely itinerary.

    I don’t recall reading about any canals in England, but they certainly used the rivers for transport in Oxford’s day. All the important palaces in Elizabethan times were located on the Thames (except for the ones that grew out of hunting lodges). The Thames and many of the English rivers have shrunk since then, but the major ones were still used for shipping in Oxford’s day. As far as I can tell, there were no bridges on the Thames at that time between London Bridge and the one that connected Windsor with Eton. People crossed the river back then on ferries.

    Later: reviewing the conversation so far, it struck me that, as you point out, that Shakespeare was using the word “road” as a shortened form of “roadstead” and not, as Roe seems to propose, as an alternative to “roadways,” is the major point. Roadstead, meaning a protected body of water where vessels can anchor safe from storms, works in every place where he uses the term. We see it used that way today on the Virginia Coast where “Hampton Roads” off Chesapeake Bay provides safety for Navy vessels.

  4. Last piece for now. Roe states that the Po and other rivers were used for sailing for many years for travel. I read parts of Montaigne’s travels in Italy and although he spent some time traveling in canals, and mentions the “tranect”, he does not mention any river travel. Apparently Montaigne preferred to travel by land and most of his diary , even to Verona and Padua is by land. He mentions crossing rivers, like the Adige, but not traveling on them. There seems to be not too much written travel material about river journeys in Italy.

    But Paul Crowley, an Oxfordian, wrote this and I wonder at your response because it fed into the idea of Roe as fantasy and I could find no information on the web about it.

    “I finally got around to getting Roe’s book — after being beset
    technical problems (that you don’t want to know about).

    Fairly disappointing so far — although I may have been reading
    too fast and too skimpily to do it justice. I hope to follow Roe
    a bit more carefully, using Google Earth and Streetview.

    But I hit the classic buffers when I came to the bit so firmly
    endorsed by that classic buffer, Reedy.

    On 25/12/2011 04:22, Tom Reedy wrote:

    > I can honestly say that Roe has proven that it was possible to travel
    > from Verona to Milan

    Roe does no such thing — he merely adds a bit of
    imaginative exploration of the Po Valley to the standard
    list, set out by over-imaginative Oxfordians decades ago.
    Most were Americans. who could not imagine that the
    poet could ever have made a factual point that was not
    literally true.

    The problem about fresh-water river transport before
    steam boats (and the later internal combustion engine)
    was getting upstream. Downstream is easy enough.
    But upstream you need a source of power. That can
    be human rowers — but forget it whenever the flow is
    significant — as it would be on the Po or the Adige
    for most of the year; Maybe after a dry summer, and
    low rainfall in the Alps, the Po might be manageable,
    especially if you had an army to propel a fleet of
    flat-bottomed warships. But the Adige is shorter and
    much faster.

    Another theoretically possible source of power is sail
    — but take a look at a detailed map, and you will see
    that the rivers loop and swing in all kinds of directions.
    You cannot wait for the wind to change to suit such a
    set of constantly changing directions.

    Further, any boats on such rivers would need to be flat-
    bottomed, with shallow drafts — like the Mississippi
    steam boats. But that makes fixing a decent sail on
    them impossible.

    A third theoretically possible source of power comes
    from horses on a tow-path. But they are only possible
    on canals, or on rivers converted to flow like canals.
    They are out of the question on the Po or the Adige,
    which flood heavily every spring, and often at other
    times of the year.

    If you can’t get boats up the river, you can’t have any
    coming down. For the great bulk of their length, the
    Po and the Adige are unnavigable — and always have

    Roe’s theory here is a sorry fantasy. And I am not in
    the least surprised that Reedy fell for it.


    Reedy responds

    “Crowley, Roe proved that once upon a time it was theoretically
    possible to travel from Verona to Milan via **canals**. Where Roe’s
    fantasy comes in is his idea that people used them for travel because they were quicker, more comfortable, and safer than traveling overland. If the roads were full of outlaws how much harder would it be for river pirates to stop a vessel slowly being dragged up or down a 30-foot-wide canal? ”

    Reedy at least seems to admit the water passage via canals, and Roe emphasizes them but does talk about river travel. But Crowley looked at the maps and thought the canals outside Venice were too lacking to support long term travel.

    Sorry to bug you but you seem to be more aware of this then me. I’m calling Maritime museums to get more specific knowledge on “roads” and ancillary housing, etc.



  5. Paul Crowley’s reservations deserve a response. What Roe’s discoveries make clear is that for centuries the towns in northern Italy strove mightily to connect the rivers by means of canals, some of them many kilometers in length. Ergo, whatever the difficulties involved in sailing upstream, the rivers were obviously an important means of transport. The benefit of using the rivers and canals as transport is the matter of weight. It’s not all that hard to ride a horse over rough, rocky, rutted roads, but it’s very difficult to haul heavy wagons loaded with goods or building materials.

    Of course the Po was navigable! Would you have centuries of clever Italians unable to navigate the longest river in their nation? Sailing against the stream would not be a problem when the wind was blowing upstream, and when it was blowing the other way, there are a number of tactics possible to make some headway until the wind comes your way again. The Italians would have been very aware of when the rivers might flood, and so would travellers.

    As for bandits along the roads, it doesn’t take much reading of the history of the period to see that gangs of bandits were a problem everywhere, particularly where roads ran through forests. Montaigne, who travelled through Italy shortly after Oxford, mentions in his diary a particular bandit who was famous. This was a lawless period all over Europe, beset with gangs of all sorts, political refugees, out of work soldiers, who ganged up Robin Hood style and lived off robbing travellers, who were particularly vulnerable riding through forests if not in a large group or protected by “tall men.” Shakespeare romantizes just such a gang in Two Gents. With the rivers and canals loaded with transport vessels and armed navigators intent on protecting their service, holdups would have been difficult to pull off.

    This is history and common sense––not fantasy.

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