Oxford’s travels in Shakespeare’s Italy

As Richard Roe travelled through Italy, tracking down the real locations where events occur in Shakespeare, he carried with him dog-eared copies of the plays with the place names underlined that were clues to the locations he was seeking, an accumulation of well-worn maps and travel guides, and his camera.  Today, these have fed with facts, names, places and photographs his brilliant feat of literary forensics: the evidence that Shakespeare knew these places personally, that he always knew what he was talking about and––greatly important to authorship scholars––that he was there himself.   This changes our view of how Shakespeare functioned.  If he was so specific about Italy, he can be trusted in other areas, as readers steeped in ancient literature, horticulture, Renaissance Law, medicine, and astronomy, have attested over and over through the years.

Most of the photos here were taken by Roe himself on his journeys.  (Click on thumbnails to enlarge.)  Much as they enhance his book, they’re fairly small in size.  Through the generosity of his daughter, Hillary Roe Metternich, I can share with you here enlarged versions of a few of the photographs he took during his travels, from the Verona of Romeo and Proteus to the Padua of Petrucio, the Venice of Shylock and Othello, the Sicily of Leontus and Prospero, and a little-known town just outside Mantua where he envisioned the events and characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Romeo and Juliet

Roe begins his book where Shakespeare began his play, in “fair” Verona, “the first Italian city a sensible traveler from England would reach, having successfully crossed the Alps and come down through the Brenner Pass” (5).  In “the first act, the very first scene” of the play that so many believe to have been Shakespeare’s first, Romeo’s mother, Lady Montague, asks Benvolio if he knows her son’s whereabouts.  Benvolio’s answer, that just before dawn, driven by “a troubled mind” to “walk abroad,” he’d seen his friend within “the grove of sycamores that westward rooteth from the city’s side.”  On the wildest of hunches that trees described 400 years ago might still be thriving near the western wall of Verona, Roe went (by taxi) to the western gate, saw the sycamores––and took pictures!

In Italian versions of the story, Juliet is ordered by her father to meet Paris at “Villafranca,” which, translated, means “Freetown,” which is what Arthur Brooke called it in his 1562 narrative poem, long regarded as the major source for Shakepeare’s version, and what Shakespeare calls it when he has Prince Escalus order the warring capos, Montague and Capulet, to appear before him in Court.  So what was “Freetown”?  What was Villafranca?  And who was Prince Escalus?  All three turn out to be historically accurate.  Escalus is Latin for della Scala, in English the Scaliger family, rulers of Verona and its surrounding territories for several centuries in the late Middle Ages, while Villafranca, or Freetown, three hours ride by horse from Verona, is the location of the great fortress, administration center of the della Scala domain, where it stands to this day, as Roe’s photos testify.

Roe’s efforts to track Romeo and Juliet were less complicated than many of his searches since they were real individuals whose story continues to be told and retold in Verona to this day.  Roe was directed to the homes of both, still easily located.  While Romeo’s is well-documented, Juliet’s must rest on the tradition that locates it in a villa on the Via Capello.  The orchard in which Romeo took refuge is gone, while Juliet’s balcony is located in the wrong place (over the front door, where it was added in modern times to satisfy the demands of tourists), since, as it turns out, in no account of their romance, including Shakespeare’s, did Juliet call to Romeo from anything but her window.

Also easily located was Friar’s Lawrence’s Monastery, where a number of scenes take place including the lovers’ marriage and their deaths.  Less easily located was St. Peter’s Church, where Juliet was supposed to marry Paris, but this too yielded to Roe’s perseverence, its location eventually revealed not far from Juliet’s home or Friar Lawrence’s monastery.

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Though it begins in Verona, most of this play takes place in Milan.  And while most of the places and characters in Romeo and Juliet are historically real, the two gentlemen of the title, Valentine and Proteus and all the other characters in the play are products of Shakespeare’s imagination.   Critics claim the same for the play’s geography, “with seacoasts and harbors that never exited, and historical events that never happened,”  but once again Roe proves that it’s the critics who are wrong, and Shakespeare who knew what he was talking about.  His characters might be imagined, but not their travels nor their lodgings.

The first issue is how the boys (they were probably meant to be about 17, certainly no more than 21) get to Milan from Verona, both inland cities, located 160 kilometers apart.  As the play begins, Valentine is saying goodbye to his best friend: “Once more adieu; my father at the road expects my coming, there to see me shipp’d.” Roe points out that by “road” Valentine means anchorage or port, while “shipped” means sent by water; (today we use the term for any means of transporting goods, but the root word ship shows its origin).   According to Roe:

Since Roman times, Verona was a city of major importance as a center to shipping, serving traffic, trade and travelers going through the Brenner Pass above it.  By means of the Adige River, one could sail to and from it to many cities in Italy.  One could also sail from Verona, through the mouth of the Adige, and reach the Adriatic arm of the Mediterranean Sea––and thence to the rest of the world. (38)

Clearly Valentine and later Proteus “shipped” from Verona by water, but how did this take them to Milan, located inland, with no connecting river?  The place from which Valentine and later Proteus depart from Verona was easy enough to locate: a vast quay just downstream from the great stone Ponte Navi (Ship Bridge), destroyed in World War II, but remembered through paintings like this one by the 18th century artist, Bernardo Bellotto.  But since the Adige River  flows east, how did they get to Milan, located far to the west?  However they got there, it’s obvious they came by water since Proteus, having just arrived in Milan in Act II Scene 4, greets Valentine, saying “Go on before . . .  I must unto the road [the quay], to disembark some necessaries . . . .”

The problem for critics arises partly from misunderstanding Shakespeare’s use of terms like road and shipped, partly from his mention of “tides” (which then meant more than just sea levels, and so was a good source of puns), but mostly from the ignorant assumption that people travelled in the 16th century much as they do today, on land.  The fact is that most people then travelled––whenever and wherever they could––by water, if near the sea then along the coast, if inland on rivers, and where there were no rivers, by barges on man-made canals that then and for another two centuries connected most of the major inland towns and cities of Italy.  Travel by water was faster, easier, and far less dangerous than travel by land, as Shakespeare shows in the final act when the two gents get held up by bandits in a forest outside Milan.

In fact, as Roe came to realize, the Milan of Shakespeare’s day was surrounded by a network of canals created over the centuries to connect it to the rivers that, fed by Alpine snows, led to the sea and the wide world of international trade, rivers whose waters were also needed to nourish the farms that fed the Milanese.  It so happened that the final link in this chain of canals connecting Verona to Milan had only been finished in 1573 two years before Oxford’s visit, when travellers were still fascinated by its locks, marvels of engineering originally invented by Leonardo da Vinci (47).  We can’t know for certain that in 1575, Oxford himself traveled from Verona to Milan in this manner, but we can be certain that he knew how it was done.

Another Shakespearean “mistake” in Two Gents that Roe sought to unravel was the “Emperor’s Court” to which, in Act I Scene 3, Panthino urges Antonio to send his son Proteus so that he may, like Valentine, who has gone before him, “practise tilts and tournaments, hear sweet discourse, converse with noblemen, and be in the eye of every exercise worthy of his youth and nobleness of birth” (65).  The problem for the historians has been the fact that there was no “Emperor’s Court” in Milan, which was never governed by anyone greater than a duke.  Nevertheless, as Roe discovered with a little investigation, there was in fact an Emperor whose Court was in Milan (however briefly) during the period that Shakespeare treats in the play.

It appears that in 1533, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, having established his dominion over all of Italy four years earlier, had accepted an invitation from Milan’s Duke Francesco to receive his oath of fealty in the Duke’s home city.  Milan and all its surrounding towns contributed to the preparations for a great welcoming ceremony.  Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (whose family murders inspired the play within a play in Hamlet), assigned his Court artist, Julio Romano, to design an imperial arch of triumph (69) to welcome the Emperor and his Court (his retinue).  The Emperor arrived, accepted the Duke’s oath, and enjoyed the festivities for three days.  However, having set forth on the morning of the fourth day for what was believed would be a few days of hunting, he never returned.  It seems he and his courtiers simply continued on to their home in Spain, an embarrassment forgotten by everyone but the Milanese.

The bit that required some real digging was the mention by Proteus in Act V Scene 2 of “St. Gregory’s Well,” where Proteus directs Thurio in search of Silvia, and which an Italian friend translated as il pozzo di San Gregorio.  Roe was able to locate where the present church of St. Gregory stood back then, on the verge of the immense lot outside the city that had once been the walled-in Lazzaretto where the Milanese quarantined their plague victims––but according to its priest, the church had never had a well, and apart from one Italian friend who recognized in “il pozzo di San Gregorio” a phrase her grandmother used as a “synonym for Hell” (75), no one had any idea of what it meant.  In time his friend came up with the answer.  The “well” referred to was the immense hole dug in the churchyard of San Gregorio where the dead were dumped by the hundreds during the epidemics of the 16th century––truly a hellish place––and understandable as one where a thoughtless youth like Proteus might send a detested rival for his girl’s affections.  Oxford would certainly have known all about the plague of 1575, for it followed hard upon his own visit, beginning its historic three-year devastation of the population of Milan later that same year.

Taming of the Shrew

However rich his imagination, it seems that Shakespeare had a very literal mind after all.  Contrary to the lazy conclusions of his commentators, it seems he was far more inclined to base his stories in real times and places.  So after carefully tracing exactly how Lucentio could have travelled from Pisa to Padua by means of the rivers and canals in operation at that time, and locating the exact spot in Padua where they disembark, Roe thought he just might also be able to locate the hostelry in Padua where they took rooms.

From Lucentio’s opening lines: “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 . . . .” the “at once” raised the hope that in tradition-bound Italy where things tend to stay the same for centuries, such a hostelry might still be found somewhere near the dock where they arrived.  Since the entrance moments later of Baptista Minola and his daughters shows that they too live just steps from where Lucentio and Biondello have disembarked, could both these dwellings have been near to the quay where the travelers landed?  This got even more likely when he managed to locate St. Luke’s, the church where Biondello claims that Lucentio will marry Bianca, just steps from the quay.  Since Italian marriages took place in the bride’s own parish church, this locates the Minola household within the same parish as the dock.  Roe says of his discovery:

The little Saint Luke’s Church lies just inside Padua’s medieval wall, close to an arched opening . . . .  Making my way through that arch, I found myself staring at the setting of Act I Scene 1 of The Taming of the Shrew.  I was sure of this as I looked around me.  To this very day the entire layout before my eyes possesses all the elements that exactly fit the describing dialogues in that opening scene:
•  a waterway (now narrowed by centuries of cast rubble);
•  a landing place, quay, or road where a boat could tie up (now reduced to a narrow ledge);
•  a bridge across that waterway, connecting both to a street with a Saint Luke’s Church nearby; and
•  a wide space with a cluster of buildings (part street, part plaza).  (103)

On a photocopy of a map from the 18th century, he noticed that in the very spot where a hotel, labelled Osteria, or hostelry, with an arcade was sketched stood a hotel with an arcade just like the one on the map.  As he says, “Still on that bridge, turning slowly, taking in the full circle sweep of the utter reality of all that the playwright described, I knew in a rush that I was standing exactly where the author of The Taming of the Shrew had stood four centuries before me, absorbing all he saw around him” (104).


The Merchant of Venice

There is a good deal more in this book than just the issues surrounding buildings and locations that Roe was able to photograph with his point-and-shoot camera.  For instance he begins his examination of Merchant of Venice by detailed tracking of the facts with regard to the “mistakes” invariably noted by the “experts” who write the notes to editions of the play.  Because they subscribe to the ignorant Shakespeare theory, most never bother with the kind of intensive background study that give Roe the final word on Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy, and in particular, of Venice, its Jewish population, their traditions and circumstances in their neighborhood, yet to be named the Ghetto, and the trading and banking laws and practises of Venice, centered in the neighborhood known as the Rialto.

Once again, a single word caught Roe’s attention.   In Act II Scene 6, Gratiano and Salerio, disguised as masquers, are discussing their plan to help Jessica rob her father so she can run off with their friend Lorenzo.  Gratiano says, “This is the penthouse under which Lorenzo desired us make a stand.”  Since Act II Scene 5 takes place “before Shylock’s house,” and Scene 6 is marked “the same,” we know that the penthouse is Shylock’s house.  Caught by the word “penthouse,” which to Shakespeare meant a small building added on to a bigger building, Roe discovered that there was only one such building in the Ghetto at that time, which happened to be located next door to one of the loan banks that Venetian law, due to the fact that Catholics were forbidden to lend for profit, was restricted to the Jewish quarter.

Was there a real Shylock, and did he live next to the bank?  Since the penthouse and the bank are still in existence (God bless the Italians!) and still next to each other, I would guess that, once again, Oxford was making use of a personal experience, when he, like Antonio, was forced to ask one of the money-lenders of Venice (perhaps some ill-tempered old father of an attractive young brunette) for a loan to tide him over until he can get some more money from England.

Having deciphered the heretofore misunderstood meaning of “Tranect” (Act III Scene 4), the machine by which Portia and Nerissa transfer from the Brenta Canal onto a gondola on the Venetian lagoon, Roe turned his attention to locating Belmont, Portia’s estate, which, according to Shakespeare, was located on the Canal some 5 miles from the Tranect.  This turned out to be the Villa Foscari, one of the most famous of the villas created by Andrea Palladio, built in 1560 and still standing as the central administration building of the University of Venice (152).  If Oxford was entertained in 1575 at one of the receptions for which it was renowned, he would have heard of the grand reception given the year before for the French King, Henri III.


Although most of Othello takes place on Cyprus, Venice is where the play begins, and where Roe sought to track down the mysterious place Shakespeare termed “The Sagittary” where Iago so rudely informs Brabantio that his daughter Desdemona is consorting with Othello.  After discussing the guesswork that the name has raised with other commentators, Roe shows that it must have been, not an inn nor a military barracks, the usual guesses, but a particular neighborhood.

As so often happens with Shakespeare scholarship, the truth was long since provided (in 1932) by Violet M. Jeffreys in her book Shakespeare’s Venice, but as Ms. Jeffreys was clearly not a member of the fraternity that focuses solely on each other’s books and articles, it vanished until unearthed again by Richard Roe.  As Jeffreys informed him, and us, The Sagittary was English for Frezzeria––Venetian dialect for the Italian frecciaria––a narrow street where the makers of arrows had their shops.  In Italian, the word arrow can be said either as frezza or sagitta.

Roe goes no further in Othello than the first act since the rest of the play takes place in Cyprus.  However, he does comment on the attack on Cyprus that dominates the story, that took place in 1570, and that was a major reason why, by 1573, English trading ships were finally allowed to dock there after many years of Venetian embargo, a detail that adds to the general impression that events occuring in and near Italy in the early 1570s were of particular interest to Shakespeare, who wove them into the plots and characters of his Italian plays.  These of course were the years immediately preceeding Oxford’s visit in 1575.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream

While on his way from Verona to Florence, Roe made a two-day stopover in Mantua, to see, as he says, the works of Shakespeare’s favorite artist, Julio Romano.  While there he was persuaded by another traveler to spend a day in the nearby town of Sabbionetta.  Attracted by its description, he went with no idea that it could hold anything relevant to his research project.

It turned out that Sabbionetta was (and still is) a sort of theme park from the very period that Oxford spent in Italy.  Ruled in the 16th century by Vespasiono Gonzaga, a member of the same family that controlled Mantua, and that would inspire some of Hamlet, Vespasiano was enamored of architecture based on the book de Architectura by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, which, Roe tells us, he was known to carry with him at all times, even into battle (181).  The buildings he inspired in Sabbioneta lend a unity of design to the town that modern life has apparently done little to erase.  Since Vitruvius was a conduit of information about sacred architecture, this suggests that Vespasiano was a member of one of the secret wisdom societies that eventually surfaced as Freemasonry, as was probably true of Oxford as well.

After explaining that the town was known as “Little Athens” due to the intellectual nature of the Duke and his friends and their fascination with Greek enlightenment, Roe’s tour guide mentioned that the passageway through the great town gate was known as “il Quercia dei Duca,” which, translated, meant “the Duke’s Oak.”  Perhaps few tourists besides Roe would be able so quickly to recall that in Act I Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was at “the Duke’s Oak” that Peter Quince tells his friends that they must meet to rehearse their play.  The passageway with this interesting name led, not to a particular tree, but to an oak forest, the Duke’s hunting preserve, where, in Shakespeare’s mind, Oberon clashes with Titania and Bottom the Weaver is so absurdly “translated.”

This, plus the reference to the town as “Little Athens,” showed Roe that, through sheer serendipity, he had landed on the very turf where Shakespeare placed the plot and characters of his great masterpiece.  It told him as well that the play was not located near Athens, Greece, as the “experts” would have it, but in Italy.  As Roe informs us:

Some of the buildings in Sabbioneta were originally commodious quarters for the duke’s invited guests, his pleasure having been in inviting the erudite among both Italy’s, and other western Europe’s, noblity and intelligentsia for a visit to his model city.  While there they would admire his rich collections of paintings and sculpture and take part in the festivities, salons, and scholarly lectures that he sponsored during his lifetime. (182)

This certainly sounds like the sort of place where Oxford would have most enjoyed himself, where he would have felt at home and appreciated for his talents and learning by a nobleman close to him in age, education and interests.  Surrounded by the architectural beauty that he’d come to appreciate while living with Smith, a hunting trip in the sun-dappled oak forest with Vespasiano and his erudite companions conjured up associations with the forest spirits he had learned about from Smith’s household staff (and saw for himself?) during his childhood years near Windsor Forest.

Thus, in the original version of the play, it must be that Theseus and his Athenian court were based on Vespasiano Gonzaga and the retinue of artists, architects, scholars and intellectuals that gave the town its nickname.  That the play was later revised as an entertainment for the 1594 wedding of the Countess of Southampton to Sir Thomas Heneage in no way counters Roe’s discovery of its origin.

The history of Shakespeare’s works is (or should be) one long account of revisions for later events.  The Italian plays must all have seen their first versions within the first two or three years following Oxford’s year of travels abroad, the only such excursion he was ever to have.  That he wrote most of them, perhaps all of them, within a year or two of his tour, is suggested by the preponderance of youthful protagonists (under 25)  that drive the action.  He may add or increase a more mature version of himself later, such as Antonio in Merchant or Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, but the youthful protagonist usually remains, if not as lead, then as his friend or brother.


All’s Well that Ends Well

Though All’s Well takes place mostly in France, Roe was eager to discover whether the eight scenes that take place in Florence were based on the author’s personal knowledge.  Seeking first to locate the play in time, his first clue was Bertram’s response to the French King’s command in Act II Scene 3 that he marry his father’s ward, the declassé Helen: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her!”  What Tuscan wars?  The clue to that comes in Act I Scene 2, where the King comments to two of his companions: “The Florentine and Senoys (Sienese, inhabitants of Siena) . . . continue a braving war.”  So at what point in these wars does the play take place?  It couldn’t be any later than 1555, which is when Florence under the Medici, finally, after centuries of fighting, permanently conquered Siena.  Since this final phase occured during the brief reign of Henri II, it must be he who orders Bertram to marry Helen.

Act III Scene 5 provides the clues that make it certain that the author knew Florence personally.  Bertram having left for Italy, Helen, determined to get her man, has set forth on her journey of reconciliation.  Disguised as a religious pilgrim, she has travelled on foot from one religious hostelry to another until, arriving in Florence at the same time that the arrival of Bertram’s company is announced with trumpet flourishes (tuckets), she asks a Widow of the City and her friends “Where do the palmers (pilgrims) lodge?”  The Widow’s response gives the clue Roe hoped would prove the author’s personal knowledge: “At the Saint Francis here beside the port.”  This “Saint Francis” then must be a hostelry for pilgrims run by Franciscan friars.

Having determined what was meant by “the port”; and through which gate to the city a company returning from the war with Siena would enter; and assuming that their goal would most likely be the Fortezza da Basso, the huge complex that was home base for the Florentine military, Roe mapped Bertram and his company’s most likely route through the city.  This allowed him to place the Widow and her friends where they would be able to see the troops as they pass, and thus to locate Helen as well at the moment that she asks the Widow for directions.  It turns out that this place still exists, the Piazza Goldoni, just steps away from the Porta Romana.

I positioned myself around the Piazza Goldoni and looked this way and that.  Then I had it.  All the elements fit.  Were Widow to stand at the corner of the Piazza Goldoni and the Borgo Ognissanti, she could both view the oncoming parade and direct Helen.  In that exact spot, by pointing her index finger, Widow could accurately inform her that the pilgrim lodge was “here beside the Port.” (209)

But where was “the Saint Francis, and could Roe actually hope to find it after 400 years of life and change?  Before leaving America he had sought ways he might be able to identify it.  Because buildings were identified in that illiterate time by images, not signs, his search was assisted by a Franciscan in California who provided him with a sketch of their traditional insignia.  Long story short, he found it, right where Shakespeare said it would be, “a plain building with a large door” and “embedded directly above it . . . the sign of Saint Francis, exactly where it had been since the building changed hands in the late sixteenth century. . . .”  Roe was not seeking the Florence of Henry II, when the hotel of Saint Francis was located in some other place, he was seeking Shakespeare’s Florence––that is, the one the Earl of Oxford explored in 1575.

Four centuries ago the author of Alls Well that Ends Well stood in front of this same building where I was standing now.  He may not have known that the sign was placed above this door only about six years after “the Tuscan wars” had ended and the Franciscans had settled in, but I knew that this would not matter at all” (211).

Once again we see that Oxford located one of his stories in a time he knew from his knowledge of French history (Henri II was the father of Henri III, the King of France in 1575) and in a place he knew from having been there himself.  His was the sort of imagination that needs real things and real experiences to build upon.  As he travelled from city to city, Oxford knew the Queen was waiting, not for the perfumed gloves he would bring her, anyone could do that, but for witty and informative plays about places she herself would probably never see and events that continued to reverberate through the challenging relationships with Italy and Spain that were her and her ministers constant concern.

For the Queen also, and for his in-laws and the rest of the Court community, Oxford must have hoped that the story would demonstrate his remorse for his defiance of her Majesty’s will, his regrets for having allowed a wicked fool like Rowland Yorke to lead him astray, and for his rotten treatment of his wife, poor loyal Anne Cecil.  These personal concerns are what allow us to date the play towards the end of his banishment, late 1582 or early ’83, when he was at pains to get back into the Queen’s and Burghley’s good graces.

It must have been deemed too obviously personal to publish in quarto.  With so many obvious connections to his own life (his travels in Italy) and of his wife Anne (Helen), his father-in-law Burghley (Lafeu), the Queen (the King), and his rascally friend Yorke (Parolles), although it was probably revised and performed for the public in the ’90s and early 1600s, it was one of the 16 plays that remained unpublished until the First Folio in 1623.

Messina: Much Ado About Nothing

With his interest in history and his willingness to dig deep for clues, Roe establishes the background to what is neither a comedy nor a tragedy nor even simply a drama, but a genuine romance in a modern style.  To enjoy this wonderful play there’s no need to know the historical background, that is, unless you’re curious about who wrote it.  The ignorant Shakespeare of the Stratfordians could not possibly have known enough of Mediterranean history to provide a genuine backstory, so why bother to seek?  But, as Roe makes clear, it seems that, to give his stories life, Shakespeare must needs visualize his characters as particular people he knows, placing them in particular situations he knows from books or his own experience, and in locations with which he’s personally familiar.  This is simply the way he thinks, the way he creates.

In bringing the romances of Much Ado to life, why did he choose Sicily as a location and events in Sicilian history as the background?  Surely the prince that Shakespeare is depicting as entering victorious from some great battle surrounded by his noble lieutenants, suggests the famous Marco Antonio Colonna, commander of the Papal forces that helped defeat the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, an event that brought security to Venice and opened up the eastern half of the Mediterranean to English trade.  This bit of Sicilian history would have been of great and continuing interest to an English audience, particularly to merchants, tradesmen, ship-owners and the Queen, for whom commercial traffic in the wealthy Mediterranean was a major source of revenue.  Clearly it’s this great victory, which would forever last in history as the turning point in the effort by the Christian West to defeat the Ottoman Empire and  hold off the spread of Islam, that Shakespeare’s characters are celebrating in this happy play.

However, as so often where real persons are being portrayed, Shakespeare’s names only hint at their true identities.  Following Bandello’s 1554 version of the story, he calls Colonna “Don Pedro” possibly for an earlier military saviour, Pedro III (King of Aragon and Catalonia), who overthrew the French occupation of Sicily in the 13th century.  Colonna’s importance to the victory at Lepanto (as seen in this contemporary painting where he’s the central figure) is evident from the fact that it was in the harbor at Messina that the Christian forces assembled before sailing to confront the Turks, and that he was made Viceroy of Sicily the following year.  However, the primary architect of the great victory, the one who gets the credit anyway, was Don John of Austria.  As illegitimate son of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and head of the Holy League, Don John’s role as the great general who saved Sicily is remembered by a grateful nation with a monument and statue, placed in the Messina city square in 1572.

Shakespeare was obsessed with Don John, whose valor in both battle and boudoir were renowned––he is popularly believed to be the original of the Don Juan (aka Don Giovanni) of story and legend––as he reveals in Coriolanus, in which the angry protagonist loves and admires his enemy, Aufidius, almost as much as he hates him. 

In Much Ado, however, John is no hero, but a resentful bastard, half-brother to the Prince, who plots out of sheer wrong-headed envy to prevent Hero’s marriage to Claudio.  While Coriolanus would have been written primarily for the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, Much Ado was obviously written for the Royal Court, where Don John could hardly be portrayed as anything but a villain since it was known to everyone that at the time of his death in 1578 he had been plotting to attack England and either supplant the Queen, or (more frightening yet) marry her!  Indeed, Don John had much to be resentful about, not because he was illegimate, but also because his half-brother, Philip II, who ruled the western world as King of Spain, was able to keep his far more able brother stuck in subordinate positions and at locations where he was unable to use his intelligence and charm for any sort of self-advancement.

Unlike Florence or Venice, where many public buildings remain from early times, Messina has been so devastated over the centuries by the explosions of its great volcano that there is little left from the sixteenth century.  One building that survived until recently was the ancient Temple of Hercules (now only a a few broken columns and a pile of rubble), built by the Greeks in the first century BC, and renowned throughout the ancient world for the purity of its Doric style (227).   Though appropriated by Florence during the Renaissance as the Church of St. John the Baptist, it continued throughout the centuries to be referred to as simply “the Temple,”  surely the same “temple” where Shakespeare tells us Hero will marry Claudio.

Still surviving in Messina are several “pleached alleys” like the one where Beatrice and Benedick are teased by their friends into believing that each is in love with the other.  Such groves are found in many locations around the Mediterranean, where finding escape from the summer heat outdoors has always been an issue.  To create such a grove, trees are planted close together in rows; as they grow, their branches are “pleached”––that is, pruned and intertwined in such a way that they create a cool, refreshing bower where people can relax outdoors protected from the sun beneath a thick, leafy roof, the air sweet with flowering vines.


The Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare thrived on mixing genres and plots, but rarely to the extent we find in The Winter’s Tale, a hodgepodge of pastoral romance, comedy, tragedy, myth and history; of such oddly mixed sources as Robert Greene, Ovid, and Euripedes (Showerman); of all periods in history, ancient, medieval and contemporary; and most uniquely of such widely dispersed locations as Sicily, Bohemia, and Greece.  However this hodgepodge may have entertained audiences in the past, today it’s most interesting for what it can tell us about the author, his life and his methods, perhaps the very reason why it remained unpublished until 1623.

Roe’s purpose here is to show that, however oddly disparate Shakespeare’s locations in Winter’s Tale, they reflect the author’s own travels.  In other words, while on the continent, he travelled at one time or another to all three: Sicily, specifically Palermo and Messina; Bohemia, or rather the bit of coastline at the northern end of the Adriatic where medieval “Bohemia” had once had access to the sea (now Trieste); and Delphi, just north of the Bay of Corinth in southern Greece.  It seems that Shakespeare had seen for himself that stretch of sandy beach where Perdita was deposited by Antigonus who then was chased, and eaten, by a bear––a trained bear no doubt from the Beargarden on Bankside, perhaps the famed Harry Hunks or Sackerson.

Shakespeare reveals through dialogue that it took Cleomenes and Dion 23 days to go from Palermo to Delphi and back.  So, as Roe tells us, if today it takes ten days to make the trip by water from Palermo to the Gulf of Corinth, three days to climb to Delphi and back, and another ten to return by water to Sicily, it looks like once again, Shakespeare knew his stuff.  Tides and currents being much the same through time, travel by sail then would have been little different from what it is today for sailing vessels whose purpose is to transport travellers and goods from one city to another.

Vulcano: The Tempest

Perhaps no question in Shakespeare studies has raised so much discussion and dispute as what island it was that Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote The Tempest.  Roe offers impressive evidence that it must have been Vulcano, a small volcanic island located just off the coast of Sicily, where he found so many characteristics that correspond to Shakespeare’s descriptions.  Vulcano is the southernmost of the Aeolian islands, named for Aeolus, Greek god of the winds.  Located just north of Sicily and just west of the most dangerous passage in the Mediterranean, the Strait of Messina where turbulent currents create the whirlpool known by the Greeks as Scylla, just across the narrow strait from the equally dangerous rocky cliffs they called Charybdis.  No place in the Mediterranean is so famous for its tempests and shipwrecks, as Virgil knew when he wrote of the voyage of Aeneas 1600 years earlier, the very route followed by Shakespeare’s Alonso.  Perhaps most convincing are the connections he sees between the characters in the play and events in Mediterranean history, something that Stratfordian advocates of Bermuda are forced to ignore.

Concerned that the authorship issue could swamp his important discovery, Roe keeps Oxford out of the picture, but the connections he makes with contemporary events are more compelling if seen in context with Oxford and his Italian travels.  When visiting Florence in 1575, Oxford would have been well aware that the present ruler, Francesco de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, had just inherited his lofty title from his powerful father, Cosimo, the conqueror of all Tuscany.  He would also have been aware of Francesco’s reputation as a student of the occult, in other words, of magic, and of his lack of interest in affairs of state, something Shakespeare demonstrates is also true of Prospero, who speaks of himself  as “the prime duke, being so reputed in dignity, and for the liberal arts without a parallel, those being all my study, the government I cast upon my brother and to my state grew stranger, being transported and rapt in secret studies” (Act I Scene 2).

With the Duke’s reputation as a recluse it’s not likely that Oxford had occasion to meet him, or his mistress, the famed beauty Bianca Capella.  Once back in England, Oxford and the entire Court community would have been aware of the death of the Duke’s wife, Isabella, in 1578, and his marriage to Bianca that followed. They would also have known about his and Bianca’s suspicious deaths on March 20, 1587, shortly after sharing a meal with his younger brother Ferdinand, who proceeded to inherit his throne.  Ferdinand certainly had motives, the Duke was unpopular and regarded as incompetant, while Bianca was making moves to have the son born before their marriage legitimized, which would complicate Ferdinand’s hopes of succession.

The Court was always fascinated with news from other European courts, particularly those of the Italian princes during the decadent period following their great Renaissance.  Stories of the poisonings and other murders of princes and their wives fueled many of the plays of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.  This bit of scandal would have continued to interest the English when Charles I married Henrietta Maria, granddaughter of Duke Francesco and his first wife, Isabella.

Most of the plays in the First Folio are the result of several revisions over the years; particularly the masterpieces.  Some scenes originated as early as the 1560s when he was still a teenager; many of the comedies were first written for Court holiday festivities and weddings; while tragedies and other more serious plays were written first for the gentlemen of the Inns of Court during his banishment.  The versions we know from the First Folio were, all but two or three, versions written during the 1590s for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that would eventually control all his plays.  Unlike The Winter’s Tale or Two Gentlemen, neither one of his masterpieces, The Tempest shows evidence of many rewrites.

As Stritmatter and Kositsky show in their articles, the first version was probably very early, based on the work of Richard Eden, a student of Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith.  From Smith Oxford acquired a fascination with Greek and Roman literature and history and with the idea of colonizing wild overseas territories.  The final version, the one we know from the First Folio, was probably the one produced for the wedding of Oxford’s daughter Susan Vere to the young Earl of Montgomery in 1604, labelled The Spanish Maze (Stritmatter).  But there are traces of others, most notably the one produced for the marriage of his oldest daughter Elizabeth to the Earl of Derby in 1595.  But Roe’s work suggests an earlier version, one produced in the late 1580s or early ’90s, when rumors of the poisoning of Duke Francesco and his wife by his brother coincided the increasing threats to Oxford’s stage by his Cecil in-laws.

Among the similarities to the island of the Tempest and the island known as Vulcano, is the muddy pool described in Act IV Scene 1 in which the drunken trio of conspirators gets mired, a pool described as “filthy-mantled pool,” a “foul lake” that smells like “horse piss” and the steaming mud pool on Vulcano, reeking of sulphur and covered (mantled) with a sulphurous crust.  He notes that Ariel describes the beaches on Propero’s island as having “yellow sands,” another similarity, since the yellow sulphur from Vulcano’s volcano coats everything with a bright yellow dust.  In Act I Scene 2 where Miranda describes “the sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch, but the sea, mounting to the welkins cheek, dashes the fire out,” a perfect description of the action of the “fumeroles” that send molten sulphur into the air, which burst into flame before being turned into spouts of boiling hot steam by the cold seawater.

The “noises” that “give delight and hurt not” (Act III Scene 2) he attributes to the volcano, noises mentioned long before by Virgil, who noted the island’s “groaning, hissing, pounding and panting” in The Aeneid (284-5).  Scamels, mentioned by Caliban in Act II Scene 2, are a particular kind of sea bird found in the area––and in England, where they’re known as bar-tailed godwits.  As for Caliban, it turns out that in Catalan, a language spoken in all the islands of the western Mediterranean, caliban means “outcast, or pariah” (288) while Ariel means mischievous air or water spirit.  Roe has even identified the “deep nook” wherein Ariel hid the ship, the Grotto del Cavallo.


By combining these hints from Shakespeare’s text with the known travels of the Earl of Oxford, we enrich our knowledge of all aspects of Shakespeare and his world.  By knowing where the Italian plays were conceived we have a much deeper understanding of the works themselves, what time period they cover, what historical incidents inspired them, and what these elements meant to the author and his intended audiences.  By knowing who wrote them we can follow his trail, and where there’s no third party evidence, we are free to find the next best thing in evidence from his plays.  Finally, by knowing what things are true, we can see more clearly where he departed from history and where he turned to autobiography or to fantasy, which was not nearly so often as imagined by Milton (who probably knew better, but who, as Poet Laurette, must needs follow the party line on Shakespeare).

In his teens and early twenties, Oxford had already created plays about characters and events he’d found in Homer and Plutarch.  Unlike King John, whose showdown with the Barons took place a stone’s throw from Smith’s manor at Ankerwycke, or Edmund Ironside, whose battles took place a few miles from Hill Hall in Essex, these Greek and Roman stories happened far away in unknown Mediterranean lands and waters.   There were no cameras in Oxford’s time, no photos, no glossy coffee table books, no travel shows on television, to show him what these places were really like.  Words in books fell short.  Travelers tended to tell tall tales.  What was true, what not?  He simply had to see these places and their peoples for himself, first hand.

Fearful of what her “Turk” might do if allowed to travel, the Queen kept her playwright on a short leash, finding reasons why she couldn’t allow him to go.  He was turning 25 before she finally agreed to permit him a year abroad.  But Oxford was lucky in traveling just when he did, for had he been able to take his trip in his late teens, as Sidney had, he would never have been able to explore much beyond northern Italy due to the dangers of being overtaken by Turkish or Algerian pirates.  And had he planned on traveling the following year he would have been shut out of Italy altogether, as the plague took hold.  It would be a worthwhile task to examine the documentation on the great plague of 1575-76 throughout Italy as it relates to his travels and even his location, which, in Venice, must have been in a neighborhood or suburb where he felt relatively safe.

Upon returning to England, Oxford used his travels as the basis for plays and stories with which he entertained the Court, combining his impression of the places he had seen with plots from stories recalled from Homer and Plutarch, from Ovid and Belleforest, stories that he reworked partly to entertain and partly to explain himself to his judgmental, uncomprehending Court community.

4 thoughts on “Oxford’s travels in Shakespeare’s Italy

  1. Thanks for the excerpts and comments! Hopefully this book will get into many hands and lie on the same table or hard drive as the works themselves.

  2. Thank you for sharing the larger pictures and detailed review. I received this book as a gift last week–on a Nook. The pictures are unfortunately too small to use, so I’ll have to purchase a paper copy.

  3. I’ve wondered if the pirates stole Manuscripts from him when he was attacked at the end of his travels. I can’t imagine that he would not have been writing something while on his journeys. I guess I was fantasizing about them showing up in someone’s collections someday, after having been in a vault somewhere. The dead sea scrolls survived in fairly good condition for longer than that.

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