Literature lovers may be keen to discover Shakespeare’s Venice, to see the city where he set two of his most famous plays. But what was the playwright’s association with Venice, or even with Italy? And where can you find Shakespeare in Venice today?
Shakespeare Plays Set In Italy
13 of Shakespeare’s plays were set, wholly or partly, in Italy. I’ve previously written about Romeo and Juliet in Verona, but he used many other locations throughout the country. For instance, The Taming of the Shrew takes place in Padua and tragedies such as Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus are set in Rome.
However, there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever visited Italy, or even that he travelled outside of England. What we know of his life does not suggest that he would actually have had the opportunity to do so. However, that does not deter some critics from pointing to gaps in his biography and concluding that he may have spent some years in Italy.
Why Did Shakespeare Write His Italian Plays?
Perhaps a more interesting question is why he chose Italy as a setting for so much of his work. It is certainly the case that Shakespeare would have known about Italy, and that he would have met people who had visited the country. It is also true that Italian culture was very popular at the time, and that Shakespeare used Italian writers for some of his source material.
Another consideration was that he had to avoid both the official censor and the displeasure of England’s rulers. Social and political commentary would have been easier – and safer – if his plays were set in a different time or place.
Two of Shakespeare’s plays – Merchant of Venice and Othello – were set in Venice. But if he never visited Italy how did he know so much about the city?
In the 16th century, when the plays were written, Venice was at the height of its influence. It was the meeting place of several trade routes and a major cultural centre. Any Englishman who travelled to Italy would be bound to visit Venice.
So Shakespeare, who lived in London and mixed with the rich and powerful, would have heard all about Venice. Not just the splendours of the city, but also its racial and religious diversity. This latter aspect was woven into both of his Venetian plays.
The Merchant Of Venice
In some ways modern day Venice still resembles the 16th century city. In the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare mentions the Rialto area by name, and refers to the gondolas that ferry people along the canals. And it is generally assumed that the Doge’s Palace, on St Mark’s Square, was the setting for the famous courtroom scene.
However, to understand the play, you have to appreciate that the Venice of that time was full of different groups of people, and that Shakespeare’s characterisation of Shylock is an expression of racial tension and prejudice against the Jews. This prejudice becomes apparent when you visit the Jewish Ghetto, located on an island in the Cannaregio district.
The Jewish Ghetto
The ghetto was built in 1516 following a papal order to expel all Jews from the city: they were allowed to remain in this area but the gates were locked at night. These prison-like conditions remained in place until 1866. Although restrictions were then lifted, the ghetto area remains a centre for the Jewish community today.
As a tourist you can walk through the entrance gate on the Fondamenta Peschiera, and past several synagogues before reaching the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo. Here you will find the Jewish Museum of Venice, with its exhibitions of the city’s Jewish history (unfortunately closed for renovation when I visited at the end of 2021). Look out too for the Banco Rosso, an ancient money-lending establishment, and for a monument to the Jews who were victims of the Nazi deportation in World War II.
Othello also deals with racial tensions. The main character is a Moor, married to a white woman. Shakespeare shows how their union shocks Venetian society, and how Othello’s racial identity makes him socially insecure, even in a city where many cultures mix.
The physical links between the play and the city are not so clearly defined as for Merchant of Venice. However, while you are in Cannaregio you will come across the Campo dei Mori (Square of the Moors), where you will see three medieval statues on the side of a building. These figures with long robes and turbans suggest that there was a Moorish presence in the city as far back as the Middle Ages.
And the Palazzo Contarini Fasan is known as “Desdemona’s House”: Nicola Contarini, a one-time resident of the house, is said to have inspired the character and story of Othello. (The palazzo is a narrow but elegant dwelling on the Grand Canal, and you’ll get the best view by looking across the water from the church of Santa Maria della Salute).