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Tesina - The Role of Venice in Shakespeare s Plays

Appunti di letteratura inglese sulla tesina dal titolo The Role of Venice in Shakespeare s Plays basati su appunti personali del publisher presi alle lezioni del prof. Douglas Elam dell’università degli Studi di Bologna - Unibo, . Scarica il file in formato PDF!

Esame di Letteratura inglese docente Prof. K. Douglas Elam




Venice in Shakespeare’s Plays

The Role of

During the time in which Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice and Othello,

Venice was considered by English one of the most mythical cities in Italy. In his article,

Franco Gaeta distinguishes three different elements of the Venetian Myth: ‘the myth of 1

Venice the mixed state, of Venice the state of liberty, and of Venice the city of pleasure’ ,

the last one was also known as ‘Venezia-città-galante’. For these reasons, and also due to

the political sagacity of the Venetians, the city had never been conquered and was

considered to be an ideal form of government. Venice as a capital of pleasure was, to

Shakespeare, one of the crucial element that determined the myth. But in the sixteenth

century Venice had also some dark sides along with the bright ones, so it is important to

analyse every aspect of the city’s reputation: Venice the Rich, Venice the Wise, Venice

the Just and Venice città galante. The city was famous for its economic power, which had

been built especially through commerce to Asia and Africa. These trade routes and the

massive presence of foreigners on the territory ensured that Venice was regularly

supplied with goods and products from across the globe. The city could rightfully be

regarded as the ‘marketplace’ of the world.

Despite having gained, during the centuries, this enormous amount of social, economic

and cultural richness, Venice was not expanding as much as it used to be in the world

market and, as a consequence, Venetian find their source of incoming in symbolic capital

and create out of their name a currency that navigated through Europe, exploiting their

influence in multiple fields such as global tourism, paintings, travel and literature.

Surrounded by the sea, which determines the unique urban structure of the city and has

always represented a fabulous element, Venice benefited from a great protection as well


as a great vulnerability. The words ‘This is Venice: my house is not a grange’ (1.1.110) ,

are pronounced by Brabantio to emphasize the idea of Venice as a perfect city where to

live. In fact, it was the location where a multitude of nationalities, ethnicities and

religions made their way through the years, into the core of the mythical landscape, as


Lewes Lewkenor refers to ‘a common and general market to the world’. ‘Venice would

have appeared to Elizabethans as a place of both ethnic diversity and relative tolerance

for Protestants. Even though Venice was firmly Catholic, its resistance to the Papacy was


well known.’

A century ago the Scottish historian Horatio Brown wrote ‘the scattered allusions to be

collected from [Shakespeare’s] plays prove an intimacy with Venice which is surprising in

1 Franco Gaeta, ed. Nunziature di Venezia (Rome, 1967)

2 William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. Agostino Lombardo, (Milano, Feltrinelli, 1996)

3 Gasparo Contarini, The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, trans. Lewis Lewkenor (London, 1599;

reprinted Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum; New York: Da Capo Press, 1969), p.132

4 Kent Cartwright, ‘The Return from the Dead in The Merchant of Venice’, in Vision of Venice in Shakespeare,

Laura Tosi and Shaul Bassi, 167-181 2


a man who probably was never out of England’. According to this, it can be supposed

that sufficient information would have been available in London to create an accurate

image of Venice. Safely we can say that Shakespeare read the translation of Lewes

Lewkenor of Gasparo Contarini’s book The Commonwealth and Government of Venice

(1599). At that time, as we mentioned before, Venice was experiencing a process that

turned a real city into a myth and this was rapidly acquired by non-Venetian; the

longevity of this mythical city, in fact, has to be attribute to visitors and foreigners. The

original myth of Venice comes from the notion that the city was the true successor to the

ancient Roman Republic. This myth was created in 1543 by Gasparo Contarini’s De

magistratibus et republica venetorum. Before this publication, the principal source of

English’s perception of Venice was William Thomas’s History of Italy and this work was,

for a long time, of crucial importance for the English conduit of Italian culture. Thomas’s

aim was to make English readers judge and study the various Italian states and then

learn a different lesson from each one. According to his point of view, the best state was

Venice, thanks to all the advantages of stability and liberty, and due to a system that

encourages its citizens to take part of public affairs; thus, with no doubt, the most

important aspect for Englishman enthusiasm was the political one. Representing Venice,

for Shakespeare, was a means of thinking about the problems and opportunities of

Elizabeth England.

Shakespeare sets two of its greatest plays in Venice, The Merchant of Venice and Othello.

In these plays Venice as city-state creates an image of the Renaissance culture of

paradox because, in fact, both plays create opposite view; in both, Venice has a

significant importance. In The Merchant of Venice and Othello, Venice is built up as ‘a

puzzle of utopian and dystopian qualities that gives a hint of what England might become


and the way in which it could deal […] with internal and external conflicts.’ Thus, Venice

can be considered the most eternal of all symbolic landscape of the Elizabethan period,

but, as David Meinig claimed ‘we regard all landscapes as symbolic, as expression of

cultural values, social behaviour, and individual actions worked upon particular localities

over a span of time. Every landscape is an accumulation […] and every landscape is a


code, and its study may be undertaken as a deciphering of meaning.’

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare structured the play partly on the contrast

between idealistic and realistic opinions about society and relationships. On the one

hand, the play tells us that love is more important than money, mercy is preferable to

revenge and love lasts forever, but, on the other hand, a more cynical point of view tells

us that money rules the world, mercy alone cannot govern our lives and love can

evaporate after marriage. The play switches suddenly between these different attitudes;

5 Horatio Brown, Studies in the History of Venice, vol. 2 (London: John Murray,1907), p. 160

6 Laura Tosi and Shaul Bassi, Introduction, in Vision of Venice in Shakespeare, p.1-14

7 David W. Meinig, ‘Introduction,’ in The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays, ed.

D.W.Meinig (New York and Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1979), p.6. 3

Shakespeare organizes this shifts between idealism and realism by associating the two

concepts with the play's two locations: Venice and Belmont. These two cities have

similarities but also several differences. One of the first similarity that can be noticed is

expressed in Act 1, Scene 1 and is that both are places where people may be unhappy;

Antonio is unhappy in Venice and he does not know why: in the very first line he says, ‘In


sooth I know not why I am so sad’ (1.1.1) and he denies that it is his business or love

that are making him unhappy. In Belmont, instead, the first thing that Portia says is that

she is ‘weary’ of the world but, in this case, she knows the reason of her sadness:

because of her father’s will, she can neither choose her husband nor refuse one she does

not want to marry.

The biggest difference between Venice and Belmont is represented by the fact that while

money, buying and selling, and the public marketplace are the background of Venice,

music, stars, nature and couples in love embody the scene of Belmont. Venice is depicted

as a city of merchants, usurers and cynical young men, a total patriarchal and mercantile

word; it is a cosmopolitan setting for the play due to its role as hotspot for trade.

Belmont, in contrast, is the land where fairy tales come true and romance exists, it is a

place dominated by feminine valve, opposite to the city’s chaos. To emphasize this, it can

be said that Shylock makes his deal, after Antonio has enraged him, in Venice and

Lorenzo and Jessica escape from Venice and go to Belmont to start a totally new life

made of love.

Belmont and Venice represent what Shakespeare scholar David Bevington calls, ‘two


contrasting worlds.’ Venice represents the real world of commerce and corruption; it is

a busy place, low and flat, most often shown in the glare of daylight. It is a man's world,

ruled by business interests and the laws of the court. Belmont, instead, is a magical

mountain destination, an idealized world of love, reached from Venice by crossing water.

If Venice is a crowded, hurried place, Belmont, most often shown at night, is quiet and

peaceful. It could be argued that the symbolism of Portia becomes most apparent when

she travels to Venice, disguised as a lawyer. Because Venice can be thought of as

symbolizing the real world, whereas Belmont is the world of idealism, when Portia

travels to Venice, she is a character from the fantasy world entering the dangerous city

and her idealistic beliefs must come face to face with reality.

In disguising herself as man and defending Antonio in the Venetian court of law, Portia

attempts to transport some of the of mercy that characterizes Belmont into the stern

patriarchy of Venice. In fact, when Shylock faces execution for his crimes, Portia

persuades the Duke to pardon him. She then persuades Antonio to exercise mercy by not

taking all of Shylock's money from him. Thus, in the trial scene, Portia's presence turns

the proceedings away from violence and toward forgiveness. One of the more

8 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. Alessandro Serpieri (Milano,Garzanti Libri, 2008)

9 David Bevington, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, (Pearson Education, 2013) 4

interesting study about this particular structure was made by Northrop Frye, who claims

that in all of Shakespeare’s comedies there are usually two different worlds. In fact, in

The Merchant of Venice, as we mentioned above, Venice is a completely different society

from Belmont and vice versa. Furthermore, Frye asserts that usually the birth of the new

society is symbolized by a heroine, in this case Portia, who experiences her rebirth in


Belmont. The same happens in Othello, where there is a strong distinction between

Venice and Cyprus. The geographical shift from Venice to Cyprus promises a collection of

problems to the couple of Othello and Desdemona. Cyprus becomes the setting for a

series of personal revenges, tragic misreadings, stereotypically negative views of Moors

and several deaths.

As Alessandro Serpieri stressed, Venice was the perfect place where Shakespeare could

set The Merchant of Venice because this city resembles an image of his mercantile

London and shows contemporary discrimination and tensions. On the one hand, we can

say that since the most part of Venice richness came from trade its laws had to be

tolerant, but, on the other hand, social, ideological and psychological discrimination

were always hiding under the surface of its new bourgeois society.

While Jews had been legally banned from England since 1290, Venice had laws in place

to protect non-Venetian traders who supported the city's economic well-being.

Venetians were considered to be greedy and to be in love with money and in order to

satisfy this love and need for trade, they usually exploit the Jews. Despite the fact, as we

mentioned before, that Venice was the richest city in terms of ethnicity, it needs to be

said that racism, even if in a different way from what it is considered nowadays, played a

major part in Venice and, as a consequence, in both Shakespeare’s plays. First of all, we

have to say that there was no Jew in England but in Venice there were a good

percentage and they were allowed to be moneylender. Thus, the merchants depend on

the Jews’ money in order to make their affairs. Moneylending was important to the

Christian community but at the same time was considered immoral, leading to a sort of

paradox between the two ideas. When Shylock and Antonio discuss the terms of the

repayment, the Jew asks for a pound of flesh, and he uses the story of Jacob and Laban

to justify himself for being a usurer. The story is used to prove that a work based on

landing can be rewarded without an exchange of money. In this way Shylock avoid the

dispute of usury even if this, of course, played a key role in Venice. Antonio, after all

accepts the bond because he needs the money and also because it was a usual motif in

Venice. Once again Shakespeare is showing us a society in which citizens are able to

make law themselves.

In The Merchant of Venice Act 1, Scene 2, we assist at Portia asking Nerissa to list off

each of the competitors so she can scorn them individually. In this way, she takes a look

at all the suitors of the three caskets’ competition and makes fun of them by describing

10 Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (Columbia University Press, 1964)




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+1 anno fa

Corso di laurea: Corso di laurea magistrale in letterature moderne, comparate e post-coloniali
Università: Bologna - Unibo
A.A.: 2018-2019

I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher Alenavas di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di Letteratura inglese e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Bologna - Unibo o del prof Douglas Elam Keir.

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