The world of Italy in Shakespeare’s comedies – Excerpt: Shakespeare and the Comedy of Enchantment

A scene that takes place in Venice in Italy
Charles Cattermole. A scene from The Merchant of Venice. 19th century. Folger ART Box C368.5 no.1 (size S)

Italy is the setting most associated with Shakespeare’s comedies, providing layers of dramatic potential that Kent Cartwright explores in an excerpt from Shakespeare and the Comedy of Enchantment.

“‘Italy,’ as an imagined construct, contains heightened civility yet also volatility and danger; at its best it facilitates new possibilities for the self and for human relations,” writes Cartwright, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. “That imagined Italy stands for the non-realistic and psychological dimensions of Shakespearean comedy and for the plasticity of its environment.”

Read the excerpt below.


The prototypical second world of Shakespearean comedy is a fictionalized Italy, envisioned as a place of contradiction and transformation. Although certain of Shakespeare’s other plays (Romeo and Juliet, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline) employ Italian settings and although only a minority, five (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and All’s Well That Ends Well), of Shakespeare’s some thirteen comedies are set entirely or partly there, Italy still functions as their emotional and conceptual motherland. Yet Shakespeare possessed no first-hand knowledge of Italy; likewise, Elizabethans experienced the country as intensely real but also intensely evocative for the imagination. Not surprisingly, then, Shakespeare takes little interest in accuracy over details of Italian geography. Some locales are lightly sketched. Messina in Much Ado lacks characterizing physical features almost entirely, as does Milan in Two Gentlemen. Although a patina of factuality was typically sufficient to Shakespeare, certain places do receive more detailing than others. Venice in The Merchant of Venice blossoms forth as atypically realistic: The city lies near Padua and its law school; gondolas and traghettos (or “traject[s]” [3.4.54]) ply its canals; the government extends cosmopolitan hospitality to foreign merchants; gabardine-clad Jewish moneylenders await the latest business news on the Rialto, where banking transactions for shipping expeditions historically took place; golden ducats are the coin of the realm; and even the play’s overall sense of “hazarding” befits this great port of international trade that thrived on sea ventures. Elizabethans attached special value to Venice because of its republicanism, expansive sea trade, openness to outsiders, religious tolerance, resistance to the Papacy, and courtesans (thousands, according to William Thomas). It was one of the Italian locales most visited by Shakespeare’s countrymen.

For young Englishmen of means, Italy was a focus of what would eventually become known as ‘the grand tour,’ that finishing school of worldly education; understandably so, since Italy stood as the birthplace of humanist letters and the fountainhead of sophistication and manners. The Italophilic William Thomas celebrates it as the international destination for pleasure and study. (Thomas’s History of Italy, published in 1549, was the first history in English to treat of contemporary Italy; the next year he produced the first Italian grammar book in English, Principal Rules of Italian Grammar). Italian Renaissance literature and treatises—Petrarch, Boccaccio, Castiglione, Ariosto, Machiavelli—were being translated into English and were strongly influencing Tudor writers. In drama, at least three Italian cinquecento comedies had received English adaptations by 1600; other examples were undoubtedly known. Between 1579 and 1595, the London printer John Wolfe “issued twenty-five texts in Italian, fourteen in Latin written by Italian authors, and five English translations from Italian,” summarizes Michael Wyatt. This English fascination with Italy infected Shakespeare. He apparently learned Italian (perhaps under the influence of John Florio) in the mid- 1590s, and he read sources in Italian for plays such as The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. For Shakespeare and his countrymen, “[t]he idea of Italy,” as Wyatt puts it, “took on a life of its own” (7).

Imaginative life in Shakespeare’s comic Italy is essentially urban. Places consist largely of piazzas and campos (city squares, marts, undifferentiated public venues), houses, gardens, and occasional streets; when Shakespearean comedy becomes pastoral it often feels English. The fictional city is cosmopolitan (particularly so in The Merchant of Venice), and includes foreigners and Italians from other cities. It is located primarily in the north (Venice, Verona, Milan, Padua, Florence), the single exception being Much Ado’s featureless Sicilian Messina. In this generic Italian city dwell prosperous merchants, aristocrats, some outsiders, and various servants; its elite characters include fathers, eligible daughters, and youthful suitors (but few mothers). Anachronistically, the speeches of the lowerclass characters—such as Lance, Speed, Grumio, Launcelet, and Dogberry— place them in England. Real-world political conflicts between city-states or between a region and its foreign overlord recede from view. In The Taming of the Shrew, the Paduan interdict against Mantuans is only a hoax, and in Much Ado, Don John’s defeated insurrection has no consequences, while the deep historical problems of the Spanish occupation of Italian Sicily, which form the play’s background, turn virtually invisible, even though they figure importantly in the source material and in the analog Italian comedy, Giambattista della Porta’s Gli duoi fratelli rivali (c.1590). When conflict arises between the Sicilian governor Leonato and his overlord, the Spanish Prince of Aragon, it never takes a political turn or makes bitter recourse to national stereotypes. Even an Italian comedy as politically charged as The Merchant of Venice retains a conceptual dimension: What is justice, what mercy? There is something abstract, even mysteriously unreal, about this Italy.

One might wonder, then, why does Shakespeare make this so-lightly realized locale the metaphoric home of his comedy? To answer, let us consider two complementary characteristics as perceived by outsiders: Italy’s contradictions and its openness to change and transformation, values that Shakespeare appropriates and heightens.

In the Elizabethan imagination, Italy was a vivid but precarious land of extreme contradictions, from internecine strife and personal vice to nascent utopianism. In Shakespeare’s time, it existed as a group of wealthy and intensely competitive citystates jealous of their local identities and autonomy but also periodically overrun by Turks, Spanish, and French. One of the sub-themes of Italian cinquecento comedy, from Cardinal Bibbiena’s La calandra (1512) to Alessandro Piccolomini’s L’alessandro (1543) to della Porta’s Gli duoi fratelli rivali, is the displacement of people—because of invasion, piracy, internecine conflict, and war—transmogrified into comedy. Italian comedies, like Shakespeare’s, are full of travelers, many of them so by force. Elizabethans conceived of Italy as divided between qualitative extremes, a paradoxical combination of enlightenment and monstrosity, idealism and upheaval. If the contradictions of human behavior are at the heart of comedy; then Italy’s presumed moral dichotomies served Shakespeare’s purposes well. On the positive side, Italy was perceived as the birthplace of humanist learning, the cradle of fine arts, the training-ground for the cultivation of manners, the center of cosmopolitanism, and the home of glittering wealth, elegant women, and “marvelous” sites (variations of marvel occur repeatedly in Thomas’s History). On the negative side, it was perceived as the seat of demonic Catholicism (with the Pope as Antichrist), unmanly foppishness, labyrinthine political treachery, sensational violence (as in Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler [1594]), and sexual lasciviousness and transgression (as also in Nashe). It could resemble, as Sir Henry Wotton said famously about Florence in 1592, “a paradise inhabited by devils.” This Italy’s corrosive influence is famously reviled in Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570), Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler, and numerous other works; likewise on stage, as in The Jew of Malta (c.1589), the Italianate Machiavel made for a figure of monstrosity.

Yet Italy’s equal power to civilize emerges in writings such as Thomas’s History or Castiglione’s influential The Courtier (trans. Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561). Thomas’s work offers abundant information, but it also feels gossipy and selective and reads like a fiction. Thomas emphasizes the ill effects of tyrannical government, but he also attends to the endearing civility, customs, manners, and style of Italian living. Italy is a country of “pleasure” (sig. A2r), gustatory delight, and cultivated hospitality, helping to make it “the infinite resorte of all nacions” (sig. A2v); for commerce, it is “the principall place of recourse of all nacions” (sig. A2v). Through it flows the exotic merchandise of the East, and there one meets “Iewes, Turkes, Grekes, Moores and other easterly merchauntes” (sig. A2r). Thomas celebrates Italy’s commercial goods, its wine and food (especially the fruit), and even its temperate weather. In Thomas’s surveys of regional violence, the struggle for liberty and against tyranny emerges as a key through-line. He praises the justice and piety of Cosimo di Medici and the fidelity to friendship (at great personal risk) of Duke Frederick of Parma. He notes the public-minded street-planning in Ferrara, the respect for public oratory in Florence, the striking freedom of speech allowed to women in Genoa. Likewise, the importance of civic “liberty” forms a recurrent idea in Thomas’s History. Within the narrative’s record of turmoil, glimpses appear of an Italian communal harmony that seems apt for Shakespearean comedy. This Italy demands a complex response.


From Shakespeare and the Comedy of Enchantment by Kent Cartwright. Copyright © 2022 by Kent Cartwright and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.