Monday, November 05, 2012

The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels by the late Richard Paul Roe

William Shakespeare is one the people about whom I keep reading. Ironically, not much is known about the playwright, who is often called the Bard. His whereabouts for some years are unknown. Perhaps that is exactly why he is so fascinating. He's a mystery. The latest title that I read is The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels by the late Richard Paul Roe.

In the past, many literary scholars have ridiculed the Shakespeare plays set in Italy for their many geographical inaccuracies. The standard line was that Shakespeare never went to Italy and that he just looked at some books and talked to some travelers to learn some place names and brief descriptions and then he creatively elaborated. Roe suspected that the scholars themselves did not know much, so he set out to stand where the playwright stood, supposing that he did go to Italy.

What Roe discovered was the descriptions were very exact in detail far beyond any of the sources the playwright could have used. He also located many of the "lost" sites simply by looking around and talking to local historians. His conclusion was that the playwright had to have traveled in Italy.

What Roe would not say is whether the playwright was William Shakespeare. The author said he was unqualified to speculate whether Shakespeare fronted for some well-traveled writer. Through most of the book, Roe just refers to "the playwright."

Regardless of who wrote the plays, Roe provided not only evidence of real places matching those in the plays, but he also commented on 16th century Italian commercial, social, religious, legal, and military affairs. I enjoyed reading about discrimination against the Jewish community in Venice, safe travel on the canal system across the peninsula, and the troubled politics of the Holy Roman Empire.

Roe's book does become slow going when there is a lot of visual detail to verify, but that detail will become important to you when you take his book to Italy to see for yourself. I also found chapters about plays I know well were easier to read than others. I was particularly interested in the Much Ado About Nothing chapter which revealed a lot of political backstory. A great book for Bard fanatics.

Roe, Richard Paul. The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels. Harper Perennial, 2011. 309p. ISBN 9780062074263.

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