“Much Ado About Italy”: Installment No. 2 of a Talk for the Shakespearean Authorship Trust

Installment No. 2 of my talk about Richard Paul Roe and his book The Shakespeare Guide to Italy at the recent conference of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust (S.A.T.) at the Globe in London:

1st Lt. Richard Paul Roe December 1944, age 22

1st Lt. Richard Paul Roe
December 1944, age 22

“He was no ordinary individual. He had served in Europe during World War Two as a B-17 bomber pilot and during that time he fell in love with Italy – the place, people, culture, the food and wine, the history, and all the rest of it – just as Shakespeare, whoever he was, must have fallen in love with Italy four hundred years ago.

“After the war he went to the University of California at Berkeley and got himself a BA in History. He picked up a law degree paid for by the G.I. Bill, but then in 1952 at age thirty, with a young family to support, he became a victim of the terrible polio epidemic that year. He was paralyzed and spent several months in an iron lung – just like one of these.

Iron Lungs - 1952

Iron Lungs – 1952

“The 1952 polio epidemic became the worst outbreak in U.S. history – well over 57,0OO cases of polio leaving more than 3,000 dead. Dick Roe was among the more than 21,000 victims left with a mild to disabling paralysis – and here was this one life, with this one remarkable journey on behalf of Shakespeare still some three and half decades yet to come in the future, and it would have lost to us.

“But he met that challenge and now we have The Shakespeare Guide to Italy – twelve chapters, dealing with ten of the plays with Italian settings, from Verona to Milan, from Pisa to Padua, to Venice and Florence and Messina – and more. Let us open to Roe’s introduction to his book and listen to some of what he felt was most immediately important to share with us:

“’There is a secret Italy hidden in the plays of Shakespeare. It is an ingeniously described Italy that has neither been recognized, nor even suspected — not in four hundred years – save by a curious few. It is exact; it is detailed; and it is brilliant…

"Romeo and Juliet" First Quarto - 1597 (No Author's Name)

“Romeo and Juliet”
First Quarto – 1597
(No Author’s Name)

“’These descriptions are in challenging detail, and nearly all their locations can still be found in Italy today. It is an Italy that has never before been acknowledged because of a widely accepted dogma that negated its existence, dampening any motive to leave home and go in search of it. Of the few things about Italy which critics admit the playwright got right, they say he must have learned them from a source right there in England, especially since the proclaimed playwright had never been in Italy – a consistently asserted fact used to explain why the author of the plays set in Italy made repeated ‘mistakes’ about that country.

“’In truth, as will be demonstrated, the precise and abundant allusions in those plays, to places and things the length of that country, are so unique to it that they attest to the playwright’s personal travels there. By journeying in Italy today, with the Italian plays in hand, reading them as though they were books of instruction, the playwright’s vast erudition about that exciting country and its civilization is revealed.’

“But right at the beginning of Chapter One is a personal story, which, for many readers of The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, has become a kind of symbol of the entire book – a shorthand way of referring to the many startling and amazing things that Shakespeare pointed to and that Dick Roe wound up finding. This particular anecdote at the beginning is hardly one of the most amazing little adventures, but for some reason it’s memorable and seems to stand for all the others. And we might as well call it, simply enough, The Sycamores.

verona

“It’s the first thing in Chapter One, which is entitled ‘Romeo and Juliet – Devoted Love in Verona.’ And I think that Dick Roe, who never thought of himself as a writer, and in fact who, as I mentioned, never even planned to write a book – that here, he set the tone by putting himself viscerally into the story. And I feel that even those of us who know the book tend to forget the way this very simple personal opening captures our attention and makes a lasting impression. So here it goes:

“’I had not admitted to anyone why I was going to Italy this time. My friends knew that I went there whenever I could, a reputation that gave me the cover that I wanted for my fool’s errand in Verona. But was it so foolish? Had I deluded myself in what I had come to suspect? Only by going back to Verona would I ever know. Of that much I was certain.

“’Then I arrived, and, glad I had come, conflicting emotions began to make my blood race. I was half excited with the beginning quest, and half dreading a ridiculous failure, but obsessed with the idea of discovering what no one had discovered – had even looked for – in four hundred years.

“My start would be – was planned to be – absurdly simple. I would search for sycamore trees. Not anywhere in Verona but in one place alone, just outside the western wall. Native sycamore trees, remnants of a grove that had flourished in that one place for centuries.

“’In the first act, in the very first scene, of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the trees are described; and no one has ever thought that the English genius who wrote the play could have been telling the truth: that there were such trees, growing exactly where he said in Verona. In that first scene, Romeo’s mother, Lady Montague, encounters her nephew on the street – Benvolio … Romeo’s best friend. She asks Benvolio where her son Romeo might be. Benvolio replies:

Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the East,
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad,
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city’s side,
So early walking did I see your son.

italy-verona

“Here Dick Roe goes into the matter of Shakespeare’s known sources for the play and the question of which sources, if any, mentioned that sycamore grove just outside the western wall. Well, there were different sources. There was an Italian tale from 1535; then that one was embellished by another Italian, Bandello; and then a French writer added some stuff of his own; and finally in England, in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, there was a prose version by William Painter and also a long poem ROMEUS AND JULIET attributed to one Arthur Brooke. But none of these early renditions, none of these sources for Shakespeare’s play, had any sycamores. So Richard Roe goes on:

“’All this evolution happened before the Romeo and Juliet of the playwright was composed. Shakespeare scholars insist that he got his material for Romeo and Juliet from Brooke’s long poem and that the celebrated playwright had never been in Italy; therefore, he could be expected to make mistakes about its topographic realities. They say he invented a peculiar Italy of his own, with colorful nonsense about what was there.

“But – and here is the inexplicable thing – alone in the playwright’s Romeo and Juliet – there, and nowhere else, not in any other Italian or French or English version – has it been set down that at Verona, just outside its western walls, was a grove of sycamore trees.’

The Sycamore Trees in Verona -- Still There -- Remnants of the Grove "Shakespeare" Had Seen

The Sycamore Trees in Verona — Still There — Remnants of the Grove “Shakespeare” Had Seen

So Roe’s cab took him across the city and then to its edge on Viale Cristoforo Colombo. The cab turned south onto the Viale Colonnello Galliano and began to slow down. This was the boulevard where, long before, when Roe was rushing to get to the airport at Milan, he had gotten a glimpse of some trees – but had no idea what kind.

“’Creeping along the Viale then coming to a halt, the driver, with a proud sweep of his hand, exclaimed, “Ecco, Signore! There they are! It is truly here, outside the western wall that our sycamores grow!”

“‘There they were indeed. Holding my breath for fear they might be mere green tricks of the sunlight, I leapt from the car to get a closer look at the broad-lobed leaves and mottled pastel trunks, to make absolutely certain that it was true; that the playwright had known, and had told the truth. Benvolio was right. And I was not a fool.’

“I can just picture Dick Roe on the airplane heading back home, sitting back with a big smile on his face, and the guy next to him says:

airplane-cabin

“’Were you in Italy on business or pleasure?’

“’Oh,’” says Roe, ‘pleasure!’

“’Ah,’ the man says. ‘The food, the wine, the women — ‘

“’Well, no…’

“’The music, the art, the beauty of it all…’

“’No, not really…’

“’Then what?’

“’Well … SYCAMORES!’

“’I beg your pardon?’

“’Sycamore trees!’

“’You’re a gardener?’

“’Nope. I’m a retired lawyer. But Shakespeare loved Italy, just like I do, and those sycamores are just exactly where, in Romeo and Juliet, he told us where we could find them!’

“I don’t know what the other guy in the seat next to him would have replied to that – but if he had his wits about him he might have asked this man WHY – Why would Shakespeare want any of us to find sycamore trees in his play about Romeo and Juliet?

[Suggested answers, and perhaps the single most important one, in the next and final installment.]

“Much Ado About Italy” – Installment No. 1 of My Talk on Richard Paul Roe and “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy” for the S.A.T. Conference at the Globe

Italy Poster
“Below is installment No. 1 of my talk for Much Ado about Italy, the London conference of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust (S.A.T.) in collaboration with Brunel University on November 24, 2013. The conference, at the Nancy Knowles Lecture Theatre of Shakespeare’s Globe, explored two overall questions:

“Did the author of the Shakespeare works have intimate knowledge of Italian topography, politics, culture and customs – or was he no true traveler? What limitations on Shakespeare scholarship have been imposed by orthodox assumptions about a landlocked author?”

[My first answer would be that, yes, of course the author had such intimate knowledge of Italy. My second answer, in brief, would be that the limitations on scholarship have been so extensive and profound that it will take decades to recover from all the damage.]

Venice-Holiday

The conference would not have succeeded without the organizing efforts of Bronwyn Robertson and Julia Cleave. William Leahy of Brunel University chaired the event, whose speakers were Alexander Waugh, Kevin Gilvary, Jenny Tiramani, Julia Cleave (presenting Professor Roger Prior’s discoveries in Bassano del Grappa), Ros Barber and John Casson, with my talk focusing on the late Richard Paul Roe and his 2012 book The Shakespeare Guide to Italy:

“I want to thank the Shakespearean Authorship Trust for having me here. I’ve been involved with the authorship question for more than twenty-five years; and when I began, I couldn’t find anybody to talk with about this. Not the librarian, not the local theater director, not even my mother. Back in those early days (the late eighties and early nineties), at the family dinner table, I would no sooner open my mouth – you know, about ‘maybe Shakespeare wasn’t the guy we thought he was’ – and all of a sudden I’m the only one sitting there. So the very fact that I’m here, with a group inspired by Mark Rylance, speaking to you with all these other folks, is surely a sign that things have come a long way.

“I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of working with some of you in the past and meeting some of the most interesting people and some of the greatest minds that have labored in this field of inquiry. I’ve been challenged, often motivated, sometimes shocked, and on the rare occasion I’ve been truly inspired. And having the privilege of having known Richard Paul Roe for many years, I can tell you that he was indeed one of those rare sources of inspiration.

better early cover

“Before his death on December 1, 2010 at the age of eight-eight, Dick Roe’s great labor of love, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, was printed privately with a limited number of copies under this cover with the subtitle Then and Now.

“Two years later it was issued for the public with the same title but a new cover, and now subtitled Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels.

“In the forward to this book his youngest daughter Hilary Roe Metternich makes a simple opening statement: “One of the great satisfactions of life is to embark on a long, leisurely journey – especially an absorbing intellectual adventure filled with mystery and promise.”

Cover of Roe Book

“During the last twenty-five years of his life, Dick Roe took that journey. He was a lawyer – a seasoned lawyer, who also had deep knowledge of medieval and Renaissance history and literature. And when his law practice in Los Angeles was coming to its end, he decided to investigate, for himself, whether Shakespeare’s references to localities in Italy are filled with repeated errors and mistakes, as so many academics had been accusing him for so long — or whether, in fact, those references might be accurate and true.

Color Roe Adult

“Because of his experience in the law, Roe knew that in most cases the best source for getting to the heart of things is tangible evidence: ‘Just the facts, please.’ And so he set forth, across the length and breadth of Italy, on a journey that required many trips from California, back and forth – holding his dog-eared copies of Shakespeare’s Italian plays, with all the place names underlined, along with detailed maps and notes, acting like an archaeologist excavating artifacts, inscriptions, monuments — observing geographical features and historical remnants after centuries of buried silence. Of course he was searching for the Italian renaissance that Shakespeare – whoever he was – had brought back to his own beloved “sceptered isle”.

“On more than a few occasions over those two decades, I found myself in the same place as Dick Roe. One time in California (in 1999, I believe) there was a lunch with several others including his lovely wife Jane (in connection with a meeting of the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable under the guidance of Carole Sue Lipman, president) with and clearly he was still on the journey, filled with excitement and exuding quiet steady confidence.

“At various other times I met up with him at conferences and heard him give talks about his progress. And I had the definite feeling he just didn’t want it to end – ever. Was he writing a book? “Well, no, I don’t think so. I’m still looking, still learning and discovering.” He was just having too much fun!

“I particularly remember the first time I saw him give a talk. It was accompanied by a slide show with photographs he himself at taken in Venice, with his old weather-beaten copy of The Merchant in hand — and at one point the whole thing became very detailed, step by step, and it seemed we were following a trail like Sherlock Holmes with his magnifying glass –

again the rialto

“On the screen up came a series of images – including the Rialto, the financial district and for centuries the principal center of business in Venice for nobles and merchants, bankers and ship owners. There was the public square called Campo di San Giacomo di Rialto – adjacent to the Grand Canal – and Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice refers to this square by name no less than five times.

“After some more images and photos of Venice here came the sight of the Jewish neighborhood, later called the Ghetto, literally an island within the city of Venice, surrounded by a complex of canals on all sides, and accessible only by one or the other of two bridges with gates.

campo-del-ghetto-nuovo

“Dick Roe explained that a decree of the Venetian Senate in 1516 had stated that the Jews must all live together in the ghetto, and not go out at night. The gates should be opened in the morning at the ringing of the main bell at St. Mark’s. Then they would be locked shut again at midnight by four Christian gatekeepers (appointed and paid for by the Jews themselves) – and part of this was to protect them from being attacked.

“On and on, step by step, Detective Roe retraced his footsteps for us, and he paused to recite lines from Act Two, Scene six, in the Ghetto, in front of the place where Shylock lives, when Gratiano tells Salerio that they have arrived at the “pent-house” under which Lorenzo wanted them to wait.

“Dick Roe found this reference to “the pent-house” a “curious detail” that cried out for an answer. The Middle English form of the word was “pentis,” referring to a small structure attached to, or dependent on, another building, and Roe found a usage in 1625 about “erecting certain posts and covering them with large pentises.”

(Photo by Sylvia Holmes)

(Photo by Sylvia Holmes)

“Up there on the screen appeared a color photograph from the vantage point of the street called the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, and Dick Roe pointed to one of the buildings immediately next door to a four-arch arcade that was the site of Jewish loan banks frequented by Christians borrowing money.

“And here,” Roe said as he pointed to the screen, “is Shylock’s house!”

“I nearly fell over … What? I mean, really? Is this guy kidding? Come on! He’s saying this is the actual penthouse of the character Shylock, in a fictional play written in the sixteenth century?

“Well, it would become clear soon enough that this was the same startling precision for an obscure place and thing in Italy that the author knew about, and subtly described and wove into his story – an unusual and exact knowledge.

“And now Dick Roe was explaining various other aspects of the Venetian ghetto’s culture and way of life, and he spoke about Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy and particularly of Venice, its Jewish traditions, synagogues, neighborhoods, its trading and banking laws –

“For example, he cited in The Merchant of Venice how old Gobbo questions his son Launcelot about which way to go, to get to Shylock’s house. What does he have to do to find it? According to Roe the son’s answer is a “classic, but comical, bit of Venetia,” something a stranger might hear from a local:

“Turn upon your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning of all, on your left; marry, at the very next turning, turn of no hand; but turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house.”

“Roe explained that Shakespeare was well aware that both the father and his son would know that the old man would have to get there ‘indirectly,’ by using the ghetto’s tangled and zig-zagged streets. He cited scholars who thought the original question, about how to get to Shylock’s house, is ludicrous. But it’s NOT ludicrous, Roe said, because that’s just the way it was back then – for example, there were no address numbers on Venetian buildings – so old Gobbo would certainly find someone in that small district who would point him directly to Shylock’s house.

“And Shakespeare knew this.

“Roe himself was aware that so many of the original structures of the ghetto are still there, so much is still unchanged, the same as it was back in the sixteenth century, then as now, with only one penthouse in the ghetto, a single structure that Shakespeare was referring to, at only one location.

shylocks-penthouse3

“Yes, and here it was – its second floor projecting from a building supported by a few columns — the only structure in the Ghetto of its kind … and for good measure it’s immediately next door to a building that has a ground floor consisting of the arcade with four arches that was the site of the loan banks mandated by the Venetian Senate. Catholics were forbidden to lend for profit, so Venetian law restricted such banks to the Jewish quarter – the Red Bank, it was called, so named for the color of its pawn tickets.

“And in his book Dick Roe provides countless examples of this kind of discovery.”

[Next will be Installment No. 2)

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