“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.]

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Hi Hank, What is the 3-tier arch structure in the photo, a gate or an aqueduct?
    Cheers, Lee


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