“Richard Roe, Shakespeare and Italy” – 3rd and Final Installment

This is the third and final installment of my talk focusing on The Shakespeare Guide to Italy by Richard Paul Roe, delivered at the November 24, 2013 conference of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust (S.A.T.) in London:

“Why would Shakespeare want any of us to find sycamore trees in Romeo and Juliet? Even when I was first reading Roe’s book, that nagging question kept floating up. Why did he put those sycamores in there in the first place? Why put into his plays so many little things in Italy that could only be found by being there?


“As Alexander Waugh describes it in his brilliant and detail-packed chapter in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? – *

“‘Shakespeare’s method, which we see repeated time and again, was to pepper his plays with frequent, minor and precise touches of local color. In both of his Venetian plays” – Merchant of Venice, and Othello – “he presents many little facts about the city that can be traced neither to the original sources from which he drew his plots, nor to any known travel books of the time.’

“Okay, but why? Just exactly WHY would Shakespeare want to put all these little details into his plays? I mean, was he showing off, or what? Boasting? Writing a book for tourists?

“I asked some of my authorship colleagues and one suggested that perhaps the playwright was doing this for the amusement of his friends – for the aristocratic young men who also went to that forbidden, dangerously alive place called Italy. But that reason didn’t really impress me too much. I mean, there are just too many details in the Italian plays … and – just my opinion – I don’t think his friends back home would recognize even a tenth of them, no matter how many continental trips they had made.

“Another friend suggested that the great author knew his identity was going to be erased from the historical record. After all, in the sonnets he spoke with the personal pronoun ‘I’ and declared, for example, ‘My name be buried where my body is,’ and ‘I, once gone, to all the world must die.’ And so, my friend said, if the real author knew his true identity was going to be obliterated, he would want send a message to us so we could realize that he actually did travel in Italy. That would be a strong clue, perhaps, to his identity – and all the little clues he put in there would survive – would pass through censorship unnoticed, unseen, unrecognized – and so remain there in his plays.

Portia's Landing Place (Venice) in "Merchant" Ducal Palace & Court

Portia’s Landing Place
(Venice) in “Merchant”
Ducal Palace & Court

“Well, I guess if ‘Shakespeare’ knew his identity as the author was going to be buried, then he probably did have a strong need to be witnessed – that is, for those of us in the future to bear witness to his personal experience.

“The thought of being obliterated must have been emotionally difficult, to say the least – as Hamlet cries out, “O Horatio what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown shall live behind me!” That’s a cry of suffering – ‘Things standing thus unknown’ – so he pleads with his good friend Horatio to ‘draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.’ In other words, “Horatio, please – please bear witness … to me and my life.”

“But then I thought of another reason, and I believe that even if the others might be valid, this one is probably the bottom-line … and let me say it first as simply as I can, from my own point of view as someone who tries to put words together:

“The man wrote better when he knew it was real!**

“He knew that using very specific things that he had seen with his own eyes, touched with his own hands, tasted, heard, smelled – then the rest of his writing of that particular play would go better. My friend and colleague Stephanie Hughes says it very directly and clearly: ‘This author’s imagination was the sort that needs real things and real experiences to build upon.’


“In my earliest acting days we used to sit around drinking imaginary cups of tea –the actors know this, right? At first I thought it was kind of ridiculous, but then I realized, hey, if I can smell the aroma of this invisible tea, and feel the nonexistent steam coming from this imaginary cup – well, then, everything else begins to take on that essential feeling of reality.

“The comedian Billy Crystal recalls getting advice from Bill Cosby, the great standup comic, who told him, “You gotta leave a tip! Leave your audience with a little PIECE of yourself, so they get a little feeling of who you are – a gift.” So in the process using the reality of his experience to write better, the author known as Shakespeare also gave us a special kind of ‘gift’ when it comes to his Italian plays – he gave us a way to go right to the very places where he spent time and be able to walk in his shoes on the very same streets, following his footsteps.

He left us with a map of his own experience.

“Through his plays he demonstrates that he had absorbed Italy into himself, through all his senses, all the wiring of his brain, and that he shook off the rigid attitudes and behavior of his own roots, broke the shackles – and became a lover – the Italian lover he always knew he was – which allowed him, for one thing, to embrace a new and powerful empathy, the better to inhabit each of his characters.

“His love for Italy was, of course, a love for life – and of course the Italian renaissance.

“But Dick Roe was not alone in his convictions about this. Another was Professor Ernesto Grillo, who grew up in a respected Italian family and taught Italian studies at Glasgow University. His lectures included dozens of linkages between Shakespeare and the geography, language and culture of Italy. One of his students put together his notes into a book entitled Shakespeare and Italy , published in 1949. And it quotes Grillo in conclusion:

“’Italy with its public and private life, its laws and customs, its ceremonial and other characteristics, pulsates in every line of our dramatist, while the atmosphere of many scenes is Italian in the truest sense of the word. We cannot but wonder how Shakespeare obtained such accurate information, and we have no hesitation in affirming that on at least one occasion he must have visited Italy.’

“For example, Grillo wrote, Shakespeare in Twelfth Night has Malvolio say that “the Lady of the Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe,” – and it seems that no scholar could explain it, but Professor Grillo drew upon his own Italian heritage to recognize a common Italian sarcasm, La Signora degli Stracci, alluding to a poor but haughty woman, a lady of rags, in this case one who married the yeoman of the wardrobe — and so we do get a little more pleasure of our ‘Shakespeare’ the better we can understand him.

“And then there was Georges Lambin, a professor at the Saint-Louis College in Paris specializing in translations of Shakespeare – and his work The Travels of Shakespeare in France and Italy was published in 1962.*** Professor Lambin writes with passion –

“’The moment is near, if it has not already arrived, in which the ‘Shakespeare mystery’ will finally escape the somewhat narrow and jealous competence of the exclusive specialist in literary studies. And when the HISTORIAN and the GEOGRAPHERS (and so on) shall wish to intensively undertake this problem, it will be definitely resolved.’


“Lambin writes about The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the famous “mistake” by Shakespeare of having Valentine sail from inland Verona to inland Milan – when, of course, it was easier – and safer – to sail on the connecting waterways, rivers, and canals which contained “roads” or wide places for ships to anchor.

“A vessel waits in the road,” he writes of The Two Gentlemen, “and time is pressing, because the tide – otherwise the flood – has just peaked.” Now Lambin turns sarcastic: “Here, our author surely must be exaggerating! What? Not know that Verona and Milan are not on the sea?! Well, there you go – that proves it — Shakespeare never was in Italy!”

“But he points out that in Two Gentlemen the author never directly mentions the sea. ‘As to the flood or tide, we’re not talking about an ocean surge at Verona! Yet today, motor-less vessels still wait for the tide to assist their passage to the open sea … River navigation is common on the European continent and has been for a long time. It is this flow that our voyagers have awaited for their voyage to Milan from Verona” –

“And Speed, as Lambin writes, tells us that ‘if the river were dry, I am able to fill it with my tears.’ So, he continues, ‘Valentine’s transportation, and then that of Proteus, then their domestics and their trunks, was not an ignorant fiction of the playwright’ – and the same goes for his topographic details of Milan and the forest.

“And he concludes, after many pages, that ‘the author of Two Gentlemen did indeed visit Milan, just as the author of All’s Well must have visited Florence, for his personal satisfaction and seeking a more authentic ‘local color,’ so that this unknown Shakespeare depended on his own recollections.’

“I might add that Stephanie Hughes makes the point – about the Earl of Oxford, but it could apply to any author – that these works would be performed for Queen Elizabeth, who was back at court waiting for the witty and informative plays about places she herself would probably never see – and in fact never did! — and about events on the continent that continued to reverberate through the challenging relationships with Italy and Spain that were of continual concern in England.

“And one other scholar I’d like to mention is one who I think is another giant in this realm – Dr. Noemi Magri, of Mantua, who died in May of 2011 — an extraordinary woman – an outstanding teacher of the English language, who contributed many amazing articles about Shakespeare and Italy to the De Vere Society, which re-printed no less than five of her articles in its 2004 collection of essays Great Oxford which in my view is one of the most outstanding books that I recommend for anyone involved in the Shakespeare authorship question.

“The cover photograph is that of a Titian painting of Ovid’s story of Venus and Adonis. As Dr. Magri reported, Titian painted many such pictures, but this was the only one in which Adonis wears a bonnet or cap while trying to avoid being seduced by the goddess of love and beauty. The one with the hat could only be seen in the sixteenth century at Titian’s home in Venice. And this is the very painting that Shakespeare describes in his narrative poem of Venus and Adonis.


“The author we call ‘Shakespeare’ was in Venice. He saw that particular painting. And he eventually described it in words:

‘He sees her coming and begins to glow…
And with his bonnet hides his angry brow…
For all askance he holds her in his eye…
Now was she just before him as he sat,
And like a lowly lover down she kneels …
O what a war of looks was then between them!’

“Princes and cardinals, ambassadors and nobles, artists and literary figures would not fail to pay their respects to Titian. Up to when he died in 1576, his house in Venice was a kind of cultural center and to be received into his house was a mark of high honor and prestige. ‘Shakespeare’ was one of those distinguished visitors who were received at Titian’s house in Venice. [Oxford made his home base in Venice during his 1575-76 travels in Italy.]

“But don’t tell Stanley Wells or Jonathan Bate!

Villa Foscari  (Portia's Belmont)

Villa Foscari
(Portia’s Belmont)

“Both Noemi Magri and Dick Roe contributed details of evidence to prove that Portia’s supposedly fictitious estate of Belmont in The Merchant of Venice was none other than the Villa Foscari-Malcontenta on the River Brenta – built by 1560, a grand palace where, just as the author knew, trumpets sounded as each nobleman was received in its richly decorated Great Hall, and where musicians serenaded and aristocrats danced and players performed.

“It turns out that ‘Shakespeare’ gave Portia the precisely correct information for her instruction to Nerissa to ‘haste away, for we must measure twenty miles today.’ The round-trip will be ten miles to Venice and ten miles back to the Villa Foscari or Belmont. Portia says they will travel by coach to the ‘Tranect’ – a narrow strip of land where travelers could transfer to the common ferry, which was then pulled across the dry land by machinery to the water and then the final lap to Venice.


“That rendezvous at the ‘Tranect’ was exactly five miles from Belmont to Fusina, and from there it was exactly another five miles to Venice. Each ten miles of the journey was in two parts of five miles each; and the roundtrip was twice ten or twenty miles, just as not only Portia, but also Shakespeare, had to know firsthand.

“The landing place at Venice for the two women was Il Molo, which sits in front of the Ducal Palace and the Courts of Justice – exactly where the trial of Antonio was being held.

Here are some names of places or things from Shakespeare’s plays that Richard Paul Roe found in Italy:

• From Romeo and Juliet, the cloister at Friar Lawrence’s monastery
• From Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Emperor’s Court and Saint Gregory’s Well in Milan
• From Taming of the Shrew, the rivers and canals to Padua, and the hostelry near St. Luke’s Church
• From Othello, the “Sagittary” in Venice known in Italian as the Frezzaria. Scholars have had many ideas about what it was (usually said to be a tavern), all of them wrong, but in fact it’s a narrow street where arrow-makers had their shops.
• From A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an ancient and un-changed town near Mantua called Sabbioneta, known as ‘Little Athens’ – with enough details to convince the most stubborn naysayer that this was indeed the real setting for Shakespeare’s Dream.
• From All’s Well That Ends Well, the St. Francis Hostelry
• And much more, on and on, but how about this — from The Tempest, the Island of Vulcano – of which Ariel sings, ‘Come unto these yellow sands…’
Prospero's Island
Vulcano is one of the islands off the northeast coast of Sicily. It’s named for the Roman god of fire and forges and volcanoes. And once again Roe offers dozens of details coordinating this magical location with that magical play of Shakespeare. The photo of Vulcano in this blog is from Roe’s daughter Hilary Roe Metternich, with whom I had the good fortune to communicate before coming here. And I’d like to share some of her insights into the scholar and adventurer whom she called Dad.

There were two points Hilary especially wanted to make: The first might simply be called ‘irreverence.” Her father was “a highly intelligent individual — a self-made man of simple background, who was fundamentally irreverent.”

Roe at twenty-two

“He never accepted what the ‘experts’ had to say about anything, at least not just because they were ‘experts’. He was a feisty guy. He had no problem challenging accepted ‘truth’ or questioning what individuals with big titles had to say. This may have stemmed from his training as a brilliant lawyer,” she said, adding, “but I believe his irreverence shows through in the topic which absorbed him so profoundly at the end of his life — and which resulted in his book.”

The second point, she said, “is that my father’s outlook was also impacted by the ‘conflict’ or ‘tension’ between Appearance and Reality. How things (and people) appear are not necessarily how they actually are. For example, his mother, born in 1886, was a divorced woman — considered rather a wild thing for a woman to be at the turn of the 20th century. But he knew her only as a wonderful and warm person. How she may have appeared to others was never the reality of her to him….’


“Irreverence and Awareness of the Difference between Appearance and Reality: ‘I should think,’ Hilary said, ‘that these two themes would profoundly impact a person’s outlook, and I do not believe my father embarked on his Shakespeare quest without having been affected by them.’

Dick Roe believed (as I do) that the Earl of Oxford was the true author, but he left that conviction aside when it came to writing his book. His epilogue is a paragraph of simple elegance and eloquence:

‘As we have seen in the foregoing chapters of this book, the ‘imaginary’ settings for the ten Italian plays of Shakespeare have presented both specific, and strikingly accurate, details about that country, as a result of dedicated sojourns within it by the playwright. The author’s journeys took him from its Alpine slopes to the toe of its peninsula, across the length and breadth of its great island of Sicily, and included sailing trips on both the adjoining Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas. For the last four hundred years, nearly all of the playwright’s descriptions of Italy’s places and treasures have either gone unrecognized as being true, or have been dismissed as mistaken. In researching and writing this book, it has been my goal to re-visit these orthodox beliefs, and contrast them for their accuracy with the actual words of the English playwright.’

“And that, I might add, is precisely what he did.”


* This book of essays (2013), edited by John M. Shahan and Alexander Waugh, is a response to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, an attack on doubters of the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, edited by Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson

**The conclusion originally came from Ted Story, co-writer and director of my one-man show Shakespeare’s Treason, and I shamelessly stole it from him.

*** See an English translation of Georges Lambin’s 1962 book by Talamadge (Tal) Gartley Wilson, completed by W. Ron Hess, with others, and published by Hess in The Dark Side of Shakespeare, Volume I, An Iron-Fisted Romantic in England’s Most Perilous Times (2002)

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://hankwhittemore.com/2013/12/01/richard-roe-shakespeare-and-italy-3rd-and-final-installment/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “He never accepted what the ‘experts’ had to say about anything, at least not just because they were ‘experts’. ”

    Exactly my experience. I don’t accept the opinion of a celebrated poet, just because she knows how to write poems. Ridiculous.

  2. Great Hank…Thanks again!

    • Good to hear from you, Gary. It inspires to know someone is reading:-) Hope you and family had a good Thanksgiving! Best, Hank

  3. Thank you, Hank, for this transcript of you excellent speech about Italy and Roe’s fascinating book. I hadn’t heard the bit about the Lady of Strachy before!

    Donna Murphy

  4. Hank,

    What are your thoughts on the works of Dennis McCarthy and Michael Blanding, who assert that Thomas North was the source for much of the information in the Shakespearean plays, in particular the Italian plays? North’s journals contain words and phrases that show up clearly in the plays, for example. Much has been made of this in the mainstream media and on various Facebook discussion pages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: