“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)

Reason Number 24 of 100 Why Edward de Vere was “Shakespeare” – His & the Bard’s Deep Knowledge of Italy

For anyone interested in Shakespeare, and particularly the study of Shakespearean authorship, this coming Tuesday, November 8, 2011, is a landmark on the calendar.  That’s the official publication date of a book that could – and should – break down the rigid walls of Stratfordian tradition as more and more people demand some better explanations.

"The Shakespeare Guide to Italy" by Richard Paul Roe

This potential bombshell is The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels, by Richard Paul “Dick” Roe, who died December 1, 2010 in Pasadena at eighty-eight, having spent the last quarter-century of his life traveling the length and breadth of Italy on what the publisher, HarperCollins, aptly describes as “a literary quest of unparalleled significance.”

“If you take a map of Italy and grab ten push pins and put them in ten cities, that’s essentially Shakespeare’s Italy,” said Mark Anderson, author of Shakespeare by Another Name, in a BBC interview, adding, “That to me is quite a remarkable happenstance.”

And now, in honor of the imminent release of Dick Roe’s masterwork, it’s also the twenty-fourth reason on this list to believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote the Shakespeare works.

When Edward de Vere traveled through Italy at age twenty-five during 1575, he and his retinue skirted Spanish-controlled Milan before navigating by canal and a network of rivers on a 120-mile journey to Verona.  His travels took him to Padua, Venice, Mantua, Pisa, Florence, Siena, Naples, Florence, Messina, Palermo and elsewhere, making his home base in Venice.

Aside from three stage works set in ancient Rome (Corianlanus, Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar), ten of Shakespeare’s fictional plays are set in Italy – Romeo and Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Othello (Act One), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (adduced), All’s Well That Ends Well (also France), Much Ado About Nothing, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest (which opens aboard a ship in the Mediterranean between North Africa and Italy).

Verona, Italy

On the other hand, only one play of fiction (The Merry Wives of Windsor) is set in England … an astounding ten-to-one ratio!  Why?  The only logical answer, I submit, is that “Shakespeare” (whoever he was!) must have fallen in love with Italy.  And I’d think it would be pretty hard to fall in love with a country without ever visiting it!

Oxfordians have often said that Edward de Vere “brought the European Renaissance back to England” when he returned in 1576 after fifteen months of travel through France, Germany and, most extensively, Italy.  He became the quintessential “Italianate Englishman” wearing “new-fangled” clothes* of the latest styles.


He brought richly embroidered, perfumed gloves for Queen Elizabeth, who delighted in them, and such gloves became all the rage among the great ladies of the time.  And, for example, he brought back his perfumed leather jerkin (a close-fitting, sleeveless jacket) and “sweet bags” with costly washes and perfumes.

Soon enough John Lyly, who was Oxford’s personal secretary and stage manager, issued two novels about an Italian traveler – Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580), the latter dedicated to Edward de Vere, who apparently supervised the writing of both books.  Together they are said to comprise “the first English novel” and, yes, in the following decade the great author “Shakespeare” would demonstrate Lyly’s influence upon some of his plays.

"Shakespeare" demonstrates knowledge of the Italian comedy form known as "Commedia Dell'Arte" -- Edward de Vere must have attended shows of the "Commedia" during his time in Venice

“There is a secret Italy hidden in the plays of Shakespeare,” Roe begins the Introduction of his ground-breaking book.   “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.”

The descriptions to be found in the Italian plays are in “challenging detail” and “nearly all their locations” can be found to this day.  Whoever wrote them “had a personal interest in that country equal to the interest in his own.”  The places and things in Italy to which Shakespeare alludes or which he describes “reveal themselves to be singularly unique to that one country.”  His familiarity with Italy’s sites and sights – “specific details, history, geography, unique cultural aspects, places and things, practices and propensities” and so on – “is, quite simply, astonishing.”

Roe never mentions Oxford or any other Shakespearean candidate; instead he takes us right away to Verona, the setting for Romeo and Juliet, and recounts making one trip to search for – sycamore!  That’s right, he went to find sycamore trees, and they would have to be located in one specific spot — “just outside the western wall” as “remnants of a grove that had flourished in that one place for centuries.”

A canal in Italy

The trees are described in the very opening scene –

Where, underneath the grove of sycamore

That westward rooteth from the city’s side…

There are no sycamore trees in any of the known source materials for the play; 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.”

So our intrepid detective-explorer arrives in the old city of Verona: “My driver took me across the city, then to its edge on the Viale Cristoforo Colombo.  Turning south onto the Viale Colonnello Galliano, he began to slow.  This was the boulevard where, long before and rushing to the airport at Milan, I had glimpsed trees, but had no idea what kind.”

His car creeps along the Viale and then comes to a halt.  Are there sycamores at the very same spot where “Shakespeare” said they were?  Did this playwright, who is said to be ignorant of Italy, know this “unnoted and unimportant but literal truth” about Verona?  Had he deliberately “dropped an odd little stone about a real grove of trees into the pool of his powerful drama”?

I’m sure you know the answer …

Dick Roe took this photograph outside the Porta Palio, one of Verona's three western gates; and yes, sycamore trees

* “New-fangled” clothing:

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,

Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,

Some in their garments though new-fangled ill … Sonnet 91

“Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy” has a dozen chapters, each with more amazing personal discoveries proving that the great author had to have been there:

1 – Romeo and Juliet – “Devoted Love in Verona”

2 – The Two Gentlemen of Verona – part one – “Sailing to Milan”

3 – The Two Gentlemen of Verona – part two – “Milan: Arrivals and Departures”

4 – The Taming of the Shrew – “Pisa to Padua”

5 – The Merchant of Venice – part one – “Venice: the City and the Empire”

6 – The Merchant of Venice – part two – “Venice: Trouble and Trial”

7 – Othello – “Strangers and Streets, Swords and Shoes”

8 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – “Midsummer in Sabbioneta”

9 – All’s Well That Ends Well – “France and Florence”

10 – Much Ado About Nothing – “Misfortune in Messina”

11 – The Winter’s Tale – “A Cruel Notion Resolved”

12 – The Tempest – “Island of Wind and Fire”

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