1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Shakespeare's Italian Studies

William Shakespeare
(Part 32)


Shakespeare's Italian Studies

But, whatever his actual relation to the Italian scholar may have been, Shakespeare, on reaching London and beginning to breathe its literary atmosphere, would naturally betake himself to the study of Italian. At various altitudes the English Parnassus was at that time fanned by soft airs, swept by invigorating breezes, or darkened by gloomy and infected vapours from the south. In other words, the influence of Italian literature, so dominant in England during the second half of the 16th century, may be said to have reached its highest point at the very time when Shakespeare entered on his poetic and dramatic labours.

This influence was in part a revival of the strong impulse communicated to English literature from Italy in Chaucer's day. The note of the revival was struck in the title of Thomas's excellent Italian manual, "Principal rules of Italian grammar, with a dictionarie for the better understandyng of Boccace, Petrarcha, and Dante" (1550).

The first fruits of the revival were the lyrical poems of Surrey and IVyatt, written somewhat earlier, but published for the first time in Tottle's Miscellany (1557). The sonnets of these poets -- the first ever written in English -- produced in a few years the whole musical choir of Elizabethan sonneteers. Surrey and Wyatt were sympathetic students of Petrarch, and, as Puttenham says, reproduced in their sonnets and love poems much of the musical sweetness, the tender and refined sentiment, of the Petrarchian lyric.

This perhaps can hardly in strictness of speech be called a revival, for, strong as was the influence of Boccaccio, and in a less degree of Dante, during the first period of English literature, the lyrical poetry of the south, as represented by Petrarch, affected English poetry almost for the first time in the 16th century.

This influence, as subsequently developed by Lyly in his prose comedies and romances, indirectly affected the drama, and clear traces of it are to be found in Shakespeare's own work.

Surrey, however, rendered the Elizabethans a still greater service by introducing from Italy the unrhymed verse, which, with the truest instinct, was adopted by the great dramatists as the metrical vehicle best fitted to meet the requirements of the most flexible and expressive form of the poetic art.

But, although in part the revival of a previous impulse, the Italian literature that most powerfully affected English poetry during the Elizabethan period was in the main new.

During the interval the prolific genius of the south had put forth fresh efforts which combined, in new and characteristic products, the forms of classical poetry and the substance of southern thought and feeling with the spirit of mediaeval romance. The chivalrous and martial epics of Ariosto and Tasso represented a new school of poetry which embraced within its expanding range every department of imaginative activity. There appeared in rapid succession romantic pastorals, romantic elegies, romantic satires, and romantic dramas, as well as romantic epics.

The epics were occupied with marvels of knightly daring and chivalrous adventure, expressed in flowing and melodious numbers; while the literature as a whole dealt largely in the favourite elements of ideal sentiment, learned allusion, and elaborate ornament, and was brightened at intervals by grave and sportive, by highly wrought but fanciful, pictures of courtly and Arcadian life.

While Sidney and Spenser represented in England the new school of allegorical and romantic pastoral and epic, Shakespeare and his associates betook themselves to the study of the romantic drama and the whole dramatic element in recent and contemporary southern literature. The Italian drama proper, so far as it affected the form adopted by English playwrights, had indeed virtually done its work before any of Shakespeare's characteristic pieces were produced.

His immediate predecessors, Greene, Peele, and Lodge, Nash, Kyd, and Marlowe, had all probably studied Italian models more carefully than Shakespeare himself ever did; and the result is seen in the appearance among these later Elizabethans of the romantic drama, which united the better elements of the English academic and popular plays with features of diction and fancy, incident and structure, that were virtually new.

Many members of this dramatic group were, like Greene, good Italian scholars, had themselves travelled in Italy, knew the Italian stage at first hand, and, as their writings show, were well acquainted with recent Italian literature.

But the dramatic element in that literature extended far beyond the circle of regular plays, whether tragedies, comedies, or pastorals. It included the collections of short prose stones which appeared, were published for the first time, in such numbers during 16th century, the novels or novelettes of Ser Giovanni, Cinthio, Bandello, and their associates. These stories, consisting of the humorous and tragic incidents of actual life, told in a vivid and direct way, naturally attracted attention of the dramatists.

We know from the result that Shakespeare must have studied them with some care, as he derived from this source the plots and incidents of at least a dozen of his plays. Many of the stories, it is true, had already been translated, either directly from the Italian, or indirectly from French and Latin versions. Of Cinthio's hundred tales, however, only two or three are known to have been rendered into English; and Shakespeare derived the story of Othello from the untranslated part of this collection.

Many of Italian stories touched on darker crimes or more aggravated forms of violence than those naturally prompted by jealousy and revenge, and are indeed revolting from the atrocities of savage cruelty and lust related so calmly as betray a kind of cynical insensibility to their true character. Shakespeare, however, with the sound judgment and strong ethical sense that guided the working of dramatic genius, chose the better and healthier materials of this literature, leaving the morbid excesses of criminal passion to Webster and Ford.

But the Italian influence Shakespeare's work is not to be estimated merely by outlines of plot and incident he borrowed from them sources and used as a kind of canvas for his matchless portraiture of human character and action. It is apparent also in points of structure and diction, in types of character and shades of local colouring, which realize and express in a concentrated form the bright and lurid, the brilliant and passionate, features of southern life.

The great majority of the dramatis personae in his comedies, as well as in some of the tragedies, have Italian names, and many of them, such as Mercutio and Gratiano on the one hand, Iachimo and Iago on the other, are as Italian in nature as in name.

The moonlight scene in the Merchant Venice is Southern in every detail and incident. And, M. Philarète Chasles justly points out; Romeo and Juliet is Italian throughout, alike in colouring, incident, and passion.

The distinctive influence is further traceable Shakespeare's use of Italian words, phrases, and proverbs, some of which, such as "tranect" (from tranare), or posssibly, as Rowe suggested, "traject" (traghetto), are of special local significance. In the person of Hamlet Shakespeare even appears as a critic of Italian style. Referring to the murderer who in the players' tragedy poisons the sleeping duke, Hamlet exclaims, "He poisons in the garden for his estate. His name's Gonzago: the story is extant and written in very choice Italian." In further illustration of this point Mr Grant White has noted some striking turns of thought and phrase which seem to show that Shakespeare must have read parts of Berni and Ariosto in the original.

No doubt in the case Italian poets, as in the case of Latin authors like Ovid, whose works he was familiar with in the original, Shakespeare would also diligently read the translations, especially the translations into English verse. For in reading such works as Golding's Ovid, Harrington's Ariosto, and Fairfax's Tasso, he would be increasing his command over the elements of expressive phrase and diction which were the verbal instruments, the material vehicle, of his art. But, besides studying the translations of the Italian poets and prose writers made available for English readers, he would naturally desire to possess, and no doubt acquired for himself, the key that would unlock the whole treasure-house of Italian literature.

The evidence of Shakespeare's knowledge of French is more abundant and decisive, so much so as hardly to need express illustration. There can be little doubt therefore that, during his early years in London, he acquired a fair knowledge both of French and Italian.

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