It’s almost certain that Shakespeare never left the shores of England but every year thousands of his contemporaries, wealthy young men, embarked on the ‘grand tour’ of European cities: it was an essential part of a gentleman’s education. Although Shakespeare never visited any European cities he set plays in many of them. He always had a reason for setting a particular action in a particular city. He knew a great deal about European cities as he was a prolific reader, keenly gleaning information about places – information that he subsequently used in his dramas. As a prominent cultural figure in London, he would also have met visitors from other European cities.
In the sixteenth century, Venice was at the heart of the grand tour. It was, in a sense, the capital of Europe. It was exciting and modern, a centre of art and music. It was a place of wealth and pleasure. It stood at the crossroads of the world, where all trade routes converged. It was a racial, religious, and ethnic melting pot with diverse cultures living close together on a small group of little islands. Small as it was, it was the gateway to Europe, with its army protecting Europe from the ever-threatening Turks on the one hand, and trading with them and its allies on the other. A young English gentleman on his grand tour would no more think of missing the pleasures of Venice than he would of omitting Rome from his tour.
Shakespeare uses Venice as a setting for two of his plays. In both Othello and The Merchant of Venice he’s exploring ethnic, racial and religious conflict and what better place to examine that than a small city where the pressures of those aspects of life are acute. Othello is a Black man in a traditional social environment. It’s most relevant to the 20th century audiences in that he is valued for having a unique skill, needed by the establishment, but rejected on all other fronts, rather like the African American singers who were adored by everyone but banned from clubs, swimming pools and white suburbs. In The Merchant of Venice Shylock is a Jew, despised, because he is a Jew, by everyone. They associate with him in matters of business but will have nothing to do with him on any other level. In the cases both of Othello and Shylock Shakespeare chose Venice, honing in on one of the many Moors and one of the many Jews, to reveal something important about the way human beings relate to each other. Venice was the perfect setting for doing that. In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare is also exploring the commercial tensions that ran through issues of race and religion then, as they do today.
Shakespeare’s attention to detail in constructing the worlds in which his plays exist shows an outstanding acquired knowledge of the places he chooses to use as settings. He’s aware of the Rialto as a place where news and gossip are exchanged; of the currency – ducats; the practice of elopement conducted by gondoliers, and even the use of the name ‘Gobbo,’ taken from the famous hunchback who frequented the Rialto and confronted tourists. Once again, Shakespeare, with his great genius, gets it absolutely right.
Those of us who live in modern Europe are lucky enough to be able to jump into a plane, car or train and be in Venice in a few short hours. It’s a great chance to see the city these plays were set in and would be a rewarding for trip for any Shakespeare fan. However, keep in mind you will see something very different from the Venice an Elizabethan gentleman experienced. Today, we see a rather shabby and decaying beauty – a city sinking into the sea. Everything about it rings of the past. Beautiful it may be, but it’s somewhat dead – more like a museum than a living city. It’s a truly wonderful place to visit, but almost exclusively for its architectural treasures and the sense of its past glory.