Attitudes to Italy

Italy, seat of learning

A third of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy. The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice are set in Italian cities: Padua, Verona and Venice. In the Middle Ages cities such as Bologna and Padua drew people to their universities and Italy became an example of a progressive and civilised society - the product of an enviable classical past. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is set in Padua, a place of learning and knowledge described by Lucentio as ‘the nursery of the arts’.
Italy was also the birthplace of the Renaissance and subsequent humanist thought, both of which were indispensable in an Elizabethan gentleman’s education. From Italian books such as Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (translated into English in 1561) one could read of the perfect courtier - a poet, soldier and man of wit and manner - and in Machiavelli’s The Prince discover the secrets of a subtle yet ruthless politician. Petrarch’s poems, with their exploration of idealised and unrequited love, were imitated (and parodied) and the classical Roman authors including Seneca and Ovid were studied at school and university. The Senecan model of tragedy shaped the tyrant of the Elizabethan stage and stories from Ovid were well known among players and playgoers alike.

Italian machination

Alongside the view of Italy as the seat of learning, another attitude gradually developed, following the Reformation and during the sixteenth century. Contemporary Italy was seen as a place of political intrigue and social instability and plays set in Renaissance Italy featured a sensational combination of duplicity, violence, murder, rape and mutilation. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus features all of these and is set in Italy’s classical past. 
Many Jacobean revenge dramas and Italianate plays, including John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devilor Ben Jonson’s Volpone, explored similar themes in plays set in contemporary Italy. The hot climate of Italy linked it to a land of strong passions, extreme emotions and illicit love. Indications of this are found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with references to summer heat, dog days and violent family feuds that set the scene for the play.
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