Shakespeare really loved Italy and was very influenced by the Italian poetry.
Among Shakespeare’s plays more than one fourth are linked to Italy somehow. Eight comedies are set in Italy (Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Merchant of Venice, Much ado about nothing, Twelfth Night, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Pericles Prince of Tyre) and two tragedies (Otello, Romeo and Juliet). “Cymbeline” takes place between England and Rome but the characters are mostly Italian like characters in the Roman tragedies “Julius Cesar” and “Anthony and Cleopatra”, Romans by name, Italians by behaviour and personalities.
In addition, in Hamlet the comedy that reveals Hamlet’s Uncle’s crime is translated from the Italian “La trappola del topo”.
But why was Shakespeare so focused on Italy, Italian people and their ways of living?
During the Renaissance, Italy was really well-advanced in techniques, architecture, arts and literature. Aesthetics and art in England were influenced for a very long time by the Italian and French taste. Many Italian artists during that period travelled to France and more and more often they went on to England. Along with the arts, the Italian poetry, with its “verso sciolto” which became the English “blank verse”, grow quite popular between the young intellectuals during the first years of reign of Elizabeth I.
Those young intellectuals studied Italian language to read Boccaccio’s tales and Ariosto’s poem, they danced Italian dances and sang Italian songs.
Italian short stories and poems began to influence also the English theatre so that, when Shakespeare started his career, it was quite common to be inspired by Italian subjects and topics.
For a play writer there was nothing better to be inspired by than Italy and Italian people!
Love, plots, murder: Italian literature and society were filled with them. Let’s just think about Machiavelli and his “Principe”, very well-known at the time, full of charme and intriguing to English people who were very fascinated by the world described in that little book.
Italian people had become famous for their love poems but also for their tricks and plots.
In English people’s imagination Italy was a country populated by conmen and murderers, beautiful bewitching women, sensual nuns and plotting cardinals. Not to mention the beauty of the towns which sometimes presented Roman ruins besides new pieces of astonishing architecture and art, like in Verona, or the absolute peculiarity of a place like Venice, a wonderful, unique, flourishing Republic, open to the East and crowded with people form all over the world known at the time.
Besides, with all those wide squares and narrow streets, all the Italian towns were natural theatrical locations. Intriguing characters and amazing locations: all perfect ingredients for a play!
And despite the idea that Italy was corrupted and full of plotters and conmen, English people really admired this country not just for its arts and beauties but also for its people’s wit and ability of invention.
Shakespeare loved to set his plays in Italy because of all these reasons but also because, with the perfect excuse of describing another country far from England, he could use those stories of plots and crimes to describe English similar situations without taking too many risks.