“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east…”
And what time is it? I woke up with a wicked crick in my neck, looked down 35,000 feet, and there was land below. We were getting close. I checked my watch: one hour left until touchdown, and I begin my journey through bella Italia with the Bard in hand.
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I would spend six weeks in Italy. The first month, I’d be in Rome for the Yale Summer Session course, “The City of Rome.” The remainder of my time would be spent taking a grand tour of the northern provinces. While the class would cover a range of Roman figures from Aeneas to Mussolini, I had a particular focus for my independent travels: William Shakespeare. From the banks of the Thames, he had created a version of Italy for his Globe patrons. I wanted to see how his stories fared on their home soil.
So I sat in the airplane during the final descent knowing that Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Katherina and Petruchio, Coriolanus, and Titus Andronicus were all in my backpack. I could only hope they weren’t driving each other crazy.
“You blocks! You stones! You worse than senseless things!”
The tourists swarm down the Via Sacra.
“Knew you not Pompey?” Or anything else of Ancient Rome?
I am standing in the Roman Forum with my classmates. Having read Livy, Virgil Polybius, Shakespeare, and Tacitus, we are on a mission to see first hand the landscape that created these works. This is the birthplace of the Republic! The home of Caesars! Here you could see Augustus’ house on the Palatine hill. There is the Colisseum.
I am coming to realize, however, that our mission is one for the overeducated. Most of the people surrounding us look hot and ready for gelato. They aren’t concerned with issues of power and world domination, Roman conquest, and kings. Instead, they hang around in groups, chasing hyperactive children and discussing the next site on their checklist.
This crowd, however inconvenient to students of history, might not be so out of place. I imagine these Rick Steves-disciples as the modern spawn of the plebeian caste. The Forum is supposed to be crowded. It was the heart of the old city — a marketplace, a gossip-center. Like Coriolanus, my classmates and I are not subtle about our disdain for the flip-flop-wearing hoards. After all, their “affections are a sick man’s appetite.” But we refrain from calling them out — there is no reason to get banished like Marcius because of a superiority complex.
Next we target the landscape of Julius Caesar within the Roman Forum. The play opens during Caesar’s triumph over Pompey. Rome is in the midst of a party, but not everyone is happy. Cassius plots against the hero, and Brutus joins reluctantly for the sake of Rome.
We walk to Julius Caesar’s Forum which the Curia, the Roman Senate house, abuts. The Curia was initially parallel to the older Roman Forum, but when Caesar built his structure, he shifted its foundation to align with his property as a radical statement of his newfound authority.
I know that “Caesar doth not wrong,” but the thought that the entire Senate could or should be realigned for one man is absurd. In my imagination, I join the conspirators against the man “that thunders, lightens, opens graves, and roars.” It’s time to prepare for murder.
I grab my dagger and search for my fellow conspirators. I had imagined finding the site of Caesar’s death to be one of the highlights of my trip. I would stand exactly where the corpse fell. Be there as Caesar questioned, “Et tu, Brute?”
But where to look for the dried up blood? Plutarch, Shakespeare’s biographical source on the Ancients, states that Caesar was killed in the Theater of Pompey. But Shakespeare was not afraid to change the facts.
Perhaps Cassius should have asked Shakespeare where to best kill Caesar, because the Bard’s clear opinion is that the Capitoline was the only place to do the deed.
Rising over the Roman Forum and topped with the temple to Jupiter, the Capitoline is the most symbolic hill of the Republic. It is the hill of the Sabines, the location of the Tabularium or Roman Records of State, and the site of justice and the Tarpeian Rock. Throughout history, men wanting to reaffirm the city’s self-rule have climbed to the top of that hill to proclaim their agenda to the masses. It would be an ideal place to kill off a dictator, and Shakespeare knew it. It is not surprising that this is where most people imagine Caesar being stabbed. What few know is that it was an Englishman who forever changed the historic location.
And so in Rome, I lived in a world of legends, and not just fact. It was impossible to separate myself for the stories embedded in the cobbled streets. I spent the next few weeks dreaming of Republican virtue, cursing the plebs as I saw fit, and trying to make a home in a new city before my next adventure started.
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It is time for romance.
But in Verona, subtlety dies (just like the lovers). You cannot walk down a street without having the story of two “star-crossed lovers” thrown in your face. The tale appears to be one of the stronger local industries.
The fictional Montague and Capulet families have taken over the downtown area. There are multiple “Romeo e Giulietta” gift shops, a “Club Giulietta,” a museum, costumed guides, and a tomb. You can go to a bakery and buy meringues called “Baci di Giulietta e Sospiri di Romeo” (Juliet’s kisses and Romeo’s sighs).
All these shops on the Via Cappelo (it sounds like Capulet, the Veronese insist) are centered about the hub of the Shakespearian scene: “Juliet’s House.”
To enter this preserved medieval home, you pass through a 20-foot-long corridor that takes you to an inner courtyard. This stone tunnel is completely covered with love graffiti: there are spray-painted hearts, penned doodles of cupids, and countless love notes in various languages taped to the sides.
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“Amore mio, siamo uniti dal nostro amore per sempre. Ti amo da morire,” reads one.
“I wanna spend the rest of my life with the one I love. He is Sergey,” spells another.
As if writing to the mutant love child of Santa and Dear Abbey, people ask for eternal love, or simply for a friend (if anyone is interested, email email@example.com). Still others simply ask for a ripped guido.
Once past the love notes, you walk into an open courtyard. It is packed with tourists, most of whom have eyes and cameras trained on the balcony. If you pay six Euro you can stand there for a brief moment.
An older Italian in tights and a strained doublet enters the scene. He establishes himself in the corner of the courtyard, and flips his cape to indicate his metamorphosis from one secondary character to another. At the appropriate moment, Juliet and Romeo enter the stage. Romeo is pretty hunky looking. Juliet is wearing great shoes. They perform the famous “palmers scene.”
The sixty tourists in the courtyard continue to mill about and jostle for a chance to grope a bronze statue of Juliet. I don’t know who started the tradition, but it is considered good luck to pet her breast. All the TLC has caused Juliet’s bust to develop a polished sheen.
My friend, a fellow Shakespeare enthusiast, and I stand and enjoy the play, and afterwards, we get our picture taken with the Romeo and Juliet. I may or may not have cropped Juliet out of the final photo.
As we walk out, I notice the sign above the arched doorway:
“These were the houses
Of the Capulets
Where lived the Juliet
For whom gentile hearts weep
And the poets sing.”
MANTUA & PADUA
After killing Tybalt, Romeo flees to Mantua, a mere 30 km away. But while he sees “no world without Verona walls, But purgatory, torture, hell itself,” I didn’t think it was so bad.
In fact, I kind of wish someone would banish me there. The town is beautiful and subdued. Earth-toned houses line cobbled streets, whose slight curves lend a gentleness to the city. The terrain is flat and easy to navigate. Everyone here rides bikes, the women pedaling in long, flowing skirts.
There are no tourists in Mantua except for those from other regions of Italy, so my friend and I wander the piazzas alone. We eat dinner in a piazza graced by a bust of Virgil, a Mantuan native. Nearby, another piazza is dedicated to Dante. We can find no reference to Shakespeare in the physical space, but I can’t help thinking that, had the lovers gotten away, it would have been a nice place for them to start a new life.
Our final small town in the Veneto is Padua, “For the great desire I had to see fair Padova, Nursery of Arts.” And so, “I am arrived… And am to Padova come, as he that leaves a shallow plash to plunge him in the deep, and with satiety seeks to quench his thirst.”
These words from Taming of the Shrew are inscribed on a quiet street away from the markets that dominate the downtown area. This plaque is high praise for Shakespeare, a foreigner who had adopted the city from afar. In Florence, there are similar plaques around town that quote Dante, the city’s exiled literary hero. Virgil is revered similarly in Mantua. We celebrate finding this unexpected memorial with a picnic from the market, and then it is time to catch our train.
I feel like I’m walking in an airport security line. It is hot, I’m tired, and I can’t walk at my normal fast gate. Fleshy tourists are bumping into me. The streets are too narrow. We collapse in a café and look at the menu: the prices are twice what we expected. Where is the famed romantic city of canals?
The mood is ripe for monetary matters. Like the absurd business in The Merchant of Venice, I want to talk money, contracts, and deals. There is an American family of eight nearby. Without prompting, the capitalistic cogs in my head begin to spin. I could be their babysitter. Or, a gondolier. I could become “like signores and rich burghers on the flood” and make a fortune on this island-nation.
To try and escape this mindset, I visit the Doge’s palace. My favorite of the lavish rooms is filled with frescoed maps of the known Renaissance world, demonstrating that the proper Venetian knows “where sits the wind, Peering in maps for ports and piers and roads.” According to Shakespeare, this knowledge allows the merchant to adroitly manage his shipping investments away from home. For me, however, knowing the geography of the world provided the conviction that there is a better place out there.
So like the roving merchants I don’t keep to the island. Unable to deal with the expensive theme-park vibe, I take the next overnight train back to Rome.
“Rome! My Country! City of the Soul.” Ok, they are Lord Byron’s words, not Shakespeare’s, but they are my mantra as I re-enter the city. My travels are complete: I have chased the Bard and his characters to the ends of Italy and back. On my walk to my final hotel, I salute the life-sized statue of Julius Caesar that overlooks the Forum. Surely he’ll keep an eye on the place until I return.