Shakespeare's France and Italy

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 25

Shakespeare's plays are well stocked with merchants of Venice, gentlemen of Verona, lords and ladies of France, and other foreign characters. But what did he—and his audiences—really know about such distant places and people?
In this episode of Shakespeare Unlimited, Rebecca Sheir poses that question about France and Italy—the two foreign lands that Shakespeare wrote about the most. 
Her guests are Deanne Williams, author of The French Fetish from Chaucer to Shakespeare, and associate professor of English at York University in Toronto, and Graham Holderness, author of Shakespeare and Venice and professor of English at the University of Hertfordshire.  
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published May 20, 2015. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Sighed My English Breath in Foreign Clouds," was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. With help from Laura Green at The Sound Company and Jonathan Charry at public radio station WAMU.


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called “Sighed My English Breath in Foreign Clouds.”

Shakespeare, the greatest writer in the English language, offered his audiences a remarkable collection of non-English characters, gentlemen of Verona, merchants of Venice, not to mention pun-loving young lords and ladies of France. We know that Shakespeare’s London had many foreign residents, refugees from the religious wars in France, German traders, ambassadors from all over Europe. But what, exactly, did Shakespeare and his audiences really know about the countries that these characters came from? And what did they know about their cultures?

We’re going to explore that question in this podcast, focusing on two countries Shakespeare wrote about most, France and Italy. We brought together two scholars who have looked into this question. Deanne Williams is a professor at York University in Toronto who specializes in medieval and Renaissance literature, and is the author of books, including The French Fetish from Chaucer to Shakespeare. Graham Holderness is the author of 40 books, including 2013’s Shakespeare and Venice. He’s a professor of English at the University of Hertfordshire. They are interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.


REBECCA SHEIR: Today we live in this era of mass communications and global travel. But I think we imagine people in the Renaissance had less exposure to all things foreign. I mean, after all, back then it could take you, I don’t know, like a week to get across England, and families tended to stay in their own regions or their own villages for generations and generations.

So, it seems like a good way to start our conversation is to talk about just how familiar English people really were with foreign countries in Shakespeare’s time. For instance, Deanne, Shakespeare set several of the history plays, Henry V, and Henry VI, parts 1 and 3, in France. So, how familiar was his audience with that country?

DEANNE WILLIAMS: Well, Shakespeare’s audience was extremely familiar with France. All the way back to the Norman Conquest in 1066, there had been a French-speaking presence in England. And for Shakespeare, in Shakespeare’s own time, there were many French visitors to London. There was a Huguenot population of French Protestant refugees living in London. And there were visitors, back and forth, to the English court. Elizabeth I, for example, was involved in a long, protracted engagement with the Duke of Alençon, and his visits would have brought an enormous entourage of French people, who would have had contact with Londoners of all different varieties.

SHEIR: So, you mentioned the Norman Conquest, with William the Conqueror coming in, becoming king, and installing members of his army as nobles. Was that more of an introduction of French culture or an imposition?

WILLIAMS: Oh, that’s an interesting question. And certainly, it imposed French in many contexts in England. So, French became the language of not only the royal court, but also law, as well as in religious institutions.

SHEIR: And when did that start to change?

WILLIAMS: It started to change in the 14th century. Parliament was addressed in English for the first time, because there was a sense that French was no longer really as commonly spoken. And there are other key moments that reflect an evolution towards English speaking, and English replacing French. Wills, for example, guild records started being kept, as well, in English in the 14th century.

SHEIR: Well, Graham, let’s turn to you. We know Shakespeare didn’t travel overseas, but he does manage to set about a third of his plays in Italy. Why did Italy hold such a fascination for him?

GRAHAM HOLDERNESS: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s the first thing to establish, is that if you sort Shakespeare’s plays by country, that Italy is the majority country represented. Other countries hardly get a look in. And there are three plays set in Greece. There’s one play set in Denmark. There’s one play set in Vienna. So, you know, Italy really is the biggest show in town, as far as Shakespeare’s choice of country location.

Now, what Deanne was just saying about the French influence within England is obviously quite true, and the same would apply to Italy. But it is worth saying, of course, that perhaps travel in that period was more extensive than we often think. People lived there. People wrote accounts of their experiences in Italy, brought back opinions, brought back artifacts, brought back Italians. There were prominent, successful Italian merchants. Some work has been done recently on legal records about people who got into trouble with the law through involvement in prostitution. And there’s a lot of Italians acting as prostitutes, Italians using prostitutes, Italians pimping for prostitutes. And, you know, the kind of dark underworld that’s a fantasy in Much Ado About Nothing, is actually something of a reality in Elizabethan London. So the impact is reciprocal, and there’s a circulation of what Stephen Greenblatt calls “social energy” or “circulation of cultures.”

SHEIR: I just think it’s so interesting that Shakespeare was so fascinated by Italy. I mean, you have something like The Tempest, which isn’t actually set in that country, but it’s about the aristocratic families of Naples and Milan. So, why was he so drawn into that country, and its people, and society, and culture?

HOLDERNESS: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think it’s important to recognize that Italy was acknowledged as a kind of leading country. The interest in Italian education, language, art, culture derived from the fact that Italians, you know, were very much in the forefront, in the forefront of politics, warfare, science and technology, philosophy, banking and finance, art and music, literature, performing arts, dance, and so on. So, it’s not really surprising that Italy was a kind of beacon to anyone interested in culture, education, philosophy, politics.

At the same time, of course, the English attitude towards Italy was profoundly ambivalent. Italy was the home of the Renaissance, the country of Leonardo da Vinci, and Dante, and Petrarch, and so on. But it was also the home of Machiavelli and the Pope. So when William Thomas went to Italy, he talked about the Italian nation flourishing "in civility" more than any other at this day. But when Roger Ascham went there, he said, “I thank God that my abode there was but nine days" and that an Englishman returns from Italy "italianato è un diavolo incarnato.” You come back from Italy, Italianized and a devil incarnate.

SHEIR: Do we see that doubleness, that attraction and revulsion in Shakespeare’s plays?

HOLDERNESS: Yeah, we certainly do, I think. The extent to which Shakespeare used Italian sources, Italian stories, is fairly obvious. But he also was not at all averse to using the more kind of clichéd images—Italians associated with passion, for example, jealousy, which you see in Othello, revenge, which you see in Much Ado About Nothing, corruption and violence, which you see in the Roman plays. So, there’s lots of stereotypical, fairly xenophobic, prejudices about the country which find a home quite readily in Shakespeare’s plays.

SHEIR: Well, Deanne, if Shakespeare didn’t have direct knowledge of Italy, we know he did have a lot of indirect knowledge of France. About 500 years after the French conquest of England, Queen Elizabeth reasserted England. What are some of the ways that we see that reassertion of Englishness?

WILLIAMS: I’m not so sure that it’s so much a reassertion, as perhaps a creation of a notion of Englishness. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, was the first to declare, “This realm of England is an empire.” And I think that in Shakespeare’s time, there was an evolution of a notion of nationhood that Elizabeth certainly sought to embody in England, and we can certainly see being worked out through Shakespeare’s history plays.

So, a play like Richard II, for example, codes Richard II as French. And he, of course, had been born in France, and grew up speaking French, and had a French wife, was perfectly French, in many ways. And so, there’s a way in which the deposition of Richard II is framed as a replacement of an old French legacy with a new, different form of English rule.

So, there’s a representation of France as a kind of an enemy, a military enemy, which we see in the Henry VI plays. And, of course, there’s the staging of the difference between the English and the French language which is present in Henry V, which really heightens that sense of difference and otherness, right? So, there’s a scene where the French princess is learning English, and it’s taking place entirely in French, which would have been a known language, but not necessarily fluently understood by Shakespeare’s audience. Luckily, it’s simple enough, it's body parts, that allows for it to be translated easily on stage. But it does heighten that sense of foreignness and the idea of the English language being imposed on France as a legacy of Henry V’s kind of reversed conquest of France. So, there’s that.

There’s also plays like The Merry Wives of Windsor, for example, which has sort of comical French characters like Doctor Caius, a sort of a pedantic, inappropriate lover for the young English Anne. And so, there’s that sense of a sort of evolving stereotype of comical, perhaps overly emotional or flowery, kind of Frenchness. So, there’s that, which isn’t as invested in sort of narratives of military conquest as it is in sort of nationalistic comic stereotypes.

SHEIR: And then, in terms of the breakdown of Shakespeare’s audience, we have the groundlings, we have the upper class. Would their knowledge of France have differed based on their class level, as they watched Shakespeare’s plays?

WILLIAMS: Certainly in Shakespeare’s England, that would have been the case, and the upper class would have had much more exposure to France, which is why I think Shakespeare is so careful when he does stage Frenchness, to make sure that jokes can be understood on a variety of levels. A more sophisticated understanding of French would allow for a greater understanding of how the puns would work, but the language can still easily be translated into a physical comic space on stage.

SHEIR: Well, going from there, Deanne, I wanted to ask you this question. By setting a scene or an entire play in another country, what did that allow William Shakespeare to do, that perhaps he couldn’t have done by setting the same thing in England.

WILLIAMS: A good example of that, I think, would be All’s Well That Ends Well, which is set in Roussillon in the South of France, as well as in Paris. And I think Shakespeare’s able to convey a certain sense of poetic nostalgia by placing his narrative in that world, and, as well, the power of Frenchness, when Helena is able to heal the king of France with her medical knowledge. I think all of this gets filtered through a sense of specialness, otherness, and exoticism in that play. That would not have worked if it had been set in some more local place.

SHEIR: Graham, do you see examples of that in some of Shakespeare’s Italian plays?

HOLDERNESS: Yes, I think so, yeah. I mean, one of the things that I’ve been working on recently is Shakespeare’s Roman plays, which, of course, are Italian plays set in Italy, though they’re not normally included in the kind of conversation that we’re having now, because they’re wholly set within the ancient world. But if you dig a bit deeper, you can find in there quite visible traces of an understanding of what Rome was actually like in the 16th century. So, for example, working on Julius Caesar, you can find in there, you can find images, you can find poetic concepts, you can find references to the Rome that travelers actually saw, when they went there in the second half of the 16th century. And that’s a Rome which, of course, was in ruins.

So it seems to me that Shakespeare must have had access to some of the landscapes depicted by those travelers who went to that city and saw a kind of post-apocalyptic devastation that they’ve never seen before. So, I think Shakespeare knew that in order to arrive at a kind of suitable background for the assassination of Julius Caesar, you had to reconstruct a city that had been devastated. William Thomas, in his History of Rome, talks about seeing the huge fragments of the statue of Constantine, which is still in the Capitoline Museum in Rome: a head, a hand, and a foot. And I think that that’s in the background when Cassius talks about Julius Caesar as a Colossus, “he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus" and we little men "walk under his huge legs" and seek "ourselves dishonorable graves." And also then, of course, when Caesar is assassinated and falls on the base of Pompey’s statue, you’re seeing the Colossus, itself, fall. So, I think the more you look at Shakespeare’s Italian plays, the more there is an awareness, even in those ancient Roman plays, of a consciousness, an understanding, a knowledge of the Rome of the 16th century. And that, I think, is a new insight that we haven’t really seen in scholarship and criticism before.

SHEIR: Deanne, I see you shaking your head. Do you want to respond to that?

WILLIAMS: Oh, no, nodding in assent, and thinking of the possibilities. [LAUGH]


WILLIAMS: I think I was also thinking about the way in which those ruins of Rome do influence Shakespeare’s understanding of French poetry. So, the Pléiade, the French poets, Ronsard, du Bellay, de Baïf, there was this fascination with these ruins and the sort of poetic reconstruction of them, and Shakespeare was familiar with those French poets, and it was something that he was interested in.

SHEIR: Well, while we’re talking about poetry, can you talk about that a little bit more, the influence of French poetry styles on English poetry?

WILLIAMS: Sure. We can certainly think about that process of translation in terms of sonnet sequences. So, starting with Petrarch, who invented the real notion of the sonnet sequence, how that gets taken up by French poets, and then English poets sort of jump onto that bandwagon. Sir Philip Sidney, who also spent time in France, one of his best friends was French, the diplomat Hubert Languet, also starts writing in sonnet sequences. So, that becomes a French style that is emulated by English poets.

Shakespeare, of course, writes his own sonnet sequences. But what’s interesting about Shakespeare’s relationship to this French tradition is that there isn’t, as there is with poets like Wyatt or Sidney, a kind of close relationship in terms of translation from French or Italian original. Instead, with Shakespeare, he is transforming it into his own thing, rather than a close adoption. And, in that sense, we can distinguish Shakespeare from predecessors like Chaucer, who was deeply invested in French sources, but transforming them quite closely. So, Shakespeare’s reading French material, but the process of emulation and mimicry is not there so much as reworking in his own image.

SHEIR: And with Italian writing, Graham, what sort of influence do we say with Italian literary styles coming into play when it comes to Shakespeare?

HOLDERNESS: Yeah, I mean, I think, if you think of Italian poetry, then, clearly, there are similar things to be said. Was Shakespeare familiar with Petrarch? Was he familiar with Dante? In Measure for Measure, he’s called upon to supply a character with a vision of hell. The lines that he produces are clearly indebted to Dante.

But probably the bigger question there would be whether or not we can establish any relationship between the Italian drama and the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and a lot of scholars have struggled with this, because there clearly seem to be some kind of influence upon the English stage of forms like the commedia dell’arte, and other forms of Italian drama that clearly descended more directly from the classical models than our own plays.

SHEIR: Just to fill things in for our listeners, really quickly, if they don’t know what commedia dell’arte is… That’s something you just mentioned. Can you talk about that form of theater?

HOLDERNESS: Yeah, a sort of mixture of classical tradition, the erudite comedy, with stock characters and stock plots and a sort of folk drama that was very popular in Italy, as opposed to mime, as the nearest sort of thing that we would be familiar with. And it’s sort of difficult to establish, because it doesn’t appear that Italian actors came over to England and performed their drama in ways that would have made it as accessible, as English drama was to Europeans, when our players toured the continent. But scholars, I think, have started to put patterns that are visible in Italian drama, conventions, structures, alongside those of writers like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and managing to establish, fairly clearly, that there is some kind of analogy, that there’s some kind of parallel. There’s a closer relationship between those two things.

SHEIR: Well, I was going to ask, you know, in Shakespeare’s time, it’s tempting to think of England as being in opposition to France, whereas with Italy, it’s trying to appropriate and absorb as much as possible. But it sounds now like that’s not quite the most accurate way to put it. Graham, what do you think?

HOLDERNESS: Well, I think that probably is about right.

SHEIR: Yeah.

HOLDERNESS: I think that Italy is definitely a source of cultural treasures to appropriate, a source of things that can enrich social life, can enrich personal education, and so on, while at the same time, recognizing that there are aspects of Italy against which English culture needs to differentiate itself. So, it's "we want to cherry-pick what they have to offer, and make sure that we end up as civilized, sophisticated, cultivated, able to write beautiful poetry, but we don’t want to end up Roman Catholic, and we don’t want to end up thinking like Machiavelli."

SHEIR: And Deanne?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that certainly you would see on the surface this greater sense of opposition, or acrimony, or rivalry. But I think that that’s there because what lies beneath is a much more complicated set of relationships, and a much deeper indebtedness and integration of Frenchness in English culture, all the way down to lone words in the English language which come from the French, through a whole set of institutions in England which have French histories, not to mention royal genealogies, and an ongoing sense of traffic between England and France.

And in Shakespeare’s time, as well, the religious wars in France as a subject of fascination because those were religious issues that were present in England, as well, between Protestants and Catholics. So I think that in this murky mud of similitude there needs to be, perhaps, or there’s a greater impulse to differentiate, or need to differentiate, Englishness versus Frenchness.

SHEIR: Well, Graham and Deanne, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

HOLDERNESS: Okay, it was a pleasure.

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.


WITMORE: Graham Holderness is a professor in the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire, and the author of Shakespeare and Venice. Deanne Williams is a professor at York University in Toronto and the author of The French Fetish from Chaucer to Shakespeare. They were interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

“Sighed My English Breath in Foreign Clouds” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Laura Green at the Sound Company and Jonathan Cherry at public radio station WAMU.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.