In many of his plays Shakespeare place the setting in Italy, in places like Verona, Padua, and Ancient Rome. Despite his setting of plays in this country, this is not where he was not originally from. Shakespeare’s birth place was in actuality near London, it was Stratford-upon- Avon in England. Because he was a native of England the plays he wrote that were set in Italy are not truly “Italian” and this shows through the many ways he writes his plays and the many things he hides and includes in his plays. In many of the plays he set Italy, Shakespeare included many allusions to English jokes, ideas and traditions, in many cultural, historical, and literary ways that any Italian audiences he may have had would not have or might not have understood or thought funny while his english audiences would have picked up on right away and would have thought that they were very funny.
One of the many things he alludes to English traditions in terms of literary traditions is the idea of fairy tales, specifically the idea of actual fairy’s in fairy tales. He does this in the form of a character of Celtic origin named Queen Mab, A The Queen or Emperor of Fairies, The Bringer of Dreams who would have been well known in English at this time even though it may have been foreign to any Italian audience Shakespeare would have had. He uses this character through a speech in Romeo and Juliet that Mercutio says to Romeo in Act I Scene 4. He says this speech in reaction to Romeo telling him about a dream he had about Rosaline, whom Romeo is pining after:
“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lies asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone; the lash of film;
Her waggoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid:
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she—“
Mercurio is attempting to use this speech to tell Romeo his dream was just a silly dream and he needs to get his mind off of Rosaline. Through this speech we see that “Mercutio’s Queen Mab is a malevolent hag who punishes ‘unchaste’ ladies by blistering their lips and making knots in their hair that cause horrid oozing sores.” (Mabillard). This character may have come originally from celtic traditions, this was the kind of fairy tale characters that would most likely have shown up in traditional English Fairy Tale’s of the time.
Another way that Shakespeare alludes to English traditions in terms of a cultural way is through the use of traditional ballads or drinking songs. One specific instance of his doing this is the English drinking song that Iago sings in Othello in Act 2 Scene 3:
IAGO Some wine, ho! Sings
And let me the canakin clink, clink; And let me the canakin clink
A soldier’s a man;
A life’s but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.
Some wine, boys!
CASSIO ‘Fore God, an excellent song.
IAGO I learned it in England, where, indeed, they are
most potent in potting: your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander–Drink, ho!–are nothing to your English.
This might have been at the time been considered not only a traditional drinking song but also a well known ballad in Shakespeare’s time. When Shakespeare would have written this play “ballads were a resolutely public form. They often circulated on large sheets of paper printed on one side, known as broadsides, which were used as decorations in alehouses, peddled in rural areas, and read on street corners and at fairs. Broadsides and the ballads printed on them were one of the earliest forms of mass media and they covered a huge variety of popular and topical subjects, including stories of grisly crimes, war news, and folktales.” (Hall). Iago mentions that he learned this song while he was in England, which means he would most likely bought a broadside from someone, saw one at the alehouse he was at or learned it from someone at the alehouse with him.
This most likely would have been one of the many songs that Shakespeare himself would have sang with friends he was drinking with and many of his peers would most likely have known this song or a similar one. Since this would have been a traditional drinking song in England it may not have been a tradition in Italy to sing drinking songs and because of this those in his Italian audiences may not have understood this or known the song and would not have picked up on it.
A third way in which Shakespeare alludes to English Traditions is through the idea of Falconry and Hawking in The Taming of The Shrew in Act 4 Scene 1:
Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And ’tis my hope to end successfully.
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper’s call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat and will not be obedient.
In Shakespeare’s time a kind of Falconry or Hawking was popular among the upper class aristocrats and nobles. This may have been one of the many things that Shakespeare enjoyed or experienced at one time or another. It seemed to not be so popular with the lower classes, “Because it was expensive and time consuming, falconry was largely a sport of aristocrats. Like other forms of hunting, it became a mark of nobility.” (Dolan). Petruchio is in essence saying he is going to treat Katharine like she is a falcon he is training to hunt in order for her to be tamed. Even though Shakespeare knew Falconry as being popular in England, it may not have existed in Italy and therefore that might have made it foreign to Italian audiences who would not understand what Petruchio meant by this part of the speech.
So this shows that in many ways Shakespeare was a true Englishman writing what would seem to be “Italian” plays but because of this they were not truly “Italian” plays. He alludes many times to the culture and traditions of England throughout the plays he set in Italy, through the forms of literary, historical, and cultural contexts. His origins as a man who was native to England show through in ways that his English audiences definitely would have understood, but may have been foreign and misunderstood by any Italian audiences who would have seen his “Italian” Plays.
Dolan, Frances E. Analogues to Shrew Taming: Falconry, in Shrews, Shrew Taming and Untamed Shrews in Contexts of The Taming of The Shrew, The Taming of The Shrew, Ed. Frances E. Dolan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 1996. 304-9. Print.
Hall, Kim F. Introduction to From The Married Man’s Lesson: or, A Disuassion from Jealousy in Marriage and The Household in Contexts of Othello, Othello, Ed. Kim F. Hall. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2007. 283-85. Print.
Mabillard, Amanda. Queen Mab. Shakespeare Online. 18 Sept. 2009. Web. 12 May. 2016 http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/romeoandjuliet/romeoqueenmab.html