Shakespeare, Italy, and Transnational Exchange. Early Modern to the Present

Edited by Enza De Francisci and Chris Stamatakis (2017)

Routledge: London and New York, 309 pp.

Reviewed by: Samanta Trivellini

This is one of the latest volumes in the “Routledge Studies in Shakespeare” series, which in the last few years has devoted monographs and collections of essays to topical readings and theoretical rethinking of the Bard’s works, as well as to the study of their reception and adaptations. Shakespeare, Italy, and Transnational Exchange explores the two dimensions of the relationship between Shakespeare and Italy: his engagement with Italy and “Italianicity” (Part I) and the Italian reception of Shakespeare between the eighteenth and the twenty-first century (Parts II and III). Susan Bassnett is the author of a Foreword, in which she reminds us of the central position of translation within the broader notion of cultural exchange. In doing so, she also anticipates some stages of the journey awaiting the reader of this collection: among them are the prolonged absence of an Italian Shakespearean canon and the coexistence of two main approaches to the translation of his works, a philological approach and a performance-based model of appropriation. The latter reaches back to the nineteenth-century tradition of the so called grandi attori and continues, in different shapes, well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The rationale for engaging with the volume is provided in the Introduction by Chris Stamatakis, who brings into focus the implications of exploring the relationship between Shakespeare and Italy through the lens of “transnational exchange”. The perspective adopted shuns the familiar model of sources and influence, textual debts and loans. It considers instead the Anglo-Italian discourse within and around Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a complex construction emerging from the circulation of ideas and books, and from the collaborative work of men and women in as diverse fields as translation, poetry, literary criticism, and theatre. Exploring Shakespeare’s Italy (or Italies) and mapping out his Italian reception also require confronting ideas of nationhood and national stereotyping; these notions come into play in a number of chapters across the three sections, variously intersecting their chosen topics and perspectives.

The collection is in keeping – and acknowledges its own continuity (cf. 9) – with a research trend within the broader field of Anglo-Italian relationships in Renaissance culture. By moving beyond purely comparative studies, and by redefining anew notions that are too often taken for granted, such as those of intertext and intertextuality, it foregrounds the multilateral transfer of signifiers and signified, generic models, and shared ideological and discursive systems. More crucial to the editors’ project, however, is the notion of transnational mobility, as theorized by Stephen Greenblatt et al. (2010). As he suggests, the intrinsic instability of the Shakespearean canon partly determined the “remarkable openness of his plays to reinterpretation and refashioning” and ultimately “the startling longevity of Shakespeare’s achievement” (Greenblatt et al. 2010: 77). In this engaging volume, the rich field of the Bard’s Italian reception is now read within the framework of cultural and transnational mobility and is considered as the complementary counterpart to the reception of Italy within the broad signifier of “Shakespeare’s Italy”.

The clear subdivision of the collection adds to its strengths: after Stamatakis’ Introduction, which provides an excellent overview of the entire collection by devoting detailed synopses to each chapter, the nineteen contributions are grouped chronologically under three headings that describe the several ways in which Shakespeare and Italy “appropriated” each other. I will briefly touch upon Part I and focus especially on Parts II and III, as their topics and methods are perhaps less familiar to professional readers of Shakespeare’s works.

Part I, named “Dialogues and Networks”, explores the shared textual and cultural contexts through which Italianicity emerged as a dynamic paradigm in Shakespeare’s writings. The first chapter, by Giulia Harding and Chris Stamatakis, focuses on his Italianate comedies and their links with contemporary key intellectual figures who had relationships with Italy or partly shared his professional and publishing networks, such as John Florio, Sir Philip Sidney and Giordano Bruno. Celia Caputi’s chapter discusses John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed (1609) not just a “sequel” to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew but as a response to culturally-established gender and national divisions. Robert Henke’s chapter examines how the world of Commedia dell’Arte – its types, farcical playfulness and basic plot structures – was adapted by Shakespeare to comical, as well as tragical and even pastoral scenarios.  

The three extant chapters of Part I focus on Shakespeare’s Venetian plays and Cymbeline. Rocco Coronato’s essay discusses how Italian theories of artistic concetto and non-finito, which in turn informed English artistic and literary debates, might bear on Othello’s Neoplatonic vocabulary of ideal beauty and in particular on Iago’s “unfinished” plot. Coronato shows how Iago seems to turn inside out the optimistic faith in the correspondence between the “Idea” of supremely accomplished beauty (which lies in the artist’s mind) and the artist’s disegno (sketch, drawing): Iago’s own evil “design” remains unknowable, a non finito that is left buried in his mind’s inscrutable recesses. John Drakakis explores Shakespeare’s two Venetian plays against political debates on republicanism and elucidates the demithologysing of Venice that lies beneath the surface of The Merchant of Venice and Othello. Racial tensions within the fissures of a geopolitical community also emerge in Cymbeline, which is discussed by Subha Mukherji. The author provides an insightful reading of the shrewd Iachimo and of the unresolved duality of British and Italian identities in the play by bringing into focus the close connection between Italian national character and literary forms as perceived by the cultural imagination of the reading public.

The essays of Part II, entitled “Translation and Collaboration”, deal with the reception of Shakespeare’s works in eighteenth and especially nineteenth-century Italy, the latter being the century over which his reputation became more established among the reading public and even more so among opera audiences and theatre-goers. With Sandra Pietrini’s essay, we are introduced to eighteenth-century Italian critical debates about the early translations of Shakespeare’s plays. The reception of his works was initially lukewarm, heavily influenced by Voltaire’s mixed critique and the standards of neoclassical aesthetics. Among his earliest translators was Alessandro Verri, who advocated the return to the English texts and the need for verbal accuracy as opposed to the practice of relying on French intemediary sources, an uncommon approach at the the time.

The investigation of the slow canonization of Shakespeare’s works in Italy continues with an essay by Giovanna Buonanno focusing on the case of Giulio Carcano, who exemplified a new sensitivity to the Bard’s “barbarian” genius. The author of an acclaimed verse translation of the complete plays (1875-1882), Carcano was fully aware of the stimulating yet “destabilizing” impact that Shakespeare might have on the Italian literary system. Carcano’s stage version of his own Macbetto, in collaboration with the celebrated actress Adelaide Ristori, was also representative of the nineteenth-century perfomance-based approach to Shakespeare’s plays that starred grandi attori. His play-text required a number of cuts and adjustments to specific criteria of “performability”, as well as to Ristori’s wish to cast her Lady Macbeth as the leading character.

With René Weis’s contribution we are immersed into the fascinating world of Verdi’s Shakespeare. Through extensive discussion of his Macbeth and Otello, and of relevant lines from Piave’s and Boito’s libretti, Weis shows how the maestro’s method of condensing his sourcetexts and of carefully choosing his singers in accordance with the tonal qualities of the characters’ personalities both paid homage to Shakespeare’s complex world of moral passions and produced new, unparalleled masterpieces. Anna Sica brings us back to the world of theatre with an in depth archival research into Eleonora Duse’s Shakespearean prompt-books. Duse was an artist of remarkable intellectual profile, whose perceived “natural” approach was in fact the result of careful study and of innovative changes that she introduced to the acting method known as la drammatica. Sica’s contribution casts light on two Duse Shakesperean roles, Juliet (1872) and Cleopatra (1891), and on her collaboration with the librettist Arrigo Boito, who adapted the text of Antony and Cleopatra for the stage. Inspired by Boito, Duse gave her heroine “a more fully nationalist dimension” (162) that was indebted to the nationalist ideologies of Italian Risorgimento.

An intriguing, multilayered “Italian Shakespeare” emerges from Lily Kahn’s chapter. Kahn offers a detailed reading of the peculiar treatment of Italy in the first Hebrew translations of Othello (1874), Romeo and Juliet (1878) and The Taming of the Shrew (1892), by Salkinson and Elkind. In these translations two strategies are at work: on the one hand the characters’ names are replaced by Hebrew names and all Christian references are deleted; on the other, Italian topographical names and adjectives denoting the characters’ origins are retained. This latter strategy reflects the translators’ wish to portray Italy as the place where Shakespeare’s newly renamed Jewish characters lived and flourished as Italian Jews. Kahn ultimately shows how the preserving of Italian geographical locations contributes, along with the Judaizing impulse, to the portrayal of Italy as a venerable place of the Jewish imagination, a country that continued to enjoy an aura of respectability among Eastern European Jewish readers.

Matteo Brera’s chapter is devoted to the sonnets. Their first translations into prose and poetry came out respectively in 1890 (Angelo Olivieri), 1891 (Luigi De Marchi) and 1898 (first complete verse translation by Ettore Sanfelice). Brera analyses these early attempts to recreate Shakespeare’s poetic idiolect and rhythmic patterns into a new language, whose ancient and recent poetic traditions both left traces on the translated text. In his conclusion, he briefly ventures into the twentieth century by discussing the rendering of Sonnet 33 by the Nobel prize winner Eugenio Montale. By hinting at Montale’s “personalized poetics” (192) into which Shakespeare is subsumed, this chapter also acts as an appropriate transition to the third section, which deals more explicitly with new creative modes for incorporating the voice of the English Bard into other artists’ own aesthetics.

Part III is entitled “Twentieth Century to the Present: Originality and Ownership” and brings together essays devoted to both celebrated and less known protagonists of the Italian literary and artistic culture. Four out of the seven contributions address theatre works; this fact alone proves that the Italian tradition of a staged Shakespeare has continued after the nineteenth-century great season of the grandi attori. The other essays give the reader fairly good, though perhaps limited, evidence of how the novel, verse and cinema forms have also engaged in creative dialogues with Shakespeare and have provided writers and directors with the opportunity to appropriate his works and, by doing so, to assert their own voices.

This part opens with a contribution by the other editor of this collection, Enza De Francisci. This chapter focusses on an early twentieth-century grande attore, the Sicilian Aldo Grasso, investigating the dramatic tradition driven by star actors such as Adelaide Ristori, Tommaso Salvini and Eleonora Duse already explored in Part II. De Francisci, however, shifts the focus from the actor to the critical reception of his performance, with the added merit of filling a gap in the scholarship on the international careers of Italian Shakespearean interpreters. The reception of his acclaimed performance as the title character in his London production of Otello (1910) was shaped by English constructs of South-Italian ethnic identity. De Francisci elucidates how traditionally negative paradigms of Mediterranean impulsiveness – readily taken for granted in the wake of the widespread presence of Italian immigrants in the British isles and of racialist theories in criminal studies – seemed to work favourably for Grasso and his troupe: the unmediated authenticity of the Southern temperament lent credibility to the actor’s realist aesthetics and matched the perceived animalism of Shakespeare’s Moor.

In the next two chapters Enrica Maria Ferrara and Giuseppe Stellardi set out to unravel Shakespeare’s presence in the proseworks by two eminent Italian novelists, Conversazione in Sicilia (1941) by Elio Vittorini and La cognizione del dolore (1939-1941) by Carlo Emilio Gadda. The character of Prospero is especially relevant in Conversazione in Sicilia, in which the role of director-actor-author is taken on by the protagonist Silvestro to open up a metafictional meditation on the world of narrative illusion as well as on the writer’s need to confront urgent issues of his time. As an intellectual who was disenchanted with Fascist ideology, Vittorini saw in Shakespeare’s dramatic language a unique engageant quality, in that it could speak to different social classes. In Gadda’s writings, Shakespeare’s presence fits a paradigmatic trajectory of strong autobiographical projection. In Gadda’s masterpiece the protagonist’s urge to self-collect and scrutinize his own actions and thoughts is considered by Stellardi to be perhaps the most significant convergence with the character of Hamlet. In spite of its evident tragic dimension, however, Gadda’s novel does not conform to its model: unlike Hamlet, La cognizione leaves the tension between life and spirit unresolved. Gadda’s Hamlet cannot die and what remains of this unreedemable universe is ultimately a “ridiculous, meaningless existence of permanent dissatisfaction” (232).

Camilla Caporicci argues that Montale uses ironic allusivity to make the Bard’s authority and the glorious literary past he stands for undergo a “process of de-idealization and humanization” (240). Caporicci describes different strategies within the complex dialogue Montale engaged in with Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Among them, in the collection Satura (1971) he adopts a form of ironic distancing that, while paying homage to the poet, divests him of his mythic aura and turns him into a more intimate interlocutor, closer to the disillusioned, more prosaic perspective of his mature poetry. Mace Perlman, a professional actor who acted in two productions by Giorgio Strehler, traces the evolving dialogue of the most important post-World War II Italian theatre director with Shakespeare’s plays at a turning point of his career, one which led to the 1965 production of Il gioco dei potenti, based on the Henry VI trilogy. Drawing on Strehler’s unpublished notes and working scripts, Perlman sheds light on Strehler’s expansions and interpolations, which reveal the great director’s “creative fidelity” as well as his reflections on the metatheatrical potential of the Bard’s plays. A  potential which was expanded in In gioco dei potenti in order to comment on the endlessly repeated mechanisms of power.

The second-to-last chapter is authored by the late Professor Mariangela Tempera, whose forty year-long commitment to Shakespeare and Renaissance drama also comprised the study of contemporary adaptations and relocations of his works. Her illuminating contribution examines a theatre adaptation and a film, both of which are interpreted by a troupe of inmates of the Roman Rebibbia prison: The Tempest, in Eduardo De Filippo’s translation, directed by Fabio Cavalli (2005); and the film Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die, 2012) by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, which combines scenes from the rehearsals of Julius Caesar under Cavalli’s supervision (delivered in the convicts’ native dialects) and newly performed scenes. Tempera discusses the two productions especially in terms of their linguistic layering and the social commentary that the interaction between characters, actors and this unique setting has made possible.

In the last essay Sonia Massai interviews the director Chiara Guidi on her work entitled Macbeth su Macbeth su Macbeth: uno studio per la mano sinistra (2014). Guidi is cofounder of Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, a company that has achieved considerable international recognition. Her “archaeological” approach (287) to Shakespeare’s tragedy deprives the written text of its “supremacy” over performance and resists moral readings that cast the protagonist as the tragic hero of an ambition-driven trajectory of rise and fall. Her experimental mise-en-scène lays claim to a defamiliarizing reading that delves into the power of Shakespeare’s words to conjure up stage images, used in turn as minimalist stage props and catalysts in the sixteen sequences of Macbeth su Macbeth. Massai and Guidi also discuss the open metatheatricality of Macbeth su Macbeth: this is a dimension that helps address the director’s meditation on the resistance of Shakespeare to adaptation and on the illusion of ownership over a play.

By bringing together rigorous scholarly work under a unified approach, Shakespeare, Italy, and Transnational Exchange investigates the two-sided creative engament between the infinite textual spaces of Shakespeare and Italian literary culture; it surely deserves reading for the width and the coehrence of its project.


Greenblatt, Stephen, Ines G. Županov, Reinhard Meyer-Kalkus, Heike Paul, Pál Nyíri, and Friederike Pannewick (2010) Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, Cambridge, CUP.

©inTRAlinea & Samanta Trivellini (2019).
[Review] "Shakespeare, Italy, and Transnational Exchange. Early Modern to the Present", inTRAlinea Vol. 21
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