On July 7, Australian theatre company Bell Shakespeare will embark on a national tour, breathing life into one of Shakespeare’s most famous works set in the Belpaese: The Merchant of Venice.
Set to dazzle audiences from Darwin to Hobart, the performance will hit 27 stages across the nation.
Featuring three-time Helpmann Award Winner, Mitchell Butel as Shylock, and Jessica Tovey as Portia, the production is directed by Anne-Louise Sarks and explores the tense relationship and prejudices between those who have, and those who don’t, while taking audiences on a journey of love, mercy and justice.
Showing at the Arts Centre Melbourne from July 19 to 30 and the Sydney Opera House from October 24 to November 26, The Merchant of Venice is just one example of Shakespeare’s intense love affair with Italy.
Shakespeare wrote around 38 plays, and 16 of them were heavily influenced by Italian theatre and culture.
The love has proven to be mutual, and Shakespeare is widely celebrated in Italian culture, while his works have been translated into Italian and local dialects and revived in music and operas, including Verdi’s Otello.
But how was the strong connection between Shakespeare and Italy forged in the first place?
And, more bemusedly, where did Shakespeare’s vast knowledge of Italian history, culture and geography come from?
Sicilian actor and director Mimmo Mangione has extensively researched documentation from the 17th century to understand how much foreigners knew about Venice and its typography at the time The Merchant of Venice was written.
“There was a lot of information, but not enough to write a play in as much detail as The Merchant of Venice,” he says.
“Shakespeare’s knowledge of the typography of the city is astonishing.”
Professor John Mullan explains that Shakespeare’s frequent and precise depictions of Italy in his plays suggest that he may have travelled to Italy between the mid-1580s and the early 1590s, in the so-called “lost years”, when there is no reliable information about his location.
However, there is no evidence to confirm that Shakespeare ever set foot on Italian soil in his entire lifetime.
So what are the other possibilities?
According to a select group of anti-Stratfordians – people who argue that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare at all – the revered playwright was in fact, Italian.
They propose that his name was Crollanza or Scrollalanza, literally meaning “shake-spear”, and that he moved to London from Sicily via northern Italy.
In his book Shakespeare era italiano (2002), retired Sicilian professor Martino Iuvara backs this theory, drawing on research carried out from 1925 to 1950 by two professors at Palermo University.
Iuvara suggests that Shakespeare was born not in Stratford in April 1564, as is generally believed, but was born in Messina as Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza, and that his family fled Italy during the Inquisition and moved to London to escape persecution for their Protestant beliefs.
Though this theory certainly has its supporters, Mr Mangione believes that it is far too ambitious, and argues that the Oxfordian theory – the belief that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays and poems traditionally attributed to Shakespeare - holds more weight.
The talented playwright and poet travelled extensively throughout Italy and he was so taken with Italian culture and language during his travels that after his return to England, he became known as the "Italian Earl" at court.
However, leaving aside any alternative authorship theories, Mr Mangione suggests that Shakespeare’s desire to draw on Italian influences was more of a natural inclination than anything else.
“When you come just after Michelangelo and da Vinci, there’s no way you can escape Italian culture; it would have been right in his face,” he explains.
“Italy had also established a culture of comedic theatre, which was born in Palermo.”
Mr Mangione adds that while we don’t know as much about Shakespeare as we do about other artistic greats such as Dante Alighieri or Leonardo da Vinci, we can tell from his will that he had no books among his assets.
Therefore, the talented actor suggests that perhaps Shakespeare learned about Italy from Edward de Vere, who was a wealthy nobleman with an immense library, or John Florio, a linguist and royal language tutor at the Court of James I, and a possible friend and influence on Shakespeare.
Born in London, John Florio was of Anglo-Italian origin; his father, Michelangelo Florio, born in Tuscany, had been a Franciscan friar before converting to the Protestant faith and sought refuge in England after getting in trouble with the Inquisition.
According to Mr Mangione, if Shakespeare was who he is commonly believed to be, it is most likely that he learned of Italy and fell in love with it through the Florio family.
While much remains a mystery when it comes to Shakespeare and his relationship with Italy, one thing is for sure: the works which arose from this wonderful love affair live on and are still as relevant today as they were when they were written centuries ago.
Mr Mangione refers to The Merchant of Venice as a “beautiful theatrical machine” based on the traditional Commedia dell’arte which is so often present in Shakespeare’s work.
“It’s very fast and exciting and there’s a lot of comedy,” he adds.
Thanks to Bell Shakespeare, the entire nation will have the chance to experience firsthand the magnificence of this play, penned more than 400 years ago by a man with a brilliant mind and a love of Italy.