Sunday, July 17, 2016

Shakespeare and Italy 12 - Merchant Venice Cinthio Saggitary

7A. Chapter 7 in Roe’s book is on the Italian references in Othello. The author based this play primarily on the story by the Italian scholar called “Cinthio”. It was published in Italian 1565 and no English translation appeared before 1753. A French translation became available, at least in France, in 1583. The Riverside Shakespeare stated that “Such verbal evidence as can be found tends to show that he looked at Cinthio’s Italian”. So, right off the bat, the authorship of Othello favors someone known to be able to read Italian (as is most likely) or at least French. It also favors someone who was in a position to even get hold of the story to begin with. Someone who travelled through Italy, as some candidates are known to have done, or someone who collected literature from the continent, would have a bid advantage here. Roe adds that “nothing specific about Venice is contained in the Cinthio story”.

7B. The first scene has Iago and Roderigo setting their plot against Othello in motion. In the street before the house of Desdemona’s father, we see Iago yell “Zounds, sir, you’re robbed, for shame put on your gown!” Roe explains that this wasn’t a dressing gown or bathrobe, but to “Brabantio’s Senatorial gown, the specific garb that all Senators in Venice were required to wear in public.” This particular knowledge of Venetian custom seems unlikely to have been casually learned about in an English pub or overheard in a conversation from its, primarily, well-born travelers. This practice, Roe mentions, was also “entirely foreign to England and the rest of Europe.”

They need to go to “the Sagittary” to find Othello. Various editors have made a variety of guesses as to what the “Sagitary” was, and where it would be found. Many thought it was an inn, even though Brabantio says “At every house I’ll call”.   It turns out though that the answer has been known for some time. It was explained in the 1932 book Shakespeare’s Venice by V.M. Jeffery. The Sagittary is the Englished version of the Italian “frecciaria” or Frezzeria, where the makers of arrows had their shops. It was so called in a diary of 1518 and a sign of that name can be found on that same Venetian street today. Roe also found a canal that could be taken close to there as well as a landing place for a short walk to the street. Again, even a genius cannot be expected to just make something like this up and then others find later that such actually location existed in the story’s city, in the first place, and then also find its location to be perfectly suited to action described.

7C. Also in the first scene when Desdemona’s father is yelled for by Iago, Brabantio says “How got she out?”. Roe adds some additional explanation for this line. Daughters, especially of noble households in Venice, had a customary practice of being locked in at night. Their resulting isolation and boredom was even a subject of art, as Roe reproduces. Also, in scene 2, the Author has Brabantio say “The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation.” So the author even found it worth alluding to the way young men of Venice would have a lock of curled hair fall on their foreheads. 

Similarly, the Venetian women liked to style their hair as very blonde, perhaps even bleached. Twice in The Merchant of Venice is Portia’s hair described as “sunny locks hang on her temples like a golden fleece” and as “those crisped snaky golden locks”. 

Finally, on this topic of appearance, Roe points out Brabantio’s complaint about daughters that need to watched over so closely that he might even need “to hang clogs on them”. Not only does this suggest something like fetters, but specifically in Venice, due also to the often flooded and muddy streets, the young women were known to wear unusually high-soled (more than 6 inches) ostentatious wooden shoes that could barely be walked in.

These Venetian peculiarities are brought into the dialogue so casually that they are easy to overlook, yet they also seem to have been brought in specifically because they are so peculiar, to outsiders, of local customs.

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