What did Shakespeare’s audience know about Italy?

Romeo and Juliet is one of seven plays Shakespeare set in Renaissance Italy, a setting he used to present a freer society than Elizabethan England. In fact, Shakespeare set only one play (The Merry Wives of Windsor) in contemporary England. While England was a single kingdom with a hereditary monarch, Italy was a patchwork of city-states, each with a different political system. Italian social hierarchy was less rigid than England’s. By setting his plays in Italy, Shakespeare also gave himself the opportunity to criticize his society while seeming to criticize a foreign society. In Romeo and Juliet, the freedom of the noblemen Montague and Capulet to ignore the Prince’s orders reflects the complex political situation of an Italian city-state. At the same time, the play shows that this situation ends in disaster, which serves as a warning to English aristocrats who might try to undermine the Queen’s power.

Romeo and Juliet is critical of the Italian influence on English culture. When Mercutio describes Tybalt’s fighting style, he uses Italian technical terms for sword-fighting maneuvers: “the immortal passado, the punto reverso, the hay!” Shakespeare learned these terms from a book by Vincentio Saviolo, an Italian fencing master who had become famous in London. Saviolo had helped increase the popularity in England of the Italian tradition of duelling, in which men fought over points of honor. Duelling was a common cause of death in Shakespeare’s England. Romeo and Juliet illustrates how dangerous and absurd the culture of duelling is. Mercutio and Tybalt both know Saviolo’s terminology, and the result is that both men die in pointless fights. Romeo and Juliet also mocks the influence of Italian love poets like Petrarch on the English vocabulary of romance. Romeo describes his love for Rosaline in the language of Petrarch’s poetry and does a comically bad job, causing Benvolio and Mercutio to make fun of him.

Shakespeare draws on contemporary stereotypes about Italy to create the world of Romeo and Juliet. Due to the influence of Petrarch and other Italian writers, Italy was believed to be a country where romance was valued very highly. The “tragedy of love” was a theatrical genre created by Italian playwrights, and both of Shakespeare’s love tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and Othello, are set in Italy. Juliet’s openness about sex also reflects English stereotypes about Italian women, who were believed to be less chaste than their English counterparts. The poison Romeo uses to kill himself is another example of local Italian color: Italians were believed to favor poison as a method of assassination. Friar Lawrence’s willingness to meddle in the Montague-Capulet feud reflects an English paranoia about Catholic priests. It was widely feared that the Catholic Church interfered in European politics in a way that could prove disastrous for Protestant England.