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Shakespeare's Geography
By Robert Brustein

For eleven days last month, right before an election that caused more anger and heartache than any in memory, I was sailing blithely through the Mediterranean. The occasion was one of those university-sponsored voyages that function less as holidays from thought than as continuing education courses. This journey was my first exposure to such cultural cruises. And although prepared to scoff, I came away impressed by the genuine hunger for learning displayed by most of the passengers. It was the kind of university event (this one sponsored by Harvard) where alumni and their wives, most of them elderly, are dispatched on luxury ships to ports of historical and literary interest. On board between stopovers, they digest talks by experts in a specific field, along with three-course meals--passing timelines, broadening mindlines, expanding waistlines. The subject of this particular trip was “Shakespeare in the Mediterranean,” the ports of visitation suggested by the settings of Shakespeare’s plots. The noted classicist, Alan Shapiro of Johns Hopkins, lectured on the art and archaelogy of the historical locations; I spoke about the plays.

The irony, of course, was that while Shakespeare placed twenty-one of his thirty-eight plays in Mediterranean locations, he probably never set his foot in that part of the world (though he may have spent a few months in the Netherlands). What he wrote about Rome and Egypt in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was borrowed from Plutarch’s Lives and Samuel Daniels’ Cleopatra; his notions of Venice in Othello and The Merchant of Venice were probably gleaned from Italian sources, travel books, or novels like Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller; his idea of Troy in Troilus and Cressida was drawn from George Chapman’s translation of The Iliad; his references to Ephesus and Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors were taken from his Roman model, Plautus’s Twin Menaechmi. Shakespeare may have floated on his imagination to ports in the Aegean, the Adriatic, and the Ionian seas, but physically he remained in London, earning a living as an actor, playwright, and occasional money lender.

This made the geographical aspect of my lectures a bit of a stretch. Our ship, the Clelia II, sailed to Kusadasi though the Dardenelles, visiting the ruins of Troy where Cressida proved faithless to Troilus, and we entered the waters near Prevezzo to observe where Antony was betrayed at sea by Cleopatra in the Bay of Actium, a pretty tight area to support such huge fleets. We went to Odunluk in Turkey and Naplion in Greece. We took bus tours, climbed broken steps and jagged hills, took promenades along the waterfronts, and swam from stony beaches in the clear blue Mediterranean. But the fact is there wasn’t a genuine Shakespearean relic in sight. Nor were there any signs of Shakespeare in our stopovers in Athens (the site for A Midsummer Nights Dream, Timon of Athens, and The Two Noble Kinsmen) or Messina (the location of Much Ado About Nothing). The Illyria of Twelfth Night was hardly the arcadian, bucolic court where Orsino mooned about music and love, or Sir Toby consumed his cakes and ale, but rather a third world town in Albania named Saranda, filled with scores of uncompleted concrete condos, and, inexplicably, lots of Mercedes cars and trucks navigating narrow dirt roads. It was hard to imagine a shipwrecked Gwynneth Paltrow approaching these broken shores as she waded towards Illyria at the conclusion of Shakespeare in Love.

The major sites of interest in most of these places were Greek and Roman ruins, but there was also an ancient Sephardic synagogue in Dubrovnik (the oldest in that part of Europe), and an imposing palace built by the 3rd Century Roman Tetrarch Diocletian in Split, Croatia, its basements perfectly preserved as a result of the garbage that sixteen centuries earlier had been deposited there and petrified. The most habitual tourist stops were Greek and Roman theatres, especially intriguing to those who had never visited Epidaurus or Ephesus or Syracuse. And the classicist, Alan Shapiro, was eloquent in describing how the orchestra where the Greek chorus sang and danced around an altar was gradually absorbed into a space where more secular Roman spectators were seated. Some of the more jaded passengers, bored by seeing so many performance spaces, began to substitute JABT (“Just another boring theatre”) for the proverbial JABC (“Just another boring church”), especially since these outdoor ruins had so little to do with Shakespeare.

But to tell the truth, geography was never Shakespeare’s strongest subject. For example, he tacked a seacoast onto landlocked Bohemia in A Winter’s Tale. His idea of Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a composite of an ethereal court, out of Spenser’s Fairy Queen, and a real English countryside, similar to the Forest of Arden owned by his mother, and featured in As You Like It. Midsummer’s Theseus and Hippolyta, who also rule Athens in The Two Noble Kinsmen, are Elizabethan versions of the legendary Athenian philanderer and his Amazon bride. But Puck (aka Robin Goodfellow) is an early sketch for an English hobbit, and Shakespeare’s pastoral imagery (“I know a bank where the wild thyme grows”) derives from direct observation of Stratford horticulture. One can almost sniff the eglantine and the woodbine.

At least one of his contemporaries, Ben Jonson, was bothered by Shakespeare’s contextual inconsistencies. Although he professed to love Shakespeare “this side idolatry,” he never missed an opportunity to strut his own learning, often at Shakespeare’s expense. Jonson famously charged that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” and hinted that he was a careless writer (when informed, incorrectly, that Shakespeare rarely blotted a line, Jonson snorted, “Would he had blotted a thousand”). Actually, as Stephen Greenblatt demonstrates in his wonderfully informative biography, Will In the World, Shakespeare’s classical education in the public schools of Stratford was really quite intensive. True, he often mixes up his periods and his cultures. In Midsummer, for example, he mentions the Roman deities Diana and Cupid in the same breath as the Greek God Phoebus Apollo and the Greek hero Leander (Pyramus’ “Phibbus” and Thisbe’s “Limander”). He marries Titania, the Roman poet Ovid’s name for Diana, to a fairy out of Celtic romance named Oberon (both are now reunited as moons of Uranus). And he even makes reference to Saint Valentine, an early Christian martyr.

But Theseus and Hippolyta come out of classical Greek myth, and so does that army of mistresses (Phyllida, Perigenia, Aegles, Antiope and Ariadne) whom Oberon accuses Titania of procuring for Theseus. (He also accuses his wife of sleeping with this tireless Athenian Don Juan herself.) Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has no known source. But it is the product of a lot of classical homework. If the play’s references are more Roman than Greek, that may be because the English Renaissance was essentially a Latin phenomenon.

Despite our trip to the Bay of Actium, it was hard to talk about Antony and Cleopatra without a visit either to Cairo or Rome. True, Cleopatra is not really Egyptian. Despite vaguely racist references in the play to her “tawny front” and “gypsy lust,” she was actually of Macedonian, which is to say Greek, descent. Yet, in no other work does Shakespeare make such a clear distinction between two cultures--the hard Machiavellian world of Roman politics versus the sensual exotic world of Egyptian enchantment. If the play draws a contrast between public and private behavior, between duty and passion, between love and honor, it is also a study of an aging hero trapped in a passion he cannot control (Antony was 52 at the time of the action, while Cleopatra was 38). When Dryden rewrote the play some decades later and called it All for Love, he was much more judgmental towards Antony and what he called his “crimes of love.” He was also closer to Shakespeare’s source, Plutarch, who wrote about Antony: “The love for Cleopatra which now entered his life came as the final and crowning mischief which could befall him. It excited to the point of madness many passions which had hitherto lain concealed, or at least dormant, and it stifled or corrupted all those redeeming qualities in him which were still capable of resisting temptation.”

Shakespeare is considerably more tolerant of Antony’s autumnal passion for Cleopatra, even though he also sees it as emasculating. (Antony complains that “she robs me of my sword,” while a soldier notes, “The god Hercules whom Antony loved now leaves him”). The coldhearted Puritan Octavius, who obviously doesn’t like girlie men, may complain that Antony “fishes, drinks, and wastes the lamps of night in revel,” but Shakespeare seems as irresistibly drawn to the Egyptian Queen as Antony is. Thanks to his readings in Plutarch, Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most authentically foreign plays Shakespeare ever wrote. But even here, his geography is ocassionally inconsistent. When Cleopatra realizes that she will be led in triumph through Rome, Shakespeare, in a remarkable metatheatrical moment, translates this into a projection of how she will be depicted on the English stage in plays like his own, exposed to “mechanic slaves” in “greasy aprons,” enacted by some “squeaky Cleopatra boy.” It is this prevision of her theatricalization in some future Shakespeare play rather than the loss of Antony that drives her to her suicide.

Regarding Othello, the real revelation of the trip, for me, was discovering just how powerful a part Venice had played in the various parts of the world we visited. After its conquest of Byzantium in 1204, this Northern Italian city became the leading maritime power in the Mediterranean, subduing many Adriatic nations to its will. The huge fortifications in Dubrovnik, for example, like those in other nearby Mediterranean cities, were erected to repel the Turkish invaders. And this tangible evidence of invasion from the sea made the mission of Othello, under orders of the Duke of Venice, suddenly take on new reality for me. It is true that this particular campaign does not play a very large part in the play. Despite the “mightly preparation” with which the Turks are making towards Cyprus, their entire fleet is destroyed between the acts by a sudden tempest.

It is a storm that somehow leaves Othello’s forces untouched, but it frees Shakespeare to concentrate on the Moor’s domestic problems rather than his military campaigns. And it allows the playwright to cram the whole action of his play into a period that doesn’t seem much longer than twenty-four hours (it is a real question whether Desdemona, despite her urgent entreaties, ever manages to get her husband into bed). But in the context of our cruise, that Turkish disaster took on a new reality. Sailing to Venice (retracing, in reverse, Othello’s route to Cyprus), the winds blew up with such a vengeance that the ship started creaking. I couldn’t help thinking of The Tempest’s opening scene (“We split, we split”), and the irony of sailing to Venice from a town called Split. We eventually weathered the storm and disembarked in a city whose streets were totally under water, then flew back to the United States--just in time to submit an entirely futile ballot. It was a rude return to reality, where we would henceforth be contemplating not the ruins of ancient civilizations, but the potential undoing of our own.