SHAKESPEARE AND ITALY
Reprinted from Baconiana, October 1938
R.J.W. Gentry: " In evidence of the fact that Francis Bacon
visited Italy in his youth, we have the categorical statement that he
did so in a French book of 1631 by Pierre Amboise, entitled, "A
Discourse on the Life of Francis Bacon, Chancellor of England." A
copy of this work, important as the first biography of Bacon, is in
the British Museum, and experts have found no reason to doubt the
authenticity of the information supplied by its author. About 1580,
Francis himself wrote most discerningly of the conditions in Italy
under its princes in a tract : "Of the State of Europe" . " Such a
great extent and minuteness of information for so young a man as
Bacon was at this time."(Craik) argues the probability of his
personal observation and local inquiry concerning the matters he
No research has ever yet been able to establish that Shaksper of Stratford ever left his native soil, but many facts point to the likelihood of Francis Bacon's having drawn upon personal experience of Italy and Italians for material of dramatic value in his writing of the Plays.
It is known that Francis Bacon was in Poictiers in 1577, and it is likely that he went to Italy about this time, since travel, especially to that country, was considered as an essential in the education of a young noblemen. Cities like Rome, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Pisa, Verona, Padua were the dream places of poets and students, and had to be savoured by personal sojourn in them. In his Essay, "Of Building", he says :
"For it is strange to see, now in Europe, such high buildings as the Vatican and Escurial and others be, and yet scarce a very fair room in them";
and in "Of Faction"
"The even carriage between the two factions proceedeth not always of moderation, but of a trueness to a man's self, with end to make use of both. Certainly in Italy, they hold it a little suspect in popes, when they have often in their mouth, Padre commune; and take it to be a sign of one that meaneth to refer all to the greatness of his own house."
One of the difficulties in
contending that Francis Bacon was the author of the plays of
"Shakespeare" is this, that if in evidence for this you refer to his
familiarity with Italy and things Italian, the critic will be very
likely to meet you with the question "What evidence is there that
Bacon ever travelled in Italy: Spedding says nothing about it?"
That is perfectly fair criticism. Spedding spent some thirty years in collecting all the information he could obtain with reference to Bacon; yet he makes no reference at all to his ever ever having been in Italy. The simple explanation is that he had no evidence of any visit to that country. But that his visit to France in the care of Sir Amyas Paulet was a matter of State and therefore referred to in State papers, there would have been no evidence other than the reference to this fact in "De Augmentis" that Bacon had even visited France, for Spedding was unable to find a single letter from Bacon to anyone relative to his having done so. Two hundred years after a man's death represents much sand in the hour glass, and the marvel of Spedding's Life is, not that it is lacking in certain details, but that it is so complete a record. The fact that fresh information has since been brought to light by assiduous students, or by chance, reflects not at all upon Bacon's great biographer. Spedding admitted that there were unfortunate gaps in the life of Bacon during the periods from 25th September 1576 until the middle of 1582: nearly six years, when Bacon was between the ages of 16 and 22. He tells us of his residence for three months in the year 1577 in Poictiers
"in the wake of the French Court" and adds "so that he had excellent opportunities of studying foreign policy. Of the manner in which he spent this time, however, we have no information."
Spedding then prints four letters of Bacon dated
July, September and October of 1580, to a Mr. Doyle at Paris, and to
his Uncle and Aunt, Lord and Lady Burleigh, written from Gray's Inn,
and then adds, " From this time (1580) we have no further news till
15th April 1582 : 18 months.
Now not only is there this gap of 18 months, during which Bacon might have gone abroad, but there is the more important period of three years between 1577, when we know he was in Poictiers, and July 1580 when we find him writing from Gray's Inn. What is more likely than that when on the Continent in 1577 he went to Italy?
But while the time of his journey can only be inferred, that point is quite unimportant as compared with the evidence that he did in Italy; for if this is well founded it will at once explain how it is that the knowledge of Italy manifested in the Plays of Shakespeare" is so extraordinary, and admitted by orthodox critics as unlikely to have been acquired by anyone not having visited that country.
That evidence was apparently first discovered by Rev. Walter Begley, who describes in his work, "Bacon's Nova Resuscitatio" (Vol 3) how in 1905 he found in Paris a French book written by Pierre Amboise, Escuyer, Sieur de la Magdeline. It is dated 1631 and is important in that it is the first biography of Francis Bacon. It consists of a dedication to the Lord Keeper of the seals of France: an explanatory address to the readers; "A Discourse on the life of Francis Bacon, Chancellor of England" and last the body of the work pp. 1to 567, containing "the translations which the author had made, being helped, as he gives us to understand, by Bacon's original manuscripts."
How he obtained these documents we are not told, but Mr. Begley surmises that they were part of those numerous collections for natural history which occupied so fully the attention of the fallen Chancellor shortly before his death. He thinks Amboise probably obtained them from Sir William Boswell, wo was some time English Minister in Holland, and who had a considerable quantity of Bacon's papers left him by will. Rawley and Boswell and apparently, Archbishop Tenison had between them the disposal of all the MSS left by Bacon. Boswell did not print any of those left in his charge, but evidently gave some of them to a certain Isaac Gruter who published them in Holland. Amboise states he obtained his material when he was with M. de Chasteauneuf's train during and embassy, though whether this embassy was to Holland or England he does not say, but it appears that Chasteauuneuf visited England in 1629.
Chief interest in this book of Pierre Amboise : which incidently had no engraved title page to recommend it : lies in the fact that in this contemporary work we are told that, thanks to the generosity of his father, Francis was sent on his travels at an early age, and that he went both into Itlay and Spain, especially with a view to learn the laws and customs of the people and their different forms of government. Pierre Amboise says that these travels occupied "quelques annees de sa jeunesse", but does not mention the years in which they occurred.
It appears from the "Privileg du Roi", which in France secures the author's copyright, that Amboise's original intention was to include in the book some letters of Bacon, but unfortunately that intention was not carried out. Mr. Begley infers that it was probably these letters which informed him of Bacon's early travels.
But from whatever source Pierre Amboise obtained his information we have in his book (a copy of which is preserved in the British Museum) the unqualified statement that Bacon went both to Italy and Spain, and, touching the veracity of that statement I should say that there was no inducement to Pierre Amboise to invent it. It is a fair presumption, therefore, that he had good authority for it. Moreover his book is quoted as an authority by Gilbert Wats in 1641, while Sir Toby Mathew's Italian edition of Bacon's Essays contains evidence that Bacon was a friend of the then Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de Medici.
William Ball in his edition of Bacon's works, 1837, reprints as being by Bacon a paper entitled, "Observations on the State of Christendom." Spedding was not satisfied that this was Bacon's work, but if by chance Wm Ball was correct, it reveals knowledge of the Princes and people of Italy which could hardly have been gained otherwise than by a visit to that country. Spedding apprarently thought this paper was the work of Anthony Bacon; but if so, it is, I believe, the only document of his we have. Moreover Mallet, writing in 1740, records F. Bacon's authorship of this paper.
We now come to the internal evidence that the
author of " Shakespeare" must have travelled in Italy, and this
evidence is as clear as that which, without any actual knowledge of
the fact, would be taken without question to prove that Robert Burns
ws familiar with Scottish homesteads.
As you know, I like nothing better than to confute the orthodox out of their own mouths. Prof. Dover Wilson himself agrees that the knowledge of Italy displayed in the Plays argued personal acquaintance with that country on the part of the author of them.
I am going to quote that great orthodox Danish student of "Shakespeare", Prof. George Brandes, because he not only expresses the same opinion but gives chapter and verse in support of it. No one, I think, who has read George Brandes' work "William Shakespeare, A Critical Study" could fail to have been impressed with his wonderful insight into the genius of "Shakespeare." He writes of the author that he stood co-equal with Michael Angelo in pathos and with Cervantes in humour, and his comments upon each of the plays reveals him as one of the greatest literary critics who have ever lived. He is not surpassed in the scholarship which he brings to bear on the subject even by R. M. Theobald, Ignatius Donnelly in the First Part of "The Great Cryptogram" or Prof. A. C. Bradley or Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His book was published by Heinemann, just 40 years ago. He laboured under the terrible handicap of apparently having never heard that there was any question as to the authorship. Thus while he bitterly deplores the lack of knowledge concerning the life of the author; he attempts with the totally inadequate material at his disposal to indicate some connection between Shakspur's life incidents and the sequence of the Plays : and this notwithstanding that he himself writes
"It has become the fashion to say, not without some show of justice, that we know next to nothing of Shakespeare's life."
In a chapter headed "Did Shakespeare Visit Italy" he freely admits that Shakespeare ever did. But he is most anxious to indicate that he might have done so, for the reason, as he says of some of the Plays such as The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, that there is in them "such an abundance of details pointing to actual vision that it is hard to account for them otherwise than by assuming a visit on the poet's part to such cities as Verona, Venice, and Pisa." So he thinks he may have gone there in 1593 when the London theatres were closed because of the plague. He says
To the Englishman of that day Italy was the goal of every longing. Men studied its literature and imitated its poetry. It was beautiful land where dwelt the joy of life. Venice especially exercised a fascination stronger than that of Paris. Many of the distinguished men of the time are known to have visited Italy, men of Science like Bacon, and afterwards Harvey,ect.......Most of these men have themselves given us some account of their travels, but the absence of any mention of such a journey on his (Shakespeare's) part is of little moment if other significant facts can be adduced in its favour. And such facts are not wanting. There were in Shakespeare's time no guide books for the use of travellers. What he knows then of foreign lands and their customs he cannot have gathered from such sources. Of Venice, which Shakespeare has so vividly depicted, no description was published in England until after he had published this Merchant of Venice. Lewkenor's description of the City, itself a mere compilation of second hand, dates from 1598, Coryats from 1611, Moryson's from 1617..........