Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 12
Sex and the City: A Goblet from Venice
Every age has its own fantasy of the great city where glamour and pleasure not only abound but are easily available. For the 20th century New York, Manhattan, was that city of the world's imagining - rich and welcoming, hedonistic, sophisticated and spectacular. In Shakespeare's day it was here, in Venice, the shopping capital of Europe one of the world's busiest crossroads, a place where travellers and traders, merchants and moneylenders watched greedily as Venetian gold ducats, the dollars of the day, changed hands in huge quantities. And all this wealth rested on one thing: shipping.
Shylock: Ho no, no, no, no! My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient . . . He hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies; I understand moreover, upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he hath squandered abroad . . . Three thousand ducats; I think I may take his bond.
(Merchant of Venice 1.3.15-26)
I'm standing on the Rialto now, the famous bridge over the Grand Canal, and even on a dull rainy day I can still see all around me evidence of that wealth that inspired Shylock's calculating description of Antonio, the Merchant of Venice. Cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, Venice was the model of the great trading city - a model that London was not just aspiring to, but just beginning to realise that it could conceivably rival. The Englishman, Thomas Coryate, captured the excitement of this place in his deliciously named travel guide Coryat's Crudities, the Shakespearean equivalent of Europe On A Ducat A Day:
'Truely such is the stupendious glory of Venice, that at my first entrance thereof it did even amaze or rather ravish my senses. . .Here you may both see all manner of fashions of attire, and heare all the languages of Christendome besides those that are spoken by the barbarous Ethnickes'
I love that word 'stupendious'. It could have been made for Venice and Coryate's description of the city presses all the right buttons for the English reader. Venice is wealthy, Venice is fashionable, pleasurable, a potent and dangerous mix of different peoples. With its 'barbarous Ethnickes' from all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Venice is Babylon, where you find not just the babble of tongues, but stylish strangers, looser laws and the chance of boundless pleasure.
Here in the British Museum, I am holding, very gingerly, a large Venetian glass goblet that is about 400 years old. Just below the rim is a showy band of gold that would touch my lips every time I drank from it and beneath this gold band standing on a little patch of green grass is a large blonde-haired woman in a billowy blue dress patterned with giant snowflakes. She looks as though she is up for a very good time indeed. This is a glass that to anybody in Shakespeare's audience would speak loudly of Venice and of the sophisticated pleasures that you could find there. Dora Thornton, curator at the British Museum, has made a particular study of the luxury goods of Italy:
'In the mid 15th century Venetian glass workers perfect this wonderful new medium which is called Cristallo glass and it is called Cristallo because it has the clarity of rock crystal. But of course unlike rock crystal it can be moulded and blown into fantastic forms and shapes and it can be decorated as this one is with these beautiful brightly coloured enamels and gilding to make a really splendid object.
You need plant ash imported from Syria, you need a special kind of river pebble that comes from northern Italy. The striking cobalt blue is likely to come from the Erzgebirge region on the German-Czech border and probably the white, which is made from tin oxide (the tin has probably come from Cornwall or Brittany) and the gold, heavily used all over the rim and for touching up details and for the arms, is probably from Africa.'
I'm standing in the square beside the Rialto which was the centre of banking and insurance in 16th-century Venice. This is where shopping and shipping came together and with me is the man who knows more about the economy and the law of 16th-century Venice than anybody else, Professor Luca Molá of the European University Institute in Florence:
L Mola: 'By the late 16th century the Rialto was frequented by merchants from all over the world. There were Turks, Persians, Jews, Armenians, Germans, Flemish, English merchants, and ships coming from Mexico, from India would bring news of international markets, global markets.'
N MacGregor: So what kind of a city do you have then, when all these people are trying to live together?
L Mola: 'It is a complicated situation, but it is well-organised by the government. In some cases using the system they had learnt from the Islamic world: confining them in places where they could trade with brokers, with translators of course, but giving them also a lot of privileges and religious and political freedom. So even in Padua which was the city where the Venetians had their university, they accepted the Lutheran students without problems. There was an Ottoman community at the Rialto in the late 16th century.'
N MacGregor: And these were practising as Muslims?
L Mola: 'Not officially of course. But then they were moved in 1621 to a warehouse just for the Ottoman merchants and they were allowed to have a mosque inside. As there were many synagogues in the ghetto, there are something like four synagogues that are still open to the public between the 16th and 17th century.'
Interestingly, Shakespeare makes Venice even more tolerant than it actually was - a place where Christians and Jews could mingle in a way unimaginable in any other part of Europe. For Shakespeare Venice is not just a rich Italian city, it's a laboratory of new social possibilities.
Shakespeare's London was far more cosmopolitan than the city had ever been before but it was still, of course, nothing compared to Venice. And one of the many differences between the two cities was that in London there were no Synagogues, no visible Jewish community. The Jews had been expelled from England about 300 years earlier, so virtually no Englishman would ever have seen a practising Jew when they came to watch The Merchant of Venice. Here by contrast, the city had a whole quarter reserved for its Jewish inhabitants.
I'm standing in the Ghetto, a district of Venice whose name still resonates around the world. And here we can imagine Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, part of a thriving Jewish community. Venetian tolerance can of course be overstated: Jews were supposed to be confined to the Ghetto and theoretically they were locked in here every night. But the reality was much freer and Venice's reputation for tolerant government, especially to people of different religions, was well-deserved.
Shylock complains that he has been the butt of Antonio's anti-Jewish abuse, but when both of them come into court, Shylock and Antonio stand before the law on exactly the same footing, as Antonio himself makes clear:
Antonio: The duke cannot deny the course of law,
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.
(Merchant of Venice 3.3.26-31)
This was a city that treated its immigrants well and fairly - it looked after its non-doms, convinced that prosperity depended on having lots of foreigners living happily together, and to ensure this it guaranteed them all equal treatment under the law, an essential pre-condition of successful commerce in Venice, as it would later be in London.
On the back of our glass here in the British Museum is a riotous florid coat of arms painted in red, blue and gold, topped by a saucy, very Venetian looking lion poking out its long red tongue. But this is not a Venetian coat of arms. It's almost certainly German and this glass was probably one of a set made in Venice specifically for the very large German export market. So looking at a glass like this we shouldn't perhaps be surprised that the sole reference to a drinking glass in Shakespeare involves a German, or that it comes in The Merchant of Venice. When the suitors are competing to marry the wealthy heiress Portia, the unwelcome German candidate is, inevitably, caricatured as a heavy drinker. Portia, declaring that she would as soon be married to a sponge as to the German, plans to decoy him to the wrong casket by putting beside it 'a deep glass of Rhenish wine' and I'm pretty certain she served it in a glass like this.
If the coat of arms and the gold band along the top tell a story of classy commercial Venice, the lady on the other side of our goblet alludes to a much darker side of the city's allure. Her thick yellow hair is teased up provocatively into two towering horns, and her racy outfit which looks as though it could have been designed by Vivienne Westwood highlights her very considerable cleavage. Looking at her, it's hard not to think of another rich Venetian lady, Desdemona, carrying the fateful handkerchief that will be brandished as evidence of her sexual infidelity in Othello.
Intriguingly, I find that I can't tell whether the lady on this glass is a patrician or a prostitute, a grande dame or a grande horizontale, and in that respect I am like lots of 17th-century tourists who found an ambiguity about Venetian women (even women as irreproachably pure as Desdemona) that suggested all kinds of possibilities and pleasurable deceits. And it was this very widespread uncertainty about the true nature of Venetian women that unsettled and finally undid Othello. Dora Thornton again:
'Venetian courtesans were brilliant at what Iago in Shakespeare's Othello calls `a seeming', which meant emulating respectable women in their dress and manner. So it is not very easy to tell whether this is a respectable woman going to mass or whether it is actually one of these gorgeous women on view in Venice who just might be a courtesan.'
Venice is in Shakespeare, as you might expect, the Venice of his audience's imagining - rich and cosmopolitan, free and enticing, a happy vision of London's free-wheeling commercial future perhaps, but also a place where the rules that govern society were alarmingly fluid. So in Othello, the other of Shakespeare's great 'Venice plays', the city offers the ideal setting in which the boundaries of belonging can be tested and uncomfortable ideas of race and religion explored. Here in Venice, a Jewish girl might well elope with a Christian and a successful black general could marry the daughter of a white Venetian nobleman. In service to the Venetian state black Othello is always the Moor, but he is the admired Moor of Venice, a valiant defender of Christendom. But Venice's reputation for relaxing the rules went much further than mixed marriages. For Shakespeare's audience, it's the place where anything goes.
I'm standing in what used to be the red light district of 16th century Venice, on a bridge still called the Ponte delle Tette, the Bridge of the Tits, and it's this kind of Venice which was the place where young Desdemona, entirely chaste, could wind up being accused by Othello of being 'that cunning whore of Venice'.
Set in England these two plays could never have worked but Venice has always been a City of dreams, a place where the limits of the imagination are endlessly extendable. It's the metropolis of intoxicating possibility that we long for and are terrified of.
In the next programme, we take to the high seas for some very Shakespearean encounters with moors, pirates and shipwrecks.
Shakespeare quotations are taken from:
The Merchant of Venice (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01395-4