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And so Dr Who and BroadChurch star David Tennant’s days with the Royal Shakespeare Company came very in useful when he was asked to talk for 60 seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation on the topic, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’, for the Radio 4 program Just A Minute.
In fact, David Tennant managed the feat on his first outing, becoming the most successful debut in the show’s 50 year run. Calling Shakespeare’s direction ‘the most famous direction in theatrical history’, he spoke at length with some considerable understanding of Shakespeare’s staging of plays. Listen to it here:
For performances at the Globe in Shakespeare’s time it’s not known whether Shakespeare used a real bear from the London bear-pits, or an actor in bear costume. The mystery remains, but we do know that , 400 years after Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale and the stage direction ‘exit, pursued by a bear’, the line is still providing entertainment!
One of the more curious, non-dangerous, aspects of human nature is our difficulty in distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Indeed, many of the things that we call ‘real’ don’t exist at all: they are constructed in our brains and feel ‘real,’ so we think they are real.
Literature doesn’t help: it reinforces the illusion that its invented characters are real. And there are actually people who believe that some of them are real. The trustees of the Sherlock Holmes Society receive letters every day appealing to the detective to solve the writers’ mysteries. The English radio soap about simple rural folk, The Archers, has a whole department dealing with letters to the characters. When a baby is born or a couple marry the studio is flooded with gifts. And when someone dies the postman has difficulty dealing with the letters of condolence and the studio is fragrant with wreaths. The senders are all people who believe that the characters are real people.
And so it is not surprising that across the street from Juliet’s House in Verona, right opposite Juliet’s Balcony, there is an office in which a team of writers work all day long answering letters to Juliet, asking her advice on matters of the heart. They call themselves the Secretaries of Juliet.
The letters seeking advice on relationships or asking Juliet to bless their relationships arrive by the sack load. Some are written on paper burnt and smeared with mud to look like medieval parchment, while others are accompanied by photographs and drawings.
It all began in the 1950s, when a custodian of Juliet’s symbolic tomb, also in Verona, began responding to letters and notes that tourists left behind. When he retired, the tradition was continued by a succession of volunteers, until the late 1980s when city authorities asked the “Club di Giulietta” (The Juliet Club) to take over. And they are still working on it, dealing with the love issues of people from their teens to their old age.
Some examples show that there’s a kind of celebratory wish to share a love with Juliet:
Dear Juliet, I am in love and have never been so happy. We are getting married at the end of the month. Will you please bless our marriage?
Others ask the impossible:
Dear Juliet, two men want to marry me. Pete is a lovely guy, very sweet and generous, and gentle and loving to me. My parents adore him and are hoping I will choose him. Gareth is a ‘bad boy’ and has actually spent time in a correction facility. My parents would like to ban him from our house and just get up and walk out of the room when he comes round. But I find him exciting and when I am with him I feel high all the time. He is sometimes quite rude to me in public but then he takes me in his arms and all the hurt goes away. Please help me Juliet. Please tell me which one I should marry.
The interesting thing about it is that the people who write to Juliet really do think they are writing to a real person – the fourteen year old who lost her life through making the wrong decisions in her own attempt to deal with the difficult question of love.
Juliet never existed, but there is a sense in which all of Shakespeare’s characters are as real as the people we encounter in our daily lives.
When the curtain goes up for a performance of Romeo and Juliet Chorus steps on to the stage. He tells the audience the whole plot and says that it ‘is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.’
Two hours was the audience expectation for the performance of an Elizabethan play. It was the average length of a performance, and just long enough to allow the audience to leave and get home before darkness fell. Making one’s way home through London in the dark could be a dangerous thing so those who produced plays took that into account.
Romeo and Juliet falls nicely into that average length bracket. In fact, however, modern performances of the play take three hours. There are three thousand lines and the rule of thumb in modern theatre is a thousand lines per hour. Modern productions make a great deal of the swordplay, for example, where time passes without words, which may not have been the case in Elizabethan performances. Then there is Capulet’s party, where modern producers can’t help showing the spectacle of it. Perhaps the Elizabethan theatre productions didn’t do that. And maybe the Elizabethan actors spoke faster. We don’t know. What we know is that Elizabethan performances lasted about two hours.
Hamlet is quite a bit longer than the average, and at 4,000 lines it is Shakespeare’s longest play. If you go to a matinee performance of Hamlet starting at 2 p.m you’ll be sitting (or maybe standing with the groundlings at the Globe) until 6 p.m! Even in the Elizabethan theatre it would have taken three hours. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play.
Why did Shakespeare launch such a long play knowing that it would stretch audience attention limits? It’s possible that he couldn’t make it any shorter, considering how deeply he was exploring, and that he felt that it would hold the audience’s attention and make them forget about the dangers that lurked as they made their way home in the dark.
And he was right. Four hundred years later Hamlet is still his most performed play, and still regarded as his greatest. In that play he goes very deeply into the human soul – deeply deeply – in a way that has never been done by any writer either before or after him. It is a long play but it holds audiences spellbound, and when the curtain comes down they walk out into the fresh air having experienced something very special.
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Looking for some inspiration from Shakespeare for baby names for girls? Shakespeare used 75 women’s names in his 35 plays, naming kings, jesters, heroes and warriors…so something for every personality type! Read the full list of Shakespeare baby names for girls below:
- Adrian – (Coriolanus, The Tempest)
- Adriana – (The Comedy of Errors)
- Albany – (King Lear)
- Alexas – (Antony and Cleopatra)
- Alice – (Henry V)
- Aliena – (As You Like It)
- Anne – (Henry VIII, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III)
- Ariel – (The Tempest)
- Audrey – (As You Like It)
- Beatrice – (Much Ado About Nothing)
- Bianca – (The Taming of the Shrew, Othello)
- Calpurnia – (Julius Caesar)
- Cassandra – (Troilus and Cressida)
- Celia – (As You Like It)
- Ceres – (The Tempest)
- Cleopatra – (Antony and Cleopatra)
- Cordelia – (King Lear)
- Cressida – (Troilus and Cressida)
- Cymbeline – (Cymbeline)
- Desdemona – (Othello)
- Diana – (All’s Well That Ends Well)
- Dion – (The Winter’s Tale)
- Dionyza – (Pericles)
- Dolabella – (Antony and Cleopatra)
- Dorcas – (The Winter’s Tale)
- Eleanor – (King John)
- Elizabeth – (Henry VIII, 3 Henry VI/Richard III)
- Emilia – (The Comedy of Errors, The Winter’s Tale, Othello, The Two Noble Kinsmen)
- Gertrude – (Hamlet)
- Helen – (Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well)
- Helena – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
- Hermia – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
- Hermione – (The Winter’s Tale)
- Hero – (Much Ado About Nothing)
- Imogen – (Cymbeline)
- Iris – (The Tempest)
- Isabel – (Richard II, Henry V)
- Isabella – (Measure for Measure)
- Isidore – (Timon of Athens)
- Jessica – (The Merchant of Venice)
- Julia – (The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
- Juliet – (Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure)
- Juno – (The Tempest)
- Jupiter – (Cymbeline)
- Katharine – (Love’s Labour’s Lost, Henry V)
- Katherina – (The Taming of the Shrew)
- Katherine – (Henry VIII)
- Lavinia – (Titus Andronicus)
- Leonine – (Pericles)
- Luce – (The Comedy of Errors)
- Luciana – (The Comedy of Errors)
- Margaret – ( 1/2/3 Henry VI/Richard III, Much Ado About Nothing)
- Margery – (2 Henry VI)
- Maria – (Love’s Labour’s Lost, Twelfth Night)
- Mariana – (All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure)
- Marina – (Pericles)
- Miranda – (The Tempest)
- Morgan – (Cymbeline)
- Octavia – (Antony and Cleopatra)
- Olivia – (Twelfth Night)
- Ophelia – (Hamlet)
- Paulina – (The Winter’s Tale)
- Phebe – (As You Like It)
- Portia – (The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar)
- Regan – (King Lear)
- Robin – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor)
- Rosalind – (As You Like It)
- Rosaline – (Love’s Labour’s Lost)
- Silvia – (The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
- Tamora – (Titus Andronicus)
- Titania – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
- Ursula – (Much Ado About Nothing)
- Valentine – (Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night)
- Valeria – (Coriolanus)
- Viola – (Twelfth Night)
Having a boy? Check out our list of Shakespeare baby names for boys.
Looking for some inspiration from Shakespeare for baby names for boys? Shakespeare used 125 men’s names in his 35 plays, naming kings, jesters, heroes and warriors… so something for every personality type! Read the full list of Shakespeare baby names for boys below:
Aaron – (Titus Andronicus)
Abram – (Romeo and Juliet)
Achilles – (Troilus and Cressida)
Adam – (As You Like It)
Adrian – (Coriolanus, The Tempest)
Ajax – (Troilus and Cressida)
Albany – (King Lear)
Alexander – (Troilus and Cressida)
Alexas – (Antony and Cleopatra)
Alonso – (The Tempest)
Angelo – (The Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure)
Antonio – (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing)
Aragon – (The Merchant of Venice)
Arthur – (King John)
Balthasar – (The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing)
Barnardo – (Hamlet)
Bartholomew – (The Taming of the Shrew)
Benedick – (Much Ado About Nothing)
Benvolio – (Romeo and Juliet)
Berri – (Henry V)
Bertram – (All’s Well That Ends Well)
Brandon – (Henry VIII)
Caius – (Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus)
Caliban – (The Tempest)
Caesar – (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra)
Camillo – (The Winter’s Tale)
Cassio – (Othello)
Cassius – (Julius Caesar)
Cato – (Julius Caesar)
Cesario – (Twelfth Night)
Charles – (As You Like It)
Cicero – (Julius Caesar)
Clarence – (Richard III, 2 Henry IV/Henry V)
Claudio – (Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure)
Claudius – (Julius Caesar)
Corin – (As You Like It)
Cornelius – (Hamlet, Cymbeline)
Curan – (King Lear)
Curtis – (The Taming of the Shrew)
Davy – (2 Henry IV)
Decius – (Julius Caesar)
Demetrius – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra)
Dennis – (As You Like It)
Derby – (Richard III)
Diomedes – (Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra)
Donalbain – (Macbeth)
Douglas – (1 Henry IV)
Duncan – (Macbeth)
Edgar – (King Lear)
Edmund – (King Lear)
Edward – (2/3 Henry VI/Richard III)
Egeon – (The Comedy of Errors)
Emmanuel – (2 Henry VI)
Fabian – (Twelfth Night)
Fenton – (Merry Wives of Windsor)
Ferdinand – (The Tempest, Love’s Labour’s Lost)
Francis – (1/2 Henry IV)
Francisco – (Hamlet, The Tempest)
Frederick – (As You Like It)
George – (2 Henry VI)
Gonzalo – (The Tempest)
Gregory – (Romeo and Juliet)
Griffith – (Henry VIII)
Hamlet – (Hamlet)
Hector – (Troilus and Cressida)
Henry – (King John, 1/2 Henry IV, Henry VIII, 1/2/3 Henry VI, Henry V)
Hubert – (King John)
Iago – (Othello)
Jamy – (Henry V)
Jaques – (As You Like It)
John – (King John)
Joseph – (The Taming of the Shrew)
Justice – (Measure for Measure)
Laertes – (Hamlet)
Lance – (The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
Launcelot – (The Merchant of Venice)
Lennox – (Macbeth)
Leonardo – (The Merchant of Venice)
Lincoln – (Henry VIII)
Lorenzo – (The Merchant of Venice)
Lucio – (Measure for Measure)
Lucius – (Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens)
Lysander – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Macbeth – (Macbeth)
Malcolm – (Macbeth)
Marcellus – (Hamlet)
Mercutio – (Romeo and Juliet)
Michael – (2 Henry VI, 1 Henry IV)
Morgan – (Cymbeline)
Mortimer – (1 Henry VI)
Morton – (2 Henry IV)
Oberon – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Octavius – (Julius Caesar)
Oliver – (As You Like It)
Orlando – (As You Like It)
Orsino (12th Night)
Oswald – (King Lear)
Othello – (Othello)
Paris – (Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida)
Peter – (2 Henry VI, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew)
Petruchio – (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew)
Philip – (The Taming of the Shrew, King John)
Philo – (Antony and Cleopatra)
Prospero – (The Tempest)
Puck – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Reynaldo – (Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well)
Richard – (Richard II, Richard III)
Robert – (King John)
Robin – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor)
Roderigo – (Othello)
Romeo – (Romeo and Juliet)
Ross – (Richard II)
Sebastian – (The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
Shaw – (Richard III)
Silvius – (As You Like It)
Timon – (Timon of Athens)
Titinius – (Julius Caesar)
Toby – (Twelfth Night)
Tybalt – (Romeo and Juliet)
Ulysses – (Troilus and Cressida)
Usher – (Coriolanus)
Valentine – (Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night)
Vincentio – (Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew)
William – (As You Like It)
Having a girl? Read our list of Shakespeare baby names for girls.
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This post discusses Elizabethan play naming conventions…and Shakespeare’s Christmas play, Twelfth Night.
The Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, in heavy competition with each other, and pressurized by the need to fill the theatres, wrote fast so that new plays would be coming off the assembly line in quick succession.
As people walked past the theatres they encountered posters with the plays’ titles, and the names of the actors, many of whom were famous, as actors are today. Potential audiences would browse the posters and decide what they wanted to watch. The titles of the plays were eye-catching: they were an important selling device. They were important, as they are today. Sometimes they have a meaning, referring to a play’s theme, and sometimes they are just eye-catching. Sometimes they are both.
Ben Jonson’s titles are intriguing: A Tale of a Tub, Bartholomew Fair, The Magnetic Lady and The Devil is an Ass would be some of the titles that would assail the browser. Let’s face it, it would be hard to resist going in to see a play about the Devil or a magnetic lady.
Other titles that would beckon you in were such titles as Webster’s A Wife for a Month and The Wild Goose Chase; John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Broken Heart, or The Roaring Girl by Middleton and Dekker.
Master Shakespeare’s plays were the most popular in London. There was no need to pull the audiences in: they didn’t care what the play was – it was the author’s name that filled the theatre. Indeed, there is hardly an interesting title among his huge body of plays. Most of them are named by the main character. It’s as though he gave the plays working titles as he was writing them and they never got changed. It’s as though, in writing Othello, he just jotted the general’s name down and when writing about a Venetian merchant he just stated that – The Merchant of Venice. Imagine this: he could have called Othello something like Brought Down by Jealousy, or Macbeth, The Over-reacher Reaches Too Far.
And then the flippant As You Like It, saying call it whatever you like. And Twelfth Night. He doesn’t come anywhere near bothering with a title for that play. It’s simply called Twelfth Night just because it was written to be performed on the twelfth night of Christmas.
Think about the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. We sing it quite happily at Christmas time without really knowing what it means. In our busy modern lives we have Christmas then we pack up and get back to our everyday lives. For the Elizabethans Christmas was a major festival, lasting twelve days. On the last night of the festival – the twelfth night – they had a big party then went back to work the next day. We do still have the remnants of the twelve day festival: it’s considered bad luck to take the Christmas tree down before or after the 6th of January. That’s the twelfth day – the end of the holiday.
The play was written to be performed on that last night. During the final party the Elizabethans obeyed several traditions. Cross dressing was one, drinking and carousing, another. Inversion of social roles was another, where masters waited on their servants and servants lorded it up. And lots of music and singing. The next day they woke up with hangovers and staggered off to work for another year.
And Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night? Well – a woman dressed as a man, the drunken revelry of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, the songs and the music – remember the opening line, If music be the food of love play on – and the pretentions of Malvolio, the servant who has the delusion that he could become the master. It’s all very much in accordance with the themes of the twelfth night festival.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s ‘working’ titles have more to them than meets the eye?
Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) was an old school English Georgian gent, physician and philanthropist, but forever remembered for censoring Shakespeare and in doing so creating the eponymous verb bowdlerize (or bowdlerise). So what does ‘bowdlerize‘ mean…?
1: to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar
2: to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content
In 1807 Thomas Bowdler published his first edition of The Family Shakspeare – four small volumes containing 24 edited versions of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. Crucially, the text of these 24 plays had words, expressions and sometimes even plots changed to be more “family friendly”, and each play was preceded by an introduction where Bowdler summarised and justified his changes (bowdlerizations!) to the text.
In Bowdler’s own words The Family Shakespeare was a Shakespeare edition “in which nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family.” As of first publication of The Family Shakespeare, the works of the Bard were opened up to women and children in Victorian England, who would otherwise have been offended by the original words due to the sensitivities of the time. Whilst this Victorian prudishness may seem amazing these days, it’s a real truth that Bowdler’s versions opened Shakespeare to a far wider audience than ever before – Shakespeare was suddenly ‘safe’ for a family with Victorian values.
Thomas Bowdler was helped in his quest to clean up Shakespeare by his two sisters – Jane Bowdler (1743–1784) and Henrietta Maria Bowdler, and by 1850 eleven editions edition of The Family Shakspeare had been printed with considerable commercial success. Along with expanding the number of plays, Bowdler changed the spelling of Shakespeare from “Shakspeare“, used by Bowdler, was changed in later editions in the mid-19th century to “Shakespeare”
So Why The Censorship?
Bowdler made clear his motives for wanting to censor Shakespeare in both the preface of The Family Shakespeare, and an advert in The Times for the 1819 edition.
From the preface:
“The language is not always faultless. Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent Nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased. Of these the greater part were evidently introduced to gratify the bad taste of the age in which he lived, and the rest may perhaps be ascribed to his own unbridled fancy. But neither the vicious taste of the age not the most brilliant effusions of wit can afford an excuse for profaneness or obscenity; and if these can be obliterated the transcendent genius of the poet would undoubtedly shine with more unclouded lustre.”
From the advert:
“My great objects in the undertaking are to remove from the writings of Shakespeare some defects which diminish their value, and at the same time to present to the public an edition of his plays which the parent, the guardian and the instructor of youth may place without fear in the hands of his pupils, and from which the pupil may derive instruction as well as pleasure: may improve his moral principles, while he refines his taste: and without incurring the danger of being hurt with any indelicacy of expression, may learn in the fate of Macbeth, that even a kingdom is dearly purchased, if virtue be the price of acquisition”
Some examples of alterations to Shakespeare’s works made by Bowdler include:
- In Hamlet the death of Ophelia was no longer a suicide, but referred to as an accidental drowning.
- In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s famous line of “Out, damned spot!” read instead “Out, crimson spot!“
- In all plays “God!” as an exclamation is replaced with “Heavens!“
- In Henry IV Part 2 Doll Tearsheet (a prostitute) is omitted from the story entirely
- In Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” becomes was changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”.
Whilst Bowdler may have broadened the audience of the time for Shakespeare’s writings, there’s no doubt some of the humor and much of the grit of the Bards plays are the loser. And as with Mercutio’s prick of noon, many of Shakespeare’s puns and innuendos- that Bowdler and sisters his bowdlerized – would these days be overlooked with a limited understanding of what Elizabethan audiences would have found racy.
We recently mapped the locations of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. The most interesting thing about looking at the map is just how broadly Shakespeare cast his creative web across different cultures and languages inthe search for suitable material for his dramas.
In fact over three quarters of Shakespeare’s plays are set outside of the UK, with a geographic spread north to south from Denmark to Lybia and west to east from Spain to Syria. Some of those are set in Shakespeare’s own time, some in Medieval Europe and some in ancient Europe. The Greek and Roman Empires feature in many of the history plays, with action taking place in north Africa (Lybia and Egypt) and what we now refer to as the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria & Turkey).
Of the plays that are set in the UK (England, Wales and Scotland – none in Ireland) only one is set in Elizabethan England – The Merry Wives of Windsor. Looking at the content of that play may give a clue as to why Shakespeare’s plays are set either abroad or in the distant past. The Merry Wives is pure comedy – farce, actually – and has nothing to say about politics, other than sexual and family politics. It can’t in any way engender any feelings in monarchs or other powerful political figures other than to make them laugh.
Most of the other plays are seriously political. Shakespeare lived in very dangerous times – in times when to criticise powerful rulers could mean imprisonment at the very least and execution at worst. But think about it: how can you write something on a political theme without doing criticising power? The answer is to set your play either in a foreign country or in the distant past. You can then criticise your own monarch, who is disguised as a foreign ruler in the play. The same goes for the plays set in historical Britain – you can give those historical kings some of the villainous ways of your own monarch, thereby pointing to those villainous ways without too much danger.
You still have to be careful though. For example, King James was James VI of Scotland and James I of England at the same time, hence the united kingdoms. Shakespeare made his Scottish king, Macbeth, a tyrant and a butcher. He balanced that by reference to the English king who is described in terms of holiness and saintliness, and who sponsors the military overthrow of Macbeth. King James, who certainly saw the play, would have been sitting back with a feeling of saintliness himself.
If Shakespeare had set political plays in England in his own time we would never have seen them – nor would the Elizabethan audience, as the plays would have been banned by the censors. But there are a couple of other reasons why so many of Shakespeare plays are set in Europe.
The first is a very simple one: Shakespeare rarely bases plays on stories that he has himself made up – almost all the stories come from somewhere else. He takes them and works his themes on them, changing and developing them in the process, introducing new characters into them, and so on. He almost always leaves the stories in the settings in which he finds them. Some of the stories are very famous, such as the very old story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, which there was no way he could have set anywhere other than Denmark. The same goes for Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and the other plays set in the ancient world.
The second reason so many of Shakespeare’s plays were based abroad was to do with the strong prejudices and expectations that Elizabethan audiences had, particularly around Italy. In Shakespeare’s time, if the public saw that a play was set somewhere in Italy and the characters were Italian they immediately sat up and took notice. They knew that the action would be extremely violent and there would be extreme passions that would sweep them up emotionally and hold them in that intense world for a couple of hours. Because of this Shakespeare uses Italy as a backdrop (at least in part) to 14 of his 37 plays.
So although it’s a hotly debated topic just how much travel Shakespeare did – and, indeed whether he ever made it to Italy, or any other countries he based his plays – there are at least 3 good reasons as to why so many of Shakespeare’s plays are set outside of the UK:
1. He could’t get away with writing plays which critisized Kings and rulers in his own country and time.
2. Many of the plays Shakespeare wrote came from traditional stories, and required a specific setting outside of the UK.
3. In Shakespeare’s time Italy in particular had a reputation for violence and passion that would pull in the Elizabethan punters.