British Museum blog

Quoting Shakespeare

Jacopo de’ Barbari, Bird’s eye view of Venice, a woodcut. Italy, 1500.Dr Peter Kirwan, University of Nottingham

As you walk around the exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, you’ll see objects drawn from across continents and time periods, all linked by Shakespeare. Sometimes the connection is to Shakespeare’s life and immediate world, but more often it’s the quotations from his plays that frame the exhibits and create the overarching theme of the exhibition. When seen in this fragmented way, it can be easy to take the words for granted, but in fact their presentation is less than straightforward.

Jacopo de’ Barbari, Bird’s eye view of Venice, a woodcut. Italy, 1500.

Take the quotation that illustrates the birds-eye map of Venice, drawn from Love’s Labour’s Lost:

I may speak of thee as the traveller doth of Venice:
Venetia, Venetia,
Chi non ti vede non ti pretia

The Italian proverb translates roughly as “Venice, he that does not see thee does not esteem thee”, and captures the wonder experienced by those standing before de’ Barbari’s magnificent woodcut. Yet the words read very differently in the 1598 quarto of the play:

I may speake of thee as the traueiler doth of Venice, vemchie, vencha, que non te vnde, que non te perreche.

For a modern reader of Italian, this is nonsensical; yet is it also ‘Shakespeare’, in the strictest sense. The role of the editor of an edition is to decide when to intervene to clarify meaning. Here, ‘traueiler’ would have carried the dual meanings of ‘traveller’ and ‘one who travails’, but the decision to modernise to ‘traveller’ is a useful clarification.

More difficult is deciding how to present the Italian. Is the character Holofernes accidentally misquoting this Italian proverb? Has Shakespeare written a phonetic version to help the actor speaking the line? Or is this a case of the scribe not understanding Italian and making a mess of what he heard or read?

In making the decision to ‘correct’ Shakespeare to recognisable, contemporary Italian, we make a decision to prioritise meaning and clarity over slavish fidelity to the earliest texts, a sometimes subjective process which results in every edition of Shakespeare being slightly different. As the actors’ performances throughout the show remind us, Shakespeare is remade every time he is performed or quoted, and the same is true of our quotations.

To read Jonathan Bate’s rationale for editing the Complete Works volume from which most quotations are drawn, please visit .

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Shakespeare: staging the world

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  1. Reblogged this on Reasonable Woman and commented:
    I love the textual intricacies of Shakespeare’s works. It requires one part creativity and two parts sleuthing to figure out what was meant originally by the playwright and what intended and unintended meanings the reader/audience can gather from the various versions. This is just one example among countless many.


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