“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”. But why Verona and why not Girona? Why did provincial England’s greatest playwright, who set so many of his plays abroad, in countries he’d never visited, never set a play in Catalonia? In his thirty-seven plays we meet an over-thinking young prince in Denmark, twins shipwrecked on the Croatian Adriatic coast; we witness dastardly plots un-hatching on the island of Cyprus; Italy features fourteen times; a forest outside of Athens becomes enchanted with fairies, and the forest of Arden in France is where we learn that “All the World’s A Stage”; and a tragic love affair unfolds in ancient Egypt. Spain’s claim to fame is “Love’s Labour’s Lost” set in the Kingdom of Navarre, a medieval Basque kingdom on either side of the western Pyrenees. But why not Girona? What not Tarragona, Lleida, Barcelona?
This question is especially puzzling in light of the recent claim that, wait for it, the Bard was in fact … Catalan! For nearly a decade a rumour has been circulating that not only should we think of him as the “Bard of Barcelona”, but more intriguingly, Shakespeare and Cervantes were one and the same person! Famous as a writer who traded in ambiguity, identity and fluidity, filling his plots with doubles and deception, even Shakespeare would be hard pressed to shoe-horn this plot into a believable play.
Or would he?
Of course doubts over Shakespeare (apologies, “Xespir”), his origins, and even the authenticity of his authorship have assumed the character of a parlour game for over 400 years – a literary whodunit that stirs partisan passions and dinner party feuds – but the Catalan claim makes my question at the beginning even more pressing. Why Verona and why not Girona?
As we celebrate his birth (and death) day this week, in tandem with one of Catalonia´s most cherished days, Sant Jordi, it is worth thinking about what a play set in Barcelona, or Girona might look like. Like Venice, both cities were home to a large and significant Jewish population and the “Call” (Jewish Quarter) would have made a great backdrop. Indeed the Shlomo Ben Adret Synagogue is believed to be one of the oldest synagogues in Europe.
Furthermore, the Spanish Inquisition, a favourite among Monty Python fans and brutally played out on the streets of resisting Catalan cities, would surely have given Shakespeare a treasure trove of juicy stories and compelling characters: a family of “Xuetas” for example – Jewish families on the Catalan-speaking island of Mallorca forced to convert to Christianity or to live as crypto-jews who maintained a secret adherence to Judaism while publicly professing to be Christians. Iago’s famous line, “I am not what I am”, or Orsino´s confusion in Twelfth Night; “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons! … How have you made division of yourself?” would perfectly suit such characters.
But this tantalising thought experiment will have to remain just that. And the intriguing notion that Cervantes and Shakespeare were one and the same person may or may not be a historical fact; we´ll never really know. While many will find this too unsatisfying, too inconclusive, too unimaginable, Shakespeare himself would, I think, have delighted in it. In the most famous scene of them all, the balcony scene, when Juliet wonders, “What’s in a name?” as she tries to liberate identity from social conventions and constraints, Romeo responds with, “I’ll be new baptized: Henceforth I never will be Romeo”. He doesn’t let a label get in the way of what he most desires.
Shakespeare wanted us to challenge conventions; question accepted belief; use our imaginations to create a world of possibilities. In his plays he constantly blurs the boundaries between waking and dreaming, between appearances and realities. The time is “out of joint”. Ironic twists, confusion, masks and misunderstandings, and piles and piles of meanings upon meanings are what truly lie behind Shakespeare’s characters. And, by extension, behind all of us. Let’s hope that this year fair Girona, and Tarragona, and Barcelona, and Gavà will be imbued with sweet smelling roses, books, and romance. Feliç Sant Jordi a tothom!