Word of the Day: Neapolitan
“Neapolitan” describes someone or something from Naples. The difference between the adjective and the noun is the result of the latter having evolved much more rapidly than the former. from its original Greek ‘neapolis’ (‘new city’) to modern Napoli or Naples. The city, despite a name that proclaims its newness, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with its most famous resident being the Roman poet Virgil, much beloved by Shakespeare. Little of this storied history makes it into Shakespeare’s plays, however, which tend to focus on more general stereotypes about Neapolitans.
In the Merchant of Venice, a Neapolitan prince is amongst Portia’s unsuccessful suitors, not least because he “doth nothing but talk of his horse”, leading Portia to quip that she is “much afeard my lady his mother play’d false with a smith”. Neapolitan ancestry comes up in much more serious terms in Henry VI part II, when York, captured by Margaret and her Lancastrian forces, curses her in defiance as the “Outcast of Naples, England’s bloody scourge”.
Portia’s wit about sexual infidelity, and York’s violent outburst come together in Thersites description of the “Neapolitan bone-ache” that he finds on the battlefield of Troy in Troilus and Cressida. The “bone-ache” is syphilis, and marks yet another less than flattering reference to Naples in Shakespeare’s works. When Lucentio suggests that he disguise himself as “Some Neapolitan” in The Taming of the Shrew in order to deceive his beloved’s father, Biondello, he must surely have got a laugh, given that such a choice of disguise inadvertantly implies sexual decadence and disease as much as Neapolitan wealth.
Despite all these ignominious Neapolitans, there is one character in Shakespeare’s works who goes some way to redeeming the city. That character is Gonzalo, the elderly councillor mocked by the other court members in The Tempest, but revealed to have been a friend to Propsero in exile, and thus, in the magician’s words, “A noble Neapolitan”, valued all the more for his contradiction of a stereotype:
PROSPERO By Providence divine.
Some food we had and some fresh water that
A noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo,
Out of his charity, – who being then appointed
Master of this design, / did give us, with
Rich garments, linens ,stuffs, and necessaries,
Which since have steaded much: so, of his gentleness.
Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me,
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.