Shakespeare from Dubrovnik: The Story of Marin Držić Vidra

Read about life, work and philosophy of Marin Držić, Croatian Shakespeare from Dubrovnik!

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He who puts his best foot forward is a king among men.
 
(Uncle Maroye)

 

If you’ve been to Dubrovnik or just planning your trip there, and you happen to be a booklover and a bookworm, this is going to be a great read for you. Sit in your cosy chair, take your tea, coffee, wine or whatever on Earth you enjoy the most anyway, and find out where booklovers go on vacation.

 

This time we will cover just one writer and his rich history, but in future you will most certainly read about all the “literary places” and great bookstores Croatia has to offer.

 

Why only take the trip to places where Game of Thrones was filmed, when you can enter the Renaissance City and visit the places where culture was being made long time ago.

 

Why not taste the other side of Dubrovnik, maybe not so popular one, a literary side full of stories and experiences that will surely enrich your life in so many ways.

 

 

Now, as we’ve mentioned above, we will focus on one man and one man only because there is so much to say, so much to learn and so many of his steps to follow throughout the City that there is no room for anyone else at the moment.

 

It’s not only a beautiful coast, the sea and old city walls that Dubrovnik has to offer. You are probably aware of the great history and famous names connected to this city, but there is one name you should remember if you’re fan of poetry, theatre and literature in all its forms.

 

There was a man born in a Renaissance Dubrovnik who, like Shakespeare did in England, challenged people of his time, broke some new boundaries and gave us the best literary works we have to this very day. His name was Marin Držić.

 

We will give you a brief insight into his life in Dubrovnik and his travels, for he was a man of action and curiosity involved even in some political matters, as we will later see. His life was interesting and intriguing, and his death is covered in mystery, for we still do not know for sure what caused it. There are also couple of conspiracy theories, but we will talk more about that later.

 

In this article you will get to know Držić, places in Dubrovnik that were relevant for his life and work, places where you can get to know him better such as museums, memorials, statues and all kinds of things you could be interested in if you want to know more.

 

You will also be introduced to the fantastic world of his works and the genius behind them (in a hope more of them will be translated soon), fun facts and all sorts of things that will make your stay in the city of Dubrovnik so much richer.

 

Who was Marin?

 

We don’t know for a fact the year of his birth, but it was concluded that it must have been 1508 because in some documents it is clear that in 1526 he was eighteen years old. His family had a noble title up until 14th century, but they lost it because one of his ancestors fled the city in time of the plague which was not a very noble act, one must say.

 

And not only this, it was illegal to leave the city in those hard times. But some say that this was just some kind of explanation for the public and that the truth was a little bit more serious. That very ancestor (who shared the first name with our Marin) had a child with the girl who did not have noble blood in her veins, so there was no chance the title could endure. So, before the Game of Thrones gang came to the Old City, we’ve had our own dramas for sure.

 

Years in Siena

 

It was a family tradition that someone becomes a monk or a priest (it was very common in those times, and girls who didn’t marry were often sent to a convent which is also an interesting fact) and one of the most important Marin’s ancestors, Džore Držić, also belonged to the church.

 

It would be very unfair not to mention him in the story of Marin, because Džore was one of the first big poets of Renaissance Dubrovnik. He was also Marin’s uncle, his father’s brother, and it must be that young Marin has read and studied his uncle’s verse.

 

Džore died before Marin was born, in 1501 and left the great legacy behind. Marin was also connected to the Church in many ways. In 1538 he was chosen to play church organ in Dubrovnik Cathedral and in the same year he got the scholarship to go to college in Siena, Italy.

 

As we know, he didn’t finish his studies, but it was there in Siena where he found an inspiration and love for the theatre. Later on we will see how his life took an unexpected turn and why he was a man of the future even though he most certainly didn’t know that.

 

Love for the theatre

 

It was around the year 1548 that his plays started to appear. It was a common thing for them to be performed at wedding parties of important people of the time, or in front of the Rector’s Palace in the public for people to enjoy. 

 

For the crowd was hungry for laughs and magic so much that there is a story that one time, while people were trying to see or hear one of Marin’s plays that was performed at a wedding party, it was so many people there that the brick fell of the wall and hit one man in the head.

 

Controversy & conspirational letters

 

Beside all that, we know Držić was also connected with some controversial doings, for example, he was a part of a forbidden play of which we are not sure if he was the author or just an actor in it. Nevertheless, his own plays were often considered controversial too.

 

He dared to speak of things no writer before him dared to speak of. He has challenged the minds of his generation, brought critique and deepened the way people were seeing art and thinking about it.

 

We can say that he was intelligent enough to use his words to create characters and situations we can relate to without any hesitation, even today. That is exactly what we think when we say that his plays are still fresh and consumable, and there is no doubt that they will be so in the distant future too.

 

In one period of his life, in 1566, Držić was involved in politics and was very unsatisfied with how things were going in the Republic, so he decided to write to Cosimo Medici and seek for help.

 

There are five conspiratorial letters that we know of and they are well kept in the archives in Florence. Everything after that episode in his life becomes pretty blurry. We know that Marin went to Venetia and died there the very next year, in 1567.

 

We still don’t know what the cause of his death was, did he die of natural causes or maybe it was a murder? Who could murder him and why exactly? Well, we will seek for some answers, but just to warn you: we still don’t have the right one. We can only speculate.

 

Why is Držić so important and where can we find him?

 

So, why should you be interested in this man, his life and his writings today? Because I’m pretty sure that if you’d have known him, you would most certainly love him.

 

As it was said earlier, he was a man beyond his time, and his literary works are very fresh and interesting even today. In fact, one of his most popular plays “Dundo Maroje” (“Uncle Maroye”) was translated recently and you can find it and read it in English.

 

The language of the original is a bit archaic form of Croatian spoken in those parts of the country, but translator Filip Krenus did a good job transforming it into English version of Croatian most beloved play. With that play we can start our virtual trip even though the setting of “Uncle Maroye” is not the city of Dubrovnik, but Rome.

 

The world of “Uncle Maroye”

 

In the beginning of this play is a prologue in which we hear about the dualism of the human race meaning that there are “ljudi nazbilj” (good people) and “ljudi nahvao” (bad people).

 

It wasn’t very common in those times to think and to talk about this kind of subjects and now is the good time to remember what was said earlier about the controversy of Držić’s works.

 

Be good to others, but better to yourself!

 

In this play we meet one of the most important and interesting characters in Croatian literature. His name is Pomet (Scoffer in the English translation) and he literally runs the game. He is a servant, but a very intelligent one and the main force in the play.

 

Pomet (or Scoffer, whatever you like) is embodiment of a philosophical belief that one must aspire his own wellbeing if it is not in a disagreement with the wellbeing of others. This thought is mainly connected to the philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli and his “Il Principe” from 1532.

 

So, what is so intriguing about this particular character? Well, he can show us how to live no matter the circumstances. He always finds the way out of complicated situations and he wants the best for himself but does no harm to anyone else.

 

And now, can you find him on your trip to Dubrovnik? Of course you can! There is a statue of Pomet placed on Babin kuk and it was work of the sculptor Antun Augustinčić.

 

Pomet is depicted here as a thin man in the middle of a speech, like he is explaining something and in the same time, like he is just joking. Maybe that is the real essence of this character. Be good to others, but better to yourself! And don’t forget to eat and drink well! Pomet was also very fond of a good meal and drink.

 

Onofrio’s Fountain & old Stanac

 

 

The second place found in Držić’s play that you can easily visit (don’t be so surprised) is Onofrio’s fountain.

 

One of the shortest and funniest plays in our literary history happens exactly there, so the next (or the first) time you visit the fountain, don’t forget to imagine what it was back then when certain mischief took place.

 

There was an old man from Herzegovina who came to Dubrovnik and fell asleep near the fountain and couple of young men ready to have a laugh over anything.

 

Old man’s name was Stanac and all he had was a goat and some food he came to the City to sell. It was a Midsummer’s night and the City was full of people walking around in masks and young men decided to do the “novela” with the old man. “Novela” here means “a joke” in an archaic form of language, so basically, they’ve decided to make fun of the old fella.

 

One of them came to Stanac and told him that he is much older than he looks now because fairies granted him youth at this very place where they are now (meaning the Onofrio’s fountain) and that, if he wanted, those same fairies can grant him, Stanac, the same thing.

 

He just needs to wait for them and do as he’s told. Old man believed him and imagined how it would be wonderful to be young again and to be interesting to his wife again as such, so being like this, he has made a perfect target for the joke.

 

The boys (we will refer to young men this way because it’s easier) persuaded some people dressed as fairies (don’t forget that almost the whole town was under the masks at the moment) to act for them and to made Stanac believe that they made him younger.

 

They did it, made the old man believe that they will make him younger, tied his legs and arms and they took his goat and food, had a good laugh and all basically ends there.

 

But don’t think that anyone in this story was a bad guy (or guys) because the boys did take the goat, the cheese and all the food man was carrying all the way from home, but they left him enough money so that we can say that they practically bought old man’s goods. And they had a good laugh as well.

 

It is not only the Onofrio’s fountain something you can connect to this play. Few months ago one of Croatia’s respectable illustrators Dubravko Kastrapeli made the whole comic book based on “Novela” where he even used the original verse, and it turned out to be more than good.

 

The project is great for so many reasons that it’s hard to name just one. For example, comic books are colourful, both old and young love them, and turning a 500 years old play into a comic book was a good move because now even those who don’t like reading something this old or archaic can find some beauty in it.

 

We hope it will be translated eventually, but until then, we highly recommend it to enjoy illustrations. Sometimes a picture can tell you thousand words and with our little intro you would be more than capable to understand most of it.

 

This play is short but full of fresh humour, even though it is written in verse, it’s interesting and funny today as it was those 500 years ago.

 

Even Shakespeare read Držić’s works?

 

Maybe there lies a genius of Marin Držić: he is really a contemporary author even though he is 500 years old by now.

Not many have succeeded in staying that “fresh” but not “mummified”. We simply cannot produce a sentence like this and not mention the great Shakespeare with whom we can compare our Marin. There is even a fun fact about those two, believe it or not.

 

Some say that the great William could have been introduced to Marin’s work through some Držić’s cousin who went to live in London and could have had Držić’s plays with him.

 

So, hypothetically that cousin could have translated plays to Shakespeare and Shakespeare could get the idea for his “Midsummer’s night dream” for example from our beloved Marin.

 

It is a speculation that circulates more for the fun of it than anything else, but it’s interesting to think that maybe, just maybe, Shakespeare’s eyes were laid upon one of Držić’s works.

 

Where to visit Držić in Dubrovnik

 

We know a lot about Marin Držić, or at least, we think we know.

 

We take him for a genius, full of humor and irony, master of words and verse, man with the restless and lively spirit, but we do not know how he looked like.

 

There are few depictions that come from famous artists but, in fact, we have no idea what was the shape of his face, how big was his nose (some believe that it was pretty big for a simple reason that the narrator in “Uncle Maroye’s” prologue is named Long Nose, so it could be possible that he impersonated the author himself), how tall he was or what was his hair like.

 

There is a statue in Dubrovnik that you can visit, placed north of the Rector’s Palace, right on the spot where city Hall used to be in 1551 where “Uncle Maroye” was performed for the first time. Right across the street used to stand the house in which Marin was born. That house was there until the great earthquake in 1667.

 

The statue is work of one of our most famous sculptors, Ivan Meštrović. He imagined Držić as a priest (he was one) and dressed him like that.

 

Maybe the most interesting thing about this statue is the expression on his face: one part of the face is serious and the other is smiling. This was Meštrović’s way to show Držić’s character which was both, serious and funny.

 

We must not forget to mention one more thing: the statue has a really big nose! Some say that this is exactly for the reason we’ve mentioned earlier, that the narrator Long Nose was, in fact, Marin Držić’s voice, so the artist gave the writer long nose too.

 

It’s interesting that the nose on the statue is completely worn out because people believe that if they touch it, it will grant them happiness and good luck. So, there you go, you can touch the nose of our famous writer and it will bring you some luck!

 

There is one more depiction of Marin and this one is a bust kept in Držić’s memorial house. The bust was made by Croatian sculptor Ivan Rendić, and it shows Marin as a serious long haired Renaissance man.

 

Why was he called Vidra (“otter”)?

 

As we are getting closer to the end of our virtual journey with Marin Držić Vidra, there are just few more things to mention.

 

First of all, what this Vidra meant? Vidra in Croatian means “otter” and yes, his nickname was really Otter.

 

There are, of course, speculations concerning the origin of the nickname.

 

Some say that he got it among his friends and that it had something to do with the similarity between that little animal’s character and our Marin’s, and some say that it was pretty much the whole family’s nickname concerning that they lived somewhere near the river where otters were common animals.

 

Well, whatever the reason, Marin Držić is very well known under his nickname too. We also have a theatre that carries this name.

 

There are few more places to visit in Dubrovnik that are essential for this topic:

 

Dom Marina Držića (House of Marin Drzic), Široka 7, 20000 Dubrovnik

 

Gradsko kazalište Marina Držića (National Theatre of Marin Drzic)

 

And, of course, there is also a movie named ”Libertas” directed by Veljko Bulajić in 2006. It is a Croatian – Italian co-production biographical movie about Marin’s last years and his political conflict with the authorities.

 

”Libertas” was Croatia’s submission to the 79th Academy Awards for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but was not accepted as a nominee.

 

In the very end we hope that you’ve enjoyed our little story of one of the greatest writers in Croatian history. If you’re a lover of culture, literature or art in general we are sure that you have enjoyed this article and that you’ll find satisfaction in discovering those places and stories for yourself.

 

When you visit the country or a city, you don’t visit the buildings or the fortresses only, you also visit people and the spirit of everything that makes them who they are.

 

Their poetry, their art and everything their culture was made of. With this in mind, we hope you will remember our Marin and his great spirit while walking the streets of Dubrovnik.

 

Author: Marija Anušić

 

Tour Croatia Limited is a tour operator registered in England and Wales under company number 10714470.
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