John Florio: The Anglified Italian Who Invented William Shakespeare
by Lamberto Tassinari
Shakespeare is – let us put it this way – the least English of English writers. The typical quality of the English is understatement, saying a little less than what you see. In contrast, Shakespeare tended toward the hyperbolic metaphor, and it would come to us as no surprise to learn that Shakespeare had been Italian, or Jewish, for instance.
Jorge Luis Borges, Borges oral, 1979
The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should turn up.
Charles Dickens, 1847
The day that Charles Dickens so feared has arrived, and Shakespeare is about to assume his true identity – the identity of a foreigner! A most unusual foreigner, though. While John Florio was born in London in 1553, he lived in mainland Europe with his father from the age of three until he was almost 20. He returned to London only at the beginning of the 1570s.
Florio, who in 1591 added the nickname “Resolute” to his name, was determined to give his beloved new homeland – in those years still a culturally underdeveloped country – a supreme literary creation. He decided to become a working playwright with the aggressive nom de plume of “Shake-Speare,” where the “spear” that was being “shaken” was, of course, the pen.
That name happened to match, phonetically, the surname of a native Englishman from Stratford, a certain William Shakspere, or variously Shakspear or Shexpir, the son of a glover and himself an actor, later a landowner, theatrical impresario, and moneylender. Later on, the drama and poetry produced by Florio, the pseudonymous author who so often signed his work Shake-speare, was attributed to that insignificant and virtually unknown native Englishman.
The first and most important mastermind behind this nationalistic operation of identity theft was playwright Ben Jonson. A number of the “Shakespeare” plays had never been produced; others were unpublished; and still others were anonymous. They were all scavenged from the theatrical and publishing marketplace, stitched together and published under the title of Works, in the First Folio (1623), seven years after the death of the man from Stratford. But behind that nom de plume was actually John Florio, not the man from Stratford.
Admittedly, John Florio was a willing accomplice in the creation of a fictitious William Shakespeare – and with the assistance of his father, for a complex array of reasons. Central to these motives was the fact that John Florio was a prominent foreigner, far too prominent, and therefore envied and always suspect. It would have fanned the flames if he had also claimed official credit as the author of the works of Shake-speare.
A contributing factor was that John’s father – Michel Angelo Florio – had been persecuted by the Roman Catholic Inquisition, and had also been involved in a scandal toward the end of his first stay in London, in 1554. Thus, feeling insecure even in his new Protestant homeland, Michel Angelo decided to go underground.
Another factor was that John, who thought of himself as an “aristocrat,” refused to acknowledge his own work as a playwright. The theatre, for an Italian like him, was certainly of some importance, but it possessed no literary prestige in the England of that time.
Last, but perhaps most fundamental of all, Florio had set himself the mission of elevating, anonymously, the English tongue and English culture above all others. The logic underlying an anonymous gift, rooted in the history of Renaissance literature, also possesses an intrinsic meaning, as W.H. Auden explained in his introduction to the works of Shakespeare. Auden wrote: “It should be borne in mind that most genuine artists would prefer that no biography be written.”
This is true in particular of Florio, who wanted Shake-speare to remain a nom de plume. But that nom de plume should refer to an English author. Florio had no doubts on the matter: the author could not be a foreigner. If his plan were to work, he would have to become a native-born writer with an English name. That was the one way that he could ensure that all Englishmen would accept his work as a shared, national heritage.
When I first began to look into the Shakespeare authorship question, two observations made a particular impression upon me. One was the quip by Charles Dickens quoted above. The second is a phrase by Henry James: “I am haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world. I am not pretending to treat the question or to carry it any further. It bristles with difficulties and I can only express my general sense by saying that I find almost as impossible to conceive that Bacon wrote the plays as to conceive that the man from Stratford, as we know the man from Stratford, did.”
I wondered about the overwhelming revelation Dickens might be referring to when he wrote those words. And why would James go so far as to call him “a fraud”? Who would have benefitted? And who would have been harmed? Who could have been the author so relentlessly denied credit for this body of work?
Why would the Establishment – yes, the Establishment, in the Orwellian and Foucaultian sense of a system of surveillance and punishment in which policemen and professors only work to reinforce one another – defend this academic dogma so rigidly? Why would university professors and researchers continue, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to insist (never blinking once in the face of a teetering mountain of contradictions and incongruities) on the reliability of the biography of Shakspere from Stratford-upon-Avon?
I understand that England needed Shakespeare when that country was rising to world supremacy and building its international empire. The identity of England’s greatest writer had to be preserved, solid and irrefutable, in order to demand respect from its own citizens, and the rest of the world. But alongside this need for power and order was the “religious” conversion of scholars to the mission of studying the Work. The Work obliged them to accept the Author, however unsatisfactory and false he might have appeared. And so Shakespeare was seen as Writing without a Writer, the Work without the Man – a handy turn of events for the critical imagination.
Shakespeare is a myth imposed upon the world of educated readers captivated by this great idol, the Great Writer disembodied. Even as great a critic as Harold Bloom abandons himself with glee and complacency to the mystery of this Author who so loses himself in his writing that he eliminates all traces of his own identity. Bloom describes what he calls “that Shakespearean procedure” in the following words: “[it] is as though the creator of scores of major characters and hundreds of frequently vivid minor figures wasted no imaginative energy in inventing a persona for himself. (…) At the very centre of the Canon is the least self-conscious and least aggressive of all the major writers we have known.”
The first of the two ideas set forth here is a contrived notion, so hilarious as to border on the surreal; while the second phrase is a witticism of unconscious irony, once we learn that Florio was determined to conceal that aspect of his personality and work. Today, the biographies of Shakespeare have become intolerable romances, cynical efforts to translate the existing work, books that more and more resemble Mark Twain’s dinosaur: “One bone and a thousand pounds of plaster of Paris!”
The entire construct is a cunningly devised deceit crafted out of words, a self-sustaining system that thrives on its own product. Still, in the end, entropy wins out; the wordplay cannot hold up. Even though Shakespeare is a nom de plume originally devised by the author himself – by John Florio – it was inevitably destined to collapse. Today, at last, we can state that the Authorship question was a grueling saga caused by a general unwillingness to admit an unacceptable identity: that Shakespeare was a foreigner.
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Who is John/Giovanni Florio? When the works of William Shakespeare appeared, John Florio lived and worked in London. He was the son of an Italian Protestant pastor who had lived in pre-Elizabethan England from 1550 to 1554. John Florio was a man of erudition and aristocratic sentiments, a word fiend, and a great scholar of the Sacred Scriptures, driven by an extraordinary love of letters and endowed with a linguistic gift of invention comparable only to that of…the man who came to be known as Shakespeare. He was a “royal” author, active for more than 40 years – from 1578 until 1619 – in a dense network of highly personal literary and aristocratic contacts. These have all been historically documented, in contrast to the all-too-uncertain presence of William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford.
While serving for 16 years at court as Groom of the Privy Chamber, where he also acted as private secretary to Queen Anne, as preceptor to Prince Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales, and was responsible for selecting musicians and staging Masques, Florio had also been the teacher, friend, and protégé of Shakespeare’s supposed patrons. He was close, for instance, to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom in 1598 he dedicated his dictionary The Worlde of Wordes, and to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. In fact, the Earl of Pembroke was Florio’s student, friend, and so great a protector that Florio appointed him the executor of his will, and left him a substantial portion of his library, including his “Italian, French and Spanish bookes, as well printed as unprinted, being in number about Three hundred and Fortie.”
As a writer, John Florio (the sole foreign Elizabethan) had a style that was remarkably Shakespearean – displayed in his works as a lexicographer and as the translator into English of two masterpieces of world literature, Montaigne’s Essais and Boccaccio’s Decameron. It is sufficient to read his work to see that the person we have come to recognize as William Shakespeare writes in the identical manner. They both display the same degree of pomposity, exaggerated use of metaphors, rhetorical figures and flourishes, and wit, puns, poetic style, and extensive use of proverbs.
They even coin words in the same fashion. When John Florio translates, he clearly shows that he is a great author, a poet close in spirit and style to Shakespeare. If we bear in mind that Florio wrote in prose, not verse, then this closeness amounts to a telling coincidence. For T.S. Eliot, the translation of Montaigne is a classic work of English letters. When we learn that John Florio translated Montaigne’s Essais and Boccaccio’s Decameron, the importance of that fact at first eludes us, because Florio’s erudition appears so distant from Shakespeare’s poetry. But when we read Florio’s translations, it becomes clear that they are exceptional creations. The missionary “idea” of translating in England works which proved to be fundamental to the development of English culture at such a critical juncture, is remarkable.
At this point, one spontaneously asks the question that literary critics and historians must answer: how is it that a contemporary of Shakespeare, a high-level figure who displays eminently Elizabethan characteristics, should have been so thoroughly undervalued by scholars and literary critics? Why did John Florio, the leading popularizer in England of that Italian culture that was the sine qua non of the English Renaissance, remain unknown to the vast majority of readers and overlooked by scholars? As if that were not enough, the experts acknowledge, however reluctantly, that the Bard borrowed ideas from Florio, along with hundreds, perhaps thousands of his words. Why, then, has no one studied the work of John Florio in depth?
The answer is logical, philological and historical. To know Florio thoroughly, to study his work and life in depth, is tantamount to admitting that it was he who wrote the plays and poems that have been attributed to Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.
*Excerpt from the forthcoming John Florio, The Anglified Italian Who Invented Shakespeare.
Lamberto Tassinari was born in Castelfiorentino and spent his childhood on the island of Elba. He obtained a degree in philosophy from the University of Florence. He moved to Montreal in 1981, where he cofounded the transcultural magazine ViceVersa which he ran until its last issue in 1997. He taught Italian language and literature at the Université de Montréal until 2007. He is currently at work on his second novel and on a production of The Tempest to be staged in Naples. See www.johnflorio isshakespeare.com.
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