“It seems clear that Shakespeare could read Italian, and that for a surprising number of plays he read those sources in Italian...”
In 1994, Naseeb Shaheen, in his book Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Italian 1 proved beyond all doubt that Shakespeare had a very strong knowledge of the Italian language. In 2005, Christophe Camard2, explained that Shakespeare treats the Italian language in a curious and intimate manner, and is capable of creating new meanings in English, of playing with a foreign language in a way quite different to other English dramatists, whose relation to Italian is external, a simple question of exoticism and color.
The best evidence that Shakespeare could read Italian, however, comes from the close adherence of his plays to his Italian sources. For some plays, those Italian sources had not been translated into any other language, and the only logical conclusion is that Shakespeare must have read the source in Italian and translated them in English. In other instances, although the Italian source had been translated into French or English, Shakespeare’s play is often closer to the Italian original than to the translations or adaptations of the original. At times, there is also a verbal similarity which adds to the evidence that Shakespeare had read the original Italian 3 For example, Shaheen shows that the expression “prophetic fury” in Othello is borrowed from a line in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, “C’havea il furor profetico congiunto.” The logical deduction follows:
And he concludes:
In all these cases and instances, Shakespeare’s scholars are not able to prove that Shakespeare could read Italian poetry, vernacular Italian and Italian dialect, and translate, re-elaborate and rewrite his sources in English. In all these cases it’s John Florio the “intermediator”, “tutor”, the constant helper of Shakespeare who reads him the Italian books, translate them for him, and re-write the sources for Shakespeare’s plays.
“…it emerges that Shakespeare and Florio create new words by using the same inventive modes…”
Florio consciously experimented with English like Shakespeare, grafting into it words and phrases from other languages. This led him to create not just new words, but also new grammatical constructions. For example, he was the first writer to use the genitive neuter pronoun “its”5 Florio, like Shakespeare, created more than one thousands new words, compounds and proverbs for the English language. Stanford professor John Willinsky in his Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED states John Florio contributed to the English language with over a thousand words, placing third after Chaucer and Shakespeare, the Oxford English Dictionary ascribes the first usages of 1,224 words to Florio. 6
According to Wiliam Hamlin7, in his translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Florio captures his inquisitive, meandering style with astonishing verbal exuberance. Apart from Shakespearean drama itself, there’s scarcely another work from Elizabethan England that offers a similar display of lexical brio. Hundreds of words make their first appearance in English, including “criticism,” “masturbation,” “judicatory,” and “dogmatism.” Florio experiments with verbs such as “fantastiquize,” “attediate,” and “dis-wench”; he serves up nouns like “profluvion,” “codburst,” “ubertie,” and “supputation”; and he coins dozens of compound terms, among them “cup-shotten,” “ninny-hammer,” “sinnewe-shrunken,” “wedlocke-friendship,” “greedy-covetous,” and “wit-besotting.”
John Florio’s scholar Laura Orsi8 provided a comparative linguistic analysis, lexical and stylistic, of Shakespeare and John Florio with a focus on their linguistic creativity, specifically in the creation of new words. The words are drawn from Shakespeare’s plays and Florio’s major works, namely his Italian-English dictionaries A Worlde of Wordes (1598) and Queen Anna’s New World of Words (1611) his translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais (Essays, 1603) and the anonymous English translation of the Decameron which was published in London in 1620. Laura Orsi’s study further confirms the Florian attribution and connects it to Shakespeare. The first comparative study of Shakespeare, John Florio and Florio’s Decameron brings to light a number of revealing lexical and stylistic concordances which point straight to Shakespeare. It emerges that Shakespeare’s and Florio’s linguistic contributions are elaborated upon their understanding of words’ etymons and show a mutually interchangeable grammatical mind-set. Additionally, it emerges that Shakespeare and Florio create new words by using the same inventive modes. This first linguistic-stylistic comparative analysis demonstrates the following: first, the etymological and grammatical structure of Shakespeare’s linguistic creativity; secondly, Shakespeare’s non-sporadic indebtedness to ancient and Romance languages, and finally, the perfect compatibility of Shakespeare’s linguistic creativity with that of John Florio – their osmosis.