Shakespeare loves Italy and uses different Italian authors as inspiration for the storylines of his plays.
Shakespeare loves Italy and uses different Italian authors as inspiration for the storylines of his plays. Most of these sources were not translated in English. They are works written in Italian, Italian vernacular, in Paduan dialect and Neapolitan dialect. It is proved that Shakespeare not only could read the original works in Italian, but he was able to translate and readapt these sources in English. But how could Shakespeare read the original work in Italian and translate it? This problem is solved by Shakespeare’s scholars through the name of John Florio.
NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI: Shakespeare’s later history plays, and those tragedies that deal with political power, explore a more complex interplay of political realism and idealism. Characters such as Richard II and Richard III show evidence of Machiavellian influence. For example, when Richard II is deposed, he prophesies that those who deposed him will in turn be scorned by the new King — and in the process echoes Machiavelli. 1
John Roe 2 made a detailed comparative study on Shakespeare and Machiavelli, and argued there was a remarkable similarity in their fascination with the motives and morality of political action as well as differences over the question of magnanimity.
There was no English translation of Machiavelli published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, The Prince and the Discourses were widely read in Italian, French and Latin during the 16th century. Shakespeare’s knowledge of Machiavelli has been often explained through John Florio, who either acted as translator of Machiavelli’s works for Shakespeare or as his personal tutor3 Frances Yates underlined Florio’s deep knowledge of Machiavelli’s works4 For example, she cites how well-skilled he was in Machiavelli when citing the word “Eruditione” in his dictionary:
Eruditione, erudition, teaching, instruction, nurture, bringing up, education. Yet I finde this word used by Machieuell in another sense towards the end of the last Chapter of the second booke of his Decades upon Liuie, conster it as thou please, hee useth it thus, restaua il campo per tutto debole a potere resistere ad una eruditione che quelli di dentro hauessino fatta, some thinke it shoud bee eruttione.
John Florio also owned all Macchiavelli’s works in his library.
GIRALDI CINTHIO: The main narrative of Othello is borrowed from the tragicomic tale ‘Disdemona and the Moor’ from Gli Hecatommithi (1565) by Giovanni Battista Giraldi, nicknamed Cinthio, while the motif of the corrupt magistrate who propositions an eloquent young woman in Measure for Measure comes from another Cinthio story, Epitia. Thanks to Gary Taylor’s book, Shakespeare’s Mediterranean Measure for Measure, 5 we know that the comedy was set in Ferrara, not Vienna. Lamberto Tassinari, Florio’s scholar, underlined that “indeed, everything in the plot and the atmosphere is Italian, even the names of the characters, while Austria is never mentioned in the text.” 6 He also points out that Taylor “arrives at the totally convincing conclusion that the city in Measure is Ferrara.” Among the arguments presented is this:
“Ferrara is the first Italian city mentioned in John Florio’s Second Frutes“7
“One observes how, whenever the topic is Shakespeare and Shakespearian problems, the name of Florio constantly and inevitably appears.” 8
Another key source for Shakespeare’s plays is the famous collection of stories Decameron, written by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated and published anonymously by John Florio, for the first time in English in 1620 9 The Decameron provides Cymbeline with Iachimo’s description of Imogen’s room as proof of her infidelity, and the main story of All’s Well That Ends Well, based on tale nine of day three of the Decameron.
LUIGI GROTO: Shakespeare’s scholar Barbara Spiaggiari in her book on Groto and Shakespeare 10, underlined that Shakespeare not only borrowed from Luigi Groto’s works, like Hadriana, which was not translated at the time, but that he also translated from the Italian to English some verses of his work from Italian to English without the slightest alteration. In her book, Spiaggiari tries to prove Shakespeare’s knowledge of Groto through John Florio as “Intermediary” and “linguistic mediator” for Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italian works.
MATTEO BANDELLO: The main source for Much Ado About Nothing, are the untranslated Novelle of Matteo Bandello. One of the tale, published in Matteo Bandello’s Novelle (Giulietta e Romeo) influenced also the story of Romeo and Juliet. But the main story of Romeo and Juliet can be traced back to Luigi da Porto’s Historia novellamente ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti, published posthumously in 1531. Bandello’s Novelle (1554) along with Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso have also influenced the storyline in Much Ado About Nothing. John Florio owned Bandello’s Novelle in his library.
GIOVANNI FIORENTINO: Giovanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone influenced some of the stories in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone influenced also the stories in The Merchant of Venice: in particular the scenes about the test of the suitors, the merchant’s rescue (with a “pound of flesh”) by his friend’s new wife disguised as a lawyer and her request for the betrothal ring as a payment. 11
Many Shakespeare’s scholars have pointed out the influence of Aretino’s works in Shakespeare’s plays. According to John M. Lothian 12 the author of the Bard’s English plays (whoever he was) had to have a perfect knowledge of Italian, considering that Aretino’s works (from which he drew inspiration, according to the above-mentioned study) had not yet been translated into English, and considering that the analysis of the creative composition in English is shown to have taken place only on the basis of a creative reworking and transposition of the words and concepts written in Italian; which had to be very clear, in writing, in the mind of the playwright, at the moment when he was creatively expressing himself in another language, at the moment, that is, of “composition” and poetic inspiration. It is important to note that John Florio not only owned the whole collection of Pietro Aretino’s works, but he translated and readapted Aretino’s plots for his works. Moreover, his father Michelangelo was a close friend of Aretino, and they exchanged letters during their career.
TORQUATO TASSO: In 2004 Roger Prior, in his work Tasso’s Aminta in Two Shakespearian Comedies 13 established just how extensive (and refined) his familiarity was with Italian contemporary writers. John Florio’s scholar Lamberto Tassinari, in his book “John Florio, The man who was Shakespeare” 14 explains how deeply Shakespeare drew upon Torquato Tasso:
“Roger Prior shows that Shakespeare used a very rare edition of Tasso’s verse drama Aminta (the fact that he could lay hands on it at all in London at that time is quite exceptional in itself)—an edition or manuscript that must have contained the Epilogue and the musical Interludes, which are rarely reproduced. Shakespeare, Prior concludes, ‘had available, therefore, a text of the Aminta which was more ‘complete’ than any that has come down to us from that time. This means that he is likely to have obtained it from an unusually privileged and knowledgeable source.‘” – Lamberto Tassinari, John Florio, The man who was Shakespeare.
John Florio frequently mentioned Tasso in his works, he owned Tasso’s works and he also composed a pastoral dialogue inspired by Torquato Tasso15
VINCENTIO SAVIOLO: One of the masters of the Italian school of fencing in London then was Vincentio Saviolo, author of the fencing manual, Saviolo, His Practise (1595). Florio refers to Saviolo in his Second Fruits, and it has been proved by Florio’s scholar Iannaccone that the one who actually wrote and published this manual was “the ceaselessly active John Florio.”16 It is certain that in Romeo and Juliet the description of the fights draws upon Saviolo. Florio’s scholar Sergio Rossi explained that “Shakespeare used the manual attributed to Saviolo for his technical terminology as well as to explain the situations in which the contestants find themselves”17
Saviolo, his Practise. This book was written by John Florio in collaboration with Vincentio Saviolo. Many passages of the duels in Romeo and Juliet are borrowed from Saviolo’s manual. John Florio mentioned Vincentio Saviolo in his Second Fruits (1591).
Over the years, many scholars and critics have pointed out the similar thoughts between Giordano Bruno and Shakespeare, and this brought them to explore their relationship, trying to discover how Shakespeare was so influenced by Bruno’s works. Above all, the two authors share the thesis upon the infinite universe, the post-Copernican, heliocentric theory and the possibility of life on other planets.
Shakespeare’s scholars Benno Tschischwitz18 and Christian Bartholmess 19 have analysed the connection between Shakespeare’s work “Hamlet” and Bruno’s thesis, mostly the theme of death as a simple passage from one form of animated matter to another, present both in Hamlet and in the second dialogue of De la causa, principio et uno. William Konig 20 is another Shakespeare scholar who analysed the similarity between Bruno and Shakespeare, and most importantly, he underlined: the influence in Shakespeare of Bruno’s post-Copernican universal theory, the thematic and structural similarity of Bruno Il Candelaio drama with those of Shakespeare, for example, Love Labour’s lost. The influence of Gli Eroici furori, composed of a series of sonnets, on Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Bruno’s scholar Julia Jones21 pointed out that in De l’infinito universo et mondi, Elpinus, a follower of Bruno, states that “There are innumerable suns and an infinite number of earths revolving around these suns. Giordano Bruno underlines that there are as many solar systems as the stars; and the sun is one of the many stars made of fire.” Jones also points out that in the poem Hamlet composed for Ophelia it is stated that ‘the stars are fire’; for Jones “a perfect module of pure Brunian thought.” She also underlines that Hamlet will be ‘a King of infinite space’ (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2), as opposed to Aristotle’s and the Oxford Doctors’ thesis, who conceived of the Universe as something ‘finite’.
Jones again points out that, in Act I, Scene ii of Hamlet, it emerges that Wittenberg was the place where Hamlet and Horatio, Hamlet’s trusted friend, had studied; the same place where Bruno had also been registered on the 20th of August 1586 as “doctor italus” and where he was a lecturer for about two years. Jones again mentions, among other things, “the famous verse with strong Brunian accents,” in which Hamlet addresses Horatio: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’
In Act I, Scene ii, Hamlet, Horatio’s fellow-student at the University of Wittenberg, calls Horatio his “fellow-student’; similarly John Florio, the year after Hamlet‘s entry in the Stationers’ Register, in his dedication to the reader of the translation of Montaigne’s Essays in 1603, will describe Bruno ‘my olde fellow Nolano’.
Shakespeare’s Love Labour’s Lost & Giordano Bruno’s Il Candelaio
Many Shakespeare’s scholars have underlined the similarities between Shakespeare’s works and Giordano Bruno’s Il Candelaio, a comedy written in vernacular Italian and Neapolitan dialect.
Julia Jones has demonstrated the undoubted presence of Bruno’s Il Candelaio in Hamlet. She pointed out that a passage from Hamlet (Act II, Scene ii, 191-192.) was taken from Bruno’s Il Candelaio. In the passage, also examined by Bruno’s scholar Hilary Gatti 22 Hamlet is reading a book. Jones asks: “What is the book he is reading? The answer? The book Hamlet is reading is Bruno’s work Il Candelaio! And how do we know this?”23
Jones explains that, in Bruno’s play, Act II, Scene I, Ottaviano asks the pedantic Manfurio:
Ottaviano: Che è la materia di vostri versi? [What is the matter of your verses?]
Manfurio : Litterae, syllabae, dictio et oratio, partes propinquae et remotae [“Letters, syllables, diction, power of speech, the parts related directly or indirectly to the whole]
Ottaviano: Io dico: quale è il suggetto ed il proposito? [I say: what is the subject and the purpose?]
Manfurio: Volete dire: de quo agitur? materia de qua? circa quam?[Do you mean the matter that I read?]
In Hamlet, as Jones notes “Manfurio’s Letterae, sillabae, diction et oratio, become less formally, ‘Words, words, words” as Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play, responds to Polonius’s question:
“What is the matter, my Lord … I mean the matter that you read , my Lord”
Bruno’s scholar Amalia Buono Hodghart also pointed out the similarities between Giordano Bruno and Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost di William Shakespeare e il Candelaio di Giordano Bruno 24 In the play, Shakespeare even writes a character named Berowne, Giordano Bruno’s namesake, therefore he read the original works in Italian vernacular, Neapolitan dialect, and translated, readapting Bruno’s works in English.
These series of parallels of primary importance in the Shakespearean tragedy are linked to the works of Giordano Bruno and in particular to the Italian writings and dialogues published in London between 1583 and 1585 at the French Embassy. Giordano Bruno and John Florio lived together at the French Embassy, under the same roof, for two years. John Florio, was the tutor of the french ambassador Michel De Castelnau’s daughter, and also his secretary and legal representative. It’s not possible to believe that Shakespeare could read the original works in Italian and Neapolitan dialect of Bruno, and even in this case, Shakespeare’s scholars are able to demonstrate Shakespeare’s deep knowledge of Bruno’s works through John Florio, who once again, becomes his translator, reader, and who is able to rewrite his works. John Florio, who lived with Bruno for two years, saw him writing the works that influenced Shakespeare’s works:
Bruno’s works are also listed in John Florio’s library. The friendship that linked Bruno and Florio is particularly rich and significant 25. Florio in fact appears in La Cena delle Ceneri as one of the messengers that brings to Bruno the invitation to dinner by Fulke Greville. In another scene Bruno and Florio are on a boat at night. They burst into song chanting stanzas from Ludovico Ariosto‘s Orlando Furioso. Later, Bruno will portray him as “Eliotropo” in De La Causa, Principio et Uno.
Similarly, Florio returned the compliment by introducing the figure of Bruno, ‘Il Nolano’, in Second Fruits (1591). He portrayed Bruno lounging on a window-seat, leafing through a book and poking fun at his friend John for taking too much time over getting dressed in the morning. The portrait painted by Florio is undoubtedly that of a friend. Bruno surely appears in his pages in a positive light, like a satirical and healthy whip of pedants. Florio will never forget Bruno, even after the long years of the trial and their tragic outcome at the stake. For instance, in 1603, John Florio recalled his old “fellow Nolano”, who had taught him the cultural value of translations:
Moreover, in 1611, Florio listed Bruno’s Italian works among the texts he used for the composition of the dictionary. Bruno scholars Giovanni Gentile 26 and Vincenzo Spampanato27 have both proved Florio’s indebtedness to the philosopher’s writings. A World of Words, for example, is for Gentile and Spampanato the product of Florio and Bruno’s collaboration, and Florio’s knowledge of the art of memory of Bruno. Florio mentions also the art of memory in his Second Fruits, in the first dialogue. Many of Bruno’s thoughts are undeniably shaped in Florio’s works. Also, in his two dictionaries Florio added many terms as well as Neapolitan dialect words taken from Bruno’s works. The only writer who could read, understand, translate and re-wrote Bruno’s works is John Florio, who not only lived for two years with the Nolan philosopher, but could read his works, translate and readapt them, embracing his philosophy.