Marc Goldschmit: John Florio behind the mask of Shakespeare

Marc Goldschmit: Author of “Jacques Derrida, une introduction” (Agora-Pocket, 2003); “L’écriture du messianique. La philosophie secrète de Walter Benjamin” (Hermann, 2010). “L’hypothèse du Marrane” (éditions du Félin, 2014); “Littérature et Métaphysique (2020)”; “Sous la peau métaphysique du langage” (Kimé, 2020).

Original article in French is available here

English translation below:

JOHN FLORIO BEHIND THE MASK OF SHAKESPEARE“: John Florio was born in London in 1553, the son of Michael Angelo Florio, an Italian Jew and Calvinist preacher persecuted by the Catholic Church, and is undoubtedly the greatest man of letters of the English “Renaissance”: translator of Montaigne and Boccaccio into English, author of two extraordinary books of dramatic dialogues (First Fruits and Second Fruits), of an Italian-English dictionary of one hundred and fifty thousand words which revived the English language, polyglot practising seven languages (Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Greek, Hebrew) compiler of six thousand proverbs in his book Giardino di ricreatione, he was the most cultured man of his time, but also the best known and most admired by the English high aristocracy (from the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke to Queen Anne), and by artistic and intellectual circles (from Giordano Bruno to Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson).

It is important today to understand how such a genius could be forgotten by the history of European culture, art and thought, and disappear into the abyss of memory. This oblivion is not simple, and can be said to be of the order of an occultation or a foreclosure if we follow the extraordinary work of Lamberto Tassinari in his 2008 book, Shakespeare ? the nome de plume of John Florio 1

Tassinari’s assertion, ‘John Florio is Shakespeare’, exposes the creation of a mythology (Shakespeare as Bard or Swan of Stratford), which so many scholars have become complicit in by relying on empty evidence. The myth of Shakespeare gives rise to a veritable religion, with its rituals and ecclesiastical order, which the anamnesis of John Florio’s life and work must rigorously bring to ruin. The challenge of dismantling this myth is to liberate another way of thinking about the relationship between text and subject, and between literature and European languages and culture.

John Florio, through his life and work, gives substance and content to the work of Shakespeare, one of the greatest demiurges of European literature after Homer and Dante. John Florio’s exclusion from European memory and culture is inseparable from the fraud of the figure of Shakespeare, whose life and work are those of a ghost.

I would like to begin by explaining how Tassinari’s critical statement, ‘John Florio is Shakespeare’, has imposed itself on my work and research as a liberating event. Shakespeare’s plays occupy a decisive place and function in my work from my book: The Marrano Hypothesis 2. In this search for a figure of Jewish dissimulation at the heart of the Judeo-Christian theatre of European thought, I proposed a reading of The Merchant of Venice that deconstructs the truism of Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism. I realised that there are a multiplicity of Jewish characters in this play.

First of all Bassanio, the character who chooses the lead box in the test of the three boxes to marry Portia (the beautiful and rich heiress left alone by the death of her father). He realises that this box is the box of love, unlike the silver and gold boxes. As one can discover by visiting the old ghetto in Venice, Bassanio is named after a family of Jewish Venetian musicians. He is a hero of love and subtlety, opposed to the Christian Aragon and the Muslim Morocco, who each receive insults and mockery after their choice of the silver and gold boxes. Bassanio is also the man for whom his friend Antonio contracts a debt with the Jewish merchant Shylock.

On the other hand, the name Portia or Porcia is the “translation” of the Spanish “marranos” (pig) used to designate and insult Jewish converts to Christianity (to escape persecution and continue to practice an imaginary Judaism in secret). She is probably a Jewish and Marrano figure. This is also confirmed by the fact that she loves and marries the Jew Bassanio (and despises the Christian and Muslim suitors). The confrontation between Shylock and Portia over the law becomes an agon between two Jewish interpretations of the law, and the meaning of the play is transfigured if it is a Marrano, disguised as a man and a doctor of the law, who saves the Venetian Republic through a Jewish hermeneia. The allegations of Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism, made and disseminated by many performers, here fall to dust.

It was at this point that the question of the religion of Shakespeare, the author of The Merchant of Venice, became a necessity for my work. All the scholarly work seemed to indicate that Shakespeare’s family of Stratford was of Catholic religion or culture, in a predominantly Protestant environment. But there was something wrong with this, a serious anomaly, which the hypothesis of a Catholic Shakespeare could not solve: how could he have written The Merchant of Venice, where we read that Shylock’s revenge and hatred are the fulfilment of Christian hatred and revenge turned against Christians? And how could a Catholic not only be familiar with Jewish religious rituals and gestures (I give a sketch of a review of Shakespeare’s references to Judaism in The Marrano Hypothesis), but also repeatedly quote in his plays from the Hebrew Torah or the Talmud (e.g. in As You Like It, II, 7, about the seven ages of men)?

Scholars on the question of the Bible in the Shakespearean text (notably Shaheen Naseeb, to whom I will refer later) do not hesitate to say that it is saturated with biblical references, but some of them explain this overabundance of biblical texts by a clumsy, even inadmissible argument: the circulation of the Geneva Bible in Elizabethan times. Such an argument does not explain either the presence of the Bible in the Shakespeare text, or the knowledge of details of the Hebrew Torah. The scholars are unable to explain or justify the scholarly knowledge of the Bible in a provincial from an illiterate and illiterate family, and living in the milieu of London’s theatrical actors and businessmen. They do not then go beyond recourse to a magical and mythological identity of Shakespeare-of-Stratford, who knows everything by the sole operation of the Holy Spirit of his ‘genius’.

While I had considered, until then, that the Shakespearean text was its own subject and suspended the question of authorship, the problem of the religion of ‘Shakespeare’ was now imposed on my work as one of the transcendental conditions for understanding the work and the plays. I could no longer remain in the position of the autonomy of the texts and the spectral presence of their author, of even a subtle version of “the death of the author”. The meaning, novelty and strength of the plays are inseparable, integral and suspended from the writing of life, from the biography of the subject in the broadest sense. It is therefore not a question of biographism or psychologism, but of a transcendental condition of possibility.

I owe it to the chance meeting with Daniel Mesguich, whose admirable theatrical work I had followed in Lille (which had inspired my first text on Shakespeare and the question of the spectre in Hamlet), to have informed me of the existence of the John Florio hypothesis. In the course of a conversation, on the morning of a colloquium devoted to Jacques Derrida, knowing about the Marrano Hypothesis (which I had exposed at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique in a course on “Thought of the Theatre”), Daniel Mesguich explained to me that Daniel Bougnoux, on his blog “Le Randonneur”, was giving the floor to an Italian author in exile in Canada, Lamberto Tassinari, who had discovered the possibility of an Anglo Italian-Jewish Shakespeare: John Florio.

This possibility converged surprisingly with my hypothesis and my reading of The Merchant of Venice, and thanks to Daniel Bougnoux, I entered into contact with Lamberto Tassinari, who generously sent me his book in its Italian version. With Tassinari’s spawning work, the perseverance of his research and the fruitfulness of his discovery, I was led, in my turn, to retrace the path of this research and discovery, to understand the ontological statement “John Florio is Shakespeare”, and the depth of this statement for the thought of European culture and literature. I will trace here how I have retraced and re-traced Tassinari’s path, and how I interpret the challenges and necessity of his extraordinary discovery.

The first of these issues is to do justice to the most learned and witty man of his time, who is also the main source of the English Renaissance: John Florio. It is an unprecedented task of anamnesis to bring back a man, a writer, a thinker, who has not only been forgotten but seems to have been shut out of the European heritage. In this sense, I understand the discovery of John Florio as the author of the theatrical work of Shakespeare as a liberating work of remembrance, that is to say, as a catabasis 3, or even a nekuia 4 that goes back and descends into the depths of the world of the dead in order to rescue from oblivion the author who is perhaps the most important for the Renaissance and for the destiny of European culture.

Shakespeare, the ghost writer or the name of a fraud

I refer to the man from Stratford-on-Avon as ‘Shakespeare’, and John Florio to the author of the work of the same name as ‘Shakespeare’. This tiny difference (a hyphen) may seem trivial. But among the forty-eight quarto editions of the twenty-one Shakespeare plays, published before the thirty-six plays of the ‘first folio’ of 1623, fifteen of them, i.e. a third, indicate ‘Shake-spear’ as the author, with a hyphen, as if it were an essential play on words, a nom de plume or stage name, a mask. As plays were then owned by the theatre companies that bought them, and not by their authors, we can imagine that Shakespeare, as a broker and commercial manager of the ‘King’s Company’, must have put his name on the most interesting works. This must also have suited John Florio, who was closely associated with the Queen of England and had to conceal his theatrical work.

This name, composed or decomposed by a line, marks the identification of the author of the thirty-six plays and the one hundred and fifty-four Sonnets with the man-bard of Stratford-on-Avon with a sign of doubt. This doubt is neither superficial nor passing, it is deep and radical, and undermines Shakespeare’s Stratfordian identity. Although this identity is set up as an intangible dogma by most scholars, who are busy building the temple of encyclopaedic knowledge about Shakespeare’s work, three thousand signatures have been collected for a petition entitled ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the Identity of William Shakespeare’.

Thinkers and writers such as Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges, Sigmund Freud and Orson Welles have challenged the dogmatism of the ‘Stratfordians’. Several hypotheses have also been put forward, proposing alternative identities. The most famous of these are those of the philosopher Francis Bacon, the poet Christopher Marlowe and the aristocrat Edward de Vere. These hypotheses, while they all contain certain undeniable weaknesses, even some fantasies worthy of idle scholars, and remain minority positions among interpreters of Shakespeare, nonetheless testify to a real dynamism in research on the question of authorship. They emerge from the irreducible doubt that threatens the very being of the author of the plays and the Sonnets of Shakespeare.

What can dictate such ontological doubt? In the first place, the biographical inconsistencies and impossibilities concerning Shakespeare of Stratford as an author. Indeed, what we do know is that he is a ghost writer, around whom some half-wits, with the complicity of publishers and credulous journalists, do not hesitate to invent fictional biographies built on a vacuum. William Shakespeare was born in 1564, eleven years younger than John Florio, and died in 1616 in Warwickshire. Shakespeare lived from birth until he was eighteen, and from the age of forty-seven to fifty-two in a tiny town of fifteen hundred people, Stratford (which is three days’ journey from London by the means of transport of the time). He thus spent almost half his life in a provincial town where the great ‘genius’ must have felt radically lonely among illiterate provincials.

The astonishment at Shakespeare’s attachment to a place inhabited by art and thought is coupled with a second astonishment: Shakespeare’s work contains no dialectal phrases, as Tassinari notes, which is an anomaly compared to the dominant practice of the playwrights who were his contemporaries. The absence of English dialects in Shakespeare’s work is all the more surprising given that trade, which constituted the bulk of human relations in Warwickshire, was conducted in the local dialect, not in ‘Shakespeare’s language’.

The third biographical anomaly is that Shakespeare’s father signed with a cross, as did his two daughters Suzanne and Judith. His wife, whom he married at the age of eighteen in 1582, was illiterate like the rest of the family. How could the author of Shakespeare have such a family, when he was probably the most cultured and intelligent man in the world in his time? How did he marry such a woman, and above all why did he not pass on anything to his daughters, when he wrote a work woven from hundreds of books and written in seven European languages (English, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Greek, Hebrew)?

The fourth anomaly or impossibility, which does not worry any of the proponents of Stratfordian dogma, resembling in all its features religious evidence: William Shakespeare left Stratford School at the latest at the age of thirteen, and even if the training in English schools was given by Oxford graduates, it is reasonable to doubt that a young child received sufficient instruction there to learn six foreign languages afterwards, and to know how to read the highest literature written in his languages (Giordano Bruno, Boccaccio, Aretino, Montaigne, Ovid, the Torah, etc..) To crown this anomaly, the name of William Shakespeare has unfortunately disappeared from the yearbook of Stratford Elementary School, which of course aggravates the presupposition of unculturedness.

Fifth anomaly or impossibility: after a seven-year gap in his biography (between 1582 and 1589), Shakespeare reappears at the age of twenty-five among the actors of London, where he was known as a theatre broker and shareholder and then as a money-lender. Such a social position implies that during part of the seven ‘lost years’ Shakespeare was already living in London, working to secure his place in society. If this young provincial’s little or no culture and education are incompatible with the writing of Shakespeare’s works (constituted by an encyclopaedic and polyglot culture), the provincialism and sedentary nature of the Stratford man also make the detailed knowledge of and passion for Italy, as well as the obsession with exile and banishment, incomprehensible.

Indeed, Lamberto Tassinari notes, with great accuracy and wit, that the man who wrote the thirty-six plays of Shakespeare was haunted by exile and banishment, which are the antithesis of the life and experience of Stratford Shakespeare. Again, the multiplication of characters and situations (fourteen of the plays are about banishment, forty Sonnets are about exile) are at odds with the person of the Stratford man. The passion, intelligence and exceptional sensitivity of this work to exile and banishment fit dubiously with the sedentary and provincial nature of Stratford Shakespeare. It seems to me, from this point of view, that Tassinari is lucid when he says that only a foreigner and an exile could have written the work of Shakespeare.

Sixth anomaly worthy of reasonable doubt: how could an actor, working in the theatre, who was also engaged in commercial activities, be intimately acquainted with the habits and customs of the English aristocracy (from falconry to tennis), and those of the court? How could he establish relationships of trust and interest with such important and influential figures as the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke?

The seventh anomaly or remarkable impossibility is the content of the will of 1616, to which Lamberto Tassinari has rightly drawn attention and made the most pertinent remarks. Indeed, this will, written in an administrative language, devoid of the expression of any sentiment and of any manifestation of spirit (one can easily concede to the Stratfordians that a month before his death, William Shakespeare, undoubtedly ill, had his last will and testament drawn up by a lawyer), presents an anomaly that excludes its subject from being the author of Shakespeare’s work: no letters or handwritten documents are bequeathed to anyone, and there are no traces of notebooks, which are absolutely necessary for writing plays saturated with references and quotations. A hyperbolic anomaly in William Shakespeare’s will: he neither owns nor bequeaths a single book.

This absence of a library is for me, as it is for Tassinari and Daniel Bougnoux, incontrovertible proof that the highly cultured man who wrote the texts attributed to Shakespeare is not and cannot be the Shakespeare of Stratford. We may consider that the mere examination of the too many and too serious anomalies in the biography of William Shakespeare, and the impossibilities it contains in relation to the work of the playwright of the ‘same’ name, disqualifies the Stratfordian thesis (the attribution of the plays and the Sonnets to the Stratford man).

The Stolen Life of John Florio: On the traces of a substitution…

Those who are willing to broaden their thinking and examine the John Florio hypothesis will be troubled and struck by something strange about Stratford Shakespeare: not only is his life punctured by blanks, voids and absences, but it doubles and mimics the life of John Florio to the point where it is reasonable to think of a usurpation or substitution of person.

Frances A. Yates’ remarkable biography, John Florio. The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England (republished by Cambridge University Press), is well worth reading to appreciate the extent of this substitution. To begin with, John Florio was enrolled on 9 May 1563 as a student at the Protestant University of Tübingen (we know from Frances A. Yates that Florio was also a student at the University of Tübingen) while the Protestant University of Wittemberg contains in its student directory the names of two characters from Hamlet: Rosencranz and Guildenstern 5. Why does Shakespeare refer to this German Protestant university, and by what extraordinary coincidence does he know the names of these two students (who are not in the same class), if not because he was a student there himself? This ‘coincidence’ is a first clue or sign of Shakespeare’s presence in a place that is close and similar, if not identical, to the one where John Florio is, and it leaves one wondering. Lamberto Tassinari suggests, in his book to be published in French, that Giordano Bruno, John Florio’s friend, went to teach there.

Second clue to a substitution: John Florio left London in 1578 for Oxford and met Giordano Bruno there. Both men took part in debates organised for the entertainment of Prince Laski of Poland, during his visit to the Queen. John Florio is mentioned in the Banquet of Bruno’s Ashes, written in 1584, and is now publicly associated with Bruno. The University of Oxford was violently hostile to Bruno, and a storm broke out against him. Contrary to what some proponents of Stratfordism claim, Bruno’s thought was not welcome in England. How then can we explain the pervasiveness of Bruno’s thought and the numerous references to it in Shakespeare’s theatre (notably in Hamlet I, v. 164-165: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than your philosophy has dreamt of’)?

It is the life of John Florio, which gives substance to Shakespeare’s life and helps to understand the surprising presence of Bruno’s thought in the English playwright’s work. Bruno and Florio both left, together or separately, for London in 1583, the year in which Florio became an important employee of the French embassy in London. Florio had an office at the embassy where Giordano Bruno lived, and he was registered as an “attorney” there. It can therefore be said that Florio and Bruno were friends and close, at least between 1583 and 1585. Bruno’s five books are cited in Florio’s dictionary, and the Second Fruits of 1591 makes numerous references to Bruno’s work.

Third clue: in 1593, Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis to the Earl of Southampton, whom John Florio entered in 1594. The latter became Southampton’s tutor and dedicated the 1598 dictionary to him. The Earl (Henry of Wriosthesley) is also referred to in the Second Fruits as ‘John and Henry’. We can understand that John Florio lives the life of the writer of Shakespeare’s work: this work unfolds a writing that comes from John Florio’s life. Shakespeare of Stratford is, on the other hand, the only man of culture and letters of his time, the only playwright to whom no dedication is addressed, to whom no correspondence or work alludes; the only one, and the only exception, who neither received nor sent any letter: the name of a bodiless and lifeless ghost.

John Florio was an employee of the private chamber of Queen Anne of Denmark (the country of which Hamlet is the prince). He is on the Queen’s payroll and her private secretary. As such, he is caught up in the circle of her intimate relations, particularly through her correspondence. It is easy to understand Florio’s imperative need to hide his name as a playwright, an art form that is not well known and under the supervision of the Puritans. Florio, who wrote the Queen’s most confidential letters, could not under any circumstances compromise his reputation with an environment frequented by people of “bad life”.

The fourth clue to a substitution is that Florio introduced his friends Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson, who were among the most famous masque writers in London at the time, to the court. Jonson, who prefaced the First Folio of Shakespeare’s work published in 1623, admired John Florio, studied his manuscripts and probably took lessons with him. He addresses this dedication to him: “To his loving Father and worthy Friend / Mr John Florio: the ayde of his Muses / Ben Jonson seales this testimony of Friends and Love.” Shake-speare follows, here as elsewhere, Florio to double-cross him, steal his life and appropriate his friends. Such systematic proximity between John Florio and Shakespeare makes no sense of the Stratfordian thesis: John Florio and Shakespeare never exchange the slightest public sign, no letter, no hint, no trace of their meeting. This absence of traces makes sense if one asserts instead that John Florio is Shakespeare, the author of the work mistakenly and credulously attributed to Shakespeare-of-Stratford.

Fifth, in 1623, the year of the publication of the thirty-six plays of the First Folio, when Florio had no more books in progress, no new manuscript found in his will, he wrote a letter to Lord Cranfield found in Lord Sackville’s papers, in which he declared: “and enable me to finish my greate and laborious work, for which my contrie and posteritie (yea, hapilie your chrildren), so long as English is spoken, shall have to thank, and remember your Lordship Honorable name, that fostered the Muse of your / most humble pore servant, John florio). “…]

As recent scholarly work 6 has shown, based on the difference in semantic scope between the in-quarto editions of Shake-speare and the First Folio, the corrections in the 1623 volume are made in the singular language of Florio and his books. John Florio would thus be the main, perhaps the only, corrector of the first complete edition of Shake-speare’s works. This sheds an extraordinary light on John Florio’s letter to Cranfield, which makes no mention of ‘Shakespeare’ and seems to speak of the First Folio not from the point of view of its proofreader, but from that of its sole author (‘my immense and laborious work’).

Let us continue to interrogate the bio-graphical clues that have the value of proof, so numerous and concordant are they. Sixth clue: in 1619, John Florio completed the translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron into English, with the same printer as the First Folio, Isaac Jagaard. This translation is dedicated to Philipp Herbert, whereas the Folio of Shakespeare’s works is dedicated to Philipp and William Herbert, the two Earls of Pembroke, published in 1623 from the compilation of Heminge and Condell. In 1625, about a year before his death from the plague (which Frances A. Yates dates between August 1625 and April 1626), John Florio bequeathed all his manuscripts and library to the Earl of Pembroke and his brother, who were the sponsors of the First Folio. Shakespeare’s work thus has the same printer, editors and dedicatees as some of John Florio’s works. Thomas Thorpe, the editor of Shake-speare’s Sonnets, a year after their publication, dedicates a book he publishes (by John Healey) to John Florio: “To a true favorer / of forward spirits, Maister / John Florio.”

Here we understand that Shakespeare, the Stratford man, actor, broker, and commercial intermediary in charge of the circulation, sales, and purchases of plays, followed John Florio around, to the point of sharing with him the same friends, the same patrons, the same publishers, and the same printers. But apart from Ben Jonson’s equivocal preface to the First Folio, none of these mention the Stratford man, quote him, name him, or address a dedication or letter to him.

Opposite Droeshout’s portrait of Shakespeare at the opening of the First Folio is the following text by Jonson: “This Figure, that thou here seest put,/ It was for gentle Shakespeare cut; / Wherein the Graver had a strife / With Nature, to out-do the life: / O, could he but have drawn his wit / As well in brass, as he hath hit / His face; the Print would then surpass / All, that was ever writ in brass. / But, since he cannot, Reader, look / Not on his Picture, but his Book.” “This figure, which thou seest here set, / Was cut out for sweet Shakespeare; / Here the Engraver wrestled / With nature, to surpass life: / O, might he have drawn his mind / As well as in brass, as he struck / His face; the Print would then have surpassed / All, that was ever written in brass. / But, since he cannot, Reader, look / Not on his Picture, but his Book.” Ben Jonson is making it clear here that the spirit of Shake-speare will not be found by looking at the portrait of Shakespeare-of-Stratford, but by reading the book. It is easy to imagine, then, a set-up by Jonson and Florio, who are close friends, at the time when Florio is working on the Folio edition.

John Florio, necessarily close to Shakespeare-of-Stratford, if the latter had written the work of Shake-speare, does not give him the slightest sign. In the life of London’s high culture, among literary people, Stratford-Shakespeare has no existence, not even that of a ghost, and wherever he appears, it is by doubling Florio’s life. John Florio is not only the subject of the author of Shake-speare’s works, but the texture of those works is contained in Florio’s work and books.

Florio’s books: content of Shake-speare’s plays

In 1595-1596, Love’s labour’s lost is one of the first comedies attributed to Shake-speare. The original expression which serves as the title of the play, however, is found seventeen years earlier in John Florio’s first book, First Fruits: “We need not speak so much of love, all books are full of love, with so many authors, that it were labour lost to speak of love.”

Shake-speare was therefore a close reader of John Florio, from his early days as a playwright. This is corroborated by the presence, in the same comedy, of a quotation from another of Florio’s books, Giardino di ricreatione, a collection of some 6,000 Italian proverbs dated 1591. The proverb ‘Venezia, chi non ti vede, non ti pretia’ (in English) is found in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and ‘Venezia, chi non ti vede, non ti pretia, ma chi ti vede, ben gli costa’ in Florio’s collection of proverbs four years earlier. Here we can already see that Shake-speare knew how to read Italian, translate it, and modify it. Moreover, the overabundant use of proverbs in the playwright’s texts is quite characteristic of John Florio’s manner, it is a principle of his euphuistic teaching 7

On the other hand, Shake-speare draws heavily on Florio’s translations, especially those of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Montaigne’s Essays published in 1603. G. C. Taylor, in his study Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne, notes one hundred close correspondences, more than one hundred affinities and at least seven hundred and fifty words from Florio’s translation in the plays after 1603. As Frances A. Yates rightly points out, we are witnessing a real semantic expansion of Shake-speare’s work with the appearance of the treasure trove of words constituted by Florio’s 1603 masterpiece translation of Montaigne.

It is safe to say that Shake-speare wrote with Florio’s books open on his work table. The ‘borrowings’ are so numerous that they cannot be drawn from a memory without writing. Frances A. Yates makes another point of interest here: “If Montaigne’s influence in the plays written before 1603 can be traced […] it must mean either that Shakespeare had access to Florio’s manuscript or that he read Montaigne in French” 8 But neither of Yates’s hypotheses is possible: Shakespeare of Stratford is absent from Florio’s life and relationships, he had no books in any language and no manuscripts (which we know from his will). And the Warwickshire provincial, who left primary schools at the age of eleven or thirteen, who ‘knew little Latin and even less Greek’ (Ben Jonson), was unlikely to know enough French to read Montaigne’s Essays.

In 1598, John Florio published his extraordinary Italian-English dictionary, A World of Words, ith forty-six thousand words. The second version of the dictionary appeared under the title Queen Anna’s New World of Words, with seventy-four thousand definitions, citing two hundred and forty-nine books that Florio had in his library (including Aretino, the Bible, Boccaccio, the five books of Bruno, Cicero, Machiavelli, Ovid, Petrarch, Plato, Pliny, Tacitus, Tasso, and a very high percentage of dramatic works). Those who consult this dictionary, today as at the time of its circulation, can discover the invention of a new language. Florio and Shake-speare were the two demiurges of the English language renaissance; they used the same procedures, especially the juxtaposition of words or roots. If Florio’s English and Shake-speare’s English are similar in their extraordinary singularity, Shake-speare owes his French to Florio, but also his Italian. Ben Jonson publicly expresses his gratitude to Florio for his gift of the Italian language, but Shake-speare does not say a word of recognition or gratitude.

While the vast majority of the English public knew nothing about Italy, nor the Italian language, except for the high aristocracy, Shake-speare displays a detailed knowledge of Italy, its cities and its geography (a knowledge so subtle that some ignorant scholars do not hesitate to ridicule Shakespearean notations) 9

These are all the names of the Italian characters (Leonardo, Stefano, Lorenzo, Lodovico, Emilia, Lucetta), which do not exist in the plays that serve as sources for Shake-speare’s, so they have been inserted by Shake-speare. It is also remarkable that none of the most common Italian first names are ever used. On the other hand, Shake-speare uses the rules of Italian grammar to modify the names into signifiers: Corbaccio the dirty raven, Petrucchio the little Peter, Salerio the salary, Cambio the exchange or change. He also puts Italian interjections into the mouths of the characters: “basta” in The Taming of the Shrew I, “Ay me” pronounced by Romeo, then by Juliet, “go to, via” in The Merry Wives of Windsor III, 2, 145, “mi perdonato” in Love’s labors lost I, 1, 125, “con tutto il cuore ben trovato” in the same play in I, 2, 24, “Petrucchio, I shall be your benvenuto” in I, 2, 280.

Some scholars, familiar with the Italian language 10, recognise that Shake-speare wrote his own Italian, rewriting and reworking it into English as if he were a native Italian. For example, Iago’s famous ‘Virtue? A fig’ by Iago in Othello I, 3, 320, which is a transcription of fico (fig) and fica, an expletive notably present in Dante’s Inferno, in Canto XXV; making a fig is an insulting gesture consisting of holding out one’s fist to the other by placing the thumb between the middle and index fingers.

Equally disturbing and surprising is the intimate knowledge of Italy, inconceivable for an Englishman visiting the country. How could the London actor, so attached to his small provincial village, know, without being Italian himself or exiled in Venice, that Othello belonged to a great Venetian family, the “Moro” (Othello del Moro), to call him a “Moor”? How could he know that Via Frezzaria, between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge, was home to the arrow makers and was therefore called “vicus sagitarius”, from which Othello’s nickname “Sagitary” derives? And how could Shakespeare-de-Stratford know the difference between the traghetto (the traject) and the common ferry, which makes Portia say in The Merchant of Venice: ‘bring them […] into the traject, to the common ferry / which trades to Venice’, in III, 4?  12 Here again, Shake-speare has the culture and life experience of the exiled Florio, who passed through Venice with his father on their flight to England. This explains Shake-speare’s Italian tropism, since almost half of his plays, seventeen out of thirty-six, are set in Italy.

Lamberto Tassinari rightly points out two other prominent marks of the ‘Florianesque’ texture of Shake-speare’s work: the thousands of puns (between three thousand and four thousand in the plays as a whole), which are the procedure that Florio systematically uses to invent his own English language, and on the other hand the abundant presence of proverbs, which constitute one of Florio’s signatures (there are about three thousand in Shake-speare’s work, six thousand in Florio’s).

Shake-speare versus Shakespeare

One wonders about the willful blindness and deafness of the ‘Stratfordians’, who refuse to consider any hypothesis that might threaten the authority, identity and unity of their idol, other than with contemptuous irony. Yet it takes the life, culture and library of John Florio to write the work of Shake-speare. For example, the Stratford man would have had to study theology like Florio in Tübingen or Wittemberg, and know Greek and Hebrew like Florio did, for the Scriptures to be omnipresent in Shake-speare’s work. If we follow Naseeb Shaheen’s book, The Biblical References in Shakespear’s Plays (University of Delaware Press, 1993), there are, among other things, sixty-three biblical or liturgical references in Othello, twenty-five in Romeo and Juliet, thirty-one in Toilus and Cressida, seventy-one in Hamlet, thirty-three in King Lear.

The dogmatism of the Stratfordians, their unabashed adherence to the identity of Shakespeare and Shake-speare, of course allows them to organise their power by monopolising the titles, chairs, symposia, journals and publishers that deal with the work of Shake-speare. Yet such a monopoly is built on a basic lack of seriousness in research, since none of the material, cultural and biographical conditions of possibility of the work are fulfilled by the Stratfordian identity. The Stratford man could not have known the names of two students at the University of Wittemberg, nor Italy intimately, nor Hebrew, Greek, Italian, French, German, Spanish in a scholarly way. We also know from his will that he had none of the three hundred or four hundred books needed to write the work of Shake-speare, no books and no library.

How, on the other hand, could the Stratford man have written the work of Shake-speare without a manuscript, and above all without any notes? How could he be this incomparable man of letters, without receiving or writing any letters, while remaining a ghost, absent from the literary society of his time? How is it also possible that there is not the slightest trace of a relationship of any kind with John Florio, when he uses him so extensively and shares his friends and protectors with him?

Tassinari, at the end of his book, luminously insists on the linguistic singularity of Shake-speare-Florio’s work. He points out that it does not have ‘the same linguistic soil as that which produced Milton, Chaucer, Jonson’. Not only is their language incommensurable with that of Shake-speare, but there is also, at the time, “a cultural gap between Italy and England”. The English shared by Florio and Shake-speare, this two-faced author, is a hybrid, multi-lingual language, produced by metaphors, wordplay and an overabundance of neologisms. Shake-speare makes exceptional use of the suffixes ‘ment’, ‘ure’ and ‘ence’ which are, as Tassinari notes, foreign suffixes unknown in Stratford as in London. Metaphoricity and wordplay constitute the transcendental of Shake-speare’s plays, along with puns and proverbs.

For all these reasons, it was strictly impossible for Stratford Shakespeare to write the Shake-speare plays and Sonnets. The Stratfordian hypothesis is, from this point of view, not only unreasonable, but perfectly absurd and unserious. The irony that a world university ecclesiastical order has been built on an absurdity is at bottom terribly Shake-spearian. This absurdity legitimises a grave usurpation and perpetuates an intolerable injustice, committed by a presumably illiterate actor-broker, against an admirable man, bearer of the highest European culture. Indeed, how can we fail to decipher the portrait of Stratford Shakespeare through Ben Jonson’s epigram fifty-six, written in 1616, the year of the Stratford man’s death?

Here it is: “Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief, / Whose works are e’en the frippery of wit, / From brokage is become so bold a thief, / As we, the robb’d, leave rage, and pity it. / At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean, / Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown / To a little wealth, and credit in the scene, / He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own: / And, told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes / The sluggish gaping auditor devours; / He marks not whose ’twas first: and after-times / May judge it to be his, as well as ours. / Fool! as if half eyes will not know a fleece / From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece?” 11

An academy, however erudite and learned, can therefore be organised and built around a blind spot and a false coinage. But more disturbing is the conception of literature carried and implied by the Stratfordian academy. The refusal to examine and interrogate the ‘subjective’, cultural, linguistic, ‘spiritual’ conditions of Shakespeare’s work has fatal consequences for Shakespearean scholarship. To begin with, it forces us to underestimate the Jewish and Italian strata of the texts, which can nevertheless contain the content of a play, to conceal the polyglottism and hybridization of the language, and also the profoundly philosophic-pagan significance of the plays. Scholars who rely on a religious and mythological conception of the author penetrated by the occult grace of genius, portray Shake-speare as a sedentary and national poet of England, whereas we are dealing with an “over-European” subject, exiled, coming from a family of persecuted people and marranos.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from such a national and nationalistic conception of Shake-speare’s opening of English literature, Jorge Luis Borgès, with the extraordinary lucidity of the blind writer that he was, glimpsed the existence of John Florio behind the mask of Shake-speare. He wrote in 1979: “Shakespeare is – we might say – the least English of English writers. In general, Englishmen like to imply something, to say a little less than they could. In contrast, Shakespeare had a tendency to hyperbole in metaphor, so it would not be surprising to discover that Shakespeare was Italian, or Jewish, for example.

The question of authorship of Shake-speare’s work must then be situated in the perspective of an entire world transformed into a theatre and a writer hidden behind the mask of an actor. This is why we can assume that the impersonation of the Stratford man was probably made possible by John Florio’s double play and disguise. It is known, for example, that Shake-speare signed his texts with his first name, Will, as a kind of superior joke, and that, as early as 1591, Florio added the adjective ‘resolute’ to his name, a synonym for ‘will’. This additional clue, that of a humorous trait shared by Florio and Shake-speare, indicates that the whole question of authorship is overdetermined by the masks and the acting of the author of this work.

Through the discovery of John Florio’s authorship, it is also a question of understanding and analysing the non-national and pan-European dimension of Shake-speare’s work. The anamnesis, which exhumes John Florio’s thought and texts behind the mask of Shake-speare, allows us to uncover the polyglot translation as a hybrid language of Europe, the democratization through popularization of the highest literary culture, the opening of another philological and critical history of literature, and finally the baroque strata (pagan, Jewish-Marran, and Protestant) of cultural and literary history. It is also about the birth of Europe in the treasure of the multiplicity of languages of literature, through the trials of exile, foreignness, and banishment. But it is also about the primitiveness of European art, comedy, writing and bibliophilia, brought to light by a nekuia who makes the dead speak to ask them how they saw the future.


  1. Shakespeare ? Il nome di arte di John Florio, Giano Books, 2008, traduit en anglais en 2009 et qui paraîtra en français en janvier 2016, dans une version augmentée, aux éditions Le bord de l’eau sous le titre John Florio alias Shakespeare. En même temps que la traduction française du livre de Tassinari, Daniel Bougnoux sortira aux éditions Les Impressions nouvelles Shakespeare, le choix du spectre, dont j’ai pu lire une bonne partie dans une version préliminaire.
  2. Éditions du Félin, 2014.
  3. Descent into Hell
  4. title of Song XI of the Odyssey and a ritual for bringing in the dead.
  5. Gisèle Venet writes in her article ‘Giordano Bruno and Shakespeare: the poetics of a writing in Renaissance Europe’: ‘Two Danish students who attended this university between 1586 and 1595 bore the names Rosenkrantz and Gyldenstjerne’, in Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare (22, 2005, ‘Shakespeare and Renaissance Europe’)
  6. We refer to the work of Saul Frampton, and to the account in The Guardian newspaper, dated 12 July 2013. In particular, Frampton writes of Hamlet: “If we look at Hamlet, for example, we notice that the Folio editor introduces a number of unusual words into the text. Thus, in Act I Scene 5, Hamlet asks his father to bring him ‘swiftly up’ to vengeance. The Folio changes the quarto of ‘swiftly’ to ‘stiffly’, a word never used elsewhere by Shakespeare, but familiar to John Florio, who uses it four times. In Act V Scene 2, ‘breed’ is replaced by ‘beauy’ (bevy), again a word never used elsewhere by Shakespeare but used by John Florio three times. And the same can be said of a number of unusual additions to the play: words like ‘pratlings’, ‘checking’, ‘detecting’, ‘quicknesse’, ‘diddest’, ‘daintier’, ‘hurling’ and ‘roaming’. In Act II scene 2, Polonius tells how Hamlet was “repell’d” by Ophelia. The Folio changes “repell’d” to “repulsed”, which is now a familiar word, but never used elsewhere by Shakespeare, or Marlowe or Jonson. But such a substitution occurs naturally in Florio, who uses ‘repulsed’ four times, and defines the Italian Ripulso as ‘repulsed, repelled’.
  7. Euphuism is a literary style, brought into fashion in 1580 by John Lyly and his book Euphues.
  8. John Florio. The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England, p. 240.
  9. I refer the reader here to Henry Suhammy’s mockery, on Daniel Bougnoux’s blog, of the possibility of reaching Milan by boat from Verona, across the land. Suhammy seems to be completely ignorant of the Italian geography of the time, and of the existence of numerous canals in northern Italy.
  10. Notably Christophe Camard in “Shakespeare, Jonson and the Italian language” in Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare (22, 2005, “Shakespeare and Renaissance Europe”).
  11. These references come from the above-mentioned article by Christophe Camard.