Why John Florio & Shakespeare? Article by Michel Vaïs – This article has been translated into English, link of the oirginal here. Michel Vaïs is a Doctor of Theatre Studies, Secretary General of the International Association of Theatre Critics since 1998 and the author of L’Écrivain scénique (Montreal, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1978), L’accompagnateur, the director of the Dictionnaire des artistes du théâtre québécois (Montréal, Québec Amériques, 2008) and the French translator of John Florio alias Shakespeare by Lamberto Tassinari (Bordeaux, Le Bord de l’Eau, 2016). Editor emeritus at the Revue de théâtre Jeu, he has been a drama critic in newspapers and on the Chaîne culturelle de Radio-Canada for 21 years.
As I plunged into Tassinari’s book, I was quickly drawn into the extraordinary life story of this high-flying intellectual, born in London to a Jewish father (Michael Angelo), who converted to Catholicism and became a Franciscan friar, then reconverted and became a Protestant minister. Michael Angelo was in London during King Edward VI’s reign and his son became a lexicographer, translator of Montaigne’s Essays and the Decameron, author of dictionaries and tutor, Queen Anne’s private secretary for 16 years, until her death. After King Edward’s death, Protestants were no longer welcome under Bloody Mary’s rule, and this is how John was brought up from the age of two to about eighteen in Soglio, near present-day Italy, attending the University of Tübingen where he studied theology among other subjects, before returning to London around 1571.
Several chapters of the book caught my attention: the criticism of the man from Stratford, an actor and producer whose intellectual and material resources make it impossible to write such a monumental work; the international contestation of the Bard’s authorship of the work attributed to him, evidenced in the The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare; the central role of John Florio, and that of his father; the Italianness present in Shakespeare’s signed plays; the true ‘invention’ of a British genius after the death of the man from Stratford with the name William Shakespeare; the long occultation of this deception, and so on.
The first thing that amazed me about Tassinari’s book was the story of the wills. I had heard of the ‘Shakespeare’ will (signed rather as Shakspere, Shackspear, Shexpir, etc.: the actor and impresario wrote his name six different ways) which was rather dull, and his ‘second best bed’ which he left to his wife. But I understood why little more was known about it: this will is terribly embarrassing for those who defend the Bard’s authorship. Yet it is easily found on the Internet. The businessman and usurer does not mention a single book, not even a Bible, nor a piece of furniture that could have contained books (chest, shelves); it only mentions material and utilitarian goods (furniture, household items), money lent at such and such an interest rate, sums owed, land and buildings, jewellery. However, some twenty plays had not yet been published at the time of the Stratford man’s death, which represented a considerable value to be bequeathed, and there is no mention of them in the will, nor indeed of any reference to a theatrical life.
By comparison, I found John Florio’s lavishly written, florid, Shakespearean-style will very illuminating. What a beautiful text! Among other things, it refers to his huge library of hundreds of books in English and foreign languages (John spoke seven), and above all, it tells us to whom he bequeathed this treasure: to William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, the dedicatee and sponsor of the First Folio (the first edition of the complete works – 900 pages – signed by William Shakespeare, edited by Ben Jonson, the go-between). It should be noted that this edition of the complete works of a playwright was the first after Jonson’s own edition in 1616, and cost a fortune.
The other thing that amused me was the story of the portraits. We all know the ugly portrait of the man with the bulbous forehead, the oversized face, the lack of a neck, the hair longer on one side, the crudely starched ruff and the asymmetrical black doublet, which appears on the title page of the First Folio (1623). Well, I learned that this was the only ‘authentic’ portrait of the Bard. All the other portraits that one sometimes sees in theatre programmes or books have no verified connection with WS. Tassinari reveals that the author of this portrait, the 28-year-old Martin Droeshout, was commissioned to paint the image of a ‘perfect genius’ seven years after the Bard’s death. But Droeshout painted other portraits before and after the Bard’s death that look more natural. In this one, Shakespeare is said to have two right eyes and two left arms; in other words, the artist must have – obviously on purpose – reproduced his right eye on the left side of the face and his left arm on the right, without taking account of shadows.
But the most extraordinary thing, as if to support this theory, is that a London tailor discovered in 1911 that the right side of the pourpoint was in fact the back of the left side! The same is true of the embroidery at the top of the sleeves and the collar, which are also asymmetrical. By painstakingly reproducing the front and back of real clothes, Droeshout – and those who commissioned and then accepted this portrait – seems to be warning us: this William Shakespeare is a fake!
The same is true of the so-called WS monument: a statue in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. Originally, the man’s hands were on a sack of grain (it is now known that Shakspere made his money from the grain trade, which he stored to drive up prices). Later, a blank page was added under his hands, and then a quill, although according to his daughter, who remained illiterate like her grandparents, William would never have held a quill in his hands!
As I read the book, I thought that one had to be of Italian culture – and well versed in Renaissance literature – to distinguish in reading these plays so many precise references to the works of Tasso, Cinzio, Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, Machiavelli, Bandello, L’Aretino, L’Ariosto, Giordano Bruno, Boccaccio, Groto, Lasca, Guarini, Berni, Bibbiena, etc. Tassinari is not the first to say that many of the sources of the Bard’s works can be found in this corpus. He is, however, one of the few to assert that many of these works were not yet available in English at the time when traces of them, or even entire passages, are found in the plays. Situations, character names, plots could not have been invented by a man (the Stratford actor) who everyone agrees spoke no other language than his native English. Nor do I see how he could have gleaned from the taverns of the port of London so many precise references to a literature that was certainly fashionable in his time, but unavailable in English! Moreover, according to Naseeb Shaheen, even when the sources already existed in English or French, the author did not always use them, preferring the Italian original. The Shakespearean text therefore often appears closer to the original Italian source than to the translated version.
But Tassinari goes further, and this too struck me. He discovers with astonishment, while reading The Tempest (it was this reading that gave him the idea and started his research), turns of phrase, witty words, children’s rhymes, proverbs, voluntarily sexual jokes, not funny at all in English, but which hit the nail on the head in Italian. This explains the Bard’s writing, which is considered atypical and unique: it is translated Italian, or more precisely, transcultural writing. This work is in fact the result of a harmonious meeting of languages and ideas from a cultural universe in which all the traditions are combined, those of Europe and the East, in particular the Italian tradition of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the French, the Spanish, the German and, no doubt, the English too! Florio alias Shakespeare read everything in English either to get to know his new homeland thoroughly or simply for his work as a linguist and lexicographer, which led him to collect the 175,000 English words he used to translate the 74,000 Italian words in his dictionary published in 1611, The New World of Words.
Another aspect of the Italianness of the work is the references to Italy. There are more than 800 such references in the plays as a whole, 17 of which (and 106 scenes) are set in the peninsula (it should be noted in passing that Stratford-upon-Avon is never mentioned in the Bard’s work). However, many exegetes have claimed that the Italy mentioned in Shakespeare’s work was an imaginary country, with many errors, especially geographical ones. Nothing could be further from the truth! Tassinari quotes extensively from Richard Paul Roe’s work, without ignoring the fact that he had predecessors to whom he should have referred, such as Lambin, Sullivan, Grillo and Magri. Indeed, in Roe’s The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, we find that all the allusions to Italy in Shakespeare’s works are accurate: place names, gates, streets, squares, rivers, harbours, ships, statues, woodlands, religious monuments, and so on down to the last detail. So when we read in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the action takes place in Athens, we are not talking about an imaginary Greece, but about the Piccola Atene, the Little Athens, in Sabbioneta near Mantua. It was a city that still exists, built on the model of ancient Athens at the request of Duke Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna, a lover of architecture. Quince, Bottom and their friends meet near the city gates, at the “Duke’s Oak”, that is, at the oak grove where there was indeed a statue of the then reigning Duke.
Much has also been made of the fact that two characters travelled by boat from Verona to Milan in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and that Prospero in The Tempest arrived on the island by boat from Milan. There is now evidence that navigable canals existed in the 16th century to get from these cities to the sea. That said, Tassinari believes that in The Tempest, even though Milan is named, it refers to the city of Florence, which also had a river, the Arno, leading to the sea. These multiple observations on Italian topographical details alone disqualify other candidates for authorship of WS, who may have visited Italy as tourists, even though they would have stopped off in all the cities where Shakespeare’s plays are set.
The references to the Bible and Judaism that Tassinari explores in WS’s work are as surprising as those concerning Italy and Italianness. As far as Judaism is concerned, we all remember The Merchant of Venice, but according to the latest findings, specific references to Jewish rites can be found in no less than fifteen plays attributed to WS. Clear allusions to the Midrash (a series of rabbinic glosses) in As you like it, lines such as ‘eater of broken meats’ in King Lear, which is a direct reference to non-kosher meat, allusions to the koshering of meat in Othello (“stay the meat”, says Iago), references to the yellow ribbons that Jews wore on their clothes in the Venetian ghetto, in The Twelfth Night, Caliban’s quotation of a passage from the Hebrew Bible (when he speaks of the great light and the little light, which burn by day and by night), etc. It is known that the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, only to return at the end of the 17th century. One wonders how a provincial from Stratford could have had access to this knowledge, when Florio had a father of Jewish origin, a great intellectual and theological enthusiast.
In fact, Tassinari has found studies of varying length on the Jewish connection in Shakespeare’s works by no less than eleven authors, who seem to ignore each other. In any case, each seems to reinvent the wheel. He classifies them into three categories: the perplexed “Anglo-Saxon classics” who only wonder (Thomas Carter, Richmond Noble, Naseeb Shaheen, Steven Marx), the “neurotic Jews” (James Shapiro, Neil Hirschson, David Basch), and finally, the Francophones, who analyse the Scriptures (Gérard Huber, Haudry Perenchio, Yona Dureau, Marc Goldschmidt). Most of these discoveries, however, have not yet been cited in the latest version of Tassinari’s book.
This is because many bona fide scholars are wondering about another of the mysteries of Shakespearean writing. Where does he get all this knowledge of the Hebrew tradition, which cannot always be reduced to imagination? And as an extension, or prolegomena to these questions, many marvel at the author’s profound biblical knowledge. According to Shaheen, the Stratford man could never have acquired this in his family, whose parents were illiterate, nor at school (which he left at the age of 13 to work with his father, a glove-maker), because the sacred texts that were read in class had no relation to those quoted in the work, nor finally in church, because even though he had been able to attend two religious services morning and evening for years, the liturgical texts of the time did not include many of the writings found in the plays. Florio, according to Tassinari, had ‘the Bible under his skin’, his writing is totally ‘soaked’ in the Bible, to the point where certain passages are a veritable paraphrase. Let us remember that he studied theology in Tübingen and that his father was familiar with three religions. Finally, it should also be noted that Florio, who spent 16 years at court, almost certainly collaborated on the James I Bible published in 1611, to which Shakespeare is said to have put his hand!
Another aspect of Florio’s life at court caught my attention. He was a courtier, a man who lived very close to the English aristocracy and knew it from the inside. As tutor to Queen Anne’s children (after teaching Italian and French to London’s gilded youth, including the daughter of the French ambassador, with whom he cohabited for two and a half years with Giordano Bruno), John Florio lived in the intimacy of the monarchs. As Groom of the Royal Privy Chamber and responsible for cultural activities at court, music and masks, his knowledge of the pastimes of aristocrats is obvious. It is therefore not surprising to find in the WS pieces not only numerous references to music and musicians, but also specific references to hunting, chess, royal tennis, fencing, horse-riding, dog-breeding and card-playing.
By contrast, it is difficult to see how the hard-working man from Stratford, constantly travelling between his village and London on business, could have had access to these courtly pastimes in such detail, not only from having heard about them, but from having practised them himself.
This brings us to the primary argument of Daniel Bougnoux, who wrote the preface to the French version of Tassinari’s book, which has to do with mediology. According to these principles, literary genius cannot be born from the mere imagination of an author. This is not the case in music or painting, for example. Because in order to write, and to copy passages from books as we see in Shakespeare’s works, one had not only to have read and reread them (some of them are very difficult to understand), in the original languages (as many were not yet translated into English), but even to possess them. The possession of a large library – such as Florio’s – and the intellectual resources to build, maintain and use it are therefore a prerequisite for writing these texts.
According to Tassinari, if there are two essential influences in Shakespeare’s works, they are the Neapolitan philosopher Giordano Bruno and the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne. Two influences considered minor by orthodox Stratfordian critics, or dismissed outright. Critics reject any link with Shakespeare, as they do not see how the Bard could have come into contact with the Neapolitan philosopher or with his works not translated into English. At best, ‘parallels’ between Bruno’s thought and Hamlet are reported. With Florio, however, there is no doubt about the kinship.
As we have seen, Bruno stayed in London with the French ambassador Michel Castelnau de la Mauvissière during the two and a half years of his stay in England (1583-85). John Florio, who was already there as the tutor of the ambassador’s daughter, welcomed his six-year-old son, to whom he had great respect. Bruno arrived there with a letter of credence from the French king, Henry III. A few months earlier he had published his comedy Il Candelaio, with which Shakespeare’s comedies have much in common. But it was not until 400 years later that Il Candelaio was translated into English, by Alan Powers who now states on his website, “Yet it is arguably the best play ever written.” (http://www.habitableworlds.com/pages/bruno.html accessed 7 February 2018) During his time in London, Bruno was not idle: he had six books published in Italian and three in Latin.
To show Bruno’s influence on Shakespeare’s works, Tassinari cites the Germans Tschischwitz and König, as well as the Italian Spampanato, who, in a 1926 book, “pointed out that there were traces of Il Candelaio almost everywhere in Shakespeare: see in Cymbeline (5. 5.) the etymology of mulier; in As You Like It (3. 3. and 4. 2.) the tale of the ass; in King Lear (1. 2.) the attribution to Fate, or the stars, of the disasters caused by pride; in King Lear (1. 4.) the distinction between cunning and gentle folly; in Macbeth (4. 1.) the vision of witchcraft; in Richard II (3. 4.) the conversation between the queen and the two gentlemen in the Duke of York’s garden; in Love’s Labours Lost the joke addressed to Holoferne.” (P. 292)
Among dozens of other “parallels”, Tassinari adds: “I found a surprising trace of the undeniable proximity between Bruno and Shakespeare: in Il Candelaio, Sanguino, Bartolomeo’s serf, is a rogue who disguises himself as Captain Palma, the leader of the round. His name is linked to the colour red, as sangue means ‘blood’ in Italian. Similarly, Dogberry is the head of the Security, the patrol, in Much Ado About Nothing, and he has a name that also refers to red, dogberry being a bright red fruit, the wild cherry, the fruit of the rose hip.” (P. 293)
It should be remembered that when Bruno arrived in London, the 19-year-old Stratford man, newly married because his wife was pregnant, was still living in the countryside and there is no way he could have read Bruno’s works, which were published only in Italian or Latin.
Finally, the last surprising clue that Tassinari raises, and which he finds in a study by Gisèle Venet (“Giordano Bruno et Shakespeare: la poétique d’une écriture in l’Europe de la Renaissance”, 2005, p. 249-271): it has always been believed that the names of Rosencranz and Guildenstern, two characters in Hamlet, were invented by the author. However, they are the names of two real Danish students who were enrolled at the University of Wittenberg between 1586 and 1595, Francis Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstjerne. Here again, Giordano Bruno’s action as an intermediary with Florio seems more than likely.
More recently, Jean-Patrick Connerade, a physicist and Professor Emeritus at Imperial College London, has drawn attention to the many scientific references in Shakespeare’s work, particularly to astronomy. At the Florio/Shakespeare colloquium at the Inaugural Congress of the European Association for the Study of Theatre and Performance (EASTAP) in Paris on 27 October 2018, he argued that these references “are so detailed and precise that they imply knowledgeable relationships with great scholars, especially Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Giordano Bruno. Shakespeare and Florio are the only two writers of this period to espouse the Tychonian model of the universe, invented by Tycho Brahe.” The presence of the expression “Planet Sol” both in Troilus and Cressida and, earlier, in Florio’s Dictionary, and also the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were two of Brahe’s cousins, who came with him to London to meet Bruno and Florio at the French ambassador’s house, are two strong clues that, according to Connerade, point to Florian authorship of Shakespeare’s works.
Stratfordian critics are equally blind to the influence of Montaigne. Let us recall that Florio, author of the first English translation of the Essays, published his version – very elaborate compared to the original – in 1603. It had, however, been completed since 1600. Now, we see similarities, even to the point of outright copying, between passages in Florio’s translation of the Essays and others in Shakespeare’s from before the English version was published. What Stephen Greenblatt explains in Shakespeare’s Montaigne, with obvious bad faith, is that Shakespeare must have read extracts from Florio’s translation over his shoulder while he was writing, thus ‘well before the first edition’ in 1603! (P. 153)
Florio, who has long been neglected by Stratford scholars, is increasingly seen as an advisor, a friend, an inspiration to William Shakespeare. In The Guardian, London, in July 2013, Professor Saul Frampton makes a bold claim: John Florio was Shakespeare’s editor. He believes that the profound differences between the plays that appeared separately in the quarto editions and the version that appears in the complete works (the First Folio), seven years after the death of the Stratford man, show that Florio intervened, since expressions previously used by him, notably in his dictionaries and teaching manuals, are to be found there.
Thus, as Tassinari points out, Florio is given an increasingly important role, but always ‘alongside’ the man from Stratford. Given that the Shakespeare industry is worth more to Britain than British Airways, this is understandable. To dethrone Stratford will be like slaughtering a God.