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Lamberto Tassinari. John Florio: The Man Who Was Shakespeare.

Lamberto Tassinari. John Florio: The Man Who Was Shakespeare. Trans. William McCuaig. Montreal: Giano, 2009. Pp. 386. $24.95.

In the last few years, a basketful of books have come out promoting the Earl of Oxford, the Countess of Pembroke, Sir Henry Neville, Sir Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe as the true author of Shakespeare's works. All of them are guilty of terrible scholarship, specious logic, and the worst kind of sophistry. Still, these books are not valueless; for one thing, they call attention to Elizabethan writers and history that the nonspecialist might find interesting and would otherwise overlook. Such is the case with Lamberto Tassinari's John Florio.

Florio was a translator and lexicographer who wrote several books that Shakespeare used as sources for his plays. Though born in England in 1553, he spent his youth in Switzerland and Germany, but he returned to London in the 1570s. He became a tutor of French and Italian at Oxford and later enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. In the reign of James I, he tutored the king's eldest son as well as the new queen, Anne of Denmark. Florio was acquainted with many famous Elizabethans, including the poet Samuel Daniel (who married Florio's sister), Ben Jonson, and the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who taught at Oxford in the mid-1580s. He wrote his own will that attests to his "poverty," and he died in debt in 1625. These facts are scattered throughout the book; Tassinari never provides a clear narrative of Florio's life (though he begins one in chapter 2). For that, Frances Yates's 1934 biography remains the standard.

Instead, Tassinari spends the first part of his book asserting his thesis that Florio, in collaboration with his father, the Italian writer and tutor Michel Angelo Florio, composed the plays and poems, invented the name William Shakespeare, said nothing as credit and money for the plays were taken by the unscrupulous actor, and received help in creating the fiction of "Shakespeare" from Ben Jonson and others. Florio's purpose, his "mission," was to "elevate the English language and culture of England above its rivals, but to do so incognito, for ... the man responsible for that enrichment of vocabulary and style and ideas, could simply not be seen to bear a foreign name" (16). Apparently, he was so wedded to this project that he was willing to die in poverty and debt rather than claim a portion of the proceeds from the First Folio, a bestseller in 1624.

To account for Ben Jonson's famous description of Shakespeare's "small Latin and less Greek," Tassinari is forced to argue that this line refers to the actor's front man, but the praise in the rest of the poem, lauding Shakespeare as the "Soul of the Age," is secretly meant for Florio. In one poem, in other words, Jonson refers to two different Shakespeares. "Jonson deliberately creates a cloud of confusion" (245), explains the author, without a scrap of evidence. One assumes Tassinari would say the same thing about Jonson's telling William Drummond that "Shakespeare wanted art," and then, in the same conversation, criticizing Shakespeare for making mistakes of geography in his plays. The first Shakespeare must be the front man--since by any definition, Florio never lacked "art"--and the mistake-prone Shakespeare must refer to Florio.

In the second section of his book, Tassinari asserts Florio's influence on Shakespeare's works, which is undoubted. For example, as the author says, "Iago's diatribe against women in Othello appears to be modelled on this Florian dialogue:
   Women are the purgatory of men's purses;
   The paradise of men's bodies; the hell of men's souls.
   Women are in churches saints; abroad angels; at home devils;
   At windows sirens; at doors pies [i.e., magpies]; and in gardens

(Florio's Second Frutes)

   You are pictures out of doors,
   Bells in your parlours; wildcats in your kitchens;
   Saints in your injuries; devils being offended;
   Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.

(Othello, 2.1.109)" (166)

Modeled, certainly. But the poet has transformed his source, with his superior imagination, into inimitable poetry. Nowhere in his writing under his own name does Florio show the creativity to envision wildcats in kitchens, offended devils, or injured, uncomplaining saints. Yet Tassinari claims that Shakespeare "thinks and writes in the same way as Florio" (165). He has obviously convinced himself, but it's doubtful he will convert many readers to his opinion.

Here is a 1606 poem by Florio in praise of Jonson's new play Volpone, or The Fox:
   Forgive thy friends: they would, but cannot praise
   Enough the wit, art, language of thy plays.
   Forgive thy foes; they will not praise thee. Why?
   Thy fate hath thought it best, they should envy.
   Faith, for thy Fox's sake, forgive them those
   Who are not worthy to be friends, nor foes.
   Or for their own brave sake, let them be still
   Fools at thy mercy, and like what they will.

Compare this to any of the Bard's sonnets. In the same year this was published, Shakespeare was writing King Lear and Macbeth. Unlike Marlovians and Oxfordians, who can claim that the extant writings of their candidate predate those written as Shakespeare, Tassinari doesn't have that luxury. Reading Shakespeare alongside Florio makes one painfully aware of how beautiful and poetic even the two dedications to Southampton are, and how prosaic and fundamentally different is Florio's mind. This is why Florio's father, and not Florio himself, was proposed as an authorship candidate in 1921. A writer with an imaginative and florid style in Italian, Michel Angelo left no paper trail in English that could be compared to Shakespeare's works.

Tassinari asserts that Shakespeare's royalist sympathies, as well as his knowledge of the Bible, literature, and music, point to Florio, ignoring that censorship made any nonroyalist position unacceptable, that other writers put aristocrats and kings at the center of their plays, that Elizabethans heard the Bible read in church weekly, that most actors also needed to be musicians. As for literature, what books Shakespeare read beyond obvious sources is impossible to determine. Lost plays that he acted in could always have been his actual inspirations. Still, one can't argue with Tassinari's call for more research into Aretino's and Giordano Bruno's influence on Shakespeare and his times.

As the author admits, "Italian expressions are sometimes used in an inaccurate or parodic fashion in Shakespeare's plays." According to Tassinari, this "proves that the author pretends not to know Italian" (299). Proves? Let's pretend it's true. If Florio is indeed concealing his identity by mangling his Italian, this seems to contradict his mission of improving English culture. His works signed John Florio are designed to teach Italian to Englishmen. His life was spent teaching Italian and French. Perhaps it is to conceal his identity that the author of Henry V lifts half of the French in that play from John Eliot's Ortho-epia Gallica (1593), something a linguist like Florio, the translator of Montaigne's Essays, wouldn't need to do. Or perhaps Florio didn't write the play.

In fact, it was John Florio's Italian-English dictionary and his teach-yourself-Italian books that allowed Shakespeare and his contemporaries to decipher Italian novellas. Robert Armin, who played Shakespeare's fools, became a translator of Italian. John Marston includes eighteen lines of Italian in his play Antonio and Mellida. It was the Renaissance. English culture had been enamored with Italy since the 1570s.

Tassinari writes, "Stratfordians are faith-based scholars, they eschew reason: possessing the truth in advance, they must perforce resolve all the incongruences and contradictions over which they stumble through rigid adherence to the myth" (206). This is a pretty good description of Tassinari's book. The conspiracy theory it espouses cannot be disproved so it is not really a theory at all; it is a faith. For those willing to overlook the book's inconsistencies and ridiculous logic, it offers the comfort of a Shakespeare whose erudition is documented. For the rest of us, it calls attention to an eminent Elizabethan to whom the English language owes a debt but who did not write the plays of Shakespeare.


Purchase College, State University of New York
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Author:McCrea, Scott
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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