- John Florio: The Man Who Was Shakespeare
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 [End Page 88] 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. [End Page 89]
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 goats.(Florio's Second Frutes)
You are pictures out of doors,Bells in your parlours; wildcats in your kitchens;Saints in your...