Introduction: THE END OF A LIE
“The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should turn up.”
Charles Dickens, 1847.
The fears of Charles Dickens have come true: something has finally turned up. Something that, had I not left Italy 28 years ago, I might never have been able to perceive and recognize. By that I mean that I would never have been able to read Shakespeare in a way that would have led me to John Florio. I was sensitized in the first place to the idea of an “ethnic” Shakespeare by my own departure, by leaving behind the country of my birth, crossing cultural boundaries, speaking other tongues. At the end of the twentieth century, even without persecution, expatriation is always a wrench. Leaving is a bane and a blessing at the same time, just as Prospero says to Miranda: “Both, both, my girl: By foul play, as thou say’st, were we heave’d thence, but blessedly holp hither.”
Marvellous metamorphosis: John Florio emerges from the heart of Europe and becomes Shake-speare on the banks of the Thames. Everything comes from abroad, certainly everything that counts. As the Gulf current warms the shores of Albion, so a current from the Mediterranean flowed north and touched the culture of the Tudor age at the right time, impregnating and transforming it. In a superb image of John Florio (Shakespeare, that is), the Greeks received “their baptizing water from the conduit-pipes of the Egiptians,” who had received it in turn “from the well-springs of the Hebrews or Chaldees.” Those same waters brought Florio to the English. Had those waters not moved, they would have grown stagnant in a declining language and culture, and that dammed-up current would have given birth to an infinitely lesser Shakespeare. Instead, the waters of the Renaissance and the crisis of southern Europe were carried northward by the “conduit-pipes” of the Jewish diaspora and the minuscule tide of Italian Protestantism: the language, the poetry, and the ideas of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Aretino, Tasso, Ronsard, Castiglione, Montaigne, and Bruno engendered the Swan of Avon—a strange and scarcely imaginable phenomenon. What astounds us in Shakespeare is the strangeness and the greatness of the art, not the mode of its manifestation, which has nothing exceptional about it: the encounter and clash of cultures, microscopic or epidemic contaminations, more or less intense and rapid hybridizations from which arises the new, the unusual, the extraordinary are the way history—that is, life—proceeds.
When I began to involve myself with Shakespeare, two sentences, one by Dickens and another from Henry James, struck me with some force and drove me to confront the question openly. Henry James wrote:
“I am ‘a sort of ’ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world. The more I turn him around the more he so affects me. But that is all — I am not pretending to treat the question or to carry it any further. It bristles with difficulties and I can only express my general sense by saying that I find almost as impossible to conceive that Bacon wrote the plays as to conceive that the man from Stratford, did.“
Letter to Miss Violet Hunt, August 1903, in Letters.
I wondered what Dickens was really thinking of, what kind of stunning revelation he was referring to, and why James went so far as to talk of “fraud.” To the advantage—and detriment—of whom? Who was the author, or who might he be, whose authorship of the oeuvre was denied with such insistence? Why does the Institution—in the full Orwellian and Foucauldian sense of a system of surveillance and punishment, with policemen and professors reinforcing one another—defend this academic dogma so stubbornly? What problems, I asked myself, would arise if the name of the orthodox English author were replaced with the name of another Englishman, noble or commoner, as long as there existed unassailable proof of his identity? None, clearly. If the name of any other candidate native to England were to be substituted for the name Shakespeare, as the anti-Stratfordians have been demanding for centuries, England’s national reputation would suffer no harm. How could it be other than beneficial to correct a misidentification and definitively establish an important identity? We would finally learn something about the author: his life, his works, his travels and loves. Everything would be incontrovertibly true and authentic. The Great Author would acquire a visage, a reliable portrait at last. But no: orthodox scholarship refuses to let go of the man from Stratford.
Such obstinacy notwithstanding, today Shakespeare is about to assume his true identity, that of a foreigner. This foreigner, John Florio, was however born in London in 1553, and resided in continental Europe with his father between the ages of two and around 20. Returning to London at the beginning of the 1570s, he began his working life within the entourage of the leading aristocratic families, and later at court; in 1591 he added the appellation “Resolute” to his name. Having decided to endow his new, beloved homeland (then a culturally backward place) with a literary oeuvre of supreme quality, Florio chose to become a playwright under the aggressive pseudonym “Shake-speare,” with “spear” standing obviously for “pen.” This name turned out to coincide phonetically with that of an English native, “William Shakspere” (also spelled “Shakspear” or “Shexpir” o “Shagspere” or some other way), the son of a Stratford glove-maker who made a career in London as an actor, and then as a landowner, theatrical impresario, and moneylender, and who profited from the homophony.
Under this dissembled identity, John Florio, and not the man from Stratford, became “the Swift Swan of Avon.” That is the hypothesis which really makes the Institution quake, which it rejects with all its might. Shakespearian criticism may not have been able to construct a credible biography of Shakespeare out of thin air; it may not have dared, or even been able, to invent a life, a correspondence, events, significant relations with contemporaries for him, to give him a profile as a man, as a human being. But it has shown great flair in covering up the testimony and the evidence relating to the creative life of the true author of the works of Shakespeare—John Florio, the hidden poet. The dispute between the two parties, the orthodox Stratfordians and the miscreant anti-Stratfordians, would have lasted into eternity, because the trunk containing the autograph manuscripts or the letter in the author’s own hand clearing up the mystery of his identity, would never have been found.
The Florios, father and son, were themselves complicit in this posthumous institutional cover-up, furthering the operation for a complex series of reasons. For one thing John was a highly visible immigrant, hence envied and hated at a time when mistrust of foreigners was rife—too visible to present himself officially as the author of the works of Shakespeare on top of everything else. For another, his father Michel Angelo, with the Roman Inquisition permanently on his trail, felt insecure even in his new Protestant domicile, and decided to live in secrecy. A third factor is that John, an “aristocrat” in sentiment, avoided acknowledging that he had written for the theatre, a profession he certainly esteemed as an Italian, but a minor one nevertheless that enjoyed no literary prestige in England at that time. Finally, and fundamentally, John Florio had decided to assume the mission of elevating the English language and the culture of England above its rivals, but to do so incognito, for the author of those plays, the man responsible for that enrichment of vocabulary and style and ideas, could simply not be seen to bear a foreign name. “Italus ore, Anglus pectore” (Italian in speech, English at heart), they said of him, and John Florio saw himself that way too. This new, extraordinary author had to be an Englishman. And he was!
The motives for Florio’s pseudonymous, virtually anonymous, offering were not only grounded in the history of Renaissance letters, they also make sense on their own terms, which were articulated by W. H. Auden in an excellent introduction to the works of “William Shakespeare”:
“it should be borne in mind that most genuine artists would prefer that no biography be written.“
W.H. Auden, Shakespeare. The Sonnets and narrative Poems, Introduction, 1964.
Such was indeed Florio’s preference, and he had his way, allowing the authorial identification with the defunct Shakspere of Stratford to go ahead. This identification was decided upon in the milieu around Ben Jonson and Francis Bacon, consecrated by the national universities a century later, and guaranteed by the immense power of the British Empire. But it had its roots in the period from 1592 to 1616, when the name Shake-speare was first ambiguously projected out into the Stratford countryside, among butchers, poachers, and glove-makers. Let us be clear: it is not a question of snobbery, which is the accusation that certain Stratfordians foolishly (or perhaps astutely, so as to embarrass their adversaries) direct at those who refuse to believe that the Bard could have sprung from a family of illiterates. It is not that the children of artisans and peasants were then incapable of creating poetry. They certainly were, as shown by the case of other Elizabethan authors such as Robert Greene, Marlowe, and indeed Jonson himself. But not like that, not like him, without the faintest trace of an academic curriculum, with the empty and routine life that the official biographies relay. If, as Harold Bloom maintains, Shakespeare is the “inventor” of the modern human condition, then his life is important to us. All the more so in that it was the life of a foreigner, an uprooted individual, a migrant who reappeared in London at age 20 full of energy and boundless talent and mastered a second language, the emerging English tongue, which he invested with fantastic dynamism.
Today, in the words of Daniel Swift,
“Shakespeare has escaped the grounds of the academic institutions and is now at large in the community.“
Daniel Swift, “Bad Will Hunting,” The Nation, 13 March 2006.
And this is why, from the age-old question of authorship, there emanates the nervousness, embarrassment, and sometimes anguished tension of a culture—that of the British Isles—to which the diaspora of the South unexpectedly presented this extraordinary gift. By the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakspere, it had become a foundational element of English, and then British, identity, and now it is about to flee their grasp. And that is why the world has been so “patient,” as James said, with this fraud. It had an interest in going along!
* * *
In writing this book, I have brought to light no new texts, uncovered no manuscripts in overlooked libraries. I have simply exhumed and read the works of the Florios, and a number of books about them dismissed or ignored by official scholarship. While Shakespeare studies have been able to protect the Stratfordian identity, shrewdly avoiding the “danger points” (the writings of Florio and his role as linguist, and also, in Shakespeare, the theme of exile, his familiarity with the Bible, his passion for proverbs), over the course of time the odd person here and there has chosen to focus on the trickiest, most controversial topics. And so I have had occasion to read long-forgotten books, compare various articles and theses, and study the works of Shakespeare. From the corpus of plays, it was particularly illuminating to read The Tempest closely, and the late “romances”; and likewise the Sonnets. My reading of The Tempest was guided by the writings of famous critics like Northrop Frye, Bloom, and Jan Kott. But the books that were really precious and crucial for the writing of these pages were Giovanni Florio. Un apôtre de la Renaissance en Angleterre à l’époque de Shakespeare (1921) by Clara Longworth Chambrun, Shakespere’s Debt to Montaigne (1925) by George Coffin Taylor, and John Florio. The life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England (1934) by Frances Amelia Yates. The first two have been virtually “disappeared” by Shakespeare criticism. The reading of (and cross-referencing among) these books turned out to be highly revelatory once I came into contact with another, recent book: Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography (2001) by Diana Price. Price combs through the orthodox biography, highlighting the chronological gaps, ambiguities, blank spaces, and contradictions of every kind in the life narratives that attempt to make the poverty of the documents match the immense richness of the oeuvre: from Shakspere’s education (or rather the lack of it), to the non-existence of contemporary proof of linkage between the literary activity of the author and the life of the actor from Stratford, and on to the incredible story of his funeral monument.
The author is an independent scholar who, in a vain attempt to get a hearing from the academic community, carried out an utterly serious and extraordinary piece of research. She succeeded in sweeping away all the identifications hitherto put forward, orthodox and heterodox, and left a disquieting vacuum in their place. Naturally the truth was already there, and I have done no more than fit the pieces of the puzzle together. My debt to those three key books from the 1920s and 1930s, and to Price’s book, is enormous, and I will quote from them frequently. It was those now distant monographs, along with a revelation from Santi Paladino, that supplied me with all the tesserae of the mosaic that finally revealed the portrait of Florio. Paladino, then a young and unknown Italian journalist who deserves credit for a major revelatory intuition, stated in print in 1929 and again in 1954, that Shakespeare was the pseudonym of an Italian writer, Michel Angelo Florio. But perhaps because Paladino had not adequately digested the two then-current biographies of Michel Angelo’s son John, although he was aware of them, or another revealing book published in 1925 by an American of which he must not have known, or perhaps simply because the time was not yet ripe, his pamphlets had no impact, and his thesis, unsupported by adequate scholarly apparatus, immediately vanished under an avalanche of arrogant irony and indifference.
Even today the fact that Florio was Shakespeare is a revelation of the kind that can cause the earth to shift beneath one’s feet. Hence the movement of the discourse in these pages must constantly adapt, for in examining the various aspects of an oeuvre and a life-history that relate now to one, now to the other, of these two identities—the official one, Shakespeare, and the concealed one, Florio—it is impossible to avoid an effect of disorienting confusion, of constant ambiguity. One can lose oneself in a game of mirrors, a tangled skein of meanings generated by the simultaneous utilization of two names that projects us 400 years back into the past, when the original switch of identities took place in the well-upholstered setting of Elizabethan society. Adopting anonymity and concealment as necessities at first, the Florios later had to resign themselves to the misapprehension when the beneficiary, the man from Stratford, appropriated it, and the general opinion confirmed it. This minor misidentification, this little piece of semantic slippage, has had far-reaching historical consequences over the course of time. Someone, I no longer remember who, put it this way in describing an event analogous to the prevalence of the Stratfordian myth: “it is a sort of Niagara Falls of history, there is no conspiracy but everything conspires in the sense that everything respires in the same direction.”
The world’s “patience” of which James speaks is certainly a political datum, just as the reasons for people’s “patience” in the face of the suppression of democracy and our universal financial imbroglio are political. The end of the myth of Stratford (the Bethlehem of the Anglophone literary world) is an epochal event both positive and illuminating, and I do not think it a matter of pure hazard that it is occurring at a moment of deep ethical and economic crisis, like the one we are in now.
* * *
This book was written for persons engaged in study and research, but above all for those who love the works of Shakespeare. I do not seek the approval of the “guardians of Stratford,” rigidified as they so often are in their conservatism, their repetition of the same. I do seek a readiness to listen on the part of every reader of Shakespeare. All who love his plays and sonnets for what they are, for their art, their humanity, their truth, and not for their cultural value and historical significance, cannot fail to be receptive to the extraordinary story of John Florio, containing as it does the history and the authentic personality of Shakespeare. For my part, I shall touch on all the significant aspects of the astonishing overthrow of this mythology, but in every case it is only a beginning. The rest of the work will have to be undertaken by all the forces of research and investigation that will be set free once the collapse of the man from Stratford gains widespread acceptance.
Eighty years ago even those British and American scholars who had begun to explore the relation between John Florio and Shakespeare did not dare to proclaim the truth which they themselves were busy excavating, and in the end they diligently joined ranks with the bristling phalanx of Stratfordians. Since then all the specialists have sagely trained their gaze elsewhere, while the person responsible for the works of William Shakespeare has remained in plain sight, weapon in hand, like the murderer in an Agatha Christie thriller, without arousing the slightest suspicion in the legion of investigators, most of whom were busy shimming and shoring up the wobbly identity of the man from Stratford, while others sought the perpetrator, and vainly seek him still, among a little troop of Elizabethan Sirs and Earls.
But instead the author was a visitor: John Florio, a man who, albeit in plain view and well known to the investigators, remained absolutely “beneath” all suspicion.
* * *
Lexicographers and specialists in the history of the English language have occasionally looked at Florio, of course, since his dictionaries and translations could not be ignored. But to go from that to discussing them, interpreting them critically, using them as precious material for tackling the many unresolved questions concerning Shakespeare, was a risky step, and no one took it. All have behaved as what they in fact are, “specialists,” despite the lip-service paid to transdisciplinarity, transversality, and transculturality! Fenced in by the narrow bounds of their competences and university departments, which concede no license, these scholars have not dared to put forth general hypotheses on a terrain so closely monitored by dogma, by the taboo of the Stratfordian authorship of the works of Shakespeare. You might even say that Shakespeare has been lost in erudition. For the last 80 years the professors of English literature, the researchers, the Ph. D. students, have not read Florio. That is how the hierarchy functions: if the superiors give no indication that a topic or an individual merits exploration, the subalterns neither see nor act. Those who have glimpsed reality have kept their own counsel. Omertà. There might be a severe penalty for making noise about a contemporary of the Bard who wrote like he did: the same words, the same style, the same turn of phrase, the same cultural baggage, the same friends, the same patrons, the same fixations and weaknesses. The fact is that all of Shakespeare appears from the Florian perspective to be, and is, a work translated, in other words “transferred,” from one culture to another: transferred from the dense Italian literary apogee of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, the age from Dante to Aretino, Tasso and Giordano Bruno; transferred from various versions of Holy Scripture, from the French of Montaigne. Vice versa, let us try to envisage the author of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Hamlet and The Tempest in the guise of a translator, and imagine how he would have translated Montaigne and Boccaccio, or compiled an immense dictionary of the Italian and English languages: the texts of Florio is what the works of such a writer would look like! Montaigne’s Essais not really “translated,” but freely and brilliantly rewritten in another tongue, containing all of the author’s thought, but with a style and with ideas decidedly Shakespearian. Evidently only “Shakespeare” was capable of such a feat. Today, at last, Shakespeare is no longer the great author with the evanescent personality, the provincial so strangely enamoured of things Italian. He has become the man chiefly responsible for, the most active instigator of, the brief English Renaissance. It defies belief that the existence led by Florio should produce naught but dictionaries and translations, however accomplished! Just as it defies belief that Shakespeare should have produced nothing with his own stamp on it, no work conveying opinions, individuality, an identity. The convergence of Florio and Shakespeare makes it possible to unite the two halves of the personality of an extraordinary author who seemed to be enigmatically unfinished. Now the ideas, the culture, and the opinions of the erudite courtier meld with the imagination and creativity of a supreme artist. What really counts is not so much to have revealed the new identity of the author and affirmed that he whom we thought was William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was really the foreigner John Florio, as to understand how and why this substitution came about, what it means. And to bring it out into the light of day, make it public. The loss of Stratford certainly does not impair the oeuvre of Shakespeare. Indeed it makes it more surprising, not more “divine” but more human, more normal, and infinitely more moving. Universal and “immortal” as this oeuvre has always appeared, it now reveals a hitherto unsuspected genesis, history, and purpose. A Shakespeare “made in Europe” shows us that the birth of the modern world possesses a richness and a complexity that fill one with awe.
It is my hope that my book will contribute to this comprehension.
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