THE PEDANT, THE CUCKOLD, THE EVIL SPY: IT IS TIME FOR SHAKESPEARE’S SCHOLARS TO TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT THE FLORIO-SHAKESPEARE AFFAIR
“The Pedant Holofernes”
“The Spy in Southampton household”
“Ridiculed by Shakespeare”
The famous lexicographer, translator and poet John Florio has been kept in oppression and deprivation by a poisonous fog of lies written both by serious scholars and random fans of the Bard. They have flooded Shakespeare’s biographies and the internet with twisted, distorted stories in which John Florio is portrayed either as the silly pedant mocked by Shakespeare, or his trusted schoolmaster. Small, scattered pieces of a bigger puzzle precisely created in order to give Shakespeare a more suitable, credible life, while, at the same time, ruin Florio’s reputation forever, both as a man and as writer.
But let’s start from the beginning.
The first pen who began the never-ending thread of false legends on John Florio was William Warburton, who in his 1747 annotated edition of Shakespeare’s works declared that:
“By Holofernes is designed a particular character, a pedant and schoolmaster of our author’s time, one John Florio, a teacher of the Italian tongue in London.”
From that moment, other scholars have followed him, by asserting the same ghoulish tale in almost every Shakespeare’s book: Florio as the pedant, the silly teacher, that Shakespeare loved to mock in his plays.
Forget the famous translator, creative lexicographer, and an outstanding interpreter of Italian humanistic culture in Elizabethan England. Forget the man honoured by royal personages and intimate friend of the most important poets and writers of the day.
Not a single scholar pointed out that Warburton’s words were the climax of a reckless guesswork and absurd suggestion. No one batted an eyelash. And this was the first of a long lasting list of insults precisely made to bury John Florio’s reputation.
Every time the name of Florio emerges in Shakespeare’s books, there is always a negative connotation applied to his name. John Florio has become, using the words of Shakespeare’s scholars:
“A man beset with tempers and oddities which exposed him more perhaps than any man of his time to the ridicule his contemporaries”.
And a man:
“In his literary career, jealous, vain, irritable, pedantic, bombastical, petulant, and quarrelsome, ever on the watch for an affront, always in the attitude of a fretful porcupine.”
A mass of words falls upon John Florio like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up the truth. George Orwell wrote that if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.
And in fact, these galling words against Florio, written for the first time in one of the earliest Shakespeare’s biographies, were copied and pasted in countless Shakespeare’s books until today. Even in the introduction of the complete collection of Shakespeare’s works published by Delphi in 2013, or in Arthur Acheson’s “Shakespeare’s lost years in London,” who pointed out that Florio wasn’t only the pedant Holofernes, but also John Falstaff.
From the silly pedant, John Florio becomes the fat, vain, boastful knight who spends most of his time drinking. By an embarrassing, complicated wordplay, Acheson, once again, ridicules John Florio by asserting that:
“I am convinced that Shakespeare intentionally made his caricature of John Florio more transparent by choosing a name having the same initials as his, and furthermore, that in altering the historical name of Falstofe to Falstaff, he intended to indicate Florio’s relations with Southampton as false-staff, a misleader of youth.”
Misleader of youth. False-staff. Acheson has finally enlightened us on Falstaff with this very insightful, acute, and clever analysis.
It doesn’t matter if the actual documents of the time actually prove the reverse. That John Florio became tutor and close friend of Henry Wriothesley from 1590 until, at least, 1598. That, as Florio wrote in his works, the tutor and the young, rich and beautiful Henry went at theatre to see comedies together. They also played at tennis together. Florio tutored him in Italian language and Italian literature. And became so intimate with Henry that one night on October 1594, he threatened the sheriff of Southampton to cast him overboard and ordered him to stop investigating on Henry’s friends, Charles and Henry Danvers, who murdered Henry Long.
In his dedication to Henry in A World of Words, Florio wrote:
“In truth I acknowledge an entyre debt, not onely of my best knowledge, but of all, yea of more then I know or can, to your bounteous Lordship most noble, most vertuous, and most Honorable Earle of Southampton, in whose paie and patronage I have lived some yeeres; to whom I owe and vowe the yeeres I have to live.”
Clearly the words of a rustic pedant who spied on his friend.
So, Florio is Holofernes in Love Labour’s Lost. But he is also John Falstaff because he is False-Staff, “Misleader of youth.”
According to other Shakespeare’s scholars John Florio is also Don Armado, for his Italian affected language.
Oh, Shakespeare loved to mock John Florio. And also loved Florio’s wife.
Yes, because according to another Shakespeare’s scholar, Jonathan Bate, author of The Genius of Shakespeare, Shakespeare had also a passionate relationship with Florio’s wife. He suggested that the “Low-born”, but “Witty and talented wife of Italian linguist John Florio” (note the details about her) was the lover of both Shakespeare and Henry Wriothesley.
Forget the tv show Beautiful, Shakespeare’s biographies are more entertaining than an American soap opera.
Audrey Burl too, in his in-depth analysis of Florio/Shakespeare relationship “Shakespeare’s mistress, The Mistery of The Dark Lady Revelead” points out that the Dark Lady is the wife of John Florio: Aline Florio.
Saul Frampton from the University of Westminster joins the group, identifying the dark lady as John Florio’s wife: Avisa Florio.
Sorry, there must be a mistake here. Was she Aline or Avisa? Nobody knows. Because truth is that there is no wife of John Florio. Aline or Avisa never existed. Shakespeare’s scholars should add an asterisk when these words run riot in their books, by reminding the readers that when Florio is mentioned, the information is “not underpinned by sound evidence.”
Shakespeare’s scholars have, once again, made up a name and a story, using John Florio in order to explain something they cannot explain (The Dark Lady), ruining his reputation (and that of his wife, if she ever existed) to fill their book with false legends on the Anglo-Italian.
So, to sum up: Florio is the pedant, the petulant, cuckold, false-staff, quarrelsome, spy, vain, misleader of youth, irritable.
A lovable man.
This does beg the question: When will Shakespeare’s scholars stop throwing mud at John Florio?
Or, to put it plainly: When will they stop using him as a puppet in order to try to compose an half-broken puzzle of a too often meagre, undocumented life?
Yes, because while Florio seems to be Shakespeare’s greatest enemy, he is also his greatest friend. Joker suddenly becomes Robin in a Batman comic book. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s enemy and Machiavellian criminal mastermind is transformed into his loyal, resourceful assistant and flatmate John Watson.
Many Shakespeare’s scholars have, in fact, underlined that when Shakespeare wrote the comedies settled in Italy, inspired by the Italian books of Bandello, Boccaccio, Cinthio and the Commedia dell’arte plays, he needed John Florio, who owned those books in his library, who read and translated the Italian plots for Shakespeare. Yes, Florio was Shakespeare’s personal translator. The Google Translate of early modern era.
Shakespeare seems also acquainted with Florio’s First and Second Fruits, in which the pedant wrote entertaining dramatic dialogues about love, women, philosophy and theatre.
Shakespeare was also well acquainted with Florio’s Italian-English dictionaries, A World of Words (1598) and Queen Anna’s New World of Words (1611), as many words he wrote were first published by Florio in his two pioneering works. There’s no need to point out that the Bard must have known Italian language very well to find the exact word he needed and its English version. Maybe it’s for this reason that John Florio has been also defined, in this infinite list, “Shakespeare’s living dictionary”.
This definition seems straight out of a memorable scene of The Devil Wears Prada, when the protagonist Andrea (played by Anne Hathaway) must memorise two books’ worth of faces and names so that she can feed them to her impossible boss Miranda (played by Meryl Streep) at a Parisian gala.
Now imagine Shakespeare and Florio in a movie titled On Literary Camaraderie, strolling down the streets of London or sitting together in a pub. Shakespeare armed with feather and quill while Florio whispers into his ear “Coloquintida”, “Bergomask”, “Votarista”, “Prenzie”, “Certes” ,”Signior!”.
“Can you please spell Signior?”
Was Shakespeare so pretentious that he couldn’t even be bothered to learn them himself? Or is there more going on? Maybe, a little of both.
And don’t get me started with Montaigne. The Essays, published for the first time in English in 1603 by John Florio, has influenced Shakespeare’s The Tempest and his other plays, to the point that George Coffin Taylor published the book Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne, in which he wondered if there was any other single work “that Shakspere read influenced him in so many different plays and in so great a variety of ways – words, phrases, passages, thoughts.” And the topic is so important that there has been a new, updated analysis on the matter by Stephen Greenblatt titled “Shakespeare’s Montaigne” (and only in the subtitle he reminds the readers that it’s “Florio’s translation”.)
All these authors have also highlighted that Shakespeare was most certainly acquainted with Montaigne’s Essays even before the publication of Florio’s translation, explained with a manuscript that Florio gave to his friend Shakespeare before he could publish the Essays.
Even Shakespeare’s scholar Matthiessen, by ending his analysis of Florio’s translation of Montaigne and his influence upon Shakespeare, declared that “Florio and Shakespeare were constantly talking to the same people, hearing the same theories, breathing the same air.”
Certainly, it must have been hard for Shakespeare to stay so close to Florio for so many years, reading his works while at the same time constantly mocking and insulting him, having a passionate relationship with his wife while the pedant studied Commedia dell’arte for his pal. Florio the talking cricket in the drawer of Shakespeare’ desk, who jumped on his shoulder every time the Bard needed a strange, rare word; or an Italian plot; some random pages of an undefined manuscript.
This false, distorted narrative has permeated every page of Shakespeare’s biographies; with the advent of Internet era, it has flooded the web of countless blogs in which Shakespeare’s fans, by repeating the same alms-baskets of rotten words, proceed undisturbed in a constant mudslinging of Florio’s reputation.
In a nutshell, from serious, academic Shakespeare’s biographies, to internet blogs, social networks and fiction stories the fraud repeats over and over. And for those naïve readers who want to know the truth about John Florio, they have to stumble across a path made of prickly brambles, falsehoods and insults, an impervious road that only the bravest, affectionate Florians, Indiana Jones-style, who really want to delve into the real life and personality of John Florio, can overcome. (But trust me, when you do, it’s like discovering the Holy Grail).
If the beleaguered John Florio was alive today, he would reduce these Shakespeare’s scholars to a laughing-stock thanks to his sarcasm, wit, and linguistic dexterity, as he did with his enemies Nashe, Greene, Eliot and Sanford, who was defined as “Huffe Snuffe”, “Horse Stealer”, “Hob Sowter”, “Hugh Sot”, “Humphrey Swineshead”.
He would have fun, indeed. Words without end. “Sea-dogs, monsters of men, if not beasts rather than men; whose teeth are Canibals, their tongues adder-forkes, their lips aspes-poyson, their eies basiliskes, their breath the breath of a grave,” he penned in A World of Words. And let’s not forget how he termed Nashe’s works: a “molehill”.
One might suggest Shakespeare’s scholars to stop writing about John Florio. It would be actually healthy for them. They have to rack their brains to find a suitable story every time the name Florio inevitably appears in their books.
Truth is that Shakespeare’s scholars mince words to avoid telling the truth: they need John Florio.
John Florio is the elephant in the room. He is a major problem for Shakespeare’s scholars, obviously present but avoided as a subject for discussion. This is why they choose the easiest way: making up fake stories that Florio would define as “a flim-flam tale, as women tell when they shale peason, which hath neither head nor foote, nor rime nor reason: a flap with a foxetaile: court-holie water, a tittle tattle, or such.“
It is time, specially for the younger, future generation of Shakespeare’s scholars, to discuss about John Florio in a more serious, competent way. Good, not biased and faithful portraits of Florio do exist, but they have been vanishingly sparse these past centuries, like a handful of lilies in a fallow field.
On December 2020, Bbc aired a documentary titled “Scuffles, Swagger & Shakespeare: The Hidden story of English”, in which Dr John Gallagher uncovered the real, complex story of how English conquered the world. John Florio was there too, described as a man who wanted to bring European culture and literature to the English masses. Gallagher reminded the audience that while in Italy and France a renaissance had been transforming art and literature, in England it had struggled to put down roots, and some thinkers were worried that the country was falling behind. But John Florio was determined to change that. He made his mission to bring continental ideas in England. Gallagher showed the difficulties that immigrants faced in Elizabethan England, by reading the words John Florio wrote in 1591:
“I know they have a knife at command to cut my throat. An Englishman in Italian is a devil incarnate.”
Florio loved language and literature, but there was tension and fear that foreigners could take the bread out of English mouths. The documentary showed that Florio lived in a time in which you could read Italian poetry at court, but you might also risk being beaten up in the street of London for speaking the language.
Defined a “key influence on Shakespeare”, this documentary never mentioned the words “pedant”, or “cuckold”, or “false-staff”, and it proved that the decadence on the whole Florio-Shakespeare affair is curable. To make pretentiousness unfashionable. To give facts, documents, and not fiction. To give the world a better understanding of both Shakespeare and Florio, two men who can walk side by side without a monstrous castle of lies built around Florio.
It is time to explain Shakespeare’s readers that the old legend of Holofernes is outdated, because there is, indeed, an influence of John Florio in Love Labour’s Lost, but it is not inherited in the character of Holofernes, but it’s in the whole play. That both Shakespeare and Florio are creative lexicographers and linguists, playing with both English and foreign languages. They are both word obsessed, borrowing from “sundry languages”, a space without “property” that for them is a space of creative invention, expression for an inclusive inter-national community. Both use creative compounds and proverbs that we still use when we go fishing for new truths: “All that glitters is not gold”, Florio wrote in 1578. Shakespeare followed him later in The Merchant of Venice. “Hugger-Mugger” Florio wrote in 1598, Shakespeare followed him in Hamlet. Florio wrote “Hurly-burly”, and Shakespeare loved it too when in Macbeth he wrote “When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.”
The Florio and Shakespeare affair is not a nightmare, but a great feast of languages.
Perhaps in Love’s Labour’s Lost Shakespeare’s love for language is most apparent. Or in Hamlet, in which ‘word’ is a dominant theme.
John Florio, similarly, wasn’t just the most important rappresentative of Italian humanistic culture in Elizabethan England, but the most important catalyst of the Euphuistic movement. The wealth of English words which he had at command is phenomenal, and he consciously experimented with English, grafting into it words, phrases, even grammatical constructions, which he thought English could digest. Florio was essentially an importer and a bold innovator, and not afraid to give his country even the most infamous (and probably today the most used) word: fuck. And let’s not forget masturbation.
Spicy words for the good ol’ pedant.
Readers have the right to know who really was John Florio. He was undoubtedly a questionable figure, an exuberant, expansive mind, sometimes defined as Harlequin’s personality: he chose “Resolute” as his notorious signature and academic name, since resoluteness and courage were prominent characteristics of his personality. Despite he was not of blue blood, he had an aristocratic spirit. He was vehement in his likes and dislikes, and certainly possessed a touch of that coxcombry and self-confidence which sometimes led him to feuds and conflicts with his contemporaries. Because he always wanted to have the last word.
He was eccentric, and he certainly hadn’t a great talent in managing money. Despite he had a successful career and was always generously paid by his patrons, (at court he had a higher salary than his colleagues) he wrote his last will by confessing to be broke.
But above the practical necessity of earning money and the ambition to succeed, what prevailed in him was the conviction that he had a mission to perform: that of spreading the Italian and European culture, literature, and language in his motherland, England.
The “Ayde of his muses”, Ben Jonson defined him. The man with the “Power of rhetorical ornament” wrote the Venetian ambassador Giustinian.
His determination drove him, despite criticism, attacks, and death threats, and the marginal position of a foreigner in his homeland, to succeed in his mission, with only one motif behind it: his fondness for books and literature, which was enthusiastically sincere and entirely free from ulterior motives. Because what mattered the most to him was his kingdom: the books. In his library he owned three hundred and forty books: Italian, English, French and Spanish, and his “Unbound volume of divers written collections and rhapsodies,” that still nobody knows where it is.
There is another way to write about this affair. And it’s not about the fake, outdated legends of the cuckold and rustic pedant. It’s about a multicultural London where John Florio, protected by the most powerful men of England, was able to write, collaborate, and make English language and literature as we know it today.
Yes, because English is the world wide known language also thanks to John Florio. It’s never too late to introduce him in English books or in schools. After all, he is the third greatest linguist after Shakespeare and Chaucer. These two are in everyone’s lips. Why Florio can’t join the group?
There is a chance to write a better, more modern and genuine story. Because whether Shakespeare’s scholars like it or not, the elephant will also be there. In the Bard’s room. Suggesting him the meaning of a word, a proverb, a compound, reading him an Italian novella. As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, “At the length truth will out.”
And John Florio certainly agreed. In 1578 he wrote “Time is the father of Truth.”
Time has come.