“If the link between Florio and Ben Jonson is pretty much proven, we have a lot of talk about the possible connection between Florio and Shakespeare.”

John Florio’s collaboration with Ben Jonson in writing Volpone is well documented by a copy of the play that Jonson dedicated to Florio, praising him as “his loving father” and “the Ayde of his Muses”, which suggests not only the disparity in their ages, but most importantly implies some suggestion of discipleship, with a more striking tribute by speaking of him as co-writer.

This dedication shows that Florio played a fundamental part in Jonson’s play. It’s important to understand the modes and forms of this influence, and not give John Florio the simple role of a ‘teacher’ who supplied his “Muses” of banal informations about Italian folklore. It is also important to notice that this aspect of John Florio’s life, his connection with theatre and the Leicester’s men, already documented in his first work First Fruits (1578) 1, has not yet been fully investigated.

This paper, titled « «Petruchio, I shall be your ben venuto » : Shakespeare, Jonson et la langue italienne » 2, written by Christophe Camard, Université François Rabelais, focuses only on the Italian elements, words, settings, puns, and characters of Jonson’s and Shakespeare’s plays which have both John Florio’s fingerprints in common. This study clearly shows his presence in both dramatists’s way of approaching the Italian language, translating and creating an hybrid language with new words. It also suggests that Florio’s works, First Fruits, Second Fruits, as well as his dictionaries, were the source for the Italian elements found in both Jonson’s Volpone and Shakespeare’s Italian plays. In Jonson’s case, it is much more a matter of taking directly from words read or learned elsewhere and sometimes accumulating them in a pedantic way. In Shakespeare, the Italian language is used in a more subtle and also rarer way, in which the author adds his own personal touch, using these foreign words to create puns with meaning, so that Shakespeare goes beyond the simple effect of local colour and also seeks to enrich the English language in order to multiply the meanings of the words in an almost anamorphic way.

As the author suggests: “If the link between Florio and Ben Jonson is pretty much proven (the British Museum has indeed a copy of Volpone dedicated to Florio), we have a lot of talk about the possible connection between Florio and Shakespeare.”

This paper is available only in French language. Here you can read the translation in English.

Source: Christophe Camard, « « Petruchio, I shall be your ben venuto » : Shakespeare, Jonson et la langue italienne », Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare [En ligne], 22 | 2005, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2007, consulté le 02 mai 2019. URL ; DOI : 10.4000/shakespeare.740

LANGUAGE: French | English


Shakespeare, Jonson and the Italian language The purpose of this paper is to study the presence of the Italian language in Shakespeare’s Italian plays and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Thus, we shall see that, even if many words and expressions were borrowed from Florio’s books (First Fruites, Second Fruites, A World of Words) by both playwrights, the presence of the Italian language is not limited to those examples. The Italian language is also very much present in the names of the characters, in the titles corresponding to particular functions, in the interjections or the names of the places. With this new “World of Words,” the playwright recreates on the stage a remote and partly imaginary country, unknown to the public. We shall have to ask ourselves if the aim of the playwrights was only to achieve some kind of local colour and to satisfy a need for exoticism. After studying the Italian words present in the plays, we shall try to study the influence of the Italian language on the English language itself. Indeed, the Italian language sometimes seems to infiltrate into the English language through puns, expressions, metaphors and new interjections. We shall then try to ask ourselves if, in such cases, the aim of the playwrights is only to create an effect of local colour.

In one of his bilingual dialogues from First Fruites – published in 1578 – John Florio invents a conversation between two Italian characters visiting London and for whom culture shock proves very confusing. Indeed, when the other character asks him who the English are most ill-mannered towards, the other character answers:

“Toward Strangers : and few of these English men delight to have their chyldren learne divers languages, whiche thing displeaseth me. When I
arrived first in London, I could not speake English, and I met above five hundred persons, afore I could find one, that could tell me in Italian, or
French, where the Post dwelt”. 3

The Italian characters in this long, bilingual dialogue evolve in a country that seems strange, barbaric, closed to all influence and especially to any foreign language, whereas, as the one of the characters, English is “a language that wyl do you good in England, but pass Dover, it is woorth nothing“. 4

In his Second Fruits published thirteen years later – in 1591 – John Florio depicts a very different atmosphere. Indeed, his characters seem to evolve in a country much more open to foreign influences, whose inhabitants wish to learn the main European languages. As Frances Yates shows very well in her book on Florio’s life, many people teach these languages in London, write books on the model of Florio’s Fruits or work on dictionaries. If, in the space of a few years, the attitude of the English has changed, it is because, says Frances Yates, England has been won over by the spirit of openness that characterizes the Renaissance. 5

However, it was during the 1590s that Italy made its appearance as a stage for English theatre. But often playwrights such as Shakespeare and later Ben Jonson did not simply use Italy as a place mentioned at the beginning of the play and which would have no connection with the real country. Many of the locally coloured elements aim to anchor the action in a different, exotic country, a country that the vast majority of the audience is of course unfamiliar with. In order to make this country exist on the stage, to insist on its exotic character, the playwright cannot really rely on sets that are almost non-existent (sets that in any case would bring nothing if they existed, since the spectator probably has no idea what Italy looks like). He will then rely on another type of scenery that I will call auditory scenery, i.e. based on the Italian words that are scattered throughout Shakespeare’s plays set in Italy and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. In this context, the theatre of these two playwrights testifies to the new craze for foreign languages and foreign countries and accompanies it, undoubtedly by responding to a certain demand from the public, but also by provoking it. One may then wonder how this auditory set is set up, what kind of words it is based on, but above all what sources Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, whose knowledge of Italian is not necessarily proven, use. It has always been assumed that Florio (his First and Second Fruits, his dictionary A World of Words, the first version of which was published in 1598) was the only source for the Italian words we needed. However, the latter may not be the only source, even though his influence remains paramount. While the link between Florio and Ben Jonson is fairly well established (the British Museum has a copy of Volpone dedicated to Florio 6 ), much has been said about the possible link between Florio and Shakespeare. Indeed if we know that the two characters must have crossed paths and known each other at certain times of their existence (around Southampton in particular), there is unfortunately no direct proof, no letter from either of them, no dedication proving that they knew each other personally. Moreover, certain fundamental differences appear when studying the texts of the plays between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. In Jonson’s case, it is much more a matter of taking directly from words read or learned elsewhere and sometimes accumulating them in a pedantic way, as if to make fun of them, as in scene ii of Volpone‘s Act II, where Volpone pretends to be a “mountebank”. In Shakespeare, the Italian language is used in a more subtle and also rarer way, so to speak. Certainly, some words or quotations are often used as they are, but most of the time the author adds his own personal touch, using these foreign words to create puns with meaning, so that Shakespeare goes beyond the simple effect of local colour and also seeks to enrich the English language in order to multiply the meanings of the words in an almost anamorphic way.

The first element of the auditory scenery shaped in the Shakespeare’s Italian plays and in Volpone, these are of course the names of the characters. It’s all these Italian names that bring the spectator in a foreign and exotic universe. Each of the two playwrights make extensive use of this process, which is the simplest of all but which can also give rise to multiple studies and interpretations. The names of the characters are indeed sources of games of many words; they are often reinvented, remade. If we look at the long list of Italian characters in Shakespeare, it soon becomes clear that the authentic Italian names and real ones are often those of the secondary characters (by example Leonardo, Stephano or Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice; Lodovico, Gratiano or Emilia in Othello; Lucetta and Antonio in The Two Gentlemen of Verona), which reinforces the idea of an auditory or onomastic scenery around the main characters. Most of these Italian names are not present in the texts sources, either because the characters are invented or because they are match characters that don’t have names in the source. It’s very difficult to know what the source of these names is, since neither Florio’s dictionary nor his Fruits contain any first names. However, it is noteworthy that Shakespeare never uses the most common Italian first names, which are those of the Apostles: Giovanni, Pietro, Paolo, Luca. These secondary character names are mostly authentic names that have no particular meaning or whose meaning is unrelated to the action or function of the character.

On the other hand, for prominent characters, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson often use the resources of the Italian language to give a precise meaning to the character’s name. This is evident in Volpone, where each character has an Italian name linked to his personality. For example, the name Volpone literally means “big fox”. Florio gives us in his dictionary a second definition which corresponds to a figurative meaning: “Also an old crafty, subtle sneaking companion”, a definition that corresponds to everything done to the character. We can do the same analysis with Voltore the lawyer: “a ravenous bird called a vultur”, Corvino, the little raven, Corbaccio, the dirty raven (Florio tells us: “a filthy great raven”) or Mosca, the fly. What’s interesting here is that Florio does not just transpose names of animals or birds of prey, he uses one of the particular rules of Italian grammar, the one that increasing, decreasing or decreasing suffixes such as “-one”, “-ino” or “-accio”. This rule is mentioned without really being explained in Florio’s First Fruits: it evokes the possibility to use “diminishers” and “augmentations”. The explanations are much more detailed in an appendix to the 1611 edition of his dictionary. But this rule is also explained in detail in the grammar of John Sanford 7 published in 1605, another source possible for Ben Jonson. Shakespeare, on the other hand, makes very little use of this procedure, except in the case of Lucetta already mentioned and that of Petruchio (literally: “the pretty or sweet little Peter.”) in The Taming of the Shrew. However, these two first names exist more or less as such and Shakespeare may not have been aware of the presence of these suffixes. However, there are many games about the meaning of these suffixes Italian names. One can mention among others the name of Gobbo which means “the hunchback” (“hunch or croope-backt” as Florio tells us), which is reminiscent of the silhouette of Pulcinella of Commedia dell’Arte or the statue of “Gobbo di Rialto” erected in the 16th century by Pietro da Salò on which the Venetians used to hang small bills in which they ridiculed the clergy or the Patricians. We can also quote Mercatio, which refers to the function as a merchant in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (he even qualifies as a merchant of “rich Mercatio 8 “), or Salerio in The Merchant of Venice, which also indicates the character’s merchant function with the game on “salary” or on the Latin “salarius” meaning “merchant of fish”. As for Cambio in The Taming of the Shrew, who means “change”, which is naturally the name that is taken by Lucentio when he disguises himself as a Latin teacher. Some have an Italian-sounding but are apparently totally made up: as in the case of Othello. Indeed, the character has no name in Cinzio’s novel: Othello is only a “Moorish Captain”. The name of Othello, which has a strong Italian sound, despite its origin with its two “ls” has given rise to very high levels of many contradictory studies: some want to see it as a allusion to an Ottoman origin for example. However, it is more interesting to look into a possible Italian origin of the name. In Venetian we find the term “osella”, the name of the medal that annually bestowed the Doge to the most valiant Venetians, which is a perfect match for the image of the character at the beginning of the play. However, this term is not present in Florio. There’s another possible explanation, and one that I find very appealing, is that of the connection between the name “Moor”, the name given to him in the source, and that of the great Venetian Moro family – the same word in Italian – which gave Venice a Doge and many generals including one who precisely served in Cyprus in 1508. The coat of arms of this family contained blackberries, reminiscent of the strawberries embroidered on the handkerchief of Othello that are not mentioned in Cinzio’s. In his book A Dictionary of the Characters and proper Names in the works of Shakespeare. 9 Frances Griffin Stokes claims to have found the full and oldest name of this family which would be “Otelli del Moro”. This seems to be the most plausible explanation, even if it is well difficult to figure out how Shakespeare could have had access to this information. We will finally notice that all these character names are first names and that surnames do not appear almost never, except for the Montagues and Capulets (Montecchi and Capelletti in Italian, names that already appear in Dante and which Brooke had translated or adapted before Shakespeare), or again the Minola family name in The Taming of the Shrew. This last name does not appear in any source. It is a typical Italian name, rather of Lombard origin, still very present today. We also find the name of the Bentivolii family, a family of Lucentio: it’s not a Pisan name but rather a native name of Emilia-Romagna, since the Bentivogli were effectively a powerful Bolognese family in the 15th and 16th centuries. Family names such as Bentivolii or Minola produce a very strong local colour effect.

The use of the Italian language is not limited to the names of characters. If that were the case, the exoticism of the auditory decor would seem well artificial and limited. Italian words are also often used in the conversations between the characters. It is these words that probably bring the strongest Italian touch, since they make the characters look like foreigners to the public: some words in their language are different, their functions are different, the titles they are given are different, or the means of transport or places they frequent have foreign-sounding names. It seems obvious that Shakespeare and Ben Jonson had to do some research in this field, more or less in depth, in order to bring this touch of linguistic strangeness and exoticism. Thus, by means of a few words, a whole political and public world of relations between the characters appears as foreign.

Among these Italian words, the most numerous are undoubtedly those corresponding to political and public functions or to political or judicial bodies, particularly in Venice. Ben Jonson uses them extensively in Volpone: we find terms such as “Scrutineo” (a kind of Venetian court) or “Lazaretto” (hospital where plague patients were quarantined), as well as political expressions such as “ragion del Stato” (with a mistake on the article which should have been “dello”). On the other hand, other political bodies are translated: for example, “the Senate”, “the Great Council”, “the Forty”, “the Ten”, precise terms that refer to real Venetian political bodies. The same precision is not found in Shakespeare, since only the term “senator” appears in Othello and other terms such as “consuls” or “Signiory” do not correspond to Venetian reality. If most of these terms are translated, it is because the source used is not Florio – most of these terms are neither in his dictionary nor in his Fruits – but rather works translated into English which only give the translation. Thus, the main source is Lewkenor’s book, The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, published in 1599. But this book is only a translation of Contarini’s De magistratibus et Repubblica Venetorum, written in Latin and published in 1540. Contarini is mentioned in Volpone, in scene i of Act IV, when Sir Politic says “I had read my Contarene”, as if his book were the Bible for any traveller going to Venice. If political terms are only present in the plays set in Venice, it is largely because there were many such works describing the Venetian political regime, a regime that fascinated a whole part of Europe. As far as the functions themselves are concerned, we find very few in Shakespeare’s plays apart from the terms “Senator” in Othello or “special officers of the night”, which corresponds to the “offizieri di notte”, a kind of night police in Venice. On the other hand, Ben Jonson makes a special effort in this area, since he accumulates terms such as “avocatori”, “notario”, “commandatore” or even “saffi” (sort of bailiffs): all these terms are in Florio’s dictionary and the fact that they are not translated reinforces the local colour effect.

Ben Jonson’s search for local colour is, it seems, much more thorough than Shakespeare’s with regard to place names. We find the main Venetian place names such as “St Mark” four times, “the Rialto”, “the Grand Canal”, “the Arsenale”. Again, Jonson uses the translated versions instead, probably because these are words he has often seen in English books or translated into English and not in Florio’s, who only mentions the Rialto in his dictionary. It is this same Rialto which, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, is seen as the centre of the Venetian space where merchants meet, which justifies Shylock’s recurring question: “What news on the Rialto?”. The nerve centre of the Venice of Jonson seems rather to be St. Mark’s Square, whose name comes up very often, as well as the term “piazza”. This term, which is very difficult to translate into English (Florio himself does not find a very good definition with “any market-place, a chiefe street or broad way in any cittie or town”) is an element of local colour and exoticism. If the Venice of The Merchant of Venice is a Venice of money, merchants, trade and therefore of the Rialto, Ben Jonson’s Venice is rather a Venice of the “Piazza”, that is to say, the Venice of all citizens, including crooks and charlatans. It’s an interesting place name, still in Venice but this times in Othello, and which gave rise to many questions, it’s the famous “Sagittary”. Many wanted to see in this name that of a tavern. Now, if this is the case, it is a made-up name because no tavern ever bore that name in Venice. Wilson Knight issued another hypothesis: the name “Sagittary” could refer to the Arsenal, Othello’s residence, which is general, since the entrance of the the Arsenal was overlooked by a statue of an archer. However, the The name “Sagittarius” was not used to designate the Arsenal. For my besides, I prefer another explanation. Sagittarius would rather be the street called “Frezzarìa”. It is a small street that still exists today. The word “frezza” means “arrow”: the “frezzarìa” was a street where one could find manufacturers of weapons, and in particular of arrows. It’s a small street that still exists today. The word “frezza” means “arrow”: the “frezzarìa” was a street where there were manufacturers of weapons, especially arrows. It seems strange, at first sight, that Shakespeare wanted to change the name from “frezzarìa” to “Sagittary”. But this transposition can be explained thanks to Antonio Sabellico’s book De Situ Orbis, published in 1560, a work written in Latin that describes the city of Venice, its streets, squares and palaces. In this book, which must have circulated in England, the “frezzarìa” is called “vicus sagittarius”. Not having the Italian name at his disposal, Shakespeare simply anglicized the Latin name. We can also stop a the names of means of transport which, again, are not present only when it comes to Shakespeare’s Venice. Yes, it is, as in Ben Jonson, the term “gondola” can be found in The Merchant of Venice and “gondolier” in Othello. This term can be found in at Florio’s but also in all the books about Venice. In However, there are two other more interesting terms to consider: “argosy” and “traject” in The Merchant of Venice. “Argosy” which previously appearing in Marlowe, is the English version of the Italian “ragusea”, the name of the Venetian merchant ships which refers to the city of Ragusa, now Dubrovnik, a Venetian trading post where we used to make these ships. The English “argosy” was formed from Ragusa’s other name: Aragusa or Arragossa. The term “traject” or “tranect”, on the other hand, is problematic. It appears in the mouth of Portia in scene iv of Act III: “Bring them (I pray thee) with imagin’d speed / Unto the traject, to the common ferry / Which trades to Venice”. Some, such as Mario Praz 10, wanted to see a version English from Italian “traghetto”. The problem is that “traject” can’t be the “traghetto” here because the “traghetto” is only a simple gondola or boat that allows to cross a channel in a canal in Venice. It is by no means the “common ferry” that makes it possible to get to Venice from the mainland. That ship there, much bigger a “traghetto”, was called the “burchio”. One can of course assume that this was a mistake by Shakespeare because he didn’t know exactly what the “traghetto” was, even if Florio gives a fairly precise definition. However, if one analyzes the word carefully, the presence of the “to” in the middle of the sentence indicates that “traject” and “common ferry” are not one and the same thing: the “traject” is rather a step before reaching the “common ferry”. In my opinion, this stage can only be a landing stage or the mechanism called “carro” by which horses lifted the ships from the Brenta to the Venice lagoon. If we accept this interpretation, “traject” is not an Italian word but rather the English word that Shakespeare chose to designate this mechanism whose name he did not know.

As we have just seen, it is therefore a whole universe of words that refer to functions, places or means of transport that Ben Jonson and Shakespeare create, whenever they can. But both of them, in different ways, go further by trying to bring the Italian language into the ordinary language of their characters, so that it is not only the public setting but also the characters themselves who are strangers to the public.

The most obvious sign of the presence of Italian in the characters’ speech is of course the interjections of all kinds. They have the advantage of underlining the naturalness of the Italian language and at the same time do not hinder the understanding of the speech for the audience. Quite present in Shakespeare, they are practically absent in Volpone, with the exception of the main one, the term “Signor”, which is also present in all Shakespeare’s plays. Curiously, it appears only once in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, whereas the term “Don” (in “Don Alphonso” or “Don Antonio”) appears several times, and is not used in Italy for lay people but rather in Spain, where it is used to designate noble persons. It was later, with the Spanish domination, that it appeared, mainly in southern Italy. Thus, its presence in Much Ado About Nothing is perfectly justified. In the first act of The Taming of the Shrew, we find the interjection “Basta” whose source is probably Florio since it is found in his Fruits as well as in his dictionary.

We can also quote the “ay me” pronounced by Romeo and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, most certainly coming from the “aimè” often found in Italian poetry, particularly in Petrarch, and which means “alas”. Finally, I will quote a last interesting example, that of the interjection “via” which Florio translates in chapter 5 of his Second Fruits as “goe to”. The term as such is found in the mouth of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “go to, via! “(II.ii.145). But it is never present as such in pieces with an Italian setting. However, we find “fia” in The Merchant of Venice, a sort of hybrid term (formed from the Italian “via” and the English “fie”) pronounced by Gobbo who is himself a hybrid buffoon, since he is both “Gobbo” and “Launcelot”. To these interjections must be added the many Italian fencing terms that are present in each of the fights in Romeo and Juliet and which certainly have an ironic value. Expressions such as “punto riverso” (actually the correct term is “punta riversa”), “alla stoccata”, “passado” (a term of Spanish origin) or “hay” (from the Italian “hai” in “hai il colpo”) are used by Mercutio to ridicule the way Tybalt fights, who is “a very good blade” and who, like the Italian fencing masters in London, considers duelling an art and not a violent activity. The source of these fencing terms is not Florio but rather Vincenzo Saviolo, 11 an Italian fencing master who lived in London and published a manual in 1595 entitled Practice. This Saviolo was at the centre of a controversy and Shakespeare seems to be one of those who mocked him since he identified him with the character of Tybalt. Florio himself, a friend and defender of Saviolo, mentions him in his Second Fruits as “Master VS” and describes him as “that Italian that lookes like Mars himself” 12. He is then presented as a refined being who has come to teach the art of dueling to Englishmen who fight like barbarians. These Italian fencing terms can be considered to have a double function: firstly, they serve to ridicule Saviolo and his students (no doubt a good actor must pronounce them in an exaggeratedly refined way), but also, through the fencing and its vocabulary, they have a very strong local colour effect. Indeed, it seems that part of the public associates Italy with fencing and the art of combat, to make fun of it or to admire it.

Finally, we must take a closer look at the first act of The Taming of the Shrew. Indeed, it is there, most certainly, that Shakespeare best succeeds in producing this local colour effect thanks to the entire Italian phrases found there. It is the only example of this method in all his work, with the exception of Holofernes’ proverb about Venice in Love’s Labour’s Lost. These sentences include: “Mi perdonato” (I.i.25), “Con tutto il cuore ben trovato” (I.ii.24), “Alla nostra casa ben venuto, molto honorato signor mio Petrucio” and “Petruchio, I shall be your ben venuto” (I.ii.280). All the editions of the piece specify in note that these sentences come from the Fruites of Florio, but I would qualify this statement a little. It is true that the Second Fruits are the source used. However, if one reads the Second Fruits in detail, one notices that none of these sentences are copied identically. All of them are in fact rewritten, re-fabricated by Shakespeare from pieces of existing sentences. Indeed, Florio’s work includes fragments such as “siate il molto ben trovato”, “honorato sarò io” and “con tutto il cuore”. It seems, therefore, that after reading or studying the Second Fruits, Shakespeare wanted to write his own Italian, as it were, by compiling expressions that do not appear together in Florio’s work. This tends to prove that Shakespeare studied Italian to some extent in the Fruites, at least enough to be able to make this compilation and come up with sentences in which different formulas of politeness are accumulated. There is, however, an error on “mi perdonato”, an expression which is not Italian and which should have been, as with Florio, “perdonate mi”. Ben Jonson never uses the technique of inserting entire Italian sentences into the text. He prefers to insert simple words that probably all come from Florio’s dictionary and thus end up with a kind of hybrid language in certain scenes. The best example is scene ii of Act II where Volpone, disguised as a “mountebank”, becomes so Italian that he utters bilingual phrases such as: “I was condemned a sforzato to the galleys” or “I cannot endure to see the rabble of these ground ciarlatani”. The creation of a hybrid language by the two playwrights testifies to this new enthusiasm for foreign languages, of which Florio himself is the symbol.

This sometimes hybrid language shows us to what extent the two playwrights try to make the two languages intertwine. Beyond the Italian words often present in the text, we can therefore also question the underlying influence of Italian on the English text. Indeed, it seems interesting to me to study the possible puns that are suggested by Italian, especially in Shakespeare. I will first of all take up the examples given above: the “aimè” of Italian poetry, which in English becomes “ay me”, or the fencing term “hai” which becomes “hay”. These examples are quite numerous but it is only a spelling and sound modification of a word. More interesting are the examples that give rise to double or multiple meanings. This is the case of the word “fig” that Iago uses in one of his monologues when he says “Virtue? A fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus’ (I.iii.320). Now, this use of the word “fig” comes directly from Italian. But it can have several meanings: either it is the translation of the term “fico”, which refers to the fruit and is used figuratively to designate a thing of no value, interest or credibility, or it is “fica”, an Italian swearword that is generally accompanied by a gesture that consists of putting the thumb between the index and middle fingers and extending the arm. This is an obscene gesture made to show contempt. It is a very common gesture in Italy at the time, and is even evoked in Dante’s work, where a damned man from Hell allows himself to do it in the direction of God: “the thief / Raises both hands while making the fig: / God, he cried out, here, it’s for you” (song XXV) 13 . This meaning of the word “fica” is given by Florio. Its definition is as follows: “a flurt with ones fingers given or shewen in disgrace”. One can very well imagine Iago making this gesture towards the audience or Roderigo. In the same way, one can wonder about the term “cats” which, in Romeo and Juliet, is associated with Tybalt who is “prince of cats”. Isn’t there a connection to be made with the Italian “cazzo” in Florio’s dictionary? This would of course be an insult on the part of Mercutio and it would be in line with the many naughty puns that dot the first scene of the play.

Finally, and still to emphasise the idea that Italian can influence the English language, I would like to return briefly to the Fruits of Florio themselves. Indeed, the text of the Fruits has, it seems, greatly influenced the two playwrights who have also been interested in the English part of the text. Indeed, more than just a foreign-language textbook, the Fruites is a literary work in its own right, with a great many proverbs of English or Italian origin, as well as dramatic situations – because it is above all about dialogue – which are very interesting. One can quote the famous proverb about Venice that Holofernes takes up (“Venetia, Venetia, Chi non ti vede, non ti pretia”): it is drawn directly from Florio, which leads some commentators to to say that Holofernes would be a caricature of Florio. But we can also quote the phrase “fruitful Lombardy, / The pleasant garden of great Italy” at the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew, a phrase that is a reprise of Florio’s in chapter 19 of First Fruits: “Lombardy is the garden of the world”. Entire passages are, in my opinion, also inspired by Florio, such as the passage in Othello where Iago criticizes women:

“You are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in…
Your beds… (II.1.109-112)

This passage echoes the description of women given by one of Florio’s characters in dialogue 12 of the Second Fruits:

“Women are in churches, Saints: abroad, Angels: at home devills: at windowes Syrens: at doores, pyes: and in gardens, Goates.”

Ben Jonson is also obviously inspired by Florio when he writes the dialogues between Sir Politic and Peregrine, two English travellers who meet in Venice and talk about the foreign country they discover. Scene i of Act IV, where Sir Politic explains the manners of the Italians to Peregrine, who arrived more recently, is in a way a reversal of the situation staged in Florio’s Fruits. The irony here lies in the fact that, just as the astonished Italians are critical of the barbarity of the English in Florio, our two Englishmen are equally critical and reverse each of Florio’s arguments. For example, the quotation I gave in the introduction has its counterpart in this scene with : “Well, if I could but find one man… one man / To mine own heart, whom I durst trust…” To Florio’s remark about the inability of the English to speak foreign languages, Jonson responds ironically that Italians are incapable of being trustworthy. One will notice, moreover, that Florio and his books are undoubtedly allusively mentioned in one of these dialogues with this phrase by Peregrine: “that vulgar grammar / Which he that cried Italian to teach me” (II.i.113-114).

In conclusion, I will come back to the differences between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson in their use of the Italian language. In Volpone, it seems to me that the use made of it remains very artificial, probably because the Italian words, beyond the search of “local color” have a comic function. Indeed, through these words, they are other authors such as Florio, Contarini or Coryat (from which the “mountebank” scene is based) which are put into stage and ridiculed. It seems to me that the desire for local color is not the most important thing here: it is rather a question of staging an Italian livresque and try to demystify it by ridicule. At Shakespeare, the approach seems quite different. The Italian words are apparently less researched and studied in upstream. Their presence is also much less systematic than in Volpone. However, there is a real local color effect, although very variable depending on the room, local colour effect based on the mostly about the words. But, as with the source texts that he uses as a basis, but then modifies or surpasses it, it is me seems that the Italian language is a source of creation for him, of invention. In this he is the opposite of Ben Jonson, for whom Italian is the opposite of more a point of arrival than a point of departure.

Christophe CAMARD
Université François Rabelais, Tours


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  1. For further details about the connection between John Florio and the Leicester’s men, read 1.5 Florio & The Leicester’s men in Firste Fruites
  2. Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare, 22 | 2005, 39-53
  3. John Florio, First Fruites, Londres, Thomas Dawson, 1578, Dialogue 27, p. 51.
  4. Ibid., Dialogue 27, p. 50.
  5. Frances Yates, The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1934.
  6. Fur further details about John Florio and Ben Jonson’s friendship, read 3.4. John Florio, Ben Jonson & Nicholas Breton in “Groom of the Privy Chamber”
  7. John Sanford, A Grammer or Inroduction to the Italian Tongue, Oxford, 1605, chap. « Of Derivatives », p. 14.
  8. JULIA. What think’st thou of the rich Mercatio? » (I.ii.12).
  9. Francis Griffin Stokes, A Dictionary of the Characters and proper Names in the works of Shakespeare, Londres, Harrap, 1924.
  10. Mario Praz, Shakespeare e l’Italia, Florence, Le Monnier, 1963, p. 22.
  11. For further details about the friendship between Vincenzo Saviolo and John Florio, read 2.6. Vincentio Saviolo & John Florio in Second Fruits
  12. Dialogue 7, p. 117
  13. Dante Alighieri, l’Enfer, trad. J acqueline Risset, coll. GF, Paris, Flammarion, 1997.
Giovanni Florio, known as John Florio, is recognised as the most important humanist in Renaissance's England.

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