The way Mark Twain saw it, the plays of William Shakespeare were either written by Shakespeare or somebody else with the same name. What he probably meant was that the brand is unassailable, omnipotent, untouchable. In fact, Twain was one of the great doubters, an anti-Stratfordian, part of a long-simmering movement of opinion holding that the great plays and poems were written by someone other than a ho-hum actor with scant formal education and no ties to people in high places. That “shake-speare”, as it is often written in contemporary documents, was a pseudonym. The real Bard is someone who chose not to reveal his (or her) name.
For many years, Montreal scholar and writer Lamberto Tassinari has been building a case for John Florio, an Italian scholar and courtier who was born in London of an Italian exile, lived in Italy during his youth and returned at the age of 18.
I’d read about Tassinari’s arguments in a piece by Rover editor Michael Mirolla, and found them thoroughly intriguing. Now, the Tuscan-born Tassinari, who settled in Montreal in 1981, has his book out, John Florio, the Man Who Was Shakespeare. He made an appearance at the Blue Metropolis festival this past week, where he was interviewed by Globe and Mail writer Michael Prosser, and questioned by members of a packed audience. Ninety minutes of argumentation, thoroughly delightful. Afterwards, I bought the book.
Seen through Tassinari’s eyes, The Author had a worldliness, a knowledge of European culture, court life and especially of Italy which no landlocked illiterate’s son could ever have gained in a thousand years of eavesdropping in London pubs. Prospero, he argues, contains a string of coded messages through which Florio reveals the truth, just as he is about to give up the ruse. In fact, a good part of Tassinari’s case is built on deciphering clues in the folio. But the most intriguing aspect of his great book is the picture it gives of a writer-in- exile. The Author’s plays are indeed full of references to people who are stranded in a foreign land, or banned from returning home.
Surely there is no doubt that many fine minds have cast doubt on the official details of The Author’s life, scant as they are, and that’s part of the proof. How could a man whose plays are filled with letters, a veritable blizzard, die and leave not a single letter in his hand extant? Possibly because he never signed a letter WS?
Charles Dickens, Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges… the list of great readers who doubt the Bard’s official identity is impressive. The truth, as Tassinari points out, is well within our reach, thanks to the analytical powers of computers. It’s only a matter of time and money before the complete works of Florio/WS are digitized and analysed for similarities and patterns.
Tassinari credits his own 28-year-displacement with giving him the perspective to put the evidence together. Doubly intriguing, that the idea came to him in Montreal, a city that has long lived more or less comfortably with an official history and social dynamic operating alongside quite another reality happening at street level.
Anyway, my personal “Shakespeare” looks more like Joseph Fiennes than the stout burgher who died leaving so little evidence of having lived a life worthy of the great writer. Furthermore, Florio looks a lot like Fiennes.
Bravo to Lamberto Tassinari for throwing a little Tuscan light on the foggy history of England’s least English writer.
John Florio: The Man Who Was Shakespeare can be purchased online at Tassinari’s site.