Culture & Conversation

A Will Too Mean to be “Shakespeare”?

The great majority of Shakespeare’s readers have never read his will, a document easily found on the internet but regularly omitted in the editions of Shakespeare’s work and seldom found in the ever growing number of the Bard’s biographies. Why? Because it is an embarrassing, dissonant document within the Shakespeariana.

Since its discovery in 1737, scholars have tried in vain to come to terms with this very un-Shakespearian piece of literature. Actually there is nothing Shakespearian within William Shackspeare’s will, as one easily discovers upon reading it. For an interesting and revelatory analysis of all the problems and inconsistencies of the will, one should read Shakespeare’s Will… Considered Too Curiously  by Bonner Miller Cutting. She writes the following in the opening;

Viewing the will in the best possible light, the exalted 19th century authority James Halliwell sums it up as “the testimonies we may cherish of his last faltering accents to the world he was leaving.” Failing such eloquence, many scholars are resigned to accepting the Stratford Will more simply as “an enigma”. A closer look may show that the will is not an enigma; it is a disaster. (Brief Chronicles Vol.I)

The will is written in a formulaic, flat prose with no style whatsoever. As for the content, money, property and “household stuffe” are the testator’s sole preoccupation, from the beginning to the end of the document. There is not a single mention of books, not even the Bible. There is also nothing about culture, theatre, poetry. The names of people of high rank are also absent, quite surprisingly in the last will of a dramatist who supposedly was one of the most successful and loved playwrights at the English court. A great portion of the document is occupied by an endless, exhausting passage whose objective was to make sure the property would remain within the Shackspeare’s family up to seven heirs male of his daughter Susanna. The infamous second best bed (“I gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture”) the supposed great dramatist left to his wife is in stark contrast to the tender affection showed by John Florio towards his wife mentioned five times with great affection in his will: “my deerly beloved wife Rose Florio, most heartily greiving and ever sorrowing, that I cannot give or leave her more, in requitall of her tender love, loving care, painfull dilligence, and continuall labour, to mee, and of mee in all my Fortunes, and many sicknesses, then whome never had husband a more loving wife, painfull nurce, or comfortable  consorte (…)”

Miller Cutting has examined “over 2,000 wills and an extensive bibliography dealing with will-making in early modern England” but I’m certain she failed to read the beautiful will of John Florio, the author overlooked by Stratfordians and Oxfordians, Marlowians, Baconians as she would have had several Shakespearian shivers! Remove dates from the wills, make the identity of the two testators disappear and it is certain that no scholar would have any doubt identifying Shakespeare’s will. Florio’s will, “written every sillable with myne owne hand” as he states twice, is in fact replete with particularly refined, elegant and mannered Shakespearian words. Many can indeed be traced to Shakespeare’s works. Any Shakespeare reader can easily spot them, among the most precious : comforter, preserver, ascribed, sorrowfull,penitently, confidently, revoke, frustrate, importunity, unheedy, etc.

Florio’s prose  is characterized by a remarkable high style. With eloquent and passionate accents John Florio mentions Queen Anne four times and  Ferdinando Great Duke of Tuscany once. Florio meticulously refers three times to his own books and writings. William Herbert Earl of Pembroke, the Lord Chamberlain, is named once as one of the executors of the will and to whom Florio bequeathed all his 340 Italian, French and Spanish books (“to accept of them as of a signe and token of my service and affection to his honor”). No need to remember the prominent role the Earl of Pembroke played in the Shakespearian narrative as the sponsor of the 1623 First Folio.

The English books, very probably in a greater number than the foreign ones, were destined by Florio to his wife Rose. Florio’s 340 non-English books never reached Wilton or Baynards Castle at London as “the executors named in the Will for certain reasons renouncing execution” according to the sibylline closing line of the will. Why William Herbert (“as hee once promised mee”) didn’t keep his promise to Florio? Why did the aristocrat who alongside Ben Jonson (Shakespeare’s literary midwife) held such a fundamental role in the promotion of the works of William Shakespeare step aside two years later, deciding not to execute Florio’s will? Historians, and biographers of the Pembroke family have nothing to say.

We have also lost track of the English books left by Florio to his wife Rose, except one, a copy of the play Volpone with an autographed dedication to Florio by its author Ben Jonson which reads : “To his loving Father and worthy Friend Master John Florio. Ayde of his Muses. Ben Jonson seales this testimony of Friendship and Love.”

Florio’s entire library has since disappeared. His Italian, French and Spanish books would have been of decisive importance in resolving the Shakespearian question. But not a single scholar has paid the slightest attention to such a disgraceful loss. In a recent list of book owners compiled by David Pearson there is no reference to Florio’s phantom library.

*****

NOTE: Just over a decade ago, Lamberto Tassinari had an epiphany. While re-reading The Tempest, he felt “a Southern voice in this bizarre Italian story.”  It occurred to him that the entire Shakespearen oeuvre could not have been written by the thinly-schooled son of a glover. Then he discovered John Florio, a Jewish-Italian linguist and translator of Montaigne, contemporary of Shakespeare, and joined a famous club of doubters including Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud. Tassinari’s subsequent book on the Florio argument came out in 2008, and the English translation a year later. A second edition planned for March will include the above comparison of wills by Shakespeare and Florio.

Lamberto Tassinari obtained a “laurea” in Philosophy from the University of Florence. In 1983 he co-founded and directed the transcultural Montreal magazine ViceVersa. He taught Italian language and literature at the Université de Montreéal.  In 1985 he published a novel, Durante la partenza, and in 1999 Utopies par le hublot, a collection of essays. 

  • 11 Responses to “A Will Too Mean to be “Shakespeare”?”

    1. Leila Marshy

      Intriguing, love this. But why would Florio not reveal that he was behind the works of Shakespeare? What was he trying to hide or protect? Wouldn't a man of his station and learning gain so much by being also the author of such popular plays?

      Reply
      • Lamberto Tassinari

        Hi Leila,
        Thank you for your question.

        First : the plays of Shakespeare weren’t as popular as now believed : today’s Shakespeare is not the Shakespeare of Elizabethan times, three centuries of Bardolatry
        have created a myth.
        John «Fletcher was England’s most popular playwright. In the decade 1619-29, we know of nine court performances of his plays (to only three of Shakespeare’s) » (Gary Taylor, The Quest for Cardenio, 2012, p.19).
        Second : you say What was he trying to hide or protect?
        John Florio actually succeded in hiding for four centuries!
        Why?As the answer is complex, let me quote from my book’s Introduction, hoping to make this murky question clear :

        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 theater, 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.” 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, Christopher Marlowe, and indeed Ben 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 twenty full of energy and boundless talent and mastered a second language, the emerging English tongue, which he invested with fantastic dynamism.

        Reply
    2. B. Glen Rotchin

      Leila, pure speculation here, but might it have something to do with the fact that Florio was Jewish during a time of rife anti-Semitism. But then one would have to ask how a Jew could possibly have penned a character like Shylock?

      Reply
      • Lamberto Tassinari

        “how a Jew could possibly have penned a character like Shylock?”
        Actually, the opposite is true: only a writer with a Jewish introspection could have penned the inner psyche of Shylock! The Shakespearian portrait of the Jewish usurer is not at all simply “anti-Semitic”! It is by far the most profound and subtle human description of the marginal Jewish experience in early modern Europe. Notwithstanding the efforts of James Shapiro and others to demonstrate that “the man from Stratford” had at his disposal enough Jewish sources to inspire him in London, the historical truth is that Jewish people and culture were dramatically missing in England since 1290 when, well before Spain, English authorities got rid of the Jewish community. Your question reveals that contemporary criticism will eventually have, and already has, a double problem with Florio as “Shakespeare”. Besides being Italian, “Shakespeare” had also a Jewish father (we know nothing about Florio’s mother) and, what is most troubling, he identified with Christianity, never claiming his Jewish heritage.

        Reply
    3. Marianne Ackerman

      Yes, Glen, that's what I've heard too. There was a great movie awhile back claiming the real writer was the Earl of Southampton, who could not reveal due to social pressure and all kinds of intrigue. Speculation around the subject is vast, but the academic industry fights it hard. They have a lot to lose.

      Reply
    4. Richard Neneman

      William Shakespeare is a composite of a human creation, the way Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohamed, and many other important figures , were. Doctoring the truth was applied to all those characters in different proportions, of course.
      The significance of Shakespeare’s Englishness was stressed later to boost the British imperial image. The Englishness of Shakespeare is fiercely promoted by the
      Stratfordian literary establishment even today. But there is no merit in this, just a wounded nationalistic pride. The real man hiding under penname of Shakespeare, the playwright, was John Florio, man of Italian – Jewish background.
      His colorful father, Michelangelo, an Italian protestant(!!!) priest, wanted by Inquisition, became an Italian exile in England, then again escaped from England, this time with his little son, to Continental Europe, during unsteady reigns of bloody, the catholic Queen Mary Stewart in Scotland and the protestant Elisabeth I in England., her murderous half-sister.
      Richard Neneman – continued on the next entry…

      Reply
    5. Richard Neneman

      At the end of the sixteen century England was a second tier (at best) European country with young, immature, a crude, unsystematic language and populated by the people
      of very limited means, even if with a great, still untested, potential.

      Shakespeare was an European at heart, highly educated in Continental Europe, with excellent knowledge of Italy, where mostly his plays are being placed, but not only.
      During his adult years he was a tutor of the members of the British royalty and the aristocracy…….
      Richard Neneman – continued on the next entry…

      Reply
    6. Richard Neneman

      The Industrial Revolution placed Britain among real European powers, but, still, this country lacked prestige of Italy, France, Spain, for instance, in overall cultural advancement. Britain was not a cradle of Renaissance and Enlightenment, after all.

      This missing “link”, to the large extent, was fulfilled sometimes during Victorian times, in the name of William Shakespeare, the Englishman(!!!), genius, the creator
      of modern English. It was an imperial scam, of course.

      The most significant fact, however, is that Shakespeare left great gift of his genius to all
      of us, the humanity. That is what Lamberto Tassinari says… and developed further in
      his seminal book: “ John Florio, the man who was Shakespeare”.
      Thank you Mr. Tassinari for unveiling the truth.
      Richard Neneman

      Reply

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