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.