This website is dedicated to the role John Florio played in the writing of the works attributed to William Shakespeare, addressing whether Florio was their sole author or the master-poet of a workshop of writers, with the absolute exclusion of William Shackspeare, the Man from Stratford.

Ce site se consacre au rôle qu’a joué John Florio dans l’écriture des œuvres attribuées à William Shakespeare, en cherchant si Florio en fut le seul auteur ou le maître d’œuvre d’un atelier d’écrivains, à l’exclusion totale de William Shackspeare, l’Homme de Stratford.

Thomas Nashe and the prehistory of the Florio / Shakespeare workshop

Fabrice Collot

In the long-running, vexed “authorship question” as to who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, Lamberto Tassinari’s book, John Florio, The Man who was Shakespeare (1),should have definitively tilted the scales in favour of the skeptics – the people who don’t believe that William Shackspere (a spelling which, along with Shakspere, was consistently used in several legal documents referring to him (2)) from Stratford-upon-Avon was the real author of the works that posterity has bequeathed us under the name of William Shakespeare.

As early as 2008 (in the original, Italian version of his book (3)), Lamberto Tassinari put forth John Florio – an Italian linguist and translator (he famously translated Montaigne’s Essays into English), lexicographer and royal language tutor at the Court of James I – as the actual writer of Shakespeare’s works. Tassinari stated his case in an impressively clear, detailed manner. Florio emerged as a far more convincing candidate than the previous, numerous ones for the authorship of the Bard’s canon.

Yet, apart from a few exceptions, the academic world of Shakespeare specialists at large remained unmoved and declined to take Tassinari’s powerful arguments seriously. Philosopher Daniel Bougnoux, the main exponent of Tassinari’s thesis in France (he helped publish a French version of it for which he wrote a preface) and the author of a book on the question (4) in his own right, lamented the staunch resistance (5) of « Stratfordian  » scholars (the Shakespeare specialists who do not doubt that Willam Shackspere was the author of Shakespeare’s works) to Tassinari’s findings. Stratfordians flatly refused to consider the solid network of clues pointing toward Florio being Shakespeare – which Tassinari had patiently gathered in his book – as reason enough to at least start questioning their blind belief in « the man from Stratford » (Henry James’ expression).

But then, if a keen critical faculty and implacably logical arguments were enough to topple the received wisdom about Shakespeare, Diana Price’s brilliant study (6), Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, would have done the job a long time ago. We know her conclusions were shrugged off or merely ignored by Shakespeare specialists.

Edward Alleyn, British School, 1626

Stratfordian scholars do not want just clues – however overwhelming – to start questioning their champion. They demand definite proof that someone else was the real author behind Shakespeare – hard, concrete evidence. Of course, if what they expect is archival data from the Elizabethan or Jacobean era explicitly stating that “Shakespeare is but the pen-name of courtier John Florio,” they can rest assured that such a document is extremely unlikely to ever surface.

Yet, there are texts from the Elizabethan era that do not belong to the Shakespeare canon nor to John Florio’s known body of work and which definitely point toward him as author (or one of the authors) of Shakespeare’s works. One of these texts, Thomas Nashe’s preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (7) (published in 1589) comes incredibly close to an outright naming of John Florio as author of plays that posterity has attributed to William Shakespeare. This is something that Saul Gerevini understood and mentioned in an open letter to both Lamberto Tassinari and Stratfordian scholar Stephen Greenblatt published in December 2014 on his website ( It was also clearly expounded by Giulia Harding in a 2015 article (8) published on the same website. Both Harding and Gerevini saw that John Florio is the man consistently referred to and vilified in Nashe’s preface as “the Italianate pen” who appeared in “disguised array,” hid his identity to “repose eternity in the mouth of a player,” in other words to debase his poetic skills in the writing of plays that an actor would make famous on the popular stage, “the stage of arrogance”. However, Harding and Gerevini are wrong to assume that the actor in question was William Shackspere, and that Nashe’s preface provided early evidence of a creative collaboration between John Florio and the man from Stratford.

The present text will recall why Edward Alleyn, the greatest actor of his time, was in all likelihood “the player,” the “Roscius” mentioned in that preface, and not the as yet totally obscure William Shackspere. It will also challenge Giulia Harding’s perception of the relationship between Thomas Nashe and John Florio. Harding’s valuable and necessary research into the pamphlets of the Elizabethan era has led her to identify a running quarrel between the two authors between 1589 and 1600. Although Harding is aware that the quarrel “evolved into a stylish jape, a device to sell more books to the student population who revelled in such larks,” she believes it “began in earnest (9)” in Nashe’s 1589 preface. My contention is that, in spite of his vituperative, scathing attacks against John Florio (whom Nashe doesn’t name explicitly yet very clearly targets, as we will see), the young writer’s real intention in this preface was not so much to criticize Florio in earnest as to impress him with his satiric wit. Nashe’s violent criticism of Florio (and others) should not be taken at face value. In fact, he belonged to Florio’s circle. Although Florio “never wore gown in the university,” the Italian translator was actually assimilated to the “Gentlemen Students of Both Universities” to whom Nashe dedicated his preface and from whom the young writer expected approval and encouragement for his literary début (even if that meant making his friends and fellows the butt of his satire).

So the preface to Greene’s Menaphon ought to be read as something of an inside joke within a specific circle. Feeling confident that nobody but a select few would understand his verbose, convoluted (yet quite funny) prose proudly exhibiting the classical learning of a young scholar fresh out of St John’s College in Cambridge, Thomas Nashe came rashly close to publicly exposing the identity of the “Italianate pen” who was writing plays “in disguised array.” But it was not his true, final intent to do so (more about that further down). Still, it has not been noticed until now (not even by Harding) just how much Thomas Nashe was imprudently revealing about Florio in this text – that in 1589, John Florio had collaborated with fellow poet George Peele in the writing of a play that would join the Shakespearean canon only with the publication of the First Folio in 1623. That play was Titus Andronicus. Then Nashe also implied that Florio had written (maybe still in collaboration) a play called Hamlet. Nashe’s preface to Greene’s Menaphon offers us a fascinating glimpse into the pre- history of the poetic workshop around John Florio that would take the name “Shakespeare.”

Before tackling the question of Nashe’s real intent and meaning, it is worth recalling what he apparently set out to do in this preface, with which his name popped up for the first time in print. Nashe offered his readers an overview of the literary scene of his time. He lavishly distributed stars and black marks to contemporary authors, and early in his text drew a line that allowed him to separate the wheat from the chaff in Elizabethan literature. On the one hand, there were authors like Robert Greene who produced worthy literature, of which his “Arcadian (10) Menaphon” stood as a fine example. Nashe ostensibly sided with Greene, who already had the reputation of being a “raffineur de l’Anglois. (11)” On the other hand, there were learned men (such as John Florio, and another poet, as we will see) who degraded poetry and their talent by writing plays for the popular stage “in disguised array” (meaning that these authors wrote under a nom-de-plume, or simply that they wrote anonymous plays which they let an actor represent, possibly passing off their works as his own).

Now if we take a close look at the phrases used consistently throughout the preface to mark out these men, it becomes obvious that one of them is specifically targeted – the Italian John Florio. “[D]eep-read schoolmen or grammarians,” “translator,” “serving-man” and of course “English Italians” all relate to John Florio’s titles or activities. In Frances Yates’ superb, pioneering monography devoted to John Florio, we learn that he “matriculated from Magdalen [College in Oxford] as servant to Emmanuel Barnes in 1581 (12)” and that “in a manuscript collection of Italian proverbs written out entirely in Florio’s hand and dedicated by him to [Sir Edward] Dyer (13)”, John Florio wrote in the dedication (dated from Oxford, November 1582) : “Having been for some time forced to make a virtue of necessity, and constrained to earn a living by taking upon me the burden of teaching the Italian language to some scholars in this celebrated University of Oxford…”(14) It is interesting to see here that Florio expressed dissatisfaction with his status as an Italian teacher, which implied higher aspirations. In 1580, at the request of his Oxford friend Richard Hakluyt, Florio had done an important translation of “the accounts of the first two voyages of Jacques Cartier” from “the Italian [version] of Ramusio” and “not Cartier’s French” (15). Then, in the address “To the Reader” in the language manual entitled Second Frutes that he would publish in 1591, Florio called himself “an Englishman in Italiane” (16), which is very close to the “English Italians” tag used by Nashe in 1589.

John Florio's handwriting

However, the phrase which most definitely singles out Florio as the target of Nashe’s attacks is “the Italianate pen that, of a packet of pilferies, affords the press a pamphlet or two in an age”. The fact that “Italianate pen” is used in the singular indicates that Nashe referred here to a specific individual. “Italianate” instead of plain “Italian” shows that Nashe was writing about someone who could be either an Englishman with an interest in Italian literature, or an Italian who considered himself English (an “English Italian” or “an Englishman in Italiane”) and intended to refine English culture with the spreading of Italian culture – which is exactly what Florio was doing. But it is the second part of Nashe’s phrase – “…that, of a packet of pilferies, affords the press a pamphlet or two in an age” – which, out of the several (though not so numerous) possible candidates for this title of“Italianate pen,” allows us to pin down John Florio as the right one. In the Elizabethan era, the term “pamphlet” had a much broader meaning than the one of “scurrilous tract” that we, modern readers, often associate it with. A “pamphlet” was a document, or text. And one of the pamphlets which Nashe alluded to here was John Florio’s first publication, First Fruites, which dated back to 1578. How can we feel confident about that? Well, first thanks to Nashe disparaging it as “a packet of pilferies.” As Frances Yates recalled, “First Fruits is primarily a text-book for the teaching of Italian. It consists of a grammar and forty-four dialogues, the text of which is given in Italian and English, arranged in parallel columns on the same page. (17)” Yates also pointed out that, in the writing of his manual, Florio made heavy use – acknowledged but also unacknowledged – of extracts from moralists Antonio de Guevara and Lodovico Guicciardini :

«Dialogues 34, 36-9, 41, 42 are almost entirely composed of extracts from Guevara. Florio makes no secret of this, for Guevara is named in several of the headings. He does not, however, reveal that dialogues 19, 21, 23-25 and others contain numerous quotations from the Hore di Ricreatione of Lodovico Guicciardini.» (18)

Nashe was aware of this and did not fail to expose Florio as a literary thief who pilfered from worthy foreign authors. Then his quip that the “Italianate pen [….]affords the press a pamphlet or two in an age” both specifies Florio as his target here and reveals that Nashe knew what he was up to. Nashe did not write the words “one pamphlet,” or “two pamphlets,” but the much more tentative “a pamphlet or two in an age.” In 1589, John Florio had only published one pamphlet yet under his own name, his 1578 First Fruites. The second version of his Italian language manual, Second Frutes, would only be published two years later, in 1591. In between these two books, Florio did translations (for his Oxford friend Richard Hakluyt’s book, and also translations of news-pamphlets or dispatches), but absolutely nothing else as an author in his own right. So Nashe took delight in deriding Florio’s inability to come up with anything substantial in 11 years, “an age” in the satirist’s words. But since the second pamphlet he hinted at, Second Frutes, had not been “afford[ed] the press” yet, Nashe’s expression “a pamphlet or two” betrayed the fact that he was close enough to Florio to know that the Italian teacher was preparing the second version of his language manual. How close, exactly?

In truth, the phrase “a pamphlet or two” opens a question upon which hinges the whole meaning of Nashe’s preface to Greene’s Menaphon. Is the young satirist in earnest when he vehemently criticizes John Florio (among others) or is he just playing some kind of (allegedly vicious) prank on an elder writer (19) who belongs to the same circle as he? Did Nashe intently belittle Florio as one of “those that never wore gown in the university, (20)” or did he actually assimilate him to the “Gentlemen Students of Both Universities” to whom Nashe dedicated his preface and from whom he expected encouragement for his satiric talent? To try and answer that tricky question, let’s first look for other clues that Florio and Nashe belonged to the same circle in the young satirist’s preface.

I believe one word has escaped notice in the introductory part of Nashe’s text, a word almost completely lost amid the flurry of verbal abuse against “idiot art-masters” (among which Nashe includes Florio, as we will see) who debase poetry by writing plays for the popular stage and by filling those “with the swelling bombast of bragging blank verse”. This word comes in the following passage, which I quote extensively:

Indeed, it may be the engrafted overflow of some kill-cow conceit that overcloyeth [these idiot art-masters’] imagination with a more than drunken resolution (being not extemporal in the invention of any other means to vent their manhood) commits the digestion of their choleric encumbrances to the spacious volubility of a drumming decasyllabon.

The “drunken resolution” which “overcloyeth” the imagination of the “idiot art-masters” is a mocking allusion to the adjective with which John Florio would present himself at the end of his epistle ‘to the readers’ of the Second Frutes dated April 1591 – “Resolute John Florio.” Since, as Frances Yates pointed out, it is in this epistle “for the first time that [Florio] signs himself with the adjective that stuck to him through life and after death (21),” Nashe must have read it in Florio’s manuscripts or heard it from him verbatim as early as 1589.

Another hint that Nashe and Florio were close comes further down in Nashe’s preface. The satirist makes it clear that he is reverting to the exposure of translators (such as Florio) that he had undertaken earlier on:

[…] I will turn back to my first text of studies of delight, and talk a little in friendship with a few of our trivial translators.It is a common practice now-a-days amongst a sort of shifting companions, that run through every art and thrive by none, to leave the trade of noverint whereto they were born and busy themselves with the endeavours of art, that could scarcely Latinize their neck-verse if they should have need; […]

Friendship” and “companions” are ostensibly used in an ironic way by Nashe when he mentions again these translators that he disparages as “trivial”. Yet these words betray an undeniable closeness between the young satirist and the men he is seemingly criticizing.

A further hint that John Florio was indeed one of these men comes with the reference to “the trade of noverint”. As Giulia Harding pointed out, this was “a dig at Florio’s involvement with the translation of newsletters, the pamphlets which kept Londoners informed of affairs abroad. (22)” We know for instance that Florio translated “A Letter written from Rome, by an Italian Gentleman, to a freende of his in Lyons in Fraunce (23)” out of the Italian and got it published in 1585.

Then, towards the end of his preface, Nashe writes a quite revealing passage in which he favourably compares English authors to Italian ones:

Tush, say our English Italians, the finest wits our climate sends forth are but dry-brained dolts in comparison of other countries, whom, if you interrupt with redde rationem, they will tell you of Petrarch, Tasso, Celiano, with an infinite number of others, to whom, if I should oppose Chaucer, Lydgate, Gower, with such like that lived under the tyranny of ignorance, I do think their best lovers would be much discontented with the collation of contraries, if I should write over all their heads, Hail fellow well met.

Tush, say our English Italians” clearly conveys the sense that the discussion that followed between Nashe and the English Italian John Florio took place not through books but orally, within the same literary circle.

All these clues tend to show that Florio and Nashe belonged to the same circle. However, they are not enough to make us decide whether Nashe’s attack on Florio was only in jest or if it was done in earnest. After all, jealousies, rivalries and quarrels can all spring up within the confines of a specific circle. So should we give up on trying to determine Nashe’s real intent in this preface?

Actually, it is time to tackle the core of this article by commenting on passages that both shed new light on the Shakespeare “authorship question” and will help us see that Nashe is actually jesting with people who are not only in his circle but whom he praises highly in another part of his preface. In order to do so, it is necessary to quote the following passage (which ends Nashe’s first part of his text) :

Let other men (as they please) praise the mountain that in seven years bringeth forth a mouse, or the Italianate pen that, of a packet of pilferies, affords the press a pamphlet or two in an age, and then, in disguised array, vaunts Ovid’s and Plutarch’s plumes as their own […]

Florio is marked out here as an impostor who published pamphlets (First Fruites and soon Second Frutes) under his real name, and then, anonymously or under a pen-name (“in disguised array”), wrote plays that plundered the works of Ovid and Plutarch without acknowledging it. We can infer from the beginning of Nashe’s preface in which he criticized “idiot art-masters” (such as Florio) for writing “bragging blank verse” for the “stage of arrogance” that the work influenced by Ovid and Plutarch mentioned here is indeed a play. This is confirmed at the end of the preface when Nashe notes that the “deserved reputation of one Roscius (24) is of force to enrich a rabble of counterfeits”, in other words that the talent (acknowledged by Nashe) of a great actor has allowed a bunch of impostors (Florio among them) to get richer thanks to the plays they wrote (anonymously or under a pen-name) for the popular stage. Now, in the early part of Nashe’s preface, the construction of the verb “vaunts” in the third person of the singular seems to indicate that Florio was the sole author of such a play. But then the phrase “as their own” brings about some ambiguity. True, the English syntax allows the pronoun “their” to refer to the singular “Italianate pen,” i.e. John Florio alone. But this plural pronoun “their” is most likely being used by Nashe to hint that the play alluded to here was written in collaboration between John Florio and the other man referred to in the expression “the mountain that in seven years bringeth forth a mouse.” Of course, classically-trained Thomas Nashe knew his Horace by heart and was making use here of the Latin author’s “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus (25)” (“Mountains will labour: what’s born? A ridiculous mouse!”) But that he had a contemporary poet in mind is attested by the expression “in seven years”. Who could that poet be? The expression is so vague that it seems to discourage any hope of a clear identification. Yet, there is a poet who is being compared to a mountain towards the end of Nashe’s preface. That poet is George Peele. Nashe writes:

[…] and for the last, though not the least of them all, [George Peele,] I dare commend him unto all that know him as the chief supporter of pleasance now living, the Atlas of poetry, and primus verborum artifex, whose first increase, The Arraignment of Paris, might plead to your opinions his pregnant dexterity of wit and manifold variety of invention, wherein (me iudice) he goeth a step beyond all that writ.

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Lucantonio Giunti edition, 1497

This is unadulterated praise. Nashe compares George Peele with Atlas, the Titan of Greek mythology, and also the name of the mountain range in northwest Africa. Nashe makes it clear that it is Peele’s first play, The Arraignment of Paris – of which Stephen Greenblatt tells us that it was “successfully presented to the queen (26)” – that allows him to stand out like the Atlas mountains among other poets. And this is what clinches the identification of Peele with “the mountain that in seven years bringeth forth a mouse” in the early part of Nashe’s preface. For Delphine Lemonnnier-Texier writes that The Arraignement of Paris, a pastoral typical of a “university wit,” was played before Queen Elizabeth at Oxford, probably in 1581 (27). She gives the date for Peele’s next play, The Battle of Alcazar – of which François Laroque writes that it displays Peele’s taste for gore (28) – as 1589. But there seems to be no scholarly consensus as to that date, and the play may well have been acted on the stage as early as the second half of the year 1588. 1581-1588 : a seven-year span between The Arraignment of Paris and The Battle of Alcazar, during which Peele does not seem to have produced anything as worthy of note as these two plays. Seven years between a refined play which garnered royal attention and a gory play that was acted in popular playhouses, under the strong influence of Senecan tragedies and Marlowe’s very successful Tamburlaine. It is no surprise that Nashe should have considered this a waste of talent and dubbed Peele (without explicitly naming him) “the mountain that in seven years bringeth forth a mouse.”

So it appears that Nashe is denouncing (albeit in deliberately veiled terms) the collaborative work of George Peele and John Florio over a play pilfering Ovid and Plutarch. What specific play could that be? 1589, George Peele, a collaborative effort, blank verse, Ovid and Plutarch….

Well, one play immediately comes to mind, and that is Titus Andronicus, which belongs to the William Shakespeare canon. Titus Andronicus is a play over which scholarly debate has long raged whether concerning its dating or its attribution. Recent scholarly research has tended to retain 1588-1593 as the time-span in which the play was possibly written. And although Titus Andronicus was included in the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s works and is believed to be the playwright’s first tragedy, not all scholars believe it was written by Shakespeare alone. Sir Brian Vickers, for instance, famously upheld that George Peele wrote a couple of scenes in Act I and that Shakespeare wrote the rest (29). In her introduction to Titus Andronicus in a bilingual edition of William Shakespeare’s complete works, Léone Teyssandier warned readers that the play’s sources were particularly uncertain, but that Shakespeare’s tragedy contained multiple allusions to classical poet Ovid (30). The fable of Philomela and Procne, from Book VI of Metamorphoses, served as a starting point for Shakespeare’s play and was clearly referred to in Act II, scene 4, l.26. Allusions to the rape of Lucrece, for instance in Act II, scene 1, l.109 were inspired by Ovid’s Fasti (31) (Book II, February 24, The Regifugium). Teyssandier also signaled that Shakespeare’s choice of names for the characters in his play were probably borrowed from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, more specifically from Scipio Africanus(32).

The elements noted above may give us food for thought, but they are not enough yet to allow us to conclude with near certainty that George Peele and John Florio wrote Titus Andronicus together in 1588-1589. However, in the later passage that targets John Florio as one of the translators working in the “trade of noverint,” whose “Italian translations” are bad, as evidenced in“their twopenny pamphlets” (the First Fruites and the still unpublished sequel Second Frutes), a new label referring to Florio and his followers / collaborators leaves little doubt that Titus Andronicus was the play he co-wrote with George Peele. Florio and his mates are called “famished followers” of Seneca, Nashe implying that they rely (too) heavily on the English translation of the Roman Stoic dramatist’s works – “English Seneca” – for inspiration. It is once again necessary to quote extensively the following passage, the interpretation of which has caused a lot of ink to flow :

Titus Andronicus, Peacham drawing, circa 1595 ?

[…] yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences, as Blood is a beggar, and so forth, and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches. But O grief! Tempus edax rerum, what’s that will last always? The sea exhaled by drops will in continuance be dry, and Seneca, let blood line by line and page by page, at length must needs die to our stage, which makes his famished followers to imitate the kid in Aesop, who, enamoured with the fox’s newfangles, forsook all hopes of life to leap into a new occupation, and these men, renouncing all possibilities of credit or estimation, to intermeddle with Italian translations, wherein how poorly they have plodded […], let all indifferent gentlemen that have travailed in that tongue discern by their twopenny pamphlets.

The influence of Senecan tragedies is something we have already noted about George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar, and it is just as obvious in Titus Andronicus. The feast of Thyestes, which is the subject of Seneca’s play of the same name, is referred to in Act V, sc. 2, l. 202 of Titus Andronicus, for instance. Of course, a lot of Elizabethan plays, not just Titus Andronicus, modelled themselves on Senecan tragedies. It was a literary fashion, and that’s exactly what Nashe was complaining about in the passage quoted above, because he felt that this over-reliance on Seneca in order to create gory revenge tragedies (of which Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy was the template) was a creative dead-end: “Seneca, let blood line by line and page by page, at length must die to our stage”. Still, the conflation of Ovid, Plutarch and Seneca in a 1589 play in blank verse makes up a strong case for Titus Andronicus (a play anonymously published in the first quartos) to be considered the brainchild of Florio and Peele’s collaboration for the stage that Nashe was hinting at.


Of course, the explicit reference to Hamlet – the name of the play which would later become the most famous in Shakespeare’s canon – in the long passage quoted above has raised scores of scholarly interpretations that could fill a whole library. I’m not going to recall the whole debate over the Ur-Hamlet in detail, nor the (in my view erroneous) identification of the author of this early Hamlet play to Thomas Kyd, which essentially rests on the reference to Seneca and a far-fetched interpretation of the phrase “imitate the kid in Aesop”. Suffice to say that “kid in Aesop” undoubtedly refers to Edmund Spenser’s adaptation of Aesop’s fables (33) (particularly The Fox and the Goat) in the May Eclogue (I refer readers to lines 249-305, which develop the tale of how the kid was tricked by the fox) of his 1579 Shepheardes Calender, and that Thomas Nashe conflates this Spenser adaptation with another original Aesop fable: The Swollen Fox.

My point here is that the long passage quoted earlier on most likely implies that this early Hamlet play (the Hamlet that we know appeared in print for the first time with the 1603 in-quarto) was written (at least in part) by John Florio, the man referred to as a “translator” of “noverint,” and the author of “Italian translations.” The fact that Nashe mentions the author of Hamlet in the singular – “he will afford you whole Hamlets” – may signal that Florio wrote it alone. But the insistence on the “famished followers” of Seneca may just as well indicate another collaborative effort, maybe also with George Peele in the writing team. It is this very same phrase of “famished followers” that helped me understand the general meaning of Nashe’s peculiar mix of fables here. From Nashe’s use of Spenser’s adaptation of Aesop we can get the idea that by reverting to the writing of a language manual in the line of his 1578 First Fruites, Florio was falling, like the goat or the kid, into a deadly literary trap. He was “renouncing all possibilities of credit or estimation.” But here the reference to Aesop’s Swollen Fox allows us to better understand Nashe’s point. Florio and Peele, like the fox from the fable, had been too greedy. They wanted to get richer by writing for an actor plays for the popular stage, they surfeited on this dramatic manna, got fatter just like the fox in the fable, and just as the fox could no longer get out of the tree-hole, they got stuck in the literary dead-end of Seneca-influenced playwriting. And all they could do was to listen to the other fox’s advice, which was to wait until they grew leaner (which would happen soon as “Seneca […] must needs die to our stage”), reverting to what they were in the first place, “famished” translators and authors of despicable “twopenny pamphlets.”

The moral of this mix of Fables, the reference to a specific play, Hamlet, and the veiled allusion to Florio and Peele as impostors having collaborated on a play were all dangerous for Florio (the reference to Peele was much more hidden). And so they most likely had an impact on Florio’s decisions in terms of publishing. Florio’s Second Frutes were probably ready for the press in 1589. But Nashe’s preface must have forced Florio to delay its publication until two years later, to prevent people from too easily understanding Nashe’s allusion to the author of “one or two pamphlets”. In the same way, Florio must have renounced publishing Hamlet in the wake of Nashe’s preface, hereagain to avoid being identified as its author (or one of its authors). And so Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy did not find its way into print until fourteen years later. Besides, Florio probably had to be careful to adapt the play and edit one sentence out of it which Nashe had recklessly quoted: “Blood is a beggar.” I’m not aware whether scholars have found this exact phrase somewhere in Elizabethan literature. But authors are known to recycle well-turned sentences, and it is probably no accident that a close-sounding expression found its way into Shakespeare’s sonnet 67, lines 9-10 : “Why should he live now nature bankrupt is,/ Beggared of blood to blush through lively veins” (my emphasis).

Since the interpretation of the preface I’m offering stems from the identification of John Florio with “the Italianate pen” and that of George Peele with “the mountain that in seven years bringeth forth a mouse”, one objection must be tackled. Nashe openly disparages the “mountain that in seven years bringeth forth mouth”. He associates him (and Florio) to the bad, greedy, playwriting poets whom he opposes to good writers and poets such as Greene and … George Peele, who is lavished with the highest praise at the end of the preface. How could Nashe be dragging in the mud someone he places as high as the highest mountain? My answer is that Nashe is not criticizing him (nor Florio) in earnest. He is only playing a literary prank on fellow poets he looks up to and from whom he expects encouragement for his satiric talent.

Let’s have a look at Nashe’s words addressed to “The Gentlemen Students of Both Universities,” bearing in mind that George Peele studied at Oxford (and Florio probably too, even though he was but a tutor and “never wore gown”) :

Courteous and wise, whose judgements (not entangled with envy) enlarge the deserts of the learned by your liberal censures, vouchsafe to welcome your scholarlike shepherd with such university entertainment as either the nature of your bounty or the custom of your common civility may afford. To you he appeals that knew him ab extrema pueritia, whose placet he accounts the plaudite of his pains, thinking his day-labour was not altogether lavished sine linea if there be anything at all in it that doth olere Atticum in your estimate.

Was there ever a more convoluted and pedantic beginning of a preface than this? The sheer number of latin phrases with which Nashe peppers it is astounding. It shows that Nashe only addressed his “scholarlike” peers or educated readers (a minority at the time), not the general public. But it also reveals a craving desire to be recognized and encouraged by men whose judgement Nashe respected. The young man wanted to impress them with his learning, but also with his satiric skills, and he expected their praise for them, as we can see at the end of the preface: “Read favourably to encourage me in the firstlings of my folly,[…]” and “If I please, I will think my ignorance indebted to you that applaud it; if not, what rests, but that I be excluded from your courtesy, like apocrypha from your Bibles?” Nashe’s primary intention was to “please” the “Gentlemen” with what he calls his “skill in surgery,” his talent for satire. His final worried question, in which he fears being rejected by his peers, shows that Nashe was fully aware that he was treading a tricky path. Indeed, to impress his fellow poets, he had chosen to make them the butt of his satire. When he writes that he “expose[d] to [their] sport the picture of those pamphleters and poets that make a patrimony of In Speech” or that he “will persecute those idiots and their heirs unto the third generation, that have made art bankrupt of her ornaments, and sent poetry a-begging up and down the country,” he is trying to entertain the very same people he had seemingly been mercilessly criticizing.



George Peele and John Florio were the first people Nashe was trying to impress with his satiric talent. We can sense that Nashe is drooling with envy when he writes that “the deserved reputation of one Roscius is of force to enrich a rabble of counterfeits.” Behind the apparently fierce mocking of Florio and Peele writing for the popular stage, there lies a desire to partake in their wealth and success, and most probably to collaborate with them in the near future.

But who was the “Roscius” behind whom Florio and Peele hid their authorship (either with a pen-name, with anonymous plays, or with making people assume that the “Roscius” was the author of these plays)? Giulia Harding and Saul Gerevini would have us believe it was William Shackspere from Stratford-upon-Avon. However, the name “Roscius” was a laudatory comparison with the great Roman actor which surely applied to a famous actor. In the 1580s, William Shackspere was, in Stephen Greenblatt’s words, “a virtual nobody, the knockabout son of a failing glover (34).” Archive from the era is definitely mute about him. Whether he was, as some uncertain tradition suggests, keeping the horses of gentlemen at the door of playhouses, trying to become an actor or serving as a middleman between authors and acting companies is just anyone’s guess. On the other hand, scholars have long identified the perfect candidate for this title of “Roscius.” He was the “leading player of his era (35),” the “first to achieve th[e] status” of “superstar[…] of the day (36)”. His name was Edward Alleyn, and our Thomas Nashe would write a shining praise of him in Pierce Penniless, the book he would publish in 1592, entitling a whole section of his pamphlet “The Due Commendation of Ned Allen” (the familiar name he gave the actor):

Not Roscius nor Aesop, those admired tragedians that have lived ever since before Christ was born, could perform more in action than famous Ned Allen. (37)

As we can see, the first thing that Nashe puts forward to laud Edward Alleyn is a reference to Roscius, over which Alleyn’s superiority is fearlessly stated. It is worth noting that this praise of Allen, as well as the long section of Pierce Penniless entitled “The Defence of Plays” (38) show that, by 1592, Nashe had radically moved away from his former contemptuous assessment of the “stage of arrogance.” But it rather tends to prove that such a stance was nothing but a pose that he adopted to exert his satiric wit seemingly at the expense of his fellow poets (Florio and Peele being first among them), but really just to entertain them with a literary jest and, ultimately, impress them.

As for William Shackspere from Stratford-upon-Avon, where does he fit in Nashe’s picture of the 1589 Elizabethan literary scene? Absolutely nowhere. Whatever he was up to in 1589, there is no way of ascertaining whether he already knew Florio, Peele or Nashe. Only with the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593 can we infer that he had met Florio and struck a financial arrangement with the “Italianate pen” for the use of his name as a nom-de-plume. For then John Florio stopped hiding behind Edward Alleyn, altered Shackspere’s name to allow for a pun on “Shake-Spear,” and signed the dedication of the long poem he had just written “William Shakespeare,” officially launching a literary brand whose production by a “rabble of counterfeits” of amazing poetic skills would pass off as the work of a single genius for centuries on end.

Fabrice COLLOT (©)

Venus and Adonis, Titian, 1555-1560

Notes :

(1) Lamberto Tassinari, John Florio, The Man who was Shakespeare, Montréal, Giano Books, 2009 (back to text1)

(2) I will use the spelling “Shackspere” to refer to the actor and usurer from Stratford-upon- Avon and the spelling “Shakespeare” for the literary pen-name under which we have come to know the extraordinary body of work attributed to the former. (back to text2)

(3) Lamberto Tassinari, Shakespeare? È il nome d’arte di John Florio, Montréal ( ?), 2008 (back to text3)

(4) Daniel Bougnoux, Shakespeare, Le Choix du spectre,  Bruxelles / Paris ( ?), Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2016 (back to text4)

(5) Bougnoux, op. cit., chapter XIII « Sous la roue du mensonge », pp. 163-182 (back to text5)

(6) Diana Price, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, Wesport (CT), Greenwood Press, 2001 (Reprinted by in 2012) (back to text6)

(7) I used an online edition : ; modern spelling edition copyright Nina Green 1999, 2001 (back to text7)

(8) Giulia Harding, “John Florio – Was he Shakespeare’s first and most important collaborator?,”, December 31, 2015 (back to text8)

(9) Harding, p. 1 (back to text9)

(10) The adjective “Arcadian” hints at Sir Philip Sidney being the supreme literary model of a refined, aristocratic literature, even though his Arcadia, circulating in manuscript, had not appeared in print yet. (back to text10)

(11) Frances Yates, John Florio, The life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England, Cambridge, C.U.P, 1934 (I used the 2010 paperback edition for reference), pp. 174-175 (back to text11)

(12) Yates, p.53 (back to text12)

(13) Yates, p.47 (Yates indicates that the manuscript is preserved in the British Museum under the reference Additional MSS. 15,214) (back to text13)

(14) Yates, p.53 (this is Yates’ translation from the Italian in which Florio wrote his dedication) (back to text14)

(15) Yates, p.55 (back to text15)

(16) John Florio, ‘To the Reader,’ Florio’s Second Frutes (London, 1591) (back to text16)

(17) Yates, pp.28-29 (back to text17)

(18) Yates, pp.36-37 (back to text18)

(19) Florio was apparently born in 1553 whereas Nashe was born in 1567 (back to text19)

(20) Meaning that Florio was not on the staff at Oxford, although he was a tutor (I got this from Harding’s already quoted article, p.8) (back to text20)

(21) Yates, p. 118 (back to text21)

(22) Harding, p.9 (back to text22)

(23) Yates, p. 79 (back to text23)

(24) Roscius was a famous Roman actor active about 70 B.C. (back to text24)

(25) Horace, Ars Poetica, l. 136-139 (back to text25)

(26) Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World, How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, New York, Norton, 2005, p.202 (back to text26)

(27) Delphine Lemonnier-Texier, ‘notice sur l’auteur’, George Peele, in Théâtre Elisabéthain, Paris, Gallimard, La Pléiade, p.1614 (back to text27)

(28) François Laroque, Dictionnaire amoureux de Shakespeare, Paris, Plon, 2016, p.687 (back to text28)

(29) Sir Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-Author, Oxford, OUP, 2004 (back to text29)

(30) Léonne Teyssandier, introduction to Titus Andronicus, in Œuvres Complètes de William Shakespeare (Edition bilingue), Paris, Robert Laffont (coll. Bouquins), 2002, p.362 (back to text30)

(31) Teyssandier, p.362 (back to text31)

(32) Teyssandier, p.362 (back to text32)

(33) I got this from Margrethe Jolly, The First Two Quartos of Hamlet, A New View of the Origins and Relationships of the Texts, Jefferson (North Carolina), Mc Farland and Company, 2014 (back to text33)

(34) Greenblatt, p.157 (back to text34)

(35) David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe, London, Faber & Faber, 2004, p.200 (back to text35)

(36) Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, London, National Portrait Gallery, 2005, (2015 reprint), p.61 (back to text36)

(37) Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless (London, 1592), in The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works,  London, Penguin, 1972 (I used the 1985 Penguin Classics reprint), p.116 (back to text37)

(38) Nashe, p.112-114 (back to text38)

Shakespear’s Robbery, by Herbert Lawrence

Lamberto Tassinari

Some years ago I have read chapter nine of Book II of “The life and adventures of common sense: an historical allegory”, by Herbert Lawrence published in London in 1769. I knew that  Lawrence was one of the first to raise doubts on Shakespeare’s identity but the idea of reading his book never crossed my mind until I discovered his work on the internet. Shakespearian scholarship has ignored this book containing stunning evidence that in the eighteenth century England there were already widespread doubts about the official Shakespearian narrative. Since then, doubts have been silenced as the Stratfordian identity of Shakespeare must never be jeopardized. Specialists maintain that Lawrence’s sleazy portrait of Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be accusatory, rather a comic slander, a humorous compliment upon Shakespeare’s “thieving” of Genius and Humour , two of the figures of Lawrence’s allegory.

In fact, chapter IX contains a very serious denunciation, albeit allegoric, of a cultural fraud perpetrated for nationalistic reasons. It is interesting to note that in the year Lawrence’s book was published, the first Shakespearian Jubilee was held in England. In September 1769 the actor David Garrick, the father of Bardolatry, staged the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a major focal point in the emerging movement that helped cement Shakespeare as England’s national poet. I’m convinced that Lawrence, a physician, apparently a friend of Garrick, found a subtle, allegorical way to criticize the rising star of a fake Shakespeare without risking censorship.

From then on, the very few critics who commented his book, unsurprisingly decided to ignore the affirmation that the actor-thief Shakespear [sic] appropriated from a genial foreigner an artistic treasure. Lawrence’s pages resonate with incredible echoes of the English adventure of the Florios, father and son. I underlined some passages in Lawrence’s text.

pastedGraphic.pngPortrait of the thief


Book II, Chapter IX.

A little before the expiration of my emprisonment, I received a letter from my Mother informing me that WISDOM and she were then in England, where they willed very much to see me; they had become favourites in that Court, and WISDOM was frequently consulted by the reigning Queen Elizabeth. I had no inducement to make my stay at Florence longer than needs must; and therefore, as soon as I was at liberty, I took my departure for England on board a Genoese vessel. In our passage, we passed by that very formidable fleet called the Spanish Armada, which was destined for the invasion of England. We arrived at Dover in 1588, from whence I set out directly for London. Here PRUDENCE and I had the happiness of meeting again with my Mother and WISDOM in a country and at a time the most suitable to our respective inclinations.

In portraying the historical evolution of Civilization, Lawrence depicts here the departure of the Italian Renaissance from Florence, the city where very probably Michel Angelo Florio was born. From here on, the Renaissance will reside in England, considered by the author “a country most suitable” for the flourishing of the arts and letters.

I had nothing to do at Court, though I often went there, but to amuse myself; they did not stand in need of my assistances. My chief employment, in my profession, was in visiting the fanatics and papists, of which the latter were, several times, mad enough to attempt the life of their lawful sovereign; this I was always so lucky as to prevent, though I could never thoroughly cure the disease. At the time of my emprisonment in Florence, it seems my father, GENIUS and HUMOUR made a trip to London, where, upon their arrival, they made an acquaintance with a person belonging to the Playhouse; this man was a profligate in his youth, and, as some say, had been a deer-stealer, others deny it. But be that as it will, he certainly was a thief from the time he was first capable of distinguishing anything; and therefore it is immaterial what articles he dealt in.

This foreigner, whose family was originally from Florence, well gifted with genius and humor, met in London a person working in a playhouse, seemingly in a lower position, William Shakspear, a man with a very dubious moral reputation: the front man of the true dramatist was born!

My Father and his friends made a sudden and violent intimacy with this man, who, feeling that they were a negligent careless people, took the first opportunity that presented itself to rob them of everything he could lay his hands on, and the better to conceal his theft, he told them, with an affected concern, that one misfortune never comes alone — that they had been actually informed against, as persons concerned in an assassination plot, now secretly carrying on by Mary Queen of Scots against the Queen of England; that he knew their innocence, but they must not depend upon that: nothing but quitting the country could save them. They took his word and marched off forthwith for Holland. As soon as he had got fairly rid of them, he began to examine the fruits of his ingenuity.

… “ a sudden and violent intimacy”: what does this curious expression possibly mean? Whatever its meaning, what counts here is that the genial foreigner has been neutralized on a false accusation and thence Shakespear is taking advantage of his theft: “the fruits of his ingenuity”. One thinks of Florio’s “First Fruits” and “Second Frutes”…

 Amongst my Father’s baggage, he presently cast his eye upon a commonplace book, in which was contained an infinite variety of modes and forms to express all the different sentiments of the human mind, together with rules for their combinations and connections upon every subject or occasion that might occur in dramatic writingHe found too, in a small cabinet, a glass possessed of very extraordinary properties, belonging to GENIUS and invented by him; by the help of this glass he could not only approximate the external surface of any object, but even penetrate into the deep recesses of the soul of man, and so discover all the passions and note their various operations in the human heart. In a hat-box, wherein all the goods and chattels of HUMOUR were deposited, he met with a mask of curious workmanship; it had the power of making every sentence that came out of the mouth of the wearer, appear extremely pleasant and entertaining — the jocose expression of the features was exceedingly natural, and it had nothing of that shining polish common to other masks, which is too apt to cast disagreeable reflections.

This is a very incisive summary of Shakespeare’s genius: words, a world of words, rhetoric and formal skills for writing drama.

In what manner he had obtained this ill-gotten treasure was unknown to everybody but my Mother, WISDOM, and myself; and we should not have found it out if the mask, which upon all other occasions is used as a disguise, had not made the discovery. The mask of HUMOUR was our old acquaintance, but we agreed, though much against my Mother’s inclination, to take no notice of the robbery, for we conceived that my Father and his friends would easily recover their loss, and were likewise apprehensive that we could not distress this man without depriving his country of its greatest ornament.
 With these materials, and with good parts of his own, he commenced playwriter [sic]; how he succeeded is needless to say when I tell the reader that his name was Shakespear [sic].

How Shakespear, a commoner and a businessman occupying a mediocre position in the world of theatre, was ultimately able to steal such a treasure from a foreigner? No one knows. Finally, this is the point all critics would ignore: it was decided, however against wisdom’s principles, not to publicly denounce Shakespear’s robbery for, attributing those great plays and poems to a foreigner, would have implied depriving England of Shakespeare, her greatest treasure.

Herbert Lawrence could not have been clearer!