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.


Feast of language: the theatrical debut of a courtier linguist

Lamberto Tassinari

The title of this early Shakespearian play, defined by John Dover Wilson as “one of the curiosities of dramatic history” can be found in a slightly varied form in John Florio’s First Fruites the bilingual language manual published in 1578 : “We neede not speak so much of love, al books are ful of love, with so many authours, that it were labour lost to speake of Love”. Exactly twenty years went by before that curious play was published in London, the first one bearing the name of the dramatist (A Pleasant Conceited Comedie called Loues labors lost. As it was presented before her Highnes this last Christmas). It was a quarto, printed by William White for publisher Cuthbert Burby in 1598. From the title page we learn also that the play was “Newly corrected and augmented” by W.Shakespere, clearly meaning that there was a preexisting quarto now lost. This was the same year, 1598, of the publication of another extraordinary linguistic accomplishment by the lexicographer John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, the first authentic modern Italian-English dictionary entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1596. It represents a fundamental innovation for English lexicography, since for the first time the common speech of one modern European language was translated into another.

[Holofernes] Holofernes – Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive

The period in which Florio composed the dictionary coincides with the years of the probable composition of the play, between the end of the 1580s and the beginning of the 1590s. But we can be more precise: after 1588 the year of the attempted Spanish invasion of England by the envencible Armada (the name Don Adriano de Armado is connected to this event) and 1593 the year the king of Navarre became king of all France. The comedy and the dictionary are two absolute “feasts of language”: the dictionary with its over 46,000 Italian words and about 100,000 English words, the play with its more than 200 wordplays and puns. We could maintain that those words flow from the same source, whether  alphabetically ordered in Florio’s dictionary, diffusely present in the Second Frutes  or dramatically ranged in Shakespeare’s play. Critics, and Shakespeare’s specialists rarely, if ever, refer to the lexicographic oeuvre in their critiques of the play. Scholars only pay attention to the playwright, overlooking the linguist, whom they consider a “blue collar”, author of an erudite, pedantic work, very distant from dramatic art and poetry. In the 2008 Oxford edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost edited by William C. Carroll of Boston University, John Florio is not even mentioned. His very foreign name, like a bad thought, has been repressed by the Shakespearian studies’ unconscious.

It is unthinkable for scholars as for the majority of readers whose opinion is shaped by academic authority, that the dramatist and the linguist were the same person!  We will see that history and the very words the linguist and the playwright had in common, do tell a different story.


It is documented that John Florio was in Southampton’s service in 1594[1] and almost certainly well before as Florio himself acknowledges in his dedication of A Worlde of Wordes in 1598 addressing these words to the Earl

In truth I acknowledge an entire debt onely of my best knowledge, but of all, yea of more then I know or can, to your bounteous Lordship, most noble, most vertuous, and most Honorable Earle of Southampton, in whose paie and patronage I have lived some yeeres to whom I owe and vowe the yeeres that I have to live. But as to me, and manie more the glorious sunne-shine of your Honor hath infused light and life (…)

[ Southampton] Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Compare this entire dedication to the ones of Venus and Adonis (1593) and of The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and you’ll be struck by the absolute identity of style: the concepts are identical, the floral and rustic tones are the same, as so is the emphasis on the concept of “invention” in both cases. In the Epistle dedicatory John Florio appears to be much more than a simple language tutor to the young Henry Wriothesley. The “fair child” of the Sonnets was indeed Florio’s patron and close friend for long years. Frances Yates in the book she dedicated to Love’s Labour’s Lost wrote:

There can be very little doubt that Florio was put into Southampton’s household by Burleigh [William Cecil, lord Burghley]

It was certainly Florio who assisted Southampton when he entered Cambridge in 1585 at twelve years old.

On the other hand, the two dedications of the poems to Southampton by Shakespeare, are, in the absence of any other proof of their personal relation, the sole documents proving a connection between the Stratford man and his presumed patron. No one has been able to prove that the individual signing himself William Shakespeare was ever actually present in Southampton’s entourage. The relation between Shakespeare and such putative patron as Southampton is unsupported by any documentation or direct testimony. An English researcher, Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, tried in vain for years to find a single document linking the Bard to Southampton. In 1922 she wrote in the preface to her The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s Patron: “I must confess that I did not start this work for his [Southampton’s] sake, but in the hope that I might find more about Shakespeare, which hope has not been satisfied…” This absence of documentation is not surprising, indeed many a Shakespearean critic have been stupefied by the fact that the young, unknown actor, who came to London from the countryside a few years before 1593, dared to address himself in the intimate terms of his dedications to an aristocrat of such a high state as Southampton. Notwithstanding this contradiction, academia accepted the odd, highly improbable relationship without batting an eyelid. Florio’s close relation to Southampton, on the contrary, stands on solid ground as Cecil was the powerful protector of John’s father Michel Angelo Florio in the early 1550s and then of John himself who worked thirty  years later for Walsingham and Burghley at the French embassy, before being appointed by Queen Elizabeth’s secretary of State to the post of tutor during Southampton’s minority.

As for the play, Shakespearian critics are unanimous in concluding that Love’s Labour’s Lost  was conceived primarily as an aristocratic entertainment as John Dover Wilson pointed out:

In Elizabethan and Jacobean times it [LLL] seems to have been among the more popular of Shakespeare’s plays – at any rate in court circles. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and I suggested in our edition (1923) that it may have been first written for a private performance at Christmas 1593, possibly for Southampton and his friends. (Shakespeare’s Happy Comedies, 1962, p.55, my emphasis).

Linguistic ability and proximity to Southampton are decidedly  pointing towards Florio. In the 2008 Oxford edition of the play, William C. Carroll in his introduction writes

Shakespeare certainly had some sense of Elizabeth’s royal progresses and entertainments that permitted him to create a scene reminiscent of them. (13, my emphasis)

What a hypocritical assertion! As there is plenty of evidence in the Shakespearian canon that the author had much more than “some sense” of the court’s life and the aristocratic manners and pastimes, the real problem for Shakespearian critics of all times, is rather how the young actor could have had that extended knowledge and social stand this early play and the two poetic compositions do show. Shakespearian scholars, we know it well, easily overcome all difficulties and inconsistencies they encounter, reasoning as Carroll does: Shakespeare certainly had…

What the actor, the commoner certainly never had, Florio surely had since his years at Tübingen University and then at Oxford in the  mid 1570s.

At the time of the composition of Love’s Labour’s Lost John Florio had all the educational requisites and the high social connections indispensable for the task, while Shakspere from Stratford had none.

William Matthews in a short study about the language in Love’s Labour’s Lost came close to the truth:

No less than the professional linguist, a writer is a student of the language he uses: indeed it might be argued that this exemplary craft, particularly if he be a playwright and a poet-playwright, demands a subtler and more comprehensive study of language than does the analytical and anatomical craft of the linguist.

(W. Matthews, Language in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Essays and Studies, 1964,XVII, p.1)

For Matthews, the author of the play is a super linguist endowed with poetical genius… Now, I wonder: what honestly does one see when, focusing on the young actor, and try to imagine this exceptionally gifted author from Stratford between 1588 and 1593? Read any of the increasingly fictional Shakespeare biographies and you’ll know: nothing. Let’s  describe the London’s scene around 1593 and look for Shakespeare. For some time, theatrical works had been appearing on the stage from a playwright who left no clue to his identity. In 1594, an author called Shakespeare was finally referred to explicitly as a writer when someone signing himself Henry Willobie (whose identity research has failed to confirm) wrote in a satirical poem entitled Willobie His Avisa that “Shake-speare, paints poor Lucrece rape,” referring to the second poem, The Rape of Lucrece, which came out that year. And that is how the man from Stratford was born, from thin air: from a family of illiterates, in a village without culture, with a brief and summary education, a man unheard of for the seven previous years—not that the rest of his life is much better documented. The embarrassing “lost years” (from 1586 to 1592) of Shakespearian hagiography, in which the young, ill-educated provincial is supposed to have read and re-read the Bible, and studied Latin and European literature, ancient mythology, and music, plus five or six languages, and then made his artistic debut, are obscure and ambiguous, like his whole career for that matter. Samuel Schoenbaum, still regarded as his leading biographer, writes: “Shakespeare’s introduction to the capital falls, frustratingly, in the void of the lost years.”


This mystery man, as someone named the Bard, is the author of the two highly sophisticated poems and of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the linguistically explosive play which some scholars think was his first.

More from Matthews

All Shakespeare’s plays exhibit his resource in language, his delight in exploiting its resources, and his preoccupation with its strengths and weaknesses; but it is in Love’s Labour’s Lost that his linguisticism is perhaps most apparent. Not even Hamlet, in which ‘word’ is a dominant theme, is so charged with sensitivity to the process and uses of language or so rich in linguistic criticism. It might not be excessive indeed to regard Love’s Labour’s Lost as being by emphasis a comedy on the English état de langue. (p.3, my emphasis)

Where did these “linguisticism… sensitivity… linguistic criticism…” and chiefly “the English état de langue” come from? From dialect ridded Warwickshire and Stratford’s Grammar school? This is wishful thinking at best. In the past two centuries Shakespearian scholars did hold their breath and close their eyes, pretending not to know that there was a real extraordinary linguist very close to Shakespeare, John Florio who had performed the English état de langue through his teaching, translation and lexicography. It is SO EVIDENT that the language revolution of these Shakespearian years came from the Italian Jewish scholar and writer! Who else? Who was impassioned with all the “isms” mentioned by Matthews? The critic actually, a few lines ahead, surprises us drawing John Florio’s name:

The most obvious aspect of this plethoric style in Love’s Labour’s Lost is the lexicographical abundance that characterizes both U [the courtiers] and the Would-be-U speakers [the academic trio]. All of them are verbal cornucopias, and sometimes they speak like Florio’s dictionary, in which the words are defined by as many synonyms as the lexicographer can muster” (my emphasis).


Few other Shakespearian scholars went so close to the truth.

A risky step that fifty years later his colleague William Carroll didn’t take. If Matthews named Florio he did resist though the temptation of opening Pandora’s box!

. . .


Michel Angelo Florio, John’s father ending his letter to the Reader of his Italian translation of Georg Agricola’s Latin treatise De Metallica in 1563, stated his grammatical-phonetical principles, in this way:

“I applied my self to make my prose to correspond to the spoken word. Why should one put a t where there is a z in pronunciation, or two l’s where only one is sounded?”(Yates, 24. Her translation).

The importance of this passage lies not just in its demonstration of the level of Michel Angelo’s theoretical reflections on language, but also because the point of view expressed is identical to the one put in the mouth of Holofernes:

(…) I abhor such fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and point-devise companions; such rakers of orthography, as to speak ‘dout’ fine, when he should say ‘doubt’; ‘det’ when he should pronounce ‘debt’ – d,e,b,t, not d,e,t. He clepeth a calf ‘cauf’, half ‘hauf’; neighbour vocatur ‘nebour’; ‘neigh’ abbreviated ‘ne’.

[Holofernes] Holofernes – Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive

Holofernes comes from far, the pedant culture as well as the satire of it, belong to the history of the Florio family. For the understanding of Love’s Labour’s Lost, another element is the author’s connection to John Lyly as criticism unanimously recognizes the strong influence of  Lyly on the play. The roots of the literary movement known as Euphuism in England lies in the French poet Pierre Ronsard, in the Baroque aesthetics, and Arcadia. Literary historians direct our attention to France in the period 1550-1575, when Ronsard and Joaquim Du Bellay were the leading lights of the Pléiade, a political, cultural, and poetic initiative on the part of a group of poets who promoted a movement to elevate the French literary language and make it the universally accepted heir to the classical tradition. As a corollary, the Tuscan language, the protagonist of the great Italian literary Renaissance, the eldest heir of Latin, had to be overshadowed. Euphuism was an offshoot of this strategic operation by the French literati, and it aimed, through imitation of Petrarchan lyric and Boccaccian prose, to enhance and increase the language and literature of England. The euphuistic movement had John Florio for its first and most important catalyst. Worth remembering too, that Florio’s First Fruites appeared a few months before Euphues the Anatomy of Wit, the romance by John Lyly that gave its name to the movement, an Italian tale set in Naples, the second city of Boccaccio. Lyly, whom history records as the key figure of euphuism, was the same age as Florio, and were both graduates of Magdalen College, Oxford. But the overlaps between Lyly and Florio don’t end there: one of the first euphuists was Stephen Gosson, who had been a student of John Florio, and both literati enjoyed the favors of the potent Cecil family. John Florio was thus an integral and essential part of the Italianizing Elizabethan and Jacobean culture which he helped to diffuse through the lessons in language and culture that he gave to the aristocrats and literati of the epoch. Lyly was moreover an impassioned cultivator of Italian language and literature, and it is highly probable that he too had taken instruction from Florio. George Pettie, the author of another leading work of euphuism, Petite Pallace (1576), and translator in 1581 of Stefano Guazzo’s influential La Civil Conversazione (1575), is perhaps the author of the introductory lines of verse that appear in First Fruites signed with the initials “I. P.” The first example of the romance genre in England, Euphues was dedicated by Lyly “to the Ladies and Gentlewomen of England,” in imitation of the love stories of Boccaccio. The references to Italian culture are striking, and are not limited to the author of the Decamerone

If euphuism can be condensed into the formula “moral tale plus proverbs,” then the role of John Florio is once again confirmed. The recipe for euphuism is rounded off with the stylistic influence of Lodovico Guicciardini’s Hore di Ricreatione and Antonio de Guevara’s Libro Aureo. Guevara, a Spaniard, favored the “estilo culto” or “alto estilo” (what in Shakespeare’s case is called “high style”); by any name, it was meant to be moralistic. The Guicciardini text is reproduced in dialogue 25 of First Fruites, for which Florio uses the English translation of James Sanford, slightly adapted. For his excerpts from Guevara, on the other hand, Florio does not make use of the existing translations from the French by Lord Berners and Sir Thomas North, but translates from the Spanish himself.

Now I won’t spend a single word to demonstrate the level of competence and genius reached by John Florio in the field of language in the two Fruits booklets, the editions of his World of Words, the translation of Montaigne’s Essays and Boccaccio’s Decameron…I wrote a book on this matter. Beside my book you can also read “classics” like Giovanni Florio. Un apôtre de la Renaissance en Angleterre à l’époque de Shakespeare (1921) by Clara Longworth Chambrun, Shakespere’s Debt to Montaigne (1925) by George Coffin Taylor, Felix Otto Matthiessen, Translation: an Elizabethan Art (1931), André Koszul, L’offrande d’un traducteur (1931) and John Florio. The life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England (1934, 1968, 2010) by Frances Amelia Yates.

More recent criticism too, like Manfred Pfister’s “Inglese italianato-Italiano anglizzato: John Florio” in  Renaissance Go-betweens, (2005); Jason Lawrence’s ‘Who the devil taught thee so much Italian?’ Italian language learning and literary imitation in early modern England, (2005) which dissects Shakespeare’s knowledge of the Italian language at length. Michael Wyatt’s The Italian Encounter with Tudor England, (2005) the second part of which is entirely dedicated to John Florio.

What did these scholars have to say of John Florio’s linguistic skills?


Frances Yates

The wealth of English words which Florio had at his command is phenomenal (…) Florio consciously experimented with English, grafting in to it words, phrases, even grammatical constructions, which he thought it [English] could digest. He was the first to use the genitive neuter pronoun “its”. (226)

[Note that the Florian invention “its” is quite frequently used in Shakespeare’s plays, much more than the commoner “his”.]

It has often been noticed how clever Florio is at finding English equivalents for allusions which would not be familiar to English readers (…) the astonishing skill with which he “anglicizes” Montaigne’s details.


Felix Otto Matthiessen

Florio’s greatest gift was the ability to make his book come to life for the Elizabethan imagination. (…) Florio creates a Montaigne who is an actual Elizabethan figure.


André Koszul

Florio was essentially an importer and a bold innovator, often bold to the point of temerity. Much more than to the family of “purists,” he belongs to that great tribe of Renaissance men who in every country thought, as our Ronsard did, that “Plus nous aurons de mots en nostre langue, plus elle sera parfaitte”.


Manfred Pfister

Translators, if they work on a certain level, translate from a foreign language into their own. With Florio, the reverse is true – or, rather, the rule does not apply, as with him the difference between own and foreign language becomes uncertain or collapses altogether. This is a measure of his linguistic and cultural in-betweenness […] it is also quite impossible to decide, from which of the two languages he translated into the other […] which is the original and which the translation.

As any one can easily verify in A Worlde of Wordes available on the internet, Love’s Labour’s Lost overflows of words and expressions from John Florio’s dictionary as from the rest of his works.


In fine

Connections between the works and biographical events of John Florio and Shakespeare are so numerous and so sound that the majority of contemporary critics have no choice but to conclude that the two were friends. The bestselling Shakespearian scholar Stephen Greenblatt writes in his celebrated Will in the World

Born in London, the son of Protestant refugees from Italy, Florio had already published several language manuals, along with a compendium of six thousand Italian proverbs; he would go on to produce an important Italian-English dictionary and a vigorous translation, much used by Shakespeare, of Montaigne’s Essays. Florio became a friend of Ben Jonson, and there is evidence that already in the early 1590s he was a man highly familiar with the theater. (227 my emphasis)

Actually, there is no evidence of any personal contact between the two. Shakespeare “follows” John Florio like a shadow or as a pen name follows the family name of an author. If two such characters – Shakespeare the young poet-playwright enamoured with all things Italian and John Florio the Italian linguist and literato – had lived in London at the same time, they would have certainly met, perhaps even clashed, leaving behind visible traces instead of a total void. If Florio shared with Shakespeare the same patrons (Southampton and Pembroke), the same friends, the same interests, passions and abilities and yet never met him, nor mentioned him, proves once more that such a person never existed as the scholarly, multilingual, aristocratic Italianizing linguist-playwright of the works signed (when they were) William Shakespeare.

[1] In October 1594, three years after the publication of Second Frutes, and the year in which Lucrece appeared (both dedicated to Lord Southampton), a police report proves that John Florio was indeed already in his service. Frances Yates writes “In that year Southampton was involved in the mysterious affair of the murder of Sir Henry Long by the Danvers brothers.” When the deed was done, the brothers made off to Southampton, to a locality called Titchfield, where John Florio helped them to get safely out of the country. The police report states that on that occasion the sheriff of Southampton, Lawrence Grose, who was in charge of the investigation, had an alarming experience:

Whereuppon the said Grose passinge over Itchinge Ferrey with his wife, the Saturdaie following, one Florio an Italian, and one Humphrey Drewell the saide Earle of Southampton servants, beinge in the saide passage Boate, threatened to cast him the saide Grose over board, and saide they woulde teache him to meddle with his fellowes, with many other threatninge words. (Yates, 125)

[Polyglot The polyglot- Illustration Annouchka Galouchko