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To Be, or Not to Be

An interview with Lamberto Tassinari, who believes he's got the goods on who Shakespeare really was.

Lamberto Tassinari was born in Castelfiorentino and spent his childhood on the island of Elba. He obtained a degree in philosophy from the University of Florence. He moved to Montreal in 1981, where he cofounded the transcultural magazine ViceVersa which he ran until its last issue in 1997. He taught Italian language and literature at the Université de Montréal until 2007. He is currently at work on his second novel and on a production of The Tempest to be staged Naples. In 2008 he published John Florio: The Man Who Was Shakespeare.

Michael Mirolla is a novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright. He lives in Toronto.


Michael Mirolla: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what in that background qualifies you to write about Shakespeare?

Lamberto Tassinari: I don't think you need any special qualifications to write about Shakespeare. It all depends upon what one has to say and how one says it. What counts are one's arguments and the quality of the writing. This is true especially for Shakespeare! As Daniel Swift recently stated: "Shakespeare has escaped the grounds of the academic institutions and is now at large in the community." But to answer your question, I have a Laurea in Philosophy from the University of Florence, and I taught Italian language and literature at the Université de Montréal for 25 years. For 14 years I was the editor of ViceVersa, a transcultural magazine on literature, arts and political issues.

MM: When and why did you first become interested in the John Florio-Shakespeare equation?

LM: In 2000, the media reported that a retired teacher from Sicily had declared that the works of Shakespeare had been written by Michel Angelo Florio (presumed cousin of John Florio). According to the theory, Michel Angelo was born in Messina in 1564, the son of aristocratic Calvinist Sicilians who fled Italy to avoid religious persecution and ended up in Stratfordupon-Avon, where an uncle had emigrated years before. The family name, Crollalanza, was literally translated and became "Shake-speare." I decided to investigate this provocative statement and began to study The Tempest and other Shakespeare plays. If Shakespeare was Italian, then traces of his Italian personality and culture should be found, not only in the settings of the plays, but also in the language, in the emotional, unconscious sphere. And I did find all this in The Tempest. At that time though, I wasn't interested in John Florio, the translator. I found the persona of this language teacher and lexicographer, a blue-collar Elizabethan, miles away from the divine Shakespeare. But later on, the scope of my research broadened, thanks to a few decisive books, including Frances Yates' 1934 biography of John Florio. I soon discovered that for 70 years this great book had been completely ignored by the academics. Instead of creating new interest in Florio, Yates' book had the opposite effect. Her book should have led to further research, as it provided a clear and convincing demonstration of the extraordinary qualities of this Elizabethan linguist, translator of Montaigne's Essays and writer referred to as "the Apostle of the Renaissance" in England by Claire Chambrun, a lesser-known critic. In fact, between 1921 and 1934, Florio did receive considerable attention from other literary critics, linguists and historians such as George C. Taylor, F.O. Matthiessen and A. Koszul. These scholars came close to the affirmation of ãthe equation,ä only to pull back, frightened, I believe, by their own research and determined not to establish any formal comparative study between the two authors.

MM: Others have set forth the hypothesis that Florio and Shakespeare were friends and that Florio fe Shakespeare information for his works. Or that Florio collaborated with Shakespeare. What made you take the radical step of equating the two?

LM: Connections between the works and biographical events of John Florio and Shakespeare are so numerous and so solid that the majority of contemporary critics have no choice but to conclude that the two were friends. But 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. In the past though, some eminent Shakespearean scholars went so far as to cast doubt on Shakespeare knowing Florio. I'm convinced that this was a strategic move, caused by fear of admitting a close relation between the linguist-translator and the unschooled dramatist, as this was a risky connection. Better leave the doubt, they thought, with all its incongruities and contradictions, and avoid further research on Florio and the inevitable comparison with Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare affair is an eminently political question, the most ideologically-laden literary case in history. To be honest, at times I'm tempted to conclude that everybody must know the truth! They just pretend not to see that John Florio is the author of Shakespeare's works! Those critics decipher perfectly that Shakespeare borrowed too much from Florio. And everybody knows that when you borrow too much, you end up belonging to your creditor! So Florio fed Shakespeare with so many words, ideas and knowledge that the debtor and creditor eventually become one. The time has come to announce that the emperor has no clothes!

MM: What did you hope to achieve through the laying out of this thesis?

LM:  Not to seem arrogant, but I do not consider what I am putting forth a "thesis." For me it is a fact, or, if you prefer, a series of facts: Florio is Shakespeare. Now, it's up to the Stratfordians to prove me wrong. I have no hidden agenda. I simply want to show others what I have seen. Among Elizabethan erudite writers, John Florio -- the foreigner, the translator of Montaigne, and Giordano Bruno's roommate -- is the closest to Shakespeare. None of the numerous other candidates possesses the culture and language skills shown in the works of Shakespeare.

MM: Does the fact that you yourself are Italian help or hinder the cause?

LM:  Neither. It has nothing to do with Italy, which has nothing to gain from this revelation. The Florio/Shakespeare story is not a matter of pride for Italians. In 1929 an Italian writer and journalist, Santi Paladino, pointed out that the plays of Shakespeare had been written by Michel Angelo Florio, with the contribution of John as the translator, who also might have penned a few plays. The Fascist regime, instead of being exalted by this, intervened to silence Paladino. At the time, Fascist Italy could not afford to displease the British. Other critics and historians, Italians and non-Italians, have come very close to the "discovery" of John Florio, but none of them concluded that Florio was responsible for the works of Shakespeare. Why? Diplomacy, interest and fear. That other scholars did not make this connection in two centuries is, however, more complex than just diplomacy, interest and fear. In the 19th century and until the end of the Second World War, the identity of England's greatest writer had to be preserved, and rendered irrefutable as a means to strike respect in its own citizens and the rest of the world. Shakespeare is the product of a wholesale invention contrived on behalf of the interests of the Establishment and its subjects.

MM: How do you respond to the idea that it doesn't matter who wrote what has been traditionally seen as the Shakespeare canon? That it is the body of work that counts?

LM: How can the origin and life of the greatest dramatist of all time be insignificant? The work comes first, of course. We will continue reading the plays and sonnets by Shakespeare knowing that Florio is the author because "Shake-speare" was Florio's nom de plume, and it will be absurd to rename him. Florio had decided that his nom de plume should refer to an English author. Florio had no doubt on the matter: the author should not and could not be a foreigner. If his plan were to work, he would have to be a nativeborn writer with an English name. That was the only way that he could ensure that all Englishmen would accept his work as a shared, national heritage. This was his project. Actually, we will read Shakespeare with greater interest once we know the story of John Florio's exciting and adventurous life -- the life of an author who wasn't a native Anglo-Saxon, but one who came from another culture, language and customs. Florio's metamorphosis proves that the birth of modern Europe was a far more complex event than has been imagined: modernity began with a transcultural literary phenomenon of amazing magnitude.


This interview was originally published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 15  Winter 2009.

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