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John Florio — lexicographer, raconteur, and supposed model for Shakespeare’s schoolmaster Holofernes, in Love’s Labour’s Lost — was born in London in 1553 to an unidentified Englishwoman and an Italian Protestant who’d fled the Inquisition. Later that year Queen Mary I reinstated Catholicism, which sent the family packing for France, Germany, and Switzerland. Florio didn’t return to London until the reign of Elizabeth I, and subsequently served as Italian tutor to Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, who gave the Church of England a Bible and so gave English to God. Florio’s posterity consists of twin ironies. The first is that despite compiling the first comprehensive Italian–English dictionary, Florio most likely never set foot in Italy. The second is that his most enduring translation happens to be from the French.

Portrait of a Scholar (detail), by Rembrandt van Rijn © The Art Archive/Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg/Superstock

Portrait of a Scholar (detail), by Rembrandt van Rijn © The Art Archive/Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg/Superstock

Florio’s 1603 version of Montaigne’s Essayes survives not because of its writing but because of a single reader — Shakespeare, whose initial encounter with the French philosopher was via Florio’s “enflourishing” eloquence. Stephen Greenblatt and Peter Platt have annotated selections in Shakespeare’s Montaigne (NYRB Classics, $17.95), and the result is a crash course in Elizabethan lit, a multiculti study of the development of English, and, above all, a revisionist biography of a monumental dramatist who not only cribbed the classical education he lacked but also responded to his sources with a fierce and censorious intelligence.

Montaigne’s presence behind Shakespeare’s scenes was already remarked upon, and lampooned, in the Bard’s lifetime. Ben Jonson’s Volpone proposed a Florio-like Italian writer from whom “All our English writers . . . Will deigne to steale . . . Almost as much, as from MONTAGNIE.” By the time the variora of the plays had been assembled, in the late eighteenth century, the influence was such a matter of record that an unscrupulous party forged the signature of “Willm Shakspere” on a copy of Florio’s work and sold it to the British Museum. Emerson, who regarded the signature as genuine, noted that when the museum bought a second copy, for public use, the volume contained the — authentic — autograph of Jonson.

Approximately 750 words peculiar to Florio’s style show up in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets after 1603, twenty of them used in the Essayes for the first time (or for the first time in English). In “Of the Cannibals,” Florio’s Montaigne writes that the just-discovered peoples of the New World

hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politic superiority; no use of service, of riches, or of poverty; no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation, but idle; no respect of kindred, but common; no apparel, but natural; no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulations, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them.

Compare this with Gonzalo’s fantasy after he’s shipwrecked on the island of The Tempest:

I’th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty; —
. . .
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

Scene from “The Tempest,”by Paul Falconer Poole © Forbes Magazine Collection, New York City/The Bridgeman Art Library

Scene from “The Tempest,”by Paul Falconer Poole © Forbes Magazine Collection, New York City/The Bridgeman Art Library

Jonson’s accusation of theft rings true, but only if the criterion is verbiage. The conceptual usages are crossed. Montaigne’s unexplored utopia is meant in earnest; Shakespeare is poking fun at both his character and his source — at the leisurely, moneyed abstractions of gentleman metaphysics. Shakespeare takes the same approach to “Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children,” in which Montaigne directs the aged patriarch to entrust his fortunes to his offspring, who will provide for him, which is precisely what doesn’t happen in King Lear. This is the basest element Shakespeare dug out from Florio’s Montaigne: an innocence, or naïveté, to react to. Because Montaigne was an essayist, he had to state his ideas, which, if they came into contradiction, he had to either acknowledge or resolve. Shakespeare, writing for the stage, costumed each of his characters in the rhetoric of an essayist, and in their conflicts they dramatized ideas. The playwright, who altered histories, bent time, and insisted on locating landlocked Milan, Padua, and Verona on coasts, plagiarized not out of ineptitude but out of vengeance. Each of his quotations is a commentary.

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