Lamberto Tassinari*


Two subjects come up over and over again in the works of Shakespeare: exile and Italy. Given all the recent debate about who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays, Lamberto Tassinari’s recent book, John Florio: The Man Who Was Shakespeare, asks if Shakespeare could himself have been an exile and if Shakespeare could have been connected to Italy by family and language. His argument in favour of linguist and poet John Florio as the author of the body of work we call Shakespeare is based primarily on stylistic evidence and Florio’s own life as an exile from his familial homeland. Whatever one thinks of the authorship issue, the fact is exile as a concept looms exceedingly large in the works of the Bard as scholar Tassinari here argues.

The poet, dictionary-maker and writer John Florio was born in London in 1553 and passed almost his whole life there, except for a long interval spent on the continent as an adolescent and young man—fundamental years of education, travel, and formative experience. The Florio family – John and his father Michel Angelo Florio — returned to England in around 1571, when his father was about fifty years old, and John eighteen.

John Florio
John Florio

The rapidity with which John found acceptance in aristocratic circles is the best proof of the fact that his father was with him; for it was the old friends and protectors of Michel Angelo whom we soon find supporting the career of John. Thus Florio was destined to become English while keeping a strong link with continental Europe and particularly with Italy, his fatherland, whose language and culture he taught and immortalized in ten “Italian” plays (and many others) written under the pseudonym Shakespeare.

Italy as it appears in Shakespeare’s theater is precisely matched by the lives and works of Florio and his father, where Italy appears for what it is: the land, the folk, and the language that have been lost. To evoke Italy, to make it live again, is a response to angst, emptiness, and loss. Italy is the site of memory of the many exiled characters that populate the works, “the dark backward and abyss of time,” as Prospero says in The Tempest. One looks for Italy in Shakespeare not in order to “prove” anything in the forensic sense, but rather in order to confirm the fact that the author was an Italian “outside Italy.”

I shall refrain from systematically reviewing the evidence gathered over more than a century by a raft of researchers to the effect that Shakespeare knew Italy. A book presented last year in a limited edition and published in 2011 for a wider distribution, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels by Richard Paul Roe, seems to bring the final evidence of Shakespeare’s Italian connection.

Roe, for lack, I would say, of more convincing candidates, decided in favor of Edward de Vere as the true author of the Shakespeare canon and in so doing, made the Oxfordian partisans exult.

While I respect his choice, the least I can say is that Florio’s Italian credentials are bolder and infinitely more convincing than Oxford’s ones. Ultimately I’m anticipating that his book will bring more water to Florio’s mill. Because Italy is everywhere in Shakespeare, at every level—stylistic, linguistic, historical, artistic, geographic, topographic, emotive. Because certain emotions can’t be feigned, learned from books or experienced by a tourist. In no other Elizabethan writer do Italy and Italian culture, which do have a recurring presence in that literature, play so large a part as they do in Shakespeare.

Harry Levin writes:
Yet in so far as Shakespeare’s creative world had a centre, Italy and the Italians were very near it.

The same cannot be said of any other Elizabethan or Jacobean author .

Indeed, any reader of the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare is compelled to wonder why the theme of exile is so prominent. Even at a quick glance, exile appears to be much more than a simple motif or literary topos for the author. As for me, the theme of exile is one of the main axes of my Shakespeare theorem—internal evidence of great weight and cogency for the claim that the author was not the man from Stratford but a foreigner, like the Italian John Florio.

Here I shall make no attempt to survey the theme of exile across the entire oeuvre of Shakespeare, because the quantity of relevant passages is so great as to demand a book in itself. It will be enough to show the importance of the exile theme by citing examples from some of the plays and the Sonnets.

In a recent book, the British scholar Jane Kingsley-Smith examines the theme of exile in Shakespeare, noting that 14 of the 38 plays “represent the banishment of one or more central characters. If we include minor characters and self-imposed exile, that number is considerably increased.”[1] The scarcity of scholarly analysis and interpretation of the exile theme in Shakespeare is a telling example of how Shakespeare studies are conducted, the unbelievable caution and hesitancy they display whenever they confront delicate and embarrassing aspects of the life and works of Shakespeare, ones that might compromise the ramshackle literary identity of the man from Stratford if they were inspected too closely.

Kingsley-Smith herself acknowledges this lacuna in scholarship, which over the last 35 years has dedicated barely two books not even to exile as such but to the figure of the foreigner and the solitary: The Stranger in Shakespeare by Leslie A. Fiedler in 1973 and Shakespeare and the Solitary Man by Janette Dillon in 1981. She for her part does try her hand at a specific study of the exile theme, sallying forth boldly on a research project that ought to have earned her a commendation for her courage. But it actually looks more like imprudence, since she writes from an adamantly orthodox point of view.

Yet when read aright her book succeeds in breaking open the Pandora’s box of the Stratfordian identity. Kingsley-Smith denies it of course, asserting that the official version,and the biography of the man from Stratford, emerge unscathed. But she skirts the ridiculous in doing so. In her introduction she quickly mentions the authors contemporary with Shakespeare who made most use of the theme of exile in their plays, and concedes:

Shakespeare was not alone in his penchant for banishment, as a later comparison with Marston will suggest. Yet there remains something rich and strange in his recurrence to exile. Again and again, he writes a scene of banishment, reworking the details of earlier plays, redirecting the emphasis from loss of language to loss of nation, from loss of the beloved to loss of self. The mystery need not be that Shakespeare had experience of banishment. (Kingsley-Smith, 2.)

Stratfordians are faith-based scholars, they eschew reason: possessing the truth in advance, they must perforce resolve all the incongruities and contradictions over which they stumble through rigid adherence to the myth. That “something rich and strange” is owing to the fact that John Florio and his father — the authors of the plays credited to Stratford’s William Shakespeare –, really were in exile, “doubly” so: as descendants of diaspora Jews and as Italian Protestants forced to flee.

After staking out this initial position, Kingsley-Smith bends over backwards trying to show that the “potential of exile” was so great in the man from Stratford that it accounts for the quantity and quality of the exile narratives thronging the works of Shakespeare. One comes to see, reading her book, why Shakespeare criticism has refrained from analyzing this theme: it is the only way to avoid proffering absurdities or banalities like “the Stratford man exiled in London,” which is what Kingsley-Smith is reduced to.

The great innovators and creators of literary language, from Dante to Joyce, always stand somewhat apart from, or even in opposition to, their homelands, to the point of becoming exiles (almost always non-metaphorically). But the example of Dante leaves the Shakespearians unmoved, as though Dante had not existed for the Bard.

There is little to suggest any Dantean subtext in Romeo and Juliet. We find perhaps the glimpse of an allusion in Romeo’s insistence that the world “banishèd” is uttered by the “damned” . . . “Howling attends it” or in his reference to “purgatory” (3.3. 47-48,18). (Kingsley-Smith, 52-53)

So palpable is it to A. D. Wraight that the sonnets are impregnated with the theme of exile that he concludes that the author really must have been in exile, and imagines that it was Christopher Marlowe, who is supposed to have faked his own murder and then hied off to Italy where, tormented by longing for home, he wrote the sonnets. This alone would be enough to prove that the author of the works ofShakespeare was a foreigner. Wraight declares:

When we apply ourselves to a detailed and unprejudiced analysis of the major themes of theSonnets, we are struck by the inescapable fact that by far the largest group of all deals with the theme of a journey that was undertaken in great heaviness of heart, and that represented a period of cruel separation from his former life and friends, a journey into what can only be likened to a state of exile. It is amazing, but there is no other way to describe this major event in the Poet’s life.[2]

This extraordinary acknowledgement of a (for that matter undeniable) fact becomes credible, and infinitely more convincing than the canvassing of the name of Marlowe, if we substitute the name of either or both of the Florios, the father and the son. How can someone speak about the “drama of exile,” as Kingsley-Smith does, having in mind the sedentary fellow from Stratford? Could Shakespearereally have created all those wrenching tales of separation from place of birth, from friends, from language, from identity, purely and simply by empathizing with the real feelings of some European expatriate he met, and reliving in an especially intense and personal manner the literary commonplace of nostalgia?

No, Shakespeare thematizes exile not just because it works well as a plot device for the plays, but because exile concerns him, because it is something he has experienced, because he has lived such a story himself. Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Tempest, both “Italian” stories, are perhaps the two most powerful dramas of exile composed by the Florios, Italian expatriates both. The situation of the Florios in the Elizabethan and Jacobean age was peculiar: for 75 years they were active presences in one way or another, yet always central in the development of the culture, the basic themes, the fashions, of the age.

But while their importance, especially that of John, was recognized by many contemporaries, from kings and queens to Ben Jonson, the Florios nevertheless remained oddly marginal. There is no real contradiction, for it was normal that in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England two émigrés, albeit Protestants with well-placed friends, should always be perceived as outsiders. In the last analysis, they were always liable to be targeted as foreigners, when jealousy and envy at their literary accomplishments or the social status they had attained required a pretext. Allusions to hostility of this kind, and to the more or less undisguised xenophobia of London society at the time, are numerous and eloquent in John Florio’s works.

The Florios loomed large in England on account of their origin (Renaissance Italy) and their personal gifts (their talents, their cultural sophistication, their polyglotism). And this accounts for their arrogant tone, the bombastic attitude of those certain that their own cultural level is superior to their surroundings—which is a perfect sketch of the character of Shakespeare as revealed in his works: noble (or as the expression was then, “gentle”), but not by birth, filled with an irrepressible feeling of superiority, yet “marginal” and vulnerable. This marginality the Shakespearian critics perceive and discuss, but they attribute it partly to the author’s emigration, forced or voluntary, from Stratford to London, and mainly to the fact that the trade of dramatist was barely respectable and drove him to the margins—literally so, inasmuch as the theaters were forced to locate away from the city center, in the shadier neighborhoods, and figuratively inasmuch as writers and actors for the stage were not presentable in good society.

Let us accept this critical hypothesis about Shakespeare for the sake of argument: if he was so constantly vulnerable to ostracism, how did he acquire the upper-class contacts and the knowledge of the lifestyle of the great aristocracy that were indispensable for the Bard to be able to write what he wrote, to think and be what he was? (The position of the Florios at court and their high-level relations are, by contrast, matters of fact, and their marginality different in kind.) Hence, so the Stratfordians reason, the virtual anonymity to which Shakespeare resigned himself was the condition, the sacrifice, necessary to maintain a decent reputation and not be shut out of aristocratic company.

But there is not the slightest hint, much less proof, that the man from Stratford ever kept such company, and such discretion and reserve about putting himself forward is in utter disharmony with the mentality of someone immersed in the theater world as author, co-owner of playhouses, and full-time actor. Jane Kingsley-Smith performs feats of acrobatics in finding reasons to justify the importance of the theme of exile, which she sees as no less than a constitutive element of the Shakespeare canon. So she piles up quotations touching on exile from two areas, that of the Protestant exiles who left England during the brief reign of Mary Stuart (of whom Michel Angelo Florio was one), and that of the Catholics persecuted or forced out of England during the reign of Elizabeth.

This double-sided historical experience is supposed to have given rise to a powerful, romantic image of the figure of the exile, a representation that Shakespeare is supposed to have internalized to the point that it became one of the most dramatic and powerful elements of his own poetry. In an attempt to bolster a line of argument that she herself knows is flimsy, Jane Kingsley-Smith advances the thesis that Shakespeare experienced the occasional prohibition of theatrical shows by the local authorities as a species of exile! This is a card castle erected out of hypotheses so weak that the eager scholar herself is forced to conclude that “the interpretation of banishment remains problematic” (ibid. 19, 20), all the more so in that

. . . banishment was ‘mainly a memory’ in late sixteenth-century England. Shakespeare’s audience might have been familiar with banishment as a practice in Roman imperial and European medieval law, and as a punishment incurred by the poets Ovid and Dante, but such an audience could not have drawn upon any personal experience of banishment.

On the contrary! It is well known that Renaissance Italy possessed a rich culture of exile, a diaspora of major dimensions that heralds the migratory exodus of the late nineteenth century, and that many European nations, France in particular, benefited from it. J. F. Dubost notes “Exile became a prominent trait of Italian political culture, and a relatively common experience for members of urban patriciates: every state had to reckon with its fuoriusciti [exiles].”[3]

If the emphasis on the theme of exile, and the passion that Shakespeare puts into it are not owing to familiarity with the phenomenon in England, then a different explanation for them must be sought, and there is nowhere else to seek it than in the life and personal experience of the person wielding the pen. If one reads the rest of Kingsley-Smith’s study, in which she reviews the eight plays that convey the theme of exile most strongly (As You Like It, King Lear, Coriolanus, The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV), one is struck by the yawning gap between her interpretive hypothesis and the theatrical texts themselves, in which one encounters the true, authentic expression of the drama of exile, which is felt as the loss of part of oneself, especially one’s language.

The language I have learn’d these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue’s use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony:
(Richard II, 1.3. 160-165)

Loss of language and identity recur obsessively down to The Tempest with such frequency and intensity that it is absurd to reduce them to a literary expedient, much less to the fantasy that Christopher Marlowe lived on as an exile in Italy. Referring to Richard II, King Lear, Cymbeline and Sir Thomas Moore (of doubtful authorship) Kingsley-Smith writes:

How terrible would it be to be forced upon the kindness of strangers, deprived of one’s tongue and thus of one’s humanity, to be singled out as an outcast by one’s peers? […]Richard II suggest that the play was intended to frighten its audience with the loss of England and thus of themselves. However, the reach of Shakespeare’s banishment plays is much broader, questioning the conditions of identity itself, […] Of course, Shakespeare’s drama of exile is self-consciously metatheatrical. […] perhaps the most obsessive concern of these plays is language, wherein lies the originality of Shakespeare’s representation of exile. […] language equals creativity and thus power. Language-loss equates to silence, impotence and death. (Kingsley-Smith, 29-30)

A “much broader” reach indeed, which one hardly knows how the man from Stratford would have achieved, but which rings precisely true as a description of the exile status of the Florios: Giovanni remade himself as John and redeemed the loss of his mother (father?) tongue and took revenge on fate through literary creation in his new language at a level reached by only a few other writers in exile (Ovid, Dante, Joyce). All of them, however, continued to employ their mother tongue. In creating thousands of words, in translating, in composing poetry and drama, Florio took back with interest the energy and power that had been lost. Yet all this was passed off as the work of another, who was nonetheless the English half of himself.

The works of culture and erudition of Michel Angelo and John Florio are the product of conscious activity, on which these exiles built their careers. The theatrical works and the poetry are the writings in which the unconscious speaks and the hidden truth is revealed; these are the works they entrusted to time, to a future humanity. Not a biographical truth, certainly, but a profound one, through which every reader has known Shakespeare without knowing that he was really someone else.

The signals sent by John Florio that he was Shakespeare are numerous in the plays and sonnets. The most substantial part of the collection published in 1609 under the name of Shake-Speare consists, according to A. D. Wraight, of the forty poems he calls “The Sonnets of Exile.[4] Precisely the sonnets that for Wraight recount the tragic tale of the exile of Christopher Marlowe are for me the symbolic, intimate, poetic account of the life of the Florios and the exile status that loomed so large in it.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
(Sonnet 29)

This is not the place for a line-by-line commentary on the poetry of the Sonnets. The point is rather that “the tragic autobiographical themes of the sonnet-story” (Wraight) originate in the workshop of the Florios. Whoever the individuals may be concealed behind the names “lovely boy,” “fair youth,” “dark lady,” “rival poet” and “W. H.,” they are in any case persons belonging to the vast circle of relations, friends, and lovers (more or less heterosexual) of the Florios father and son, over the period from 1550 to 1609. Exile is one of the strongest proofs of this theorem, along with the realist obsession, the pregnant presence of Ovidian subjects, the extraordinary richness of the language, and even the events surrounding the cryptic edition of the sonnet collection, including the part played by the shady printer Thomas Thorpe: all these things confirm the Florian authorship of the Sonnets.

According to A. D. Wraight, the publisher was aware that this was a less than orthodox publishing project: “There is evidence that T. T. must have known that the true story of the Sonnets was dynamite!” The explosive secret was not that Marlowe in unlikely exile was the author, but that John Florio was—the most prominent foreigner on the Jacobean scene, closely linked to the royal family. These 154 poems in blank verse (an Italian import), “never before Imprinted,” were written by the father and the son at various points over a long span of time, as the publisher’s notice implies, and then assembled and printed by John using the already-established pen-name Shake-Speare, not to drive sales but in homage to his father, and to advance the heroic enterprise to which he had devoted himself for decades.

Francis Meres alludes to a personal, special motivation behind the sonnets in a well-known passage written in 1598, calling Shakespeare the author of “sugared Sonnets among his private friends.” The following year it was the turn of the publisher William Jaggard, a piratical entrepreneur who put out a poetic anthology entitled The Passionate Pilgrim containing five sonnets by Shakespeare. This anthology was printed without Shakespeare’s authorization, say the critics, but the author strangely failed to protest, either in 1599 or in 1612 when the second edition came out, edited by Heywood (Diana Price,Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, 2001, pp.130-131).

Thomas Thorpe was the pirate publisher who, a year after the complete edition of the Sonnets, publishedEpictectus his Manuall by John Healey and dedicated it to John Florio! In the dedication(“To a true favorer/of forward spirits, Maister/Iohn Florio”) Thorpe refers to the fact that Florio had ensured the patronage of William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, for Healey’s first book, Discovery of a New World, dedicated to the Earl in 1609.

This was a satirical translation of a short work in Latin, Mundus Alter et Idem, by Joseph Hall, published in Germany in 1605; Frances Yates believes that Florio had a hand in the translation. This leaves no doubt about Florio’s high standing in the Pembroke entourage. William Herbert, we recall, is almost certainly the W. H. of the sonnets, and would be the dedicatee of the First Folio of 1623. The whole affair is recounted in extensive detail in the book of Frances Yates, who concludes:

Yet in that year [1609] Thorpe addressed to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke – via Florio – a translated satire, and to a “Mr W.H.” a sonnet-sequence by William Shakespeare. (Frances Yates, John Florio , 1934, pp. 283-292)

As all exiles, Florio has strong and tender liaisons with his roots: Italy, the land and its people, its literature, its language. But John doesn’t exaggerate, doesn’t make a display of his origins, doesn’t reveal particulars about his private life, just as Shakespeare doesn’t. His stance is vigorously transcultural: tied to his origins, but not viscerally. So John Florio shuns overemphasis, using his enormous baggage of knowledge of Italian with discretion, avoiding involvement with the most flamboyant Italianizing trends while striving to inculcate a taste for Italian language and literature through conversation, lessons, booklets, dictionaries, translations and three dozens of immortal plays.


[1] Jane Kingsley-Smith, Shakespeare’s Drama of Exile, 2003, p. 1.
[2] A.D.Wraight, The Story that the Sonnets Tell, 1994, p. 11.
[3] J.F. Dubost, La France italienne: XVIe-XVIIe, 1997, p. 53.
[4] A.D. Wraight, op. cit., pp. 184 ff.


*Lamberto Tassinari was born in Italy. After obtaining a “laurea” in Philosophy from the University of Florence, he worked as a teacher and in several publishing companies. He moved to Montreal in 1981. Two years later he was one of the founders of the transcultural magazine ViceVersa which he directed until its last issue in 1997. Between 1982 and 2007, he taught Italian language and literature at the Université de Montréal. In 1985 he published a novel, in 1999 a collection of essays, Utopies par le hublotand in 2008 Shakespeare? È il nome d’arte di John Florio. He is currently at work on his second novel and on a production of The Tempest to be staged in Naples. For the first time ever, the play’s autobiographical nature will reveal the underlying, true identity of the Bard, John Florio. Additional material and copies of the book John Florio: The Man Who Was Shakespeare are available at

Copyright © 2011 Lamberto Tassinari
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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John Florio: The Case for Shakespeare as Exile