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Learning Languages and Love's Labour's Lost

John Florio was a linguist and lexicographer, and his famous translation of Montaigne's "Essais" is known to have had a significant impact on several of Shakespeare's plays. In this post we talk about the array of Florio's various works that we have in our collections.

Madeleine Cox

John Florio is perhaps best known for his translation of Montaigne's Essais, published in 1603 and so well written that it was the chosen version even of Shakespeare's contemporaries who could read French. Shakespeare is known to have read, and used a section of "Des cannibales" (Of the Cannibals) from Book 1, Chapter 31 in The Tempest and "De l'affection des pères aux enfants" (Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children) from Book 2, Chapter 8 has clear influences on King Lear. From the language he uses we know that he read Florio's translation rather than the original. To find out more about this, sign up for the MOOC, Shakespeare and His World, starting on September 29th. We also have Stephen Greenblatt's latest book if you'd like to come and find out more about Montaigne and Shakespeare in our Reading Room. There's a great extract from this in The Telegraph.

Florio wasn't just a translator though. The son of an Italian refugee and former Franciscan friar who had married an Englishwoman, he was also a language teacher and author (and reputedly a spy!). This was a time when Italy and its language were seen as the centre of Renaissance culture and therefore incredibly in vogue amongst the wealthy, fashionable, and intellectual elite. John Florio had many wealthy patrons and friends, and tutored the Earl of Southampton (to whom Shakespeare dedicated his narrative poems) in the early 1590s. The writer Samuel Daniel was his brother-in-law. Florio has even been suggested as a possible editor of the First Folio.

florio dedication
Dedication to the Earle of Southampton in Florio’s Seconde Frutes

We're lucky enough to have several language learning books in our collections, including Florio's Second Frutes. This takes the form of a parallel-text dialogue book encouraging people learn from real life situations rather than through grammar and exercises. It shows an early attempt at direct method language teaching - a stark contrast to the way Latin and the classics were taught through grammar translation. Like an early equivalent of the textbooks of today with "At the hotel" or "At the shops", Second Frutes takes a thematic approach to learning Italian. It goes chronologically through the day, starting with "Of rising in the morning and of things belonging to the chamber" and covering various dialogues and situations the well-to-do gentleman of the day might need.

These include buying gloves, playing chess, fencing, dining, going to supper, the merits of women, and life at court. The would-be traveller could use it not only to get by in Italian, but could also seek to acquire Italian manners and sophistication with this little volume.

Second frutes
Second Frutes
Florio dinner
The fourth chapter, wherein is set downe a dinner

It's questionable how a traveller might fare with this book if he encountered any surprising situations or deviations from the 'script'! Even with Florio's Gardine of Recreation, a collection of 6000 proverbs bound together with this book, a novice learner might struggle with pronunciation and sentence formation beyond mere repetition. I find myself thinking of the famous Fawlty Towers scene where Manuel (hidden by a stuffed moose head) declares proudly "I speak English, I learned it from a book"!

Language books certainly give an interesting insight into contemporary life and national cultures. Whilst this might look eccentric and amusing to the modern reader, just think how even our own school textbooks will look in a few hundred years time. I'm not that old (!), but I do remember learning things like "Je voudrais téléphoner en PCV" (I'd like to make a reverse charges phone call) in French lessons, earnestly imagining some possible future crisis in France where I might need to say this. Not something anyone would need to learn today...

Here's another interesting extract:

“At the shops” – sixteenth century-style!
“At the shops” – sixteenth century-style!

Not a mere glove purchasing role play, but a whole host of (slightly baffling) proverbs! Visitors and staff who have seen this book particularly enjoyed the lines "Welcome master Giordano, how dooes your worship?" to which the reply is "Contrarie unto leeks, for my head growes upward"!

world of words
Florio’s Worlde of Words

Florio also compiled the largest Italian-English dictionary of the time in 1598. Called the Worlde of Words, it contained a massive 44,000 entries. We also have a copy of this book in our collections. Interestingly, despite his otherwise Puritan tendencies, Florio's dedication to teaching authentic colloquial language and to his humanist ideals were such that he included a wealth of 'rude' words in his dictionary, including one of the earliest printed examples of the 'f' word! It didn't take much searching to find several other words we were surprised to see in an early printed book!

Florio's language learning books have been linked to Shakespeare's plays and in particular to Love's Labour's Lost, which begins at the RST this week. Some have seen Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost as a parody of Florio (of his scholarly pedantry). The very title of this play seems linked to a line in Florio's earlier dialogue book, First Fruits:

"We need not speak so much of love, all books are full of love, with so many authors, that it were labour lost to speak of Love."

Of course modern foreign language teaching actually takes centre stage in Act III, Scene 4 of Henry Vwhen Alice, the old gentlewoman attempts to teach Katherine English, resulting in an amusing franglais conversation. Could Shakespeare have been inspired to write this by the likes of Florio and his style of teaching with the emphasis on conversation and 'natural' language acquisition?

henry v john gilbert
Henry V, in Staunton’s 1877 Routledge edition. Illustration by Sir John Gilbert, R.A., engraved by the Brothers Dalziel.

It's interesting to consider how Shakespeare acquired his knowledge of other cultures and languages and to imagine Florio's books as the Collins/Michael Thomas/Berlitz/Rosetta Stone of the day. We will never know how well he knew Florio or whether he received any language lessons directly from him, but it's clear he was familiar with Florio's books.

If you are interested in the history of language teaching and learning, take a look at this website relating to the AHRC-funded project being worked on by academics at the University of Nottingham and the University of Warwick. I particularly like their article on the history of learning German where phrases in early language learning books include discussions on how 'wholesome' England is and things like "I believe the Scurvy is very common there".

Thank you to Phil Tromans for biographical articles on Florio and to Miranda Gleaves for finding the most entertaining sections of Second Frutes and transcribing these for our display to the Living Shakespeare group in August.