Over the centuries scholars have been puzzled by Shakespeare’s profound knowledge of Italian. Shakespeare had an impressive familiarity with stories by Italian authors such as Giovanni Boccaccio, Matteo Bandello, and Masuccio Salernitano. In an attempt to solve the mystery of Shakespeare’s Italian aptitude, one former teacher of literature has unleashed a new hypothesis on a world eager to hear anything fresh about the Bard.
In his book Shakespeare era italiano (2002), retired Sicilian professor Martino Iuvara claims that Shakespeare was, in fact, not English at all, but Italian. His conclusion is drawn from research carried out from 1925 to 1950 by two professors at Palermo University. Iuvara posits that Shakespeare was born not in Stratford in April 1564, as is commonly believed, but actually was born in Messina as Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza. His parents were not John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, but were Giovanni Florio, a doctor, and Guglielma Crollalanza, a Sicilian noblewoman. The family supposedly fled Italy during the Holy Inquisition and moved to London. It was in London that Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza decided to change his name to its English equivalent. Crollalanza apparently translates literally as ‘Shakespeare.’ Iuvara goes on to claim that Shakespeare studied abroad and was educated by Franciscan monks who taught him Latin, Greek, and history. He also claims that while Shakespeare (or young Crollalanza) was traveling through Europe he fell in love with a 16-year-old girl named Giulietta. But sadly, family members opposed the union, and Giulietta committed suicide.
Iuvara’s evidence includes a play written by Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza in Sicilian dialect. The play’s name is Tanto traffico per Niente, which can be translated into Much traffic for Nothing or Much Ado About Nothing. He also mentions a book of sayings credited to Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza. Some of the sayings correspond to lines in Hamlet. And, Michelangelo’s father, Giovanni Florio, once owned a home called “Casa Otello”, built by a retired Venetian known as Otello who, in a jealous rage, murdered his wife.
Granted, the above similarities between Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza and Shakespeare are intriguing, but unconvincing. That Shakespeare was Italian sounds as credible as the idea that Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare’s works in the few spare moments when she was not busy tending to the realm. Although the following excerpt from a biography of Shakespeare by Sir Sidney Lee is not a direct response to Iuvara’s claims, it does illuminate briefly the other side of the argument:
It is, in fact, unlikely that Shakespeare ever set foot on the Continent of Europe in either a private or a professional capacity. He repeatedly ridicules the craze for foreign travel. To Italy, it is true, and especially to cities of Northern Italy, like Venice, Padua, Verona, Mantua, and Milan, he makes frequent and familiar reference, and he supplied many a realistic portrayal of Italian life and sentiment. But his Italian scenes lack the intimate detail which would attest a first-hand experience of the country. The presence of barges on the waterways of northern Italy was common enough partially to justify the voyage of Valentine by ‘ship’ from Verona to Milan (‘Two Gent.’ I.i.71). But Prospero’s embarkation in ‘The Tempest’ on an ocean ship at the gates of Milan (I.ii.129-144) renders it difficult to assume that the dramatist gathered his Italian knowledge from personal observation. He doubtless owed all to the verbal reports of traveled friends or to books, the contents of which he had a rare power of assimilating and vitalizing (Lee 86).
It was not unusual for an Elizabethan dramatist to set his or her play in Italy. Are we, knowing this, compelled to assume that Marlowe, Bacon, and Jonson were Italian?
Admittedly, we do not have much information about Shakespeare’s education, but why so blatantly disregard the sound reasoning behind Occam’s razor? Why is it easier for Iuvara to assume that Shakespeare was an Italian refugee than it is to assume that he mastered Italian on his own? Jonson’s verses in the Folio identify Shakespeare as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’, and his birth record and other important documents attest to the fact that Shakespeare was a resident of England his whole life. Yet some choose to ignore these pieces of evidence in favor of more esoteric theories. One thing is certain – Iuvara’s claim that Shakespeare was Italian will unite Shakespeare supporters and anti-Stratfordians from the camps of Bacon, Essex, Marlowe, Derby, Rutland, Oxford, and Queen Elizabeth in a mutual uproar.
For anyone who knows Italian and would like more information on the book Shakespeare era italiano, there is a PDF document here with an image of the cover.
Lee, Sir Sidney. A Life of William Shakespeare. New York: Dover Publications, 1968.