Monday, August 12, 2013

Shakespeare's Editor

John Florio is the sort of historical figure you don't hear much about as an undergraduate, but who is well-known to graduate students in English.  Of English birth and an Italian family, played a modest but footnote-worthy role in the Elizabethan literary world.  Florio wrote and translated a great deal of minor work -- Italian phrasebooks, for example -- but is best known for his rendering of the Decameron and of Montaigne's Essaies, which was still in print a few years ago.

He also had a ... questionable ... relationship with the writer who stands at the top of any Eng Ren Lit syllabus, William Shakespeare.   It is possible that Shakespeare mocked Florio with a minor character in Hamlet, as well as more important characters including Twelfth Night's Malvolio.  They shared a patron, and may have shared a still-more-intimate connection; it has been proposed that the Dark Lady of the sonnets is Florio's wife.

All of which makes more striking the suggestion, brought forth by Eleanor Prosser and laid out by Saul Framtom in The Guardian, that Florio was Shakespeare's editor.

This is not one of those who-really-wrote-Shakespeare snipe hunts.  On the contrary, the suggestion is that precisely because Shakespeare was a real person, and died the way real people do, it was necessary for the actors Hemminges and Condell to find a capable literary editor when they brought out an edition of his collected plays.  The assorted samizdat quartos and preserved scripts in circulation needed not only to be collated, but to be tweaked for style -- lines of verse made regular, rough sentences cleared up, that sort of thing.  Florio, who did a lot of editing work including some for the publisher of the First Folio, would have been a natural candidate.

Most compelling, though, is the linguistic evidence.  In places where the language of the First Folio varies from the at of the published quartos, the revisions often adopt language preferred by Florio:

In Henry V, Exeter presents the French king with a copy of Henry's family tree, describing it as "In every branch truly demonstrated". The Folio changes "demonstrated" to "demonstratiue", a word never used elsewhere by Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson. However, while Florio used "demonstrated" only once, he uses "demonstratiue" 20 times. 
In Henry IV, Part One, "intemperence" is replaced by "intemperature", again never used by Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson, but again familiar to Florio. 
And in Henry VI, Part Two, the Folio version has the King enter "on the Tarras", a somewhat redundant elaboration on the King's entrance in the quarto. But whereas Shakespeare was never to use the word again, Florio used it 13 times in his translation of the Decameron, published three years before.

Nothing conclusive, but not impossible.

There isn't a shred of documentary evidence here; all is circumstantial, inferred, guessed.  But it does add up.  And it makes for a good story, too -- a much better one than the silliness of the movie Anonymous.  Think of it:  the brilliant young playwright, who first competes with the hard-working old man of letters for a patron's favor, who makes mockery of the other man's work, personality and even features a running gag in his plays -- and then piles Ossa atop Pelion by seducing the man's wife.  It is a miracle no duel took place.  And then, years later, Florio, the abused fop, is given a rare chance:  effective control of the great man's literary legacy.

He cleans them up, like a good editor.  He takes out, or at least blunts, the mockery of himself.  But he does not destroy the work; indeed, it seems that he tries to make it more beautiful.  It is because he is a conscientious editor, or is there more to it?  Is it that, however much he might have disliked Shakespeare the man, he knows enough to admire Shakespeare the writer?

Only about half the plays in the First Folio are known to us in earlier editions.  In them, we can see the evidence of an editorial hand -- whether or not it was Florio's.  But what about the other plays?  If we had them, how much mockery of John Florio might we find?  And, comparing them to the Folio edition, how much of John Florio himself might we find added in?

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