So there I was in Patisserie Valerie, sinking my teeth into a wickedly creamy Tarte Aux Framboises and reminiscing about old times with the companion of my youth, John Florio.
“But tell me, John,” I said. “What do you say to people who claim you were the one who actually wrote all those world-famous plays of William Shakespeare?”
“You know, the country boy, the player from Stratford-upon-Avon who put his name to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice and all those plays set in Italy and Rome. Only an Italian could have written those plays, right?”
“I am not in verity an Italian,” he said. “I am an Englishman in Italian. Un Inglese Italianato, e un Diavolo incarnato!”
“Yes, yes, I know that. You were born here, in London. Your mother was an English woman…”
“I entreat you never to breathe a word about my mother.”
“Well, but your father only was Italian…”
“My father was Michael Angelo Florio, Italian tutor, preceptor, professor, pedagogue to the Queen of England, her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, why and belike to Lady Jane Grey and to many more noble gentlemen and noble ladies in the English court besides.”
“Indeed he was, and he did his job well no doubt, for they all spoke very fine Italian, I’m sure. But what I’m getting at is this. Was it you or Shakespeare who wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost?”
“We need not speak so much of that. Why, his plays are but men’s eloquence, essayes, histories, philosophy pieced together. You might as well say, several texts and multitudes of authors. Yea, marry, are not all writings thefts? If with acknowledgements, it is well; if by stealth it is too bad.”
“You don’t accuse him, then?”
“In this, our conscience is our accuser, posterity our judge.”
“And, let’s be clear, you were not the real author of those plays?”
“In that, our study is our advocate.”
“You mean you did write them?”
“Our readers are our jury.”
A glistening slice of a Tarte aux Fruits disappeared into the mouth of my interlocutor and his eyes rolled ecstatically. I sipped my coffee.
“Good?” I asked.
“You knew Shakespeare personally, didn’t you?”
“I knew many men and gentlemen, ladies, charmers, gallants, doctors, lawyers, secretaries, wits, scholars…”
“What was he like?”
“I will shortly cross the Channel to visit our erstwhile acquaintance Michel de Montaigne, he whom we spoke of but now. What say you we betake us there together and lighten our travels with goodly discourse and diverse scholarly digressions?”
“I would love to meet Montaigne again,” I said.
“You may with less labour meet him in your armchair sitting alone in a chimney-corner or on your English stage. England, it may be said, is a nation, if not for European influences, that hath no kind of literature, 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.”
“Ah, you are quoting those famous lines from The Tempest.”
“From, Montaigne, dear old fellow. From my Montaigne.”
“Then let us go and meet the man himself,” I said. “I’m at your beck and call.”