Recent research suggests that the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets
was Aline Florio, wife of John Florio.

                     In Search of Shakespeare, by Barbara Florio Graham
                    (a version of this article appeared in the Barnard Alumnae Magazine)

Four centuries after Shakespeare's career was in full flower he continues to capture headlines.  A few years ago it was the discovery of a play, Edmund Ironside, attributed by some scholars to the Bard. Then a new biography appeared written by Peter Levi, who also claims to have found a series of 14 previously unknown verses by someone who signed them "W. Shk."

Every so often, however, the theory surfaces that "the Bard of Avon" was not an Englishman at all, but an Italian.  

I first heard about this from a genealogist friend of my father, who claimed that our family descends from John Florio, a contemporary of William Shakespeare and a rival for the friendship of the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his Worlde of Wordes, one of the first English dictionaries.

Florio, who was born in England after his father fled the Inquisition, was a teacher of Italian, tutor to Southampton and a noted translator.

Among the works he translated from Italian into English were several plays of the elder Florio, one which, according to a Vernonese scholar, is almost identical to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

That lends tantalizing credence to the theory that  Shakespeare's interest in northern Italian settings was no accident. 

Jonathan Bate, Prof. of English Literature at Liverpool University, has postulated that The Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets was none other than Rose Daniel, sister of the poet Samuel Daniel, and John Florio's wife.

So it's not surprising that I set out to see all 37 plays of Shakespeare in live performance.

This preoccupation began many years ago, when, in discussing the Bard with a friend I mentioned that I'd seen dozens of productions over the years, including several of the more obscure works.

How many, exactly, the friend asked, and I decided it was time to go through my theatre programs to count.  

To my surprise there were over four dozen, representing every play in the Complete Works of William Shakespeare except three:  Titus Andronicus, Timon of  Athens, and Antony and Cleopatra.

When Ontario's Stratford Festival announced its season for 1978, I saw Titus in the line-up and made the fateful  decision:  I would complete the collection by my fiftieth birthday. 

I had seen my first live performance of Shakespeare in my second year at Barnard College, the women's liberal arts arm of Columbia University in New York.  A fellow student had invited me to The Young Men's Hebrew Association auditorium where a fledgling off-off-Broadway company called the Shakespearwrights performed.  There, I was introduced to the power of the playwright in live performance by Earle Hyman's mesmerizing Othello

I'm not sure if he was the first black Othello to play with a white cast for a primarily white audience, but his performance changed forever my perception of that play.

Since then, I have seen Love's Labours Lost in modern dress with rock music, Orson Welles play King Lear in a wheel chair (after he broke his leg during rehearsals), and a magical Midsummer Night's Dream performed in a grassy park outside Chicago, peopled by tiny students from a local dancing school dressed as bunnies, squirrels and other inhabitants of the enchanted forest.

Six different productions of Twelfth Night have provided every possible variation on Malvolio's cross-garters, and I've counted nine Hamlets, including those of Richard Burton, Sir Lawrence Oliver, John Neville, and my favorite, Fritz Weaver.

That production was memorable for several reasons. The American Shakespeare Festival began in Stratford, Connecticut, when I was still in college.  I had inherited my love of theatre from my mother, and she and I made plans to attend, as Stratford was only an hour's drive from our home.

Daddy, however, didn't share our lofty taste. An automobile mechanic with a grade six education, he enjoyed comedies and musicals on Broadway, but had been known to snore through more serious drama.

This posed a problem, as Mother and I wanted to spend all of Saturday in Stratford, seeing the matinee performance of Midsummer Night's Dream, with Roddy Macdowell as Ariel, and the evening performance of Hamlet, starring Fritz Weaver.

Mother didn't want to drive back so late at night, and thought all three of us should go, so Daddy could drive.

"He'll love Midsummer," she said, "and when we return for the evening performance, we'll seat him between us, so if he starts to snore one of us can poke him."

But I forgot completely about my father as soon as the curtain rose on Hamlet.  I'd just seen Fritz Weaver in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party on Broadway, and the relationship between the 16th century student and the 20th century sophisticate was astounding.

At intermission, Daddy took me aside. "You're reading these plays at college, aren't you?" he asked. When I nodded, he continued, "so you know how this one ends?"

I nodded again. "So tell me, did his uncle really kill his father?" 

My father saw Shakespeare as 16th century audiences had at  the Globe Theatre, with fresh eyes and ears, without preconceived ideas or academic interpretations.

And the play still worked. For Daddy, it was an engaging mystery, nothing more, nothing less. He loved every minute of the drama, had no difficulty with the language, and at the end, summed up what he had seen with a comment I think would have pleased the Bard, "What a terrible tragedy!"

Since that time, I've seen six other Hamlets, including those of Gielgud and Olivier, but Fritz Weaver's stands out as the most moving.

My quest to see all 37 plays has taken me from magnificently-designed theatres, like the Guthrie in Minneapolis, to high school auditoriums and church basements; from companies as glitteringly professional as The Old Vic, to the rough-hewn excitement of emerging talent at the New York's Phoenix Theatre in the 50's.

I saw Robert Ryan's Coriolanus, Pernell Roberts' Macbeth, and Hume Cronyn's Richard II. Canadian Edward Atienza, once a member of the Old Vic, became a friend after I'd seen him in over a dozen different roles, including Shakespeare himself, in John Mortimer's When That I Was.

The best performance of King Lear was not by a famous British-trained actor, but by Morris Carnovsky, at Stratford, Connecticut, in 1963. He began his performance with a howl of anguish, which somehow built in intensity until the ending was almost unbearable.

The worst rendition of Shakespeare I ever saw was a travesty of The Tempest at Canada's National Arts Centre, where actors had to wade through actual sand inches thick on the stage, and Prospero's final speech was given to Ariel. 

Shakespeare has always spelled good box office, but the lesser-known plays, difficult to stage and cast, seldom see the boards. Ontario's Stratford gave me both Cymbeline and Pericles, and Ottawa's National Arts Centre did a memorable and moving Troilus and Cressida. But just two years short of my goal, Timon of Athens, the least-performed of all the plays, still eluded me.

That was remedied, however, when The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, announced they would include it in their 83-84 season. I made the 1,200-kilometre round trip on a snowy November weekend, was allowed backstage to interview William Hutt after the show, and was written about in the London Free Press. It seems there weren't too many other lovers of Shakespeare who had seen almost all of the plays.

With just 13 months to go, only Antony & Cleopatra remained.  But no one seemed to be staging it, anywhere. On December 23, 1984, my 50th birthday arrived, and I had to admit defeat. 

Then, in July of 1987, my former husband and I arrived in London where I was to speak at the International Association of Business Communicators annual conference. I had read that the National Theatre had included in its summer repertory season Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench in Antony and Cleopatra, but didn't know if it would be scheduled during our two week stay.

At a ticket agent's office just hours after we arrived, we  were told that there was only one more performance of Antony during our fortnight in London, and the production had been sold out for weeks. 

We weren't about to let that deter us. After convincing the agent to do everything he could, and calling the publicity  office to explain my unusual quest, my husband left me to prepare my conference session while he scouted every possible source of theatre tickets.

On Wednesday, July 15th, he returned, triumphant, with two tickets to the next evening's performance. Finally, I had  fulfilled my quest!

Hopkins had just recovered from a serious respiratory infection, and was still hoarse. That gave Antony a special quality and I marveled at his intensity and the electricity that sparked between him and Judi Dench.

I had missed my stated goal by a few years, but still, I managed to see all 37 plays in 34 years. I'm sure my Florio ancestors would approve.

Copyright 2007 Barbara Florio Graham -

John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare's England, by Frances A. Yates (Cambridge University Press, 1934)

John Florio's 1611 Italian/English Dictionary: 
Queen Anna's New World of Words

Was Shakespeare Italian?  A discussion of Shakespeare's nationality

Montaigne's Essays. Full text of the 1603 translation by John Florio.

The origin of the name Florio: Recorded as being spelled Flores, Florez, Florio, Floris, Flori, and possibly others, this is an Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese surname. It derives from the Latin florus, meaning to flourish or bloom. The Goths had a word in their language froila, which meant lord or master, and it seems that the two words became fused. There are a number of places called Flores and Floris, which must have provided surnames. Early examples of religious recordings taken from ancient registers include Gonzales Flores, at Bercero, Valladolid, Spain, on April 2nd 1674, Guiseppe Florio at Lipari, Messina, Italy, on July 8th 1710, Jose Miguel Flores at Mission San Buenaventura, Ventura, California on December 26th 1782, and Charlotte Florez, born in San Franciso, on November 11th 1920. The blazon of the coat of arms is that of a blue field charged with five gold fleur de lis. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Alonzo Florez, which was dated March 8th 1566, born at Santa Maria Magdalena, Valladolid, Spain, during the reign of King Philip 11 of Spain, Emperor of Mexico, 1556 - 1598. Surnames became necessary when governments introduced personal taxation. In England this was known as Poll Tax. Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to develop, often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling.