Firste Fruites is an Italian-English manual which fulfilled the growing demand for Italian Renaissance culture in Elizabethan England. It was written by John Florio (c. 1553–1625), the English-born son of an Italian Protestant refugee. John Florio was an elite language tutor who later made his name as a dictionary-writer and translator of Montaigne’s Essais (1603).
Firste Fruites: commerce and culture
Like a modern phrasebook, this guide puts words in real contexts, offering fascinating titbits on life in early modern London and Italy. The series of lively dialogues ranges from how to speak with a ‘damsel’ or merchant, to debates on language-learning and courtly life. These are followed by ‘merie Proverbes’, extracts from learned texts, brief rules of grammar and a topical word list.
Italian was renowned at this time for its elegant literature, and the guide seems largely aimed at nobles and scholars who sought that sophistication. At the same time, it shows the high demand for foreign languages as practical tools for merchants, when England was expanding its role as a global trading power. Florio betrays a real interest in the dealings of merchants, but raises moral issues surrounding money and trade. Readers can widen their cultural horizons, but also evaluate commercial life at home from an outsider’s perspective.
Florio and Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice and Love’s Labour’s Lost
The fascination with Italy is reflected in many of Shakespeare’s plays from Romeo and Juliet to Othello. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare also attempts to reconcile the different worlds of courtly love and commerce, as Florio does in the Firste Fruites.
Critics have hotly debated Florio’s influence on Shakespeare – from claims that Florio was the true author of the plays, to Saul Frampton’s view that Florio edited the First Folio. Others note subtle verbal influences: Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost (4.2.97–98) quotes a proverb from the Firste Fruites. It is also likely that Shakespeare mined Florio’s rich Italian-English dictionary, Worlde of Wordes (1598), since no all-English dictionary existed until 1604. And it’s tempting to think that the two men met, since they shared patrons – the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke.
- How ‘To speake with a Gentlewoman’ (pp. 7r–v): the conversation quickly leads to Venice. They plan to see if the city lives up to its reputation as a ‘sumptuous’ place full of ‘fayre women’ and ‘good things’ of all sorts.
- How ‘To speake with a marchant’ (pp. 7v–8v): despite its title, this dialogue seems to shy away from commerce to small-talk on courtly pleasures as the speaker tells us of his plans to dance, leap, skip and play tennis.
- ‘To speake of England’ (pp. 14v–19r): this rambling conversation ranges from beer-drinking to the plague, and from Italian prostitutes to Queen Elizabeth’s treatment of criminals. It discusses merchants who traffic a wealth of English goods, both abroad and in London’s new ‘Royal Exchange’. It reveals that foreign traders make the most of the ‘Comedies’ and ‘Tragedies’ on show in London. But it worries that commerce is promoting un-Godly greed and ‘lust’ in a world where ‘Money ruleth al things’.
- Foreign language-learning and the low value of English (pp. 49v–51v): At this time authors like Shakespeare were raising the status of English as a literary rival to Latin. Yet English was still seen as low value by comparison with foreign tongues: ‘passe Dover, it is woorth nothing’. The speaker sneers at English as a cross-breed mixture of words borrowed from other languages. He also laughs at English attempts to learn foreign tongues: ‘when they have learned two woords of Spanish … they thinke they have yenough’.