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).
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.
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.