‘Who the devil taught thee so much Italian?’

Italian language learning and literary imitation in early modern England

Author: Jason Lawrence

This book offers a comprehensive account of the methods and practice of learning modern languages, particularly Italian, in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. It suggests that there is a fundamental connection between these language-learning habits and the techniques for both reading and imitating Italian materials employed by a range of poets and dramatists, such as Daniel, Drummond, Marston and Shakespeare, in this period. The widespread use of bilingual parallel-text instruction manuals from the 1570s onwards, most notably those of the Italian teacher John Florio, highlights the importance of translation in the language-learning process. More advanced students attempt translation exercises from Italian poetry to increase their linguistic fluency, but even beginners are encouraged to use the translations in these manuals as a means of careful parallel reading. This study emphasises the impact of both aspects of language-learning translation on contemporary habits of literary imitation, in its detailed analyses of Daniel's sonnet sequence ‘Delia’ and his pastoral tragicomedies, and Shakespeare's use of Italian materials in Measure for Measure and Othello. By focusing on Shakespeare as a typical language-learner of the period (one who is certainly familiar with Florio's two manuals), it argues that the playwright was clearly influenced by these Italian reading practices.

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