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Stephen Greenblatt '64 on Shakespeare's debt to Montaigne

[The following piece is an edited extract from Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to Shakespeare's Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection.]

One wrote essays to be read in private, the younger wrote plays for the public; both turned uncertainty into art

Montaigne was 31 years older than Shakespeare, who drew on his work while also rebelling against it

When, near the end of his career, Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, the tragicomic romance that seems at least in retrospect to signal his impending retirement to Stratford, he had in his mind and quite possibly on his desk a book of Montaigne’s Essays. One of those essays, “Of the Cannibals,” has long been recognized as a source upon which Shakespeare was clearly drawing.

The playwright had some degree of acquaintance with French culture and language. Yet close attention to the allusions in The Tempest and elsewhere makes clear that Shakespeare read Montaigne not in French but in an English translation. That translation, published in a handsome folio edition in London in 1603, was by John Florio. For Shakespeare — and not for Shakespeare alone but for virtually all of his English contemporaries — Montaigne was Florio’s Montaigne. His essays, in their rich Elizabethan idiom and wildly inventive turns of phrase, constitute the way Montaigne spoke to Renaissance England.

Shakespeare quite possibly knew Florio, who was 12 years his senior, personally. English-born, the son of Italian Protestant refugees, Florio was on friendly terms with such writers as Ben Jonson and Samuel Daniel. In the early 1590s, he was a tutor to the Earl of Southampton, the wealthy nobleman to whom Shakespeare dedicated two poems in 1593 and 1594. But it is not simply a likely personal connection that accounts for the fact that Shakespeare read Montaigne in Florio’s translation. The translation seemed to address English readers of Shakespeare’s time with unusual directness and intensity.

The brilliance of Florio’s achievement was so generally acknowledged that even those English readers with very good command of French — John Donne, Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and Robert Burton, to name a few — chose to encounter Montaigne through Florio’s English. To read the Essays in Florio’s translation is to read them, as it were, over the shoulders of some of England’s greatest writers.

In 1580, when Shakespeare was an unknown 16-year-old with very dim prospects, Montaigne, then at the ripe age of 47, published the first two books of his essays. Nine years earlier, he had made the decision to withdraw from the public sphere and to retire to his estate for a life devoted to reading and thinking.

The essays may have begun as little more than random jottings. Renaissance gentlemen made a practice of writing down in what were called commonplace books interesting thoughts or felicitous turns of phrase that they encountered in the course of their reading. A passionate reader from his youth, Montaigne had assembled in a room on the third floor of a tower in his chateau an unusually large collection of books, centered on classics in the Latin language, in which he was perfectly fluent.

The genius of the essays is bound up with his realisation that he should trust the apparently random motions of his mind, not forcing them into coherent order but “enregistering” them as they passed. He allowed himself to “try out” his mind’s faculties — the French word “essai” means a trial — by recording whatever struck him and made him “muse and rave.” And in doing so, he came to realise he could capture and transmit crucial elements of his lived life.

He would not present himself as the fixed embodiment of this or that quality, for he experienced existence as a succession of inconsistent and disjointed thoughts and impulses. He could not narrate his life as a story of heroic virtue or indeed as a story of anything else, for precisely by virtue of being alive his existence was ongoing, incomplete, unfinished. “It is myself I portray,” he tells the reader, and therefore he wishes his imperfections and his natural form to be “read to the life.” What this means, as we learn when we encounter Montaigne’s writing, is that he is constantly in motion.

All the same, Montaigne was, of course, engaged in giving an account of himself. No one has ever done it more magnificently. But his “object,” as he puts it, would not stay still, and his account was deliberately composed without a shape: “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself. ... Shamefaced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, labourious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, froward, humorous, debonaire, wise, ignorant, false in words, true-speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself.”

This sounds at first like a matter of perspective: the angle at which one regards an object, even so intimately familiar an object as oneself, would necessarily change the terms of a depiction. But it is not only a matter of the shifting position of the beholder; rather it is the inner life of the self, as well as the position of the viewer, that is constantly in motion.

It is important to grasp this constant interplay of different perspectives, in part because it is true to Montaigne’s cheerfully professed taste for contradicting himself and in part because it is an aspect of the text that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have experienced. We know that the playwright repeatedly made forays into the essays to seize upon things he thought he could use.

Two instances of such forays have been particularly noted by scholars. In his essay “Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children,” Montaigne, sharply criticising aged parents who expect their grown children to be grateful to them and who cling avidly to their possessions, gives powerful voice to the resentment of the young: “It is mere injustice to see an old, crazed, sinew-shrunken, and nigh-dead father sitting alone in a chimney-corner to enjoy so many goods as would suffice for the preferment and entertainment of many children, and in the meanwhile, for want of means, to suffer them to lose their best days and years without thrusting them into public service and knowledge of men.”

This geriatric avarice can make children despair, driving them “to seek by some way how unlawful soever to provide for their necessaries.” Far from producing dutiful obedience, a parental policy of clinging to wealth and treating the younger generation sternly only “maketh fathers irksome unto children, and which is worse, ridiculous.”

How could it not have this effect? For, as Montaigne coolly notes, children in fact “have youth and strength in their hands, and consequently the breath and favour of the world, and do with mockery and contempt receive these churlish, fierce, and tyrannical countenances from a man that hath no lusty blood left him.”

Shakespeare was evidently struck by these passages, for he worked them into his depiction of the bastard Edmund in King Lear, simmering with resentment, frustration, mockery, contempt, and a determination “to seek, by some way how unlawful soever” to provide for himself. Specifically, Shakespeare takes Montaigne’s words, in Florio’s translation, and fashions them into the forged letter that Edmund fobs off as his brother Edgar’s.

“I hope,” Edmund declares with a fraudulent show of concern on his brother’s behalf, that he wrote this letter “but as an essay or taste of my virtue.” It is difficult not to see in that word “essay” a playful allusion to Montaigne, for what follows is simply a variation on themes from “Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children.” Credulous old Gloucester swallows the bait and cries treason.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare’s imagination was caught by a passage in Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s “Of the Cannibals.” The people recently discovered in the New World, Montaigne writes, “hath no kind of traffic, 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. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulations, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of amongst them.”

Out of this utopian vision of noble savages in the state of nature Shakespeare crafts the words he gives to the good councillor Gonzalo who is daydreaming about what he would do were he in charge of colonising the island on which he and the others have been shipwrecked:

no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too — but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty —
. . . . . .

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind of foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

(II .i.148–64)

The borrowing extends beyond certain expressions — kind of traffic, name of magistrate, use of service, and the like — to a vision of a whole society organised on principles directly counter to those in place in the familiar, grim realm of contemporary European reality. That is, here as in the case of King Lear, Shakespeare is mining Florio’s Montaigne not simply for turns of phrase but for key concepts central to the play in question.

But though Gonzalo is a kind and sympathetic character, there is no getting around the fact that his vision of the ideal “commonwealth” is mocked for its incoherence and absurdity. And if the mockers are the cynical and treacherous Sebastian and Antonio, it remains the case that the “natural” social order borrowed from Montaigne for Gonzalo’s speech is grossly at odds with anything actually represented on Shakespeare’s ocean island. Indeed the island’s possessor before the arrival of the Europeans — Caliban, whose name is a kind of anagram for cannibal — is utterly unlike the proud, dignified, self-possessed cannibals of Montaigne’s essay. Together with the very mixed bag of Europeans, Shakespeare’s native seems designed to reveal Montaigne’s vision as hopelessly naive. Shakespeare’s borrowing here, in short, is an act not of homage but of aggression. So too with the borrowing in King Lear: indeed Shakespeare’s aggression is still greater, since in that play the words are taken over not by a sweet and unworldly idealist but rather by a cunning and ruthless villain. It is not that Shakespeare necessarily viewed Montaigne’s views on the relations between parents and children as themselves wicked; rather the play suggests that they may be exploited by people far nastier than anything the essay allows itself to imagine.

The best solution, Montaigne thought, was for the old and infirm to distribute most of their possessions to their children: “A father over-burdened with years and crazed through sickness and, by reason of weakness and want of health barred from the common society of men, doth both wrong himself injure his [children] idly and to no use to hoard up and keep lose a great heap of riches and deal of pelf. He is in state good enough if he be wise to have a desire to put off his clothes to go to bed — I will not say to his shirt, but to a good warm night gown. As for other pomp and trash whereof he hath no longer use or need, he ought willingly to distribute and bestow them amongst those to whom by natural degree they ought to belong.”

This is the argument that the wicked Edmund attributes to his brother Edgar, in order to incense his father: “I have heard him oft maintain it to be fit that, sons at perfect age, and fathers declining, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue” (I.ii.66–70).

Why should arguments that seem so reasonable and even ethically responsible to Montaigne appear in King Lear as the center of something horrible? Here, as in The Tempest, it is as if Shakespeare thought Montaigne had a very inadequately developed sense of depravity and evil. What if the children do not want to leave the father with “a good warm night gown?” What if they want everything? Montaigne’s answer is that, though he would give his children “the full possession of my house and enjoying of my goods,” it would be on this “limited condition,” that “if they should give me occasion, I might repent myself of my gift and revoke my deed.” Everything in Lear is designed to show that this idea is tragically foolish. “O, sir, you are old,” the reptilian Regan tells her father,

Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine. You should be ruled and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than you yourself.

(II .iv.139–43)

There is no repenting of the gift, no revoking of the deed. It should not entirely surprise us that there is a distinct edge in Shakespeare’s use of Montaigne. There was a huge gap between them, a gap not linguistic (thanks in part to Florio) but social, cultural, and aesthetic. Montaigne was the friend of kings and princes, a nobleman directly involved in the key political and religious struggles of his age; Shakespeare, the son of a provincial glover, was a popular entertainer, permanently stained by a trade everyone regarded as vaguely shameful. Montaigne was a master of the Latin language, with access to all the rich resources of Renaissance humanism; Shakespeare had, as Jonson put it, “small Latin and less Greek.” Montaigne retired to his tower to write; Shakespeare spent most of his career in London where he wrote for money. Montaigne had a proud and powerful sense of his name and social position; Shakespeare participated in a collective enterprise, one over whose results he had only limited control. Montaigne decided to print his essays and, in doing so, to put himself on display. Shakespeare, who had an indifferent or ambivalent relationship to print, seems to have cultivated a certain anonymity. Montaigne was the master of prose essays with no set shape and no clear narrative arc, works meant to be read and mused upon in private; Shakespeare fashioned plays, many of them in verse, intended for public performance. Montaigne desired to strip away all costumes and reveal the naked body beneath; Shakespeare wrote for an all-male theater that relied upon costumes to conjure up the social and sexual realities. Montaigne created a single great character, himself; Shakespeare created innumerable characters, each with a distinct claim to attention.

But if Montaigne and Shakespeare were diametrical opposites in these and other ways, and if the places in which their works most explicitly touch — that is, King Lear and The Tempest — eloquently demonstrate this opposition, nonetheless there is a whole world that they share. Scholars have seen Montaigne’s fingerprints on many other works by Shakespeare, whether in the echoing of words or ideas. When Hamlet exclaims to his mother, “Ecstasy? My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time,” (III .iv.130–31), Shakespeare may have picked up a hint from Montaigne’s “during his ecstasy, he seemed to have neither pulse nor breath” from “Of the Force of Imagination.” And Polonius’s “This above all: to thine own self be true” may owe something to “That above all, he be instructed to yield, yea to quit his weapons unto truth” from “Of the Institution of Education of Children.” More broadly, there is something strikingly Montaigne-like in Hamlet’s intertwining of Stoicism — “Give me that man / That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him / In my heart’s core” — (III .ii.64–66) with philosophical skepticism — “And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” — (II .ii.297–98) and inner acceptance — “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.” (V.ii.158–60).

Perhaps, perhaps. But apart from the passages in King Lear and The Tempest, the attempts to establish the direct influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare have never seemed fully and decisively convincing. The problem is only in part one of dating: Though Florio’s Montaigne was published in 1603, at least three years after the probable composition and performance of Hamlet, Shakespeare could have seen a manuscript of Florio’s translation which, licensed for publication and referred to by Cornwallis in 1600, was evidently in circulation well before the first printing. The more intractable problem has to do with a shared historical moment, a shared grappling with pressing questions of faith, consciousness, and identity, and even, thanks to Florio, a shared language. Did Shakespeare really need Montaigne to think about the relation between imagination, ecstasy, and the beating of the pulse?

But what is a problem for the scholarly attempt to establish a clear line of influence is, from the perspective of the common reader, a source of deep pleasure. Two of the greatest writers of the Renaissance — two of the greatest writers the world has ever known — were at work almost at the same time, reflecting on the human condition and inventing the stylistic means to register their subtlest perceptions in language. And though, as we have noted, they came from sharply differing worlds and worked in distinct genres, they share many of the same features. Both Montaigne and Shakespeare were masters of the disarming gesture, the creation of collusion and intimacy: essays that profess to be “frivolous and vain” (“The Author to the Reader”); plays with titles like As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Both were skilled at seizing upon anything that came their way in the course of wide-ranging reading or observation; both prized the illumination of a brilliant perception over systematic thought; both were masters of quotation and transformation; both were supremely adaptable and variable. Both believed that there was a profound link between language and identity, between what you say and how you say it and what you are. Both were fascinated with ethical meanings in a world that possessed an apparently infinite range of human behaviors. Both perceived and embraced the oscillations and contradictions within individuals, the equivocations and ironies and discontinuities even in those who claimed to be single-minded and single-hearted

in pursuit of coherent goals. Montaigne and Shakespeare created works that have for centuries remained tantalizing, equivocal, and elusive, inviting ceaseless speculations and re-creations. In a world that craved fixity and order, each managed to come to terms with strict limits to authorial control, with the unpredictability and instability of texts, with a proliferation of unlimited, uncontrolled meanings.

Each turned uncertainty into art. And in accepting open-endedness, each great writer found a way to be “loyal,” as Montaigne put it, to life. “As for me, then,” Montaigne wrote in his last essay, “Of Experience,” “I love my life and cherish it, such as it hath pleased God to grant it us.” Philosophical disputes, pious complaints, and ascetic ambitions to rise above the flesh seemed to him absurd and ungrateful. “I cheerfully and thankfully and with a good heart accept what nature hath created for me, and am therewith well pleased and am proud of it.” And, as if in tribute to Montaigne, Shakespeare too, in the closing speech of what was probably his final work, The Two Noble Kinsmen, gave voice through his character Theseus to strikingly similar sentiments:

O you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we
have, are sorry; still
Are children in some kind.
Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with
you leave dispute
That are above our
question. Let’s go off
And bear us like the