The Frenchman who shaped the Bard: Shakespeare’s Montaigne

Review: A selection of Michel de Montaigne’s essays, as translated by John Florio in 1603, highlights the philosopher’s influence

Montaigne: had the misfortune to live through France’s brutal wars of religion. Photograph: Apic/Getty

Montaigne: had the misfortune to live through France’s brutal wars of religion. Photograph: Apic/Getty

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays: A Selection


Edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Peter G. Platt

NYRB Classics

Guideline Price:

Thinking in Renaissance Europe was centred on paradox, in particular the notion that the universe might be best understood as something beyond human comprehension, the truth very likely being the opposite of what might seem logical or within the confines of the ordinary imagination. Few thinkers embraced and explored the paradox in a more sophisticated and nuanced way than Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92), the urbane French aristocrat who retreated to his chateau in Bergerac and invented the essay, a major form of writing ever since.

For Montaigne the essay – from essai, an attempt – was a means of exploring an idea and following it wherever it took the writer. His essays range from two to more than 100 pages, apparently meandering, as unsympathetic readers such as Ben Jonson have argued, but invariably controlled, detailed and often very funny reflections on the human condition.

Montaigne often starts with a maxim or proverb and then explores its meaning, seeing whether it provides us with insight or whether the opposite is in fact more truthful. He concludes that the fear of death acts as a stimulation to philosophy, the prospect of the absence of consciousness sparking conscious and sustained thinking. When playing with his cat Montaigne wonders who is really in control and whether the cat is actually playing with him, a crux that encapsulates his sceptical attitude to knowledge.

Montaigne had a medal cast with the question “Que sçay je?” (What do I know?), which he wore around his neck to remind him of his limitations. Much influenced by Stoicism as a young man, he eventually concluded that the detachment from the world that the ancient philosophy cultivated was too certain a belief for him to support. His intellectual position grew much closer to fideism, the belief that faith and reason are separate, the subject of his most sustained essay, the wonderful An Apology for Raymond Sebond.

Montaigne had the misfortune to live through France’s brutal wars of religion of the late 16th century and witnessed slaughter on a grand scale. His writings suggest that he cut himself off from the world, but other records show that he intervened as often as he could to prevent needless suffering and killing. As Stephen Greenblatt remarks, “His was not an untroubled life of solitary meditation.” The background of civil war informs much in his writings, most significantly Of the Cannibals.

Cannibal conundrum

Montaigne contrasts the innocent peoples newly discovered in South America, who lack many of the corrupting elements that disfigure the modern world, with their European counterparts. It is true, he makes clear, that the natives of the New World eat victims defeated in battle as a means of performing “an extreme and inexplicable revenge”, but this is nothing compared with the violence that Europeans mete out to each other each day. The essay, however, leaves the matter more open and less clear in its final two sentences.

Talking to a high-status prisoner via an interpreter, Montaigne learns that the man’s authority will continue after the wars have ended. He concludes: “All that is not very ill; but what of that? They wear no kind of breeches or hose.” The reader is left wondering how serious the author is after all and what message might be gleaned from this example. Should we try to return to a more innocent age and wear fewer trappings of civilisation? Or is this a potentially foolish and dangerous manoeuvre that, even were it possible, would do more harm than good?

Of the Cannibals had a significant impact on the late Shakespeare, who transferred some of Montaigne’s words into the mouth of the shipwrecked courtier, Gonzago, in The Tempest, when he enthuses about the people who might live on the island. Gonzago is often gently treated by critics, but he is really a foolish hypocrite, asserting his status over the desperate mariners in the opening scene of the play, and threatening the boson with hanging because he does not show enough deference to his social superiors.

Shakespeare’s point would seem to be that the idea of a golden world is an illusion that perhaps does more harm than good to the imagination. The editors of this new selection of Montaigne’s essays suggest that this is an aggressive response to Montaigne, but it can also be read as a sympathetic acknowledgment of his scepticism.

Shakespeare was undoubtedly a close and careful reader of Montaigne. He probably possessed a copy of John Florio’s epoch-making translation published in 1603, and perhaps had access to the text earlier. Florio was supported by Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, and it has been argued that he played a part in the publication of Shakespeare’s first folio and the sonnets.

He married the sister of Samuel Daniel, another writer whom Shakespeare would have known, so there were close connections between the two – which does not imply that they necessarily liked each other. Many have thought – a theory that Peter G Platt suggests is plausible – that Shakespeare lampooned the translator as the pedantic Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The two introductions to this edition provide all the information for the curious reader, and a helpful appendix lists selections of parallel quotations that suggest how Shakespeare may have used Montaigne. But close approximates and even exact parallels will not tell us very much about how Shakespeare read his Montaigne. Montaigne produces quotable remarks and startling passages, but the real significance of his writing is in the complicated relationship he establishes between the aphorism and the discursive explication.

Everyday life

His writing is based in the stuff of everyday life, in particular bodily health and bodily functions, questions that interested Shakespeare but also every other articulate person in an age when getting to 45 was a reasonable achievement.

Montaigne writes movingly about male friendship, and his writings are haunted by the loss of his childhood friend Étienne de La Boétie, who died in 1563, aged 32. In a culture that continually reminded people exactly where they stood in the pecking order, friendship was the one relationship in which affection and intellectual exchange were possible between equals.

Marriage, as Montaigne points out, was a “covenant which hath nothing free but the entrance”, and was almost always undertaken for reasons that had little to do with the desires of the couple concerned. Shakespeare writes movingly about friendship – think of Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar – but he might not have agreed. After all, he imagined heroic unions between men and women in Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth.

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