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Shakespeare’s encounter with Michel de Montaigne

Some people sign their books but never read them. Others devour books without bothering to inscribe their names. Shakespeare falls in the latter category. In fact we don’t truly know whether he owned books at all; just six Shakespearean signatures are considered authentic, and they appear exclusively in legal documents.

But given Shakespeare’s profound reliance upon such works as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Plutarch’s Lives, and Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, it’s overwhelmingly probable that he acquired at least a small collection of books during his career as a poet and playwright. Where these books are now is anyone’s guess. Some may have crumbled to dust or served as fuel for fires. A few, however, are probably still extant, perhaps resting on the shelves of rare book rooms or moving through the hands of private collectors. Imagine how their “market value” would soar if they were known to have belonged to the author of Macbeth and King Lear. Yet they remain inert objects of no value whatsoever until they come to life through the attention of alert and imaginative readers.

Of all the books that Shakespeare encountered – whether he owned them, borrowed them, or flipped through their pages in a bookstall near St. Paul’s – the most original and engrossing may well have been the Essays of Michel de Montaigne as translated by the scholar John Florio. Published in 1603, this work was probably known to Shakespeare even before it appeared in print. Florio, after all, had obtained the patronage of the Earl of Southampton in the early 1590s – the same Earl to whom Shakespeare had dedicated Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece a year later. So there’s every likelihood that the two writers met and talked shop within the Southampton circle. Florio also mentions that half a dozen other scholars had attempted to translate Montaigne, but that none were sufficiently adept in French to succeed at the task. Montaigne, in other words, was something of a sensation in late sixteenth-century London. And Shakespeare, a voracious and opportunistic reader, would have been curious to know whether this was a writer from whom he might learn, take pleasure, or steal.

He probably did all three. But we can only demonstrate the thefts. Shakespeareans have long recognized, for example, that a passage in The Tempest borrows extensively from a lengthy Montaignian paragraph in an essay called “Of the Caniballes.” And why shouldn’t it? Elizabethan playwrights were constantly lifting the words of other writers – “filching” them, as Florio puts it – and who wouldn’t be tempted to draw material from a blog-like meditation on a topic as scandalous as cannibalism in the New World? Never mind that Montaigne eventually concludes that Europeans are more barbaric than Americans inasmuch as they roast people alive rather than eating them after they’re dead. The topic is inherently fascinating. And due to Montaigne’s penchant for examining a given subject from multiple perspectives, writers have always found a treasure-trove of fresh perceptions and striking opinions in his prose.

l’Histoire au bout des doigts by Pierre (Rennes), CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Consider the titles of his essays as rendered by Florio: “How we Weepe and Laugh at one selfe-same Thing”; “That our Desires are Encreased by Difficulty”; “Of the Affection of Fathers to their Children”; “Of Physiognomy”; “Of Crueltie”; “Of Thumbs.” How could any reader with an active mind fail to be intrigued? Or consider some of his characteristic conclusions: “Both male and female are cast in one same mold: instruction and custome excepted, there is no great difference betweene them”; “It is an overvaluing of one’s conjectures, by them to cause a man to be burned alive”; “Of all the infirmities we have, the most savage is to despise our being.” Montaigne is often singled out as the most forward-looking writer of the Renaissance, and it’s not hard to see why. His skeptical predisposition combined with his penetrating intelligence must have seemed irresistibly attractive to many English readers. Shakespeare was likely among them.

In the end, though, it was probably Montaigne’s style of thought rather than his arguments that left the deepest impression on English literary culture. Florio captures his inquisitive, meandering style with astonishing verbal exuberance. Apart from Shakespearean drama itself, there’s scarcely another work from Elizabethan England that offers a similar display of lexical brio. Hundreds of words make their first appearance in English, including “criticism,” “masturbation,” “judicatory,” and “dogmatism.” Florio experiments with verbs such as “fantastiquize,” “attediate,” and “dis-wench”; he serves up nouns like “profluvion,” “codburst,” “ubertie,” and “supputation”; and he coins dozens of compound terms, among them “cup-shotten,” “ninny-hammer,” “sinnewe-shrunken,” “wedlocke-friendship,” “greedy-covetous,” and “wit-besotting.” Shakespeare himself was a lover of words and a prolific neologist, so it’s difficult to imagine that he didn’t enjoy perusing Montaigne in Florio’s ebullient vernacular.

Dr. Johnson, in his Life of Milton, famously claims that Paradise Lost is a poem that the reader “admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again.” The same could never be said of Florio’s Montaigne. It’s true that few people read it from cover to cover, but the book is relentlessly interesting, and one can open it anywhere – as Augustine did with his Bible – and find oneself immediately caught up in Montaignian introspection. My guess is that Shakespeare had sustained access to a copy of this book, and that he ventured into it repeatedly, soaking up the language and the free-form contemplation without ever feeling short-changed by the essayist’s proclivity for self-contradiction.

In the end, Montaigne is less a source for Shakespeare than a catalyst, a provocation, a spur. Had his book never seen print, the great plays would still have been composed. But the works of Shakespeare are richer for Montaigne’s existence – and for Florio’s long labor in Englishing the Frenchman’s extraordinary “register” of his “live’s-essayes.”

Recent Comments

  1. Roger Stritmatter, PhD

    It is “overwhelmingly probable that he acquired at least a small collection of books during his career as a poet and playwright. Where these books are now is anyone’s guess. Some may have crumbled to dust or served as fuel for fires.”

    This strikes me as special pleading. We have over 300 books from Ben Jonson’s library. Why, despite over two centuries of manhunt, thousands of hours of research and probably millions of dollars, the count it still zero.

    Meanwhile, an accumulating pattern of evidence ties books of Edward de Vere to the works of Shakespeare. At what point do orthodox scholars admit the depth of their own problem?

  2. […] vernacular. Almost all of the big, fashionable books which were printed during his working career—John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles—are major sources […]

  3. Antonio

    I know it is difficult to write and to accept. I will do it for you: John Florio was Shakespeare.

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