How to live like Shakespeare and Montaigne

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I’m reading a book called How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell. The title makes it sound like a self-help manual, but the sub-title is more revealing: ‘A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’. And in fact it’s a lucid, intelligent, and illuminating biographical study of the great French essayist who lived from 1533 to 1592.

As usual, I have an ulterior motive in my reading, in this case because I’m hoping to learn more about Shakespeare’s intellectual context. Montaigne’s Essais, wonderfully well informed by his love of the classics, discursive to the point of anticipating the stream-of-consciousness techniques of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, introspectively self-probing, have exerted a great influence on subsequent writers and thinkers ever since their first publication, in 1580. It wasn’t long before they were translated into English, by the great linguist and lexicographer John Florio, tutor of Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton and later of Prince Henry and other members of the royal family. Born in London, Florio was of Anglo-Italian origin, a true European who spoke French and German as well as Italian and English. Shakespeare may well have been a friend. In fact Jonathan Bate, in his book The Genius of Shakespeare, conjectures, not a little fancifully, that Florio’s wife (we don’t know her first name) may have been the so-called Dark Lady of the Sonnets – a mythical beast if ever there was one. In later life Florio also came under the patronage of the Earls of Pembroke, to whom the First Folio is dedicated.

Whether or not Shakespeare and Florio were acquainted personally, there is no question both that they had a good deal in common intellectually and that Shakespeare read parts, at least, of Florio’s translation of Montaigne, which appeared in 1603. The self-probing, deeply sceptical, often melancholy personality that the essays reveal seems to anticipate Hamlet, and though Shakespeare had written his play before the translation appeared, he may have read it in manuscript. And there’s no question whatever that he was reading it as he wrote The Tempest, indeed that he had the book open on his writing table as he did so.

The clearest evidence of this is in Gonzalo’s Act Two, Scene One description of his ideal commonwealth. In his essay ‘Of the Cannibals’, Montaigne wrote ‘It is a nation that 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 of common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of among them.’ Shakespeare adopts this vision of a vegetarian, teetotal, egalitarian, pacifist, hippy paradise as Gonzalo speaks his account of what he would do if he ‘had plantation’ of the island on which The Tempest is set:

‘I’th’commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For 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 -’

Not surprisingly, the cynical Sebastian and Antonio interrupt Gonzalo’s idealistic musing with ironical comments, but the old counsellor goes on paraphrasing Montaigne undeterred:

‘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 [its] own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.’ (2.1.153-170)

Reading Shakespeare’s lines, one can watch over his shoulder as he changes Montaigne’s third-person description of what the ‘nation’ – ‘commonwealth’ in Gonzalo’s revealing change – did into a vision of what the old man imagines might be. He takes over numerous individual words – ‘letters’, riches’, ‘poverty’, ‘contract’, ‘treason’ – but omits the unusual ‘dividences’. He adopts whole phrases: ‘kind of traffic’, ‘name of magistrate’, ‘use of service’, ‘no occupation’ – and adds little of substance, though Gonzalo’s list of weapons – ‘Sword, pike, knife, gun … engine [i e engine of warfare]’ – is only lightly foreshadowed in Montaigne’s ‘no use of … metal.’ Florio’s rhetorically inflected version of Montaigne’s prose, with its structure of repeated negations, has its own kind of self-conscious artistry, most clearly evident in the repetition of phrases beginning with ‘no’. Shakespeare takes this over while also adopting the cadences of the sort of free blank verse characteristic of his later style. Some of Gonzalo’s lines scan regularly as iambic pentameters – examples are ‘Would I admit; no name of magistrate’ and the sequence from ‘No use of metal, corn, or wine’ to ‘but innocent and pure’. Others however are irregular, some inverting the stress at the start – ‘Execute’ -, with more or fewer than the standard number of ten syllables and several run-overs of sense from one line to the next, and adopting feminine endings such as ‘engine’ and ‘abundance’.

Although Gonzalo’s speech represent Shakespeare’s most extensive borrowing from Montaigne in The Tempest, there is another that is if anything even more important.

Watch this space….

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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