Shakespeare’s Deepest Debt to Montaigne

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Montaigne, about whom I wrote in relation to Shakespeare last week, is in the air at present. BBC Radio 3 broadcast a play and a talk about him at the weekend, and on Saturday The Guardian published a fascinating extract from a new book about him.

In my last blog, taking my cue from Sarah Bakewell’s new biography, I discussed Shakespeare’s borrowing from Florio’s translation of Montaigne in Act One of The Tempest. Gonzalo’s vision is not the only example of a detailed verbal borrowing from another writer in this play. Another, as is well known, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Prospero’s great speech beginning ‘Ye elves of hills’ (5.1.33 onwards), where Shakespeare appears to be indebted both to the original and to Golding’s English translation.

And there is a second, shorter but maybe even more significant debt to Florio’s Montaigne. It comes at a climactic moment in the play’s action (and interestingly was not remarked upon until 1961.) Speaking to Ariel at the moment when Prospero’s enemies lie in his power, he debates with himself and with Ariel whether he should exercise forgiveness. Ariel thinks he should: ‘Your charm so strongly works ’em / That if you now beheld them your affections / Would become tender.’ ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’ asks Prospero. ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’, replies Ariel. To which his master responds:

‘And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself.
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.’ (5.1.17-28)

It is both the turning point of the play’s action and its moral centre. And it clearly draws upon another of Montaigne’s essays, the one called ‘Of Cruelty’, in which he writes ‘He that through a natural facility and genuine mildness should neglect or contemn [make light of] injuries received should no doubt perform a rare action, and worthy commendation. But he who, being stung and touched to the quick with any wrong or offence received, should arm himself with reason against this furiously-blind desire of revenge, and in the end, after a great conflict, yield himself mastery over it, should doubtless do much more. The first should do well, the other virtuously: the one action might be termed goodness, the other virtue.’

Shakespeare adapts Montaigne’s ‘stung and touched to the quick’ to ‘struck to th’quick’, alters ‘rare action’ to ‘rarer action’, changes ‘injuries received’ and ‘wrong or offence received’ to ‘their high wrongs’, takes over the idea of arming oneself with reason against vengeance (‘revenge’ in Montaigne), and adapts the concept of ‘genuine mildness’ to that of becoming ‘tender.’ It is a creative reworking of a passage that clearly meant much to him.

The Tempest is one of the few Shakespeare plays in which he was not re-telling a previously told story (the principal others are Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I wrote about them long ago in an essay called ‘Shakespeare Without Sources.’) Nevertheless its indebtedness to both Montaigne and Ovid demonstrates that it is literary in inspiration. It is both one of his most overtly poetic plays and also the most moralistic, and its moral centre is the passage about forgiveness which derives from Montaigne. I suspect that this is the kernel from which the entire play developed in Shakespeare’s imagination: without those few words from Montaigne, The Tempest would not have come into being.

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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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