Danny Heitman takes a stroll through Shakespeare’s Montaigne, a new edition of John Florio’s 16th-century English translation of the Essays that almost certainly made its way into the playwright’s hands:
Many of the details of Shakespeare’s life are unknown, and how closely he might have read Florio’s Montaigne is unclear. But in a couple of plays, Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne seems obvious. In “Of the Cannibals,” an essay about people recently discovered in the New World, Montaigne writes admiringly of natives who “hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politic superiority.” Very similar language appears in The Tempest, when Gonzalo considers the kind of society he wants to establish on the island where he and others have been shipwrecked. There’s another apparent instance of borrowing in King Lear, which includes a passage that seems cribbed from Montaigne’s observations about the ideal relationship between parents and children.
Beyond that, the question of Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare becomes more speculative. [In his introduction, scholar Stephen] Greenblatt shrugs at that ambiguity, concluding that whatever the possibilities, the mere existence of these two men was a miracle in itself: “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.”
An excerpt from Greenblatt’s introduction on the connection between the two great writers, in which he notes that “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”:
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.