Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne

Stephen Greenblatt in The Telegraph:

Montaigne-will_2932269bWhen, near the end of his career, Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, the tragicomic romance that seems at least in retrospect to signal his impending retirement to Stratford, he had in his mind and quite possibly on his desk a book of Montaigne’s Essays. One of those essays, “Of the Cannibals,” has long been recognized as a source upon which Shakespeare was clearly drawing. The playwright had some degree of acquaintance with French culture and language. Yet close attention to the allusions in The Tempest and elsewhere makes clear that Shakespeare read Montaigne not in French but in an English translation. That translation, published in a handsome folio edition in London in 1603, was by John Florio. For Shakespeare — and not for Shakespeare alone but for virtually all of his English contemporaries – Montaigne was Florio’s Montaigne. His essays, in their rich Elizabethan idiom and wildly inventive turns of phrase, constitute the way Montaigne spoke to Renaissance England.

Shakespeare quite possibly knew Florio, who was 12 years his senior, personally. English-born, the son of Italian Protestant refugees, Florio was on friendly terms with such writers as Ben Jonson and Samuel Daniel. In the early 1590s, he was a tutor to the Earl of Southampton, the wealthy nobleman to whom Shakespeare dedicated two poems in 1593 and 1594. But it is not simply a likely personal connection that accounts for the fact that Shakespeare read Montaigne in Florio’s translation. The translation seemed to address English readers of Shakespeare’s time with unusual directness and intensity.

More here.