May 2014

Nic Grosso


Shakespeare's Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays by Michel de Montaigne, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Peter G Platt

You are a disturbance in the universe. You've disrupted the equilibrium. You, of stardust, reshaped and set in motion, are alive. We have sent telescopes and satellites across the skies, sweeping galaxies and galaxies, and we have not yet made contact with any peer.

Take a look in the mirror. You must know that you are a freak of the cosmos, made of flesh, instead of gas and stone, with a blood-pumping heart and cells that multiply and decay. You are not dark energy, dark matter, or a ball of fire spinning out or floating through space waiting to burn out or slam into another stony surface -- no, you are animated, living and dying with every breath. Why then would you choose to live softly, in black and white, to fall in line and go with the flow, unquestioning?

Fleshy, veiny pulp, bodied creature. The moon doesn't know anything about your rationale, your feelings, your longing. When you decided to stop talking to your ex it was not dictated or prophesied by the laws of gravity or something Newtonian. But you agonized still, painting yourself in this sinister light when I saw things as being far more obscure, less clear cut. I tried to explain to you that we taste nothing purely. We gather and cook our food, wash and cover our genitals and breasts, and on, manipulating and tinkering to better fit our bodies into this cold, emptying, and expanding universe. All of our joys and sorrows are tinged with the other. Our wrinkles form around smiles and frowns.

Letting his reputation proceed his work, you read through William Shakespeare's catalogue, his comedies and his dramas, and you thought he'd found the key, the secret. As if he had some knowledge that was beyond human, as if he created a universe in isolation, holding up mirrors to the history of humanity without ever touching us, without ever getting dirty. But in Shakespeare's Montaigne, a selection of John Florio's translations of Michel de Montaigne's essays, a new Shakespeare is revealed; a genius not in isolation, looking down from upon the mount onto our human scurryings, but a man amongst the masses, one in conversation with his peers and his predecessors. In Stephen Greenblatt's introductory essay, we find Shakespeare not as legend or myth but as a man, a writer exploring a variety of themes aided and guided by those around him, and here specifically by the subjects and essays of Montaigne. King Lear and The Tempest seem to be the plays most directly in conversation with the essays of Montaigne but, as this volume suggests, a thread exists between these two authors throughout Shakespeare's collected works.

Like most any other artist, Shakespeare was drawn to better understanding the human heart, the condition of our souls; souls that do not follow patterns or obey any law that we have come to ascribe them. We are frayed and contradictory, multitudinous, "a botching and parti-coloured work." And in this effort he turned time and time again to Montaigne, a writer who "desired to strip away all costumes and reveal the naked body beneath." Drawn in by the extensive range of subjects and Montaigne's willingness to expose himself to truth, first and foremost, above religion, law, or status, Shakespeare found an artist who could further his own horizons, and reveal new roads. "Together with the very mixed bag of Europeans, Shakespeare's native [in The Tempest] seems designed to reveal Montaigne's vision as hopelessly na´ve. Shakespeare's borrowing here [from "Of the Cannibals"], in short, is an act not of homage but of aggression." As Greenblatt investigates this connection between Shakespeare and Montaigne, it was not one of an up-and-comer paying tribute to a well-respected veteran but rather equals debating.

Shakespeare finding and exposing flaws and driving his own thoughts and understandings to another level. Shakespeare plunged into Montaigne's essays, ferreting through the work, hungry to satisfy doubts and queries. While it must be stated that it is unclear what knowledge Montaigne had of Shakespeare, it is clear that Montaigne's essays left a significant mark on the mind and work of Shakespeare, furthering his depth of insight into the human condition.


Now, for a moment, let me interrupt this review.

And please note that this digression will direct an excessive (mostly undue) amount of criticism at this volume when the real target is the use of endnotes, at large.

Endnotes that offer some kind of commentary, guidance, or general information about the sentence, phrase, or word at hand should be listed at the bottom of the page. It should be a footnote, for goodness' sake! This endnote nonsense is simply absurd. Who, please tell me, who is stopping mid-sentence or mid-paragraph to flip around for pages and pages at the back of the book to find some minor piece of information? Tell me!

Here, in Shakespeare's Montaigne, this little nugget of information is often worthwhile and usually illuminating, especially when it further explains a passage or relates it to how it was used by Shakespeare, and the resourcefulness does not stop there. These notes often share John Florio's process, interpretation, and occasionally his misunderstandings in translating Montaigne's original words.

It is not that the translation was impeccably accurate. Montaigne's French is often difficult and occasionally obscure, and there were many occasions in which the translator was venturing no more than an educated guess. But Florio was an exceptionally gifted linguist steeped in Italian and French and at the same time in love with the resources of the English language. He had the great good fortune to be working at the moment when that language was at its most vital. The brilliance of his achievement was so generally acknowledged that even those English readers with very good command of French -- John Donne, Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and Robert Burton, to name a few -- chose to encounter Montaigne through Florio's English. To read the essays in Florio's translation is to read them, as it were, over the shoulders of some of England's greatest writers.

Maybe one is simply following form but it is a shame then that this volume that offers such an abundance to the casual and scholarly readers alike should tuck away some of its most noteworthy features. (And, I mean, look at the title! They're pushing that Shakespearean angle before you even open the book, why stop short inside?) Along with an extensive list of bibliographic resources, an appendix that lists similar passages of Montaigne and Shakespeare side-by-side, and notes that specify source material, clarify obscure points, and further investigate the dialogue between Shakespeare and Montaigne's essays, readers are offered new insight into the writings of two literary giants.


But now let me return to Michel de Montaigne. Even without the Shakespeare connection, this volume is a rewarding read and a valuable addition to any library. Gustave Flaubert said, "Read Montaigne in order to live." His essays are often or easily overlooked for their digressive shape; beginning, middle, and end mean very little to a Montaigne essay. Their sole purpose is not to simply be finished, to reach their final sentences. His essays are guides, confidants, and companions. He does not construct imaginary characters or fictitious plots but stands before the reader, simple, naked. With his mind and experiences as the basis, he explores the intricacies of his being, profound and primitive, the ephemeral and the eternal, all with their place in the scope of his writing.

Yes, you are a blip in the space-time continuum, a pebble in a shoe, with an infinite universe that lies within. What a waste to blend in and contort your shape to fit someone else's ideas! Explore: body, mind, world. What else is there?

Shakespeare's Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays by Michel de Montaigne, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Peter G. Platt
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590177228
480 pages