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Montaigne and "The Tempest"

Though "The Tempest" is known for having little in the way of foundation in historical narratives, one text it does find kinship with is Michael Lord of Montaigne's essay "Des Cannibales".

Madeleine Cox

Last month, I conducted stack tours for interview candidates for the post of Library and Archive Assistant.  This set me thinking about a snowy November day five years ago, when I was taken on a similar tour, little knowing that I would get the job and enjoy it so much I’d still be here now! (Thinking about this is almost setting me off on some kind of Montaigne like self-reflection on how a single day or event can change the course of your life…)

The one item that stood out for me that day was John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s Essais (Volumes I and II published in 1580, Volume III in 1588). Not perhaps the most obvious item to be excited by, but having studied French literature at university, this really impressed me and I had to stop myself from taking it off the shelf to have a quick flick through it.

At the time, I had no idea of the significance of this book to a Shakespeare library. Researching for A Level displays last year, I found that whilst The Tempest is one of the few plays not to be strongly linked to any particular historical or contemporary narrative, one of the few proven sources is Montaigne’s essay “Des Cannibales”. What I hadn’t realised until recently is how directly Gonzalo’s speech (II, I, Lines 150-167) corresponds to Montaigne’s text.

the essayes of lord montaigne
The Essayes of Michael Lord of Montaigne

“It is a nation, would I answer Plato, that hath no kinde of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, or riches or of povertie; no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle; no respect of kindred, no use of wine, corne, or mettle. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulations, covetousness, envie, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them. How dissonant would hee finde his imaginarie common-wealth from this perfection?”

Florio, John. the Essays of Montaigne Done into English, 1603, page 258


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,


........Treason, felony,

Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine

Would I not have;”

Shakespeare, William.  The Tempest. (New Penguin Edition, 1996, page 88)

Both employ a similar emphatic, spare style to outline the characteristics and merits of a kind of Utopian society, rich in natural abundance and with no need of artificial constructs, even down to word for word correspondence between the two texts.

Re-reading sections of Montaigne made me see other similarities between the two writers in that both could be considered somewhat timeless and indeed ahead of their time. It is also interesting to reflect on the extent to which a writer is themselves present in their own work. Montaigne makes no secret of the fact that he himself is the subject of his essays: Ainsi, Lecteur, je suis moy-mesme la matiere de mon livre”, whilst recognising that this very self is constantly evolving. It is frequently the case that people try to “read” Shakespeare in their reading of his plays. Whilst it is perhaps too simplistic to consider particular characters/aspects of the plays biographical, I would argue that a writer is necessarily present in their own work. Montaigne expounds the idea that the products of the mind, such as books, are more “ours”–a greater legacy–than our descendants (in De l’affection des pères aux enfants). Would Shakespeare’s family and contemporaries have recognised his voice in his plays as Montaigne hopes his Essais will provide a sense of his self after his death?

Montaigne’s work raises all sorts of questions about the self: not just that of the writer, but also that of the reader and their contribution to creating the meaning of a text (just as directors and even audiences could be said to be significant in creating the meaning of a play).

You may not feel like reading Montaigne in old French, or even in its entirety, but have a look at this collection of Montaigne's quotes to get a flavour of his wise words!

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