Shakespeare, Montaigne, Cannibalism and Self-Discovery

Christopher-Columbus-631Christophe Colomb découvre l’Amérique (les Antilles), 1492

William Shakespeare, l’un des plus grands dramaturges de tous les temps, a laissé une empreinte profonde dans la société anglaise. Mais nous nous intéresserons ici à ses sources d’inspiration…


William Shakespeare, also called the Bard of Avon, was born in 1564 and died in 1616. His legacy framed the English language. He wrote numerous plays, among which Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and The Tempest. His work influenced countless artists, essayists, poets and writers throughout the ages and transformed the English language profoundly.

But who inspired Shakespeare? The question remains controversial. Besides Plutarch, Geoffery Chaucer and a few others, stands a famous French author: Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne (1533–1592), born just 31 years before Shakespeare, was very popular in England at the time. The English version of The Essayes or Morall, Politike and Millitarie Discourses, appeared in 1603, just before the writing of King Lear.  The translation was by John Florio (1553–1625), who was probably a friend of Shakespeare’s.

In 1925, George Coffin Taylor found “fifty-one passages in Hamlet, twenty-three in King Lear, seven in Antony and Cleopatra, and four in Othello that could have had their origin in the Essais.”  For instance the play King Lear echoes “up to twenty-three of Montaigne’s passages”. “Shakespeare made particular use of the essay “Apology for Raymond Sebond” in which Montaigne considers, among other things, the “power and domination” of the stars.

Shakespeare also adapted some of Montaigne’s expressions, such as: “stung and touched to the quick,”  which  became “struck to th’quick” and “rare action” became “rarer action.”  According to Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Montaigne’s “injuries received” and “wrong or offence received,” are found in Shakespeare as “their high wrongs.” Both are concerned with “arming oneself with reason against vengeance (‘revenge’ in Montaigne)”.  Shakespeare translates Montaigne’s concept of “genuine mildness” as the idea of becoming “tender”. Furthermore “Shakespeare’s reading of Montaigne’s Essays led to the thematic preoccupation in King Lear with ideas of what constitutes « nature » and the « natural »”.

Most of all, specialists believe that Shakespeare’s play The Tempest debates the ideas about barbarism and morality that Montaigne exposed in his essay “the Cannibals.”  When the New World and a myriad of hidden islands were discovered, Montaigne praised the “Noble Savage” for having preserved a naturally good civilization. He thought the modern European, who feels superior to the “savage” or the “cannibal”, is actually not as noble. Shakespeare hints, on the contrary, that neither the “cannibals” nor the Europeans merit praise. His Caliban (an anagram for cannibal) contrasts with Montaigne’s cannibal: he is a half-human creature living on the desert island where Prospero’s boat ran onto a reef.  Could Shakespeare be refuting Montaigne’s utopian ideas?

Katherine Frank explains that Caliban in The Tempest represented the typical “otherness” of faraway lands that many had only read about in books or heard in oral accounts. “Montaigne tried to explain as best he could what he saw and his use of metaphor in relating cannibalism to European culture is nothing short of brilliant. What is disturbing is that if we look at both texts as being somewhat historical, we begin to ask ourselves, what has changed, what we have learned throughout the centuries? And it seems we have learned very little.” … Racism is still alive and kicking today…

Shakespeare is all the more worthy of study today. 450 years after his birth, students worldwide learn about his ability to turn a phrase, his compelling characters and his illumination of the human experience. The Essayes attempted to understand the roots of human experience. They are journeys to self-discovery.  Montaigne tried to embrace the full meaning of his judgments. His influence and wisdom helped Shakespeare question the human life: “to be or not to be?”; which is why Shakespeare and Montaigne can both be regarded as “fathers of modern scepticism.”


Jules BRUNIER & Samuel MATA


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s