Shakespeare In The Bush Essay About Myself
In , when Shakespeare was an unknown year-old with very dim prospects, Montaigne, then at the ripe age of 47, published the first two books of his essays. Nine years earlier, he had made the decision to withdraw from the public sphere and to retire to his estate for a life devoted to reading and thinking.
The essays may have begun as little more than random jottings. Renaissance gentlemen made a practice of writing down in what were called commonplace books interesting thoughts or felicitous turns of phrase that they encountered in the course of their reading. A passionate reader from his youth, Montaigne had assembled in a room on the third floor of a tower in his chateau an unusually large collection of books, centered on classics in the Latin language, in which he was perfectly fluent.
The genius of the essays is bound up with his realisation that he should trust the apparently random motions of his mind, not forcing them into coherent order but enregistering them as they passed. He allowed himself to try out his minds faculties the French word essai means a trial by recording whatever struck him and made him muse and rave . And in doing so, he came to realise he could capture and transmit crucial elements of his lived life.
He would not present himself as the fixed embodiment of this or that quality, for he experienced existence as a succession of inconsistent and disjointed thoughts and impulses. He could not narrate his life as a story of heroic virtue or indeed as a story of anything else, for precisely by virtue of being alive his existence was ongoing, incomplete, unfinished. It is myself I portray, he tells the reader, and therefore he wishes his imperfections and his natural form to be read to the life. What this means, as we learn when we encounter Montaignes writing, is that he is constantly in motion.
All the same, Montaigne was, of course, engaged in giving an account of himself. No one has ever done it more magnificently. But his object, as he puts it, would not stay still, and his account was deliberately composed without a shape: If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself. . . . Shamefaced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, labourious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, froward, humorous, debonaire, wise, ignorant, false in words, true-speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself.
This sounds at first like a matter of perspective: the angle at which one regards an object, even so intimately familiar an object as oneself, would necessarily change the terms of a depiction. But it is not only a matter of the shifting position of the beholder; rather it is the inner life of the self, as well as the position of the viewer, that is constantly in motion.
It is important to grasp this constant interplay of different perspectives, in part because it is true to Montaignes cheerfully professed taste for contradicting himself and in part because it is an aspect of the text that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have experienced. We know that the playwright repeatedly made forays into the essays to seize upon things he thought he could use.
Two instances of such forays have been particularly noted by scholars. In his essay Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children, Montaigne, sharply criticising aged parents who expect their grown children to be grateful to them and who cling avidly to their possessions, gives powerful voice to the resentment of the young: It is mere injustice to see an old, crazed, sinew-shrunken, and nigh-dead father sitting alone in a chimney-corner to enjoy so many goods as would suffice for the preferment and entertainment of many children, and in the meanwhile, for want of means, to suffer them to lose their best days and years without thrusting them into public service and knowledge of men.
This geriatric avarice can make children despair, driving them to seek by some way how unlawful soever to provide for their necessaries. Far from producing dutiful obedience, a parental policy of clinging to wealth and treating the younger generation sternly only maketh fathers irksome unto children, and which is worse, ridiculous.
How could it not have this effect? For, as Montaigne coolly notes, children in fact have youth and strength in their hands, and consequently the breath and favour of the world, and do with mockery and contempt receive these churlish, fierce, and tyrannical countenances from a man that hath no lusty blood left him.
Shakespeare was evidently struck by these passages, for he worked them into his depiction of the bastard Edmund in King Lear, simmering with resentment, frustration, mockery, contempt, and a determination to seek, by some way how unlawful soever to provide for himself. Specifically, Shakespeare takes Montaignes words, in Florios translation, and fashions them into the forged letter that Edmund fobs off as his brother Edgars.
I hope, Edmund declares with a fraudulent show of concern on his brothers behalf, that he wrote this letter but as an essay or taste of my virtue. It is difficult not to see in that word essay a playful allusion to Montaigne, for what follows is simply a variation on themes from Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children . Credulous old Gloucester swallows the bait and cries treason.
In The Tempest, Shakespeares imagination was caught by a passage in Florios translation of Montaignes Of the Cannibals. The people recently discovered in the New World, Montaigne writes, hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politic superiority; no use of service, of riches, or of poverty; no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle; no respect of kindred, but common; no apparel, but natural; no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulations, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of amongst them.
Out of this utopian vision of noble savages in the state of nature Shakespeare crafts the words he gives to the good councillor Gonzalo who is daydreaming about what he would do were he in charge of colonising the island on which he and the others have been shipwrecked:
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;
And women toobut innocent and pure;
. . . . . .
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind of foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
The borrowing extends beyond certain expressions kind of traffic, name of magistrate, use of service, and the like to a vision of a whole society organised on principles directly counter to those in place in the familiar, grim realm of contemporary European reality. That is, here as in the case of King Lear, Shakespeare is mining Florios Montaigne not simply for turns of phrase but for key concepts central to the play in question.
But though Gonzalo is a kind and sympathetic character, there is no getting around the fact that his vision of the ideal commonwealth is mocked for its incoherence and absurdity. And if the mockers are the cynical and treacherous Sebastian and Antonio, it remains the case that the natural social order borrowed from Montaigne for Gonzalos speech is grossly at odds with anything actually represented on Shakespeares ocean island. Indeed the islands possessor before the arrival of the Europeans Caliban, whose name is a kind of anagram for cannibal is utterly unlike the proud, dignified, self-possessed cannibals of Montaignes essay. Together with the very mixed bag of Europeans, Shakespeares native seems designed to reveal Montaignes vision as hopelessly naive. Shakespeares borrowing here, in short, is an act not of homage but of aggression. So too with the borrowing in King Lear: indeed Shakespeares aggression is still greater, since in that play the words are taken over not by a sweet and unworldly idealist but rather by a cunning and ruthless villain. It is not that Shakespeare necessarily viewed Montaignes views on the relations between parents and children as themselves wicked; rather the play suggests that they may be exploited by people far nastier than anything the essay allows itself to imagine.
The best solution, Montaigne thought, was for the old and infirm to distribute most of their possessions to their children: A father over-burdened with years and crazed through sickness and, by reason of weakness and want of health barred from the common society of men, doth both wrong himself injure his [childen] idly and to no use to hoard up and keep lose a great heap of riches and deal of pelf. He is in state good enough if he be wise to have a desire to put off his clothes to go to bedI will not say to his shirt, but to a good warm night gown. As for other pomp and trash whereof he hath no longer use or need, he ought willingly to distribute and bestow them amongst those to whom by natural degree they ought to belong.
This is the argument that the wicked Edmund attributes to his brother Edgar, in order to incense his father: I have heard him oft maintain it to be fit that, sons at perfect age, and fathers declining, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue (woaknb.wz.sk70).
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Why should arguments that seem so reasonable and even ethically responsible to Montaigne appear in King Lear as the center of something horrible? Here, as in The Tempest, it is as if Shakespeare thought Montaigne had a very inadequately developed sense of depravity and evil. What if the children do not want to leave the father with a good warm night gown ? What if they want everything? Montaignes answer is that, though he would give his children the full possession of my house and enjoying of my goods, it would be on this limited condition, that if they should give me occasion, I might repent myself of my gift and revoke my deed. Everything in Lear is designed to show that this idea is tragically foolish. O, sir, you are old, the reptilian Regan tells her father,
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine. You should be ruled and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than you yourself.
There is no repenting of the gift, no revoking of the deed. It should not entirely surprise us that there is a distinct edge in Shakespeares use of Montaigne. There was a huge gap between them, a gap not linguistic (thanks in part to Florio) but social, cultural, and aesthetic. Montaigne was the friend of kings and princes, a nobleman directly involved in the key political and religious struggles of his age; Shakespeare, the son of a provincial glover, was a popular entertainer, permanently stained by a trade everyone regarded as vaguely shameful. Montaigne was a master of the Latin language, with access to all the rich resources of Renaissance humanism; Shakespeare had, as Jonson put it, small Latin and less Greek. Montaigne retired to his tower to write; Shakespeare spent most of his career in London where he wrote for money. Montaigne had a proud and powerful sense of his name and social position; Shakespeare participated in a collective enterprise, one over whose results he had only limited control. Montaigne decided to print his essays and, in doing so, to put himself on display. Shakespeare, who had an indifferent or ambivalent relationship to print, seems to have cultivated a certain anonymity. Montaigne was the master of prose essays with no set shape and no clear narrative arc, works meant to be read and mused upon in private; Shakespeare fashioned plays, many of them in verse, intended for public performance. Montaigne desired to strip away all costumes and reveal the naked body beneath; Shakespeare wrote for an all-male theater that relied upon costumes to conjure up the social and sexual realities. Montaigne created a single great character, himself; Shakespeare created innumerable characters, each with a distinct claim to attention.
But if Montaigne and Shakespeare were diametrical opposites in these and other ways, and if the places in which their works most explicitly touchthat is, King Lear and The Tempesteloquently demonstrate this opposition, nonetheless there is a whole world that they share. Scholars have seen Montaignes fingerprints on many other works by Shakespeare, whether in the echoing of words or ideas. When Hamlet exclaims to his mother, Ecstasy? My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time, (III .iv31), Shakespeare may have picked up a hint from Montaignes during his ecstasy, he seemed to have neither pulse nor breath from Of the Force of Imagination. And Poloniuss This above all: to thine own self be true may owe something to That above all, he be instructed to yield, yea to quit his weapons unto truth from Of the Institution of Education of Children. More broadly, there is something strikingly Montaigne-like in Hamlets intertwining of Stoicism Give me that man / That is not passions slave, and I will wear him / In my hearts core (III .ii66) with philosophical skepticism And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? (II .ii98) and inner acceptance If it be now, tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. (woaknb.wz.sk60).
Perhaps, perhaps. But apart from the passages in King Lear and The Tempest, the attempts to establish the direct influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare have never seemed fully and decisively convincing. The problem is only in part one of dating: Though Florios Montaigne was published in , at least three years after the probable composition and performance of Hamlet, Shakespeare could have seen a manuscript of Florios translation which, licensed for publication and referred to by Cornwallis in , was evidently in circulation well before the first printing. The more intractable problem has to do with a shared historical moment, a shared grappling with pressing questions of faith, consciousness, and identity, and even, thanks to Florio, a shared language. Did Shakespeare really need Montaigne to think about the relation between imagination, ecstasy, and the beating of the pulse?
But 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. 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. 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.
Each turned uncertainty into art. And in accepting open-endedness, each great writer found a way to be loyal, as Montaigne put it, to life. As for me, then, Montaigne wrote in his last essay, Of Experience, I love my life and cherish it, such as it hath pleased God to grant it us. Philosophical disputes, pious complaints, and ascetic ambitions to rise above the flesh seemed to him absurd and ungrateful. I cheerfully and thankfully and with a good heart accept what nature hath created for me, and am therewith well pleased and am proud of it. And, as if in tribute to Montaigne, Shakespeare too, in the closing speech of what was probably his final work, The Two Noble Kinsmen, gave voice through his character Theseus to strikingly similar sentiments:
O you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we
have, are sorry; still
Are children in some kind.
Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with
you leave dispute
That are above our
question. Lets go off
And bear us like the
This is an edited extract from Stephen Greenblatts introduction to Shakespeares Montaigne, a selection of Florios translations of the Essays (NYRB Classics, £). Call or see woaknb.wz.sk
Published by New York Review Books. Copyright © by Stephen Greenblatt. All rights reserved.
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Shakespeare in the Bush
An American anthropologist set out to study the Tiv of West Africa and was taught the true meaning of Hamlet.
By Laura Bohannan
Just before I left Oxford for the Tiv in West Africa, conversation turned to the season at Stratford. “You Americans,” said a friend, “often have difficulty with Shakespeare. He was, after all, a very English poet, and one can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.”
I protested that human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over; at least the general plot and motivation of the greater tragedies would always be clear—everywhere—although some details of custom might have to be explained and difficulties of translation might produce other slight changes. To end an argument we could not conclude, my friend gave me a copy of Hamlet to study in the African bush: it would, he hoped, lift my mind above its primitive surroundings, and possibly I might, by prolonged meditation, achieve the grace of correct interpretation.
It was my second field trip to that African tribe, and I thought myself ready to live in one of its remote sections—an area difficult to cross even on foot. I eventually settled on the hillock of a very knowledgeable old man, the head of a homestead of some hundred and forty people, all of whom were either his close relatives or their wives and children. Like the other elders of the vicinity, the old man spent most of his time performing ceremonies seldom seen these days in the more accessible parts of the tribe. I was delighted. Soon there would be three months of enforced isolation and leisure, between the harvest that takes place just before the rising of the swamps and the clearing of new farms when the water goes down. Then, I thought, they would have even more time to perform ceremonies and explain them to me.
I was quite mistaken. Most of the ceremonies demanded the presence of elders from several homesteads. As the swamps rose, the old men found it too difficult to walk from one homestead to the next, and the ceremonies gradually ceased. As the swamps rose even higher, all activities but one came to an end. The women brewed beer from maize and millet. Men, women, and children sat on their hillocks and drank it.
People began to drink at dawn. By midmorning the whole homestead was singing, dancing, and drumming. When it rained, people had to sit inside their huts: there they drank and sang or they drank and told stories. In any case, by noon or before, I either had to join the party or retire to my own hut and my books. “One does not discuss serious matters when there is beer. Come, drink with us.” Since I lacked their capacity for the thick native beer, I spent more and more time with Hamlet. Before the end of the second month, grace descended on me. I was quite sure that Hamlet had only one possible interpretation, and that one universally obvious.
Early every morning, in the hope of having some serious talk before the beer party, I used to call on the old man at his reception hut—a circle of posts supporting a thatched roof above a low mud wall to keep out wind and rain. One day I crawled through the low doorway and found most of the men of the homestead sitting huddled in their ragged cloths on stools, low plank beds, and reclining chairs, warming themselves against the chill of the rain around a smoky fire. In the center were three pots of beer. The party had started.
The old man greeted me cordially. “Sit down and drink.” I accepted a large calabash full of beer, poured some into a small drinking gourd, and tossed it down. Then I poured some more into the same gourd for the man second in seniority to my host before I handed my calabash over to a young man for further distribution. Important people shouldn’t ladle beer themselves.
“It is better like this,” the old man said, looking at me approvingly and plucking at the thatch that had caught in my hair. “You should sit and drink with us more often. Your servants tell me that when you are not with us, you sit inside your hut looking at a paper.”
The old man was acquainted with four kinds of “papers”: tax receipts, bride price receipts, court fee receipts, and letters. The messenger who brought him letters from the chief used them mainly as a badge of office, for he always knew what was in them and told the old man. Personal letters for the few who had relatives in the government or mission stations were kept until someone went to a large market where there was a letter writer and reader. Since my arrival, letters were brought to me to be read. A few men also brought me bride price receipts, privately, with requests to change the figures to a higher sum. I found moral arguments were of no avail, since in-laws are fair game, and the technical hazards of forgery difficult to explain to an illiterate people. I did not wish them to think me silly enough to look at any such papers for days on end, and I hastily explained that my “paper” was one of the “things of long ago” of my country.
“Ah,” said the old man. “Tell us.” I protested that I was not a storyteller. Storytelling is a skilled art among them; their standards are high, and the audiences critical—and vocal in their criticism. I protested in vain. This morning they wanted to hear a story while they drank. They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine. Finally, the old man promised that no one would criticize my style, “for we know you are struggling with our language.” “But,” put in one of the elders, “you must explain what we do not understand, as we do when we tell you our stories.” Realizing that here was my chance to prove Hamlet universally intelligible, I agreed.
The old man handed me some more beer to help me on with my storytelling. Men filled their long wooden pipes and knocked coals from the fire to place in the pipe bowls; then, puffing contentedly, they sat back to listen. I began in the proper style, “Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”
“Why was he no longer their chief?”
“He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.”
“Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.”