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Hamlet and Montaigne

From The Relation of Shakespeare to Montaigne by Elizabeth Robbins Hooker. PMLA. Vol. 17.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks (70)
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay, (80)
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (90)
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.-- Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.

This speech was long ago said by John Sterling to resemble "much of Montaigne's writing." The passage adduced by Mr. Feis 1 as its specific origin, is as follows:

"I know I have neither frequented nor knowne death, nor have I seen any body that hath either felt or tried her qualities to instruct me in them. Those who feare her presuppose to know; as for me, I neither know who or what she is, nor what they doe in the other world. Death may peradventure be a thing indifferent, happily a thing desirable. Yet it is to bee believed that if it be a transmigration from one place to another there is some amendment in going to live with so many worthy famous persons that are deceased, and be exempted from having any more to doe with wicked and corrupt judges. If it be a consummation of one's being, it is also an amendment and entrance into a long and quiet night. Wee finde nothing so sweete in life as a quiet rest and gentle sleepe, and without dreames." (Florio, III, xiii, p. 540.)
Whether the expressions I have italicized show enough likeness to certain well known phrases of Hamlet's speech to have afforded the starting point for the similar or contradictory ideas there expressed, is made somewhat more doubtful by the fact that the traveller to the undiscovered country may well have been suggested by this passage in Marlowe's Edward II:
"Weep not for Mortimer
That scorns the world, and, as a traveller,
Goes to discover countries yet unknown." 2
(Edward II. V. 6.)

In favor of the hypothesis that Shakespeare took his ideas from the passage in the Essays, there is, first, the agreement between Hamlet and Florio in three ideas and in one uncommon word; and, secondly, an associated case of resemblance, pointed out by Mr. Robertson 3. Only two or three pages before the passage just quoted Montaigne, speaking, however, of "tedious and irksome imaginations," writes as follows:

"Yet I sometimes suffer my selfe by starts to be surprised with the pinchings of these unpleasant conceits, which whilst I arm my selfe to expell or wrestle against them assaile and beate mee. Loe here another huddle or tide of mischiefs that upon the neck of the former came rushing upon mee." (Florio, III, xiii, p. 537. )
May not a reminiscence of this passage be responsible for the mixed metaphor in "take arms against a sea of troubles ?" The association of the two passages in the plays and of the two corresponding passages in the Essays, adds greatly, as in so many other cases, to the convincingness of each. For these two lines of this soliloquy, moreover,

"And makes us rather bear those ills we know
Than fly to others that we know not of,"
there is in another essay this parallel:

"The oldest and best known evill is ever more tolerable then a fresh and unexperienced mischiefe." (Florio III. ix. pp. 489 f.)
Finally, there is further on in Hamlet's speech, as we shall see later, a passage expressing a thought very common in the Essays. Before we turn for the moment from this speech, it is well to notice that since the word "consummation" is Florio's translation for the dissimilar aneantissement, and "huddle or tide" his translation for the abstract rengregement, Shakespeare would again be following the English version.

The convincingness of the final parallel dealing with human life in its more objective and philosophical aspects must, like that of many of the others, be weighed by the individual judgment. It will be remembered that among the passages from the Apologie quoted in connection with the Duke's speech in Measure for Measure, there was one which seriously considered the possibility that waking life was only another kind of dream. Let us keep this in mind while we read two more passages from the same essay:

"For wherefore doe we from that instant take a title of being, which is but a twinkling in the infinit course of an eternall night, and so short an interruption of our perpetuall and naturall condition? Death possessing what ever is before and behind this moment, and also a good part of this moment." (Florio, II, xii, p. 267.)
"Every humane nature is ever in the middle betweene being borne and dying; giving nothing of it selfe but an obscure apparance and shadow, and an uncertaine and weake opinion." (Florio, II, xii, p. 309.)
When we take these passages in connection with the one just referred to, we must be forcibly reminded of the words of Prospero:

"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."
(Tempest, IV, 1, 158 ff.)
Even more than by the world of nature or by man in his relations with it, Montaigne's tireless curiosity was attracted by the mysterious workings of the human mind. That he might furnish data as to the one mental experience he knew well, was, according to one of his less fanciful explanations, the reason why in the Essays he said so much about himself. Certainly such things as the untrustworthiness of the senses, the tyranny of custom and habit over opinion, the diversity and inconsistency of our ideas about right and wrong, the inconstancy and mixed nature of our feelings, the relation between the reason and the will, those questions which now-a-days we include in psychology as distinguished from philosophy, such puzzling matters Montaigne in his rambling chat discussed again and again. In all he says upon these problems there is shown the same unconventionality and indeterminateness by which we have seen manifested, in other fields of thought, his characteristically sceptical nature. He questions everything, and that with shrewdness; but far from deciding anything, he delights rather in emphasizing inconsistency and uncertitude.


1. Shakespeare and Montaigne, pp. 87 ff.

2. See Robertson, Montaigne and Shakespeare, p. 49.

3. Montaigne and Shakespeare, pp. 45 S.

How to cite this article:
Hooker, Elizabeth Robbins. The Relation of Shakespeare to Montaigne. PMLA. Vol. 17. 1 Jan. 1902. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2013. < >.


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