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Shakespeare and Montaigne: Parallel Passages

From Montaigne and Shakespeare by J. M. Robertson. London University Press.

The first requirement in the study, obviously, is an exact statement of the coincidences of phrase and thought in Shakespeare and Montaigne. Not that such coincidences are the main or the only results to be looked for; rather we may reasonably expect to find Shakespeare's thought often diverging at a tangent from that of the writer he is reading, or even directly gainsaying it. But there can be no solid argument as to such indirect influence until we have fully established the direct influence, and this can only be done by exhibiting a considerable number of coincidences. M. Chasles, while avowing that "the comparison of texts is indispensable -- we must undergo this fatigue in order to know to what extent Shakespeare, between 1603 and 1615, became familiar with Montaigne" -- strangely enough made no comparison of texts whatever beyond reproducing the familiar paraphrase in the TEMPEST, from the essay OF CANNIBALS; and left absolutely unsupported his assertion as to HAMLET, OTHELLO, and CORIOLANUS.

It is necessary to produce proofs, and to look narrowly to dates. Florio's translation, though licensed in 1601, was not published till 1603, the year of the piratical publication of the First Quarto of HAMLET, in which the play lacks much of its present matter, and shows in many parts so little trace of Shakespeare's spirit and versification that, even if we hold the text to have been imperfectly taken down in shorthand, as it no doubt was, we cannot suppose him to have at this stage completed his refashioning of the older play, which is undoubtedly the substratum of his. 1 We must therefore keep closely in view the divergencies between this text and that of the Second Quarto, printed in 1604, in which the transmuting touch of Shakespeare is broadly evident.

It is quite possible that Shakespeare may have seen parts of Florio's translation before 1603, or heard passages from it read; or even that he might have read Montaigne in the original. But as his possession of the translation is made certain by the preservation of the copy bearing his autograph, and as it is from Florio that he is seen to have copied in the passages where his copying is beyond dispute, it is on Florio's translation that we must proceed.

I. In order to keep all the evidence in view, we may first of all collate once more the passage in the TEMPEST with that in the Essays which it unquestionably follows. In Florio's translation, Montaigne's words run:

"They [Lycurgus and Plato] could not imagine a genuity so pure and simple, as we see it by experience, nor ever believe our society might be maintained with so little art and human combination. It is a nation (would I answer Plato) that 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 occupations, 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, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and passion, were never heard of amongst them. How dissonant would he find his imaginary commonwealth from this perfection?" (Morley's ed. of Florio, p.94)

Compare the speech in which the kind old Gonzalo seeks to divert the troubled mind of the shipwrecked King Alonso:

"I' the 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; no use of service,
Of riches, or of poverty; no contracts,
Succession; bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none:
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil:
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too: but innocent and pure:
No sovereignty...."

There can be no dispute as to the direct transcription here, where the dramatist is but incidentally playing with Montaigne's idea, proceeding to put some gibes at it in the mouths of Gonzalo's rascally comrades; and it follows that Gonzalo's further phrase, "to excel the golden age," proceeds from Montaigne's previous words: "exceed all the pictures wherewith licentious poesy hath proudly embellished the golden age." The play was in all probability written in or before 1610. It remains to show that on his first reading of Florio's Montaigne, in 1603-4, Shakespeare was more deeply and widely influenced, though the specific proofs are in the nature of the case less palpable.

II. Let us take first the more decisive coincidences of phrase. Correspondences of thought which in themselves do not establish their direct connection, have a new significance when it is seen that other coincidences amount to manifest reproduction. And such a coincidence we have, to begin with, in the familiar lines:

"There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will." 2

I pointed out in 1885 that this expression, which does not occur in the First Quarto HAMLET, corresponds very closely with the theme of Montaigne's essay, THAT FORTUNE IS OFTENTIMES MET WITHALL IN PURSUIT OF REASON,3 in which occurs the phrase, "Fortune has more judgment 4 than we," a translation from Menander. But Professor Morley, having had his attention called to the subject by the work of Mr. Feis, who had suggested another passage as the source of Shakespeare's, made a more perfect identification. Reading the proofs of the Florio translation for his reprint, he found, what I had not observed in my occasional access to the old folio, not then reprinted, that the very metaphor of "rough-hewing" occurs in Florio's rendering of a passage in the Essays:-- 5 "My consultation doth somewhat roughly hew the matter, and by its first shew lightly consider the same: the main and chief point of the work I am wont to resign to Heaven." This is a much more exact coincidence than is presented in the passage cited by Mr. Feis from the essay OF PHYSIOGNOMY:-- 6 "Therefore do our designs so often miscarry.... The heavens are angry, and I may say envious of the extension and large privilege we ascribe to human wisdom, to the prejudice of theirs, and abridge them so much more unto us by so much more we endeavour to amplify them." If there were no closer parallel than that in Montaigne, we should be bound to take it as an expansion of a phrase in Seneca's AGAMEMNON, 7 which was likely to have become proverbial. I may add that the thought is often repeated in the Essays, and that in several passages it compares notably with Shakespeare's lines. These begin:

-- And praised be rashness for it -- Let us know
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us
There's a divinity" etc.

Compare the following extracts from Florio's translation:--

"The Daemon of Socrates were peradventure a certain impulsion or will which without the advice of his discourse presented itself unto him. In a mind so well purified, and by continual exercise of wisdom and virtue so well prepared as his was, it is likely his inclinations (though rash and inconsiderate) were ever of great moment, and worthy to be followed. Every man feeleth in himself some image of such agitations, of a prompt, vehement, and casual opinion. It is in me to give them some authority, that afford so little to our wisdom. And I have had some (equally weak in reason and violent in persuasion and dissuasion, which was more ordinary to Socrates) by which I have so happily and so profitably suffered myself to be transported, as they might perhaps be thought to contain some matter of divine inspiration." 8

"Even in our counsels and deliberations, some chance or good luck must needs be joined to them; for whatsoever our wisdom can effect is no great matter." 9

"When I consider the most glorious exploits of war, methinks I see that those who have had the conduct of them employ neither counsel nor deliberation about them, but for fashion sake, and leave the best part of the enterprise to fortune; and on the confidence they have in her aid, they still go beyond the limits of all discourse. Casual rejoicings and strange furies ensue among their deliberations." 10 etc.

Compare finally Florio's translation of the lines of Manilius cited by Montaigne at the end of the 47th Essay of the First Book:

"'Tis best for ill-advis'd, wisdom may fail, 11
Fortune proves not the cause that should prevail,
But here and there without respect doth sail:
A higher power forsooth us overdraws,
And mortal states guides with immortal laws."

It is to be remembered, indeed, that the idea expressed in Hamlet's words to Horatio is partly anticipated in the rhymed speech of the Player-King in the play-scene in Act III., which occurs in the First Quarto:

"Our wills, our fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own."

Such a passage, reiterating a familiar commonplace, might seem at first sight to tell against the view that Hamlet's later speech to Horatio is an echo of Montaigne. But that view being found justified by the evidence, and the idea in that passage being exactly coincident with Montaigne's, while the above lines are only partially parallel in meaning, we are forced to admit that Shakespeare may have been influenced by Montaigne even where a partial precedent might be found in his own or other English work.

III. The phrase "discourse of reason," which is spoken by Hamlet in his first soliloquy, 12 and which first appears in the Second Quarto, is not used by Shakespeare in any play before HAMLET; and he uses it again in TROILUS AND CRESSIDA; 13 while "discourse of thought" appears in OTHELLO; 14 and "discourse," in the sense of reasoning faculty, is used in Hamlet's last soliloquy. 15 In English literature this use of the word seems to be special in Shakespeare's period, 16 and it has been noted by an admirer as a finely Shakespearean expression. But the expression "discourse of reason" occurs at least four times in Montaigne's Essays, and in Florio's translation of them: in the essay 17 THAT TO PHILOSOPHISE IS TO LEARN HOW TO DIE; again at the close of the essay 18 A demain les affaires; again in the first paragraph of the APOLOGY OF RAIMOND SEBONDE 19; and yet again in the chapter on THE HISTORY OF SPURINA; 20 and though it seems to be scholastic in origin, and occurs once or twice before 1600 in English books, it is difficult to doubt that, like the other phrase above cited, it came to Shakespeare through Florio's Montaigne. The word discours is a hundred times used singly by Montaigne, as by Shakespeare in the phrase "of such large discourse," for the process of ratiocination.

IV. Then again there is the clue of Shakespeare's use of the word "consummation" in the revised form of the "To be" soliloquy. This, as Mr. Feis pointed out, 21 is the word used by Florio as a rendering of aneantissement in the speech of Socrates as given by Montaigne in the essay 22 OF PHYSIOGNOMY. Shakespeare makes Hamlet speak of annihilation as "a consummation devoutly to be wished." Florio has: "If it (death) be a consummation of one's being, it is also an amendment and entrance into a long and quiet night. We find nothing so sweet in life as a quiet and gentle sleep, and without dreams." Here not only do the words coincide in a peculiar way, but the idea in the two phrases is the same; the theme of sleep and dreams being further common to the two writings.

Beyond these, I have not noted any correspondences of phrase so precise as to prove reminiscence beyond possibility of dispute; but it is not difficult to trace striking correspondences which, though falling short of explicit reproduction, inevitably suggest a relation; and these it now behoves us to consider. The remarkable thing is, as regards HAMLET, that they almost all occur in passages not present in the First Quarto.

V. When we compare part of the speech of Rosencrantz on sedition 23 with a passage in Montaigne's essay, OF CUSTOM, 24 we find a somewhat close coincidence. In the play Rosencrantz says:

"The cease of Majesty,
Dies not alone; but like a gulf doth draw
What's near with it: it is a massy wheel
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoined; which, when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin."

Florio has:

"Those who attempt to shake an Estate are commonly the first overthrown by the fall of it.... The contexture and combining of this monarchy and great building having been dismissed and dissolved by it, namely, in her old years, giveth as much overture and entrance as a man will to like injuries. Royal majesty doth more hardly fall from the top to the middle, than it tumbleth down from the middle to the bottom."

The verbal correspondence here is only less decisive -- as regards the use of the word "majesty" -- than in the passages collated by Mr. Morley; while the thought corresponds as closely.

VI. The speech of Hamlet, 25 "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so"; and Iago's "'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus," 26 are expressions of a favourite thesis of Montaigne's, to which he devotes an entire essay. 27 The Shakespearean phrases echo closely such sentences as:--

"If that which we call evil and torment be neither torment nor evil, but that our fancy only gives it that quality, it is in us to change it.... That which we term evil is not so of itself." ... "Every man is either well or ill according as he finds himself."

And in the essay 28 OF DEMOCRITUS AND HERACLITUS there is another close parallel: --

"Therefore let us take no more excuses from external qualities of things. To us it belongeth to give ourselves account of it. Our good and our evil hath no dependency but from ourselves."

VII. Hamlet's apostrophe to his mother on the power of custom -- a passage which, like the others above cited, first appears in the Second Quarto -- is similarly an echo of a favourite proposition of Montaigne, who devotes to it the essay 29 OF CUSTOM, AND NOT TO CHANGE READILY A RECEIVED LAW. In that there occur the typical passages: --

"Custom doth so blear us that we cannot distinguish the usage of things.... Certes, chastity is an excellent virtue, the commodity whereof is very well known; but to use it, and according to nature to prevail with it, is as hard as it is easy to endear it and to prevail with it according to custom, to laws and precepts." "The laws of conscience, which we say are born of nature, are born of custom."

Again, in the essay OF CONTROLLING ONE'S WILL 30 we have: "Custom is a second nature, and not less potent."

Hamlet's words are:--

"That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery
That aptly is put on....
For use can almost change the stamp of nature."

No doubt the idea is a classic commonplace; and in the early TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA 31 we actually have the line, "How use doth breed a habit in a man;" but here again there seems reason to regard Montaigne as having suggested Shakespeare's vivid and many-coloured wording of the idea in the tragedy. Indeed, even the line cited from the early comedy may have been one of the poet's many later additions to his text.

VIII. A less close but still a noteworthy resemblance is that between the passage in which Hamlet expresses to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the veering of his mood from joy in things to disgust with them, and the paragraph in the APOLOGY OF RAYMOND SEBONDE in which Montaigne sets against each other the splendour of the universe and the littleness of man. Here the thought diverges, Shakespeare making it his own as he always does, and altering its aim; but the language is curiously similar. Hamlet says:

"It goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory: this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire, why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a God! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me."

Montaigne, as translated by Florio, has:

"Let us see what hold-fast or free-hold he (man) hath in this gorgeous and goodly equipage.... Who hath persuaded him, that this admirable moving of heaven's vaults, that the eternal light of these lamps so fiercely rolling over his head ... were established ... for his commodity and service? Is it possible to imagine anything so ridiculous as this miserable and wretched creature, which is not so much as master of himself, exposed and subject to offences of all things, and yet dareth call himself Master and Emperor of this universe?... [To consider ... the power and domination these (celestial) bodies have, not only upon our lives and conditions of our fortune ... but also over our dispositions and inclinations, our discourses and wills, which they rule, provoke, and move at the pleasure of their influences.] ... Of all creatures man is the most miserable and frail, and therewithal the proudest and disdainfullest. Who perceiveth himself placed here, amidst the filth and mire of the world ... and yet dareth imaginarily place himself above the circle of the Moon, and reduce heaven under his feet. It is through the vanity of the same imagination that he dare equal himself to God."

The passage in brackets is left here in its place, not as suggesting anything in Hamlet's speech, but as paralleling a line in MEASURE FOR MEASURE, to be dealt with immediately. But it will be seen that the rest of the passage, though turned to quite another purpose than Hamlet's, brings together in the same way a set of contrasted ideas of human greatness and smallness, and of the splendour of the midnight firmament. 32

IX. The nervous protest of Hamlet to Horatio on the point of the national vice of drunkenness, 33 of which all save the beginning is added in the Second Quarto just before the entrance of the Ghost, has several curious points of coincidence with Montaigne's essay 34 on THE HISTORY OF SPURINA, which discusses at great length a matter of special interest to Shakespeare -- the character of Julius Caesar. In the course of the examination Montaigne takes trouble to show that Cato's use of the epithet "drunkard" to Caesar could not have been meant literally; that the same Cato admitted Caesar's sobriety in the matter of drinking. It is after making light of Caesar's faults in other matters of personal conduct that the essayist comes to this decision:

"But all these noble inclinations, rich gifts, worthy qualities, were altered, smothered, and eclipsed by this furious passion of ambition.... To conclude, this only vice (in mine opinion) lost and overthrew in him the fairest natural and richest ingenuity that ever was, and hath made his memory abominable to all honest minds."

Compare the exquisitely high-strung lines, so congruous in their excited rapidity with Hamlet's intensity of expectation, which follow on his notable outburst on the subject of drunkenness:

"So oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mode of nature in them,
As in their birth (wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose its origin),
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason;
Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens
The form of plausive manners; that these men,--
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect;
Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,--
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault...."

Even the idea that "nature cannot choose its origin" is suggested by the context in Montaigne. 35 Shakespeare's estimate of Caesar, of course, diverged from that of the essay.

X. I find a certain singularity of coincidence between the words of King Claudius on kingship:

"There's such divinity doth hedge a king,
That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will,"

and a passage in the essay 36 OF THE INCOMMODITY OF GREATNESS:

"To be a king, is a matter of that consequence, that only by it he is so. That strange glimmering and eye-dazzling light, which round about environeth, over-casteth and hideth from us: our weak sight is thereby bleared and dissipated, as being filled and obscured by that greater and further-spreading brightness."

The working out of the metaphor here gives at once to Shakespeare's terms "divinity" and "can but peep" a point not otherwise easily seen; but the idea of a dazzling light may be really what was meant in the play; and one is tempted to pronounce the passage a reminiscence of Montaigne. Here, however, it has to be noted that in the First Quarto we have the lines:

"There's such divinity doth wall a king
That treason dares not look on."

And if Shakespeare had not seen or heard the passage in Montaigne before the publication of Florio's folio--which, however, he may very well have done--the theory of reminiscence here cannot stand.

XI. In Hamlet's soliloquy on the passage of the army of Fortinbras--one of the many passages added in the Second Quarto--there is a strong general resemblance to a passage in the essay OF DIVERSION. 37 Hamlet first remarks to the Captain:

"Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace;"

and afterwards soliloquises:

"Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness, this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit, by divine ambition puff'd,
Makes mouths at the invisible event;
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great,
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw.
When honour is at stake.... my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds; fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause...."

Montaigne has the same general idea in the essay OF DIVERSION:

"If one demand that fellow, what interest he hath in such a siege: The interest of example (he will say) and common obedience of the Prince: I nor look nor pretend any benefit thereby ... I have neither passion nor quarrel in the matter. Yet the next day you will see him all changed, and chafing, boiling and blushing with rage, in his rank of battle, ready for the assault. It is the glaring reflecting of so much steel, the flashing thundering of the cannon, the clang of trumpets, and the rattling of drums, that have infused this new fury and rancour in his swelling veins. A frivolous cause, will you say? How a cause? There needeth none to excite our mind. A doting humour without body, without substance, overswayeth it up and down."

The thought recurs in the essay, OF CONTROLLING ONE'S WILL. 38

"Our greatest agitations have strange springs and ridiculous causes. What ruin did our last Duke of Burgundy run into, for the quarrel of a cart-load of sheep-skins?... See why that man doth hazard both his honour and life on the fortune of his rapier and dagger; let him tell you whence the cause of that confusion ariseth, he cannot without blushing; so vain and frivolous is the occasion."

And the idea in Hamlet's lines "rightly to be great," etc., is suggested in the essay OF REPENTING, 39 where we have:

"The nearest way to come unto glory were to do that for conscience which we do for glory.... The worth of the mind consisteth not in going high, but in going orderly. Her greatness is not exercised in greatness; in mediocrity it is."

In the essay OF EXPERIENCE 40 there is a sentence partially expressing the same thought, which is cited by Mr. Feis as a reproduction:

"The greatness of the mind is not so much to draw up, and hale forward, as to know how to range, direct, and circumscribe itself. It holdeth for great what is sufficient, and sheweth her height in loving mean things better than eminent."

Here, certainly, as in the previous citation, the idea is not identical with that expressed by Hamlet. But the elements he combines are there; and again, in the essay OF SOLITARINESS 41 we have the picture of the soldier fighting furiously for the quarrel of his careless king, with the question: "Who doth not willingly chop and counter-change his health, his ease, yea his life, for glory and reputation, the most unprofitable, vain, and counterfeit coin that is in use with us."

And yet again the thought crops up in the APOLOGY OF RAYMOND SEBONDE:

"This horror-causing array of so many thousands of armed men, so great fury, earnest fervour, and undaunted courage, it would make one laugh to see on how many vain occasions it is raised and set on fire.... The hatred of one man, a spite, a pleasure ... causes which ought not to move two scolding fishwives to catch one another, is the soul and motive of all this hurly-burly."

XII. Yet one more of Hamlet's sayings peculiar to the revised form of the play seems to be an echo of a thought of Montaigne's. At the outset of the soliloquy last quoted from, Hamlet says:--

"What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time,
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast; no more.
Sure He that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused."

The bearing of the thought in the soliloquy, where Hamlet spasmodically applies it to the stimulation of his vengeance, is certainly never given to it by Montaigne, who has left on record 42 his small approbation of revenge; but the thought itself is there, in the essay 43 ON GOODS AND EVILS.

"Shall we employ the intelligence Heaven hath bestowed upon us for our greatest good, to our ruin, repugning nature's design and the universal order and vicissitude of things, which implieth that every man should use his instrument and means for his own commodity?"

Again, there is a passage in the essay OF THE AFFECTION OF FATHERS TO THEIR CHILDREN, 44 where there occurs a specific coincidence of phrase, the special use of the term "discourse," which we have already traced from Shakespeare to Montaigne; and where at the same time the contrast between man and beast is drawn, though not to the same purpose as in the speech of Hamlet:--

"Since it hath pleased God to endow us with some capacity of discourse, that as beasts we should not servilely be subjected to common laws, but rather with judgment and voluntary liberty apply ourselves unto them, we ought somewhat to yield unto the simple authority of Nature, but not suffer her tyrannically to carry us away; only reason ought to have the conduct of our inclinations."

Finally we have a third parallel, with a slight coincidence of terms, in the essay 45 OF GIVING THE LIE:

"Nature hath endowed us with a large faculty to entertain ourselves apart, and often calleth us unto it, to teach us that partly we owe ourselves unto society, but in the better part unto ourselves."

It may be argued that these, like one or two of the other sayings above cited as echoed by Shakespeare from Montaigne, are of the nature of general religious or ethical maxims, traceable to no one source; and if we only found one or two such parallels, their resemblance of course would have no evidential value, save as regards coincidence of terms. For this very passage, for instance, there is a classic original, or at least a familiar source, in Cicero, 46 where the commonplace of the contrast between man and beast is drawn in terms that come in a general way pretty close to Hamlet's. This treatise of Cicero was available to Shakespeare in several English translations; 47 and only the fact that we find no general trace of Cicero in the play entitles us to suggest a connection in this special case with Montaigne, of whom we do find so many other traces. It is easy besides to push the theory of any influence too far; and when for instance we find Hamlet saying he fares "Of the chameleon's dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed," it would be as idle to assume a reminiscence of a passage of Montaigne on the chameleon 48 as it would be to derive Hamlet's phrase "A king of shreds and patches" from Florio's rendering in the essay 49 OF THE INCONSTANCY OF OUR ACTIONS:

"We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part."

In the latter case we have a mere coincidence of idiom; in the former a proverbial allusion. 50 An uncritical pursuit of such mere accidents of resemblance has led Mr. Feis to such enormities as the assertion that Shakespeare's contemporaries knew Hamlet's use of his tablets to be a parody of the "much-scribbling Montaigne," who had avowed that he made much use of his; the assertion that Ophelia's "Come, my coach!" has reference to Montaigne's remark that he has known ladies who would rather lend their honour than their coach; and a dozen other propositions, if possible still more amazing. But when, with no foregone conclusion as to any polemic purpose on Shakespeare's part, we restrict ourselves to real parallels of thought and expression; when we find that a certain number of these are actually textual; when we find further that in a single soliloquy in the play there are several reproductions of ideas in the essays, some of them frequently recurring in Montaigne; and when finally it is found that, with only one exception, all the passages in question have been added to the play in the Second Quarto, after the publication of Florio's translation, it seems hardly possible to doubt that the translation influenced the dramatist in his work.

Needless to say, the influence is from the very start of that high sort in which he that takes becomes co-thinker with him that gives, Shakespeare's absorption of Montaigne being as vital as Montaigne's own assimilation of the thought of his classics. The process is one not of surface reflection, but of kindling by contact; and we seem to see even the vibration of the style passing from one intelligence to the other; the nervous and copious speech of Montaigne awakening Shakespeare to a new sense of power over rhythm and poignant phrase, at the same time that the stimulus of the thought gives him a new confidence in the validity of his own reflection. Some cause there must have been for this marked species of development in the dramatist at that particular time: and if we find pervading signs of one remarkable new influence, with no countervailing evidence of another adequate to the effect, the inference is about as reasonable as many which pass for valid in astronomy. For it will be found, on the one hand, that there is no sign worth considering of a Montaigne influence on Shakespeare before HAMLET; and, on the other hand, that the influence to some extent continues beyond that play. Indeed, there are still further minute signs of it there, which should be noted before we pass on.

XIII. Among parallelisms of thought of a less direct kind, one may be traced between an utterance of Hamlet's and a number of Montaigne's sayings on the power of imagination and the possible equivalence of dream life and waking life. In his first dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where we have already noted an echo of Montaigne, Hamlet cries:

"O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space; were it not that I have bad dreams;"

and Guildenstern answers:

"Which dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream."

The first sentence may be compared with a number in Montaigne, 51 of which the following 52 is a type:

"Man clean contrary [to the Gods] possesseth goods in imagination and evils essentially. We have had reason to make the powers of our imagination to be of force, for all our felicities are but in conceipt, and as it were in a dream;"

while the reply of Guildenstern further recalls several of the passages already cited.

XIV. Another apparent parallel of no great importance, but of more verbal closeness, is that between Hamlet's jeering phrase: 53 "Your worm is your only emperor for diet," and a sentence in the APOLOGY: "The heart and the life of a great and triumphant emperor are the dinner of a little worm," which M. Stapfer compares further with the talk of Hamlet in the grave-diggers' scene. Here, doubtless, we are near the level of proverbial sayings, current in all countries.

XV. As regards HAMLET, I can find no further parallelisms so direct as any of the foregoing, except some to be considered later, in connection with the "To be" soliloquy. I do not think it can be made out that, as M. Chasles affirmed, Hamlet's words on his friendship for Horatio can be traced directly to any of Montaigne's passages on that theme. "It would be easy," says M. Chasles, "to show in Shakespeare the branloire perenne 54 of Montaigne, and the whole magnificent passage on friendship, which is found reproduced (se trouve reporte) in HAMLET." The idea of the world as a perpetual mutation is certainly prevalent in Shakespeare's work; but I can find no exact correspondence of phrase between Montaigne's pages on his love for his dead friend Etienne de la Boetie and the lines in which Hamlet speaks of his love for Horatio. He rather gives his reasons for his love than describes the nature and completeness of it in Montaigne's way; and as regards the description of Horatio, it could have been independently suggested by such a treatise as Seneca's DE CONSTANTIA SAPIENTIS, which is a monody on the theme with which it closes: esse aliquem invictum, esse aliquem in quem nihil fortuna possit -- "to be something unconquered, something against which fortune is powerless." In the fifth section the idea is worded in a fashion that could have suggested Shakespeare's utterance of it; and he might easily have met with some citation of the kind. But, on the other hand, this note of passionate friendship is not only new in Shakespeare but new in HAMLET, in respect of the First Quarto, in which the main part of the speech to Horatio does not occur, and in view of the singular fact that in the first Act of the play as it stands Hamlet greets Horatio as a mere acquaintance; and it is further to be noted that the description of Horatio as "one in suffering all that suffers nothing" is broadly suggested by the quotation from Horace in Montaigne's nineteenth chapter (which, as we have already seen, impressed Shakespeare), and by various other sayings in the Essays. After the quotation from Horace (Non vultus instantis tyranni), in the Nineteenth Essay, Florio's translation runs:

"She (the soul) is made mistress of her passions and concupiscences, lady of indigence, of shame, of poverty, and of all fortune's injuries. Let him that can, attain to this advantage. Herein consists the true and sovereign liberty, that affords us means wherewith to jest and make a scorn of force and injustice, and to deride imprisonment, gyves, or fetters."

Again, in the essay OF THREE COMMERCES OR SOCIETIES, 55 we have this:

"We must not cleave so fast unto our humours and dispositions. Our chiefest sufficiency is to supply ourselves to diverse fashions. It is a being, but not a life, to be tied and bound by necessity to one only course. The goodliest minds are those that have most variety and pliableness in them.... Life is a motion unequal, irregular, and multiform....

" ... My fortune having inured and allured me, even from my infancy, to one sole, singular, and perfect amity, hath verily in some sort distasted me from others.... So that it is naturally a pain unto me to communicate myself by halves, and with modification....

"I should commend a high-raised mind that could both bend and discharge itself; that wherever her fortune might transport her, she might continue constant.... I envy those which can be familiar with the meanest of their followers, and vouchsafe to contract friendship and frame discourse with their own servants."

Again, la Boetie is panegyrised by Montaigne for his rare poise and firmness of character; 56 and elsewhere in the essays we find many allusions to the ideal of the imperturbable man, which Montaigne has in the above cited passages brought into connection with his ideal of friendship. It could well be, then--though here we cannot argue the point with confidence--that in this as in other matters the strong general impression that Montaigne was so well fitted to make on Shakespeare's mind was the source of such a change in the conception and exposition of Hamlet's relation to Horatio as is set up by Hamlet's protestation of his long-standing admiration and love for his friend. Shakespeare's own relations with one or other of his noble patrons would make him specially alive to such suggestion.

XVI. We now come to the suggested resemblance between the "To be or not to be" soliloquy and the general tone of Montaigne on the subject of death. On this resemblance I am less disposed to lay stress now than I was on a first consideration of the subject thirteen years ago. While I find new coincidences of detail on a more systematic search, I am less impressed by the alleged general resemblance of tone. In point of fact, the general drift of Hamlet's soliloquy is rather alien to the general tone of Montaigne on the same theme. That tone, as we shall see, harmonises much more nearly with the speech of the Duke to Claudio, on the same theme, in MEASURE FOR MEASURE. What really seems to subsist in the "To be" soliloquy, after a careful scrutiny, is a series of echoes of single thoughts; but there is the difficulty that some of these occur in the earlier form of the soliloquy in the First Quarto, a circumstance which tends--though not necessarily 57 --to throw a shade of doubt on the apparent echoes in the finished form of the speech. We can but weigh the facts as impartially as may be.

First, there is the striking coincidence of the word "consummation" (which appears only in the Second Quarto), with Florio's translation of aneantissement in the essay OF PHYSIOGNOMY, as above noted. Secondly, there is a curious resemblance between the phrase "take arms against a sea of troubles" and a passage in Florio's version of the same essay, which has somehow been overlooked in the disputes over Shakespeare's line. It runs:

"I sometimes suffer myself by starts to be surprised with the pinchings of these unpleasant conceits, which, whilst I arm myself to expel or wrestle against them, assail and beat me. Lo here another huddle or tide of mischief, that on the neck of the former came rushing upon me."

There arises here the difficulty that Shakespeare's line had been satisfactorily traced to AElian's 58 story of the Celtic practice of rushing into the sea to resist a high tide with weapons; and the matter must, I think, be left open until it can he ascertained whether the statement concerning the Celts was available to Shakespeare in any translation or citation. 59

Again, the phrase "Conscience doth make cowards of us all" is very like the echo of two passages in the essay 60 OF CONSCIENCE: "Of such marvellous working power is the sting of conscience: which often induceth us to bewray, to accuse, and to combat ourselves"; "which as it doth fill us with fear and doubt, so doth it store us with assurance and trust;" and the lines about "the dread of something after death" might point to the passage in the Fortieth Essay, in which Montaigne cites the saying of Augustine that "Nothing but what follows death, makes death to be evil" (malam mortem non facit, nisi quod sequitur mortem) cited by Montaigne in order to dispute it.

The same thought, too, is dealt with in the essay 61 on A CUSTOM OF THE ISLE OF CEA, which contains a passage suggestive of Hamlet's earlier soliloquy on self-slaughter. But, for one thing, Hamlet's soliloquies are contrary in drift to Montaigne's argument; and, for another, the phrase "Conscience makes cowards of us all" existed in the soliloquy as it stood in the First Quarto, while the gist of the idea is actually found twice in a previous play, where it has a proverbial ring. 62 And "the hope of something after death" figures in the First Quarto also.

Finally, there are other sources than Montaigne for parts of the soliloquy, sources nearer, too, than those which have been pointed to in the Senecan tragedies. There is, indeed, as Dr. Cunliffe has pointed out, 63 a broad correspondence between the whole soliloquy and the chorus of women at the end of the second Act of the TROADES, where the question of a life beyond is pointedly put:

"Verum est? an timidos fabula decepit,
Umbras corporibus vivere conditis?"

It is true that the choristers in Seneca pronounce definitely against the future life:

"Post mortem nihil est, ipsaque mors nihil....
Rumores vacui verbaque inania,
Et par sollicito fabula somnio."

But wherever in Christendom the pagan's words were discussed, the Christian hypothesis would be pitted against his unbelief, with the effect of making one thought overlay the other; and in this fused form the discussion may easily have reached Shakespeare's eye and ear. So it would be with the echo of two Senecan passages noted by Mr. Munro in the verses on "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns." In the HERCULES FURENS 64 we have:

"Nemo ad id sero venit, unde nunquam
Quum semel venit potuit reverti;"

and in the HERCULES OETAEUS 65 there is the same thought:

"regnum canis inquieti
Unde non unquam remeavit ullus."

But here, as elsewhere, Seneca himself was employing a standing sentiment, for in the best known poem of Catullus we have:

"Qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
Illuc, unde negant redire quemquam. " 66

And though there was in Shakespeare's day no English translation of Catullus, the commentators long ago noted 67 that in Sandford's translation of Cornelius Agrippa (? 1569), there occurs the phrase, "The countrie of the dead is irremeable, that they cannot return," a fuller parallel to the passage in the soliloquy than anything cited from the classics.

Finally, in Marlowe's EDWARD II., 68 written before 1593, we have:

"Weep not for Mortimer,
That scorns the world, and, as a traveller,
Goes to discover countries yet unknown." 69

So that, without going to the Latin, we have obvious English sources for notable parts of the soliloquy.

Thus, though Shakespeare may (1) have seen part of the Florio translation, or separate translations of some of the essays, before the issue of the First Quarto; or may (2) easily have heard that very point discussed by Florio, who was the friend of his friend Jonson, or by those who had read the original; or may even (3) himself have read in the original; and though further it seems quite certain that his "consummation devoutly to be wished" was an echo of Florio's translation of the Apology of Socrates; on the other hand we are not entitled to trace the soliloquy as a whole to Montaigne's stimulation of Shakespeare's thought. That Shakespeare read Montaigne in the original once seemed probable to me, as to others; but, on closer study, I consider it unlikely, were it only because the Montaigne influence in his work begins, as aforesaid, in HAMLET. Of all the apparent coincidences I have noticed between Shakespeare's previous plays and the essays, none has any evidential value. (1) The passage on the music of the spheres in the MERCHANT OF VENICE 70 recalls the passage on the subject in Montaigne's essay of CUSTOM; 71 but then the original source is Cicero, IN SOMNIUM SCIPIONIS, which had been translated into English in 1577. (2) Falstaff's rhapsody on the virtues of sherris 72 recalls a passage in the essay OF DRUNKENNESS, 73 but then Montaigne avows that what he says is the common doctrine of wine-drinkers. (3) Montaigne cites 74 the old saying of Petronius, that "all the world's a stage," which occurs in AS YOU LIKE IT; but the phrase itself, being preserved by John of Salisbury, would be current in England. It is, indeed, said to have been the motto of the Globe Theatre. Thus, while we are the more strongly convinced of a Montaigne influence beginning with HAMLET, we are bound to concede the doubtfulness of any apparent influence before the Second Quarto. At most we may say that both of Hamlet's soliloquies which touch on suicide evidently owe something to the discussions set up by Montaigne's essays. 75


1. See this point discussed in the Free Review of July, 1895: and compare the lately published essay of Mr. John Corbin, on The Elizabethan Hamlet, (Elkin Matthews, 1895).

2. Hamlet, Act V, scene 2.

3. Book I, Essay 33.

4. Advice in Florio.

5. B. III, Ch. 8. Of the art of conferring.

6. B. III, Ch. 12.

7. Act II, Sc. 1, 144.

8. Book I, ch. II.

9. Book I, ch. 23.

10. Ibid.

11. Some slip of the pen seems to have occurred in this confused line. The original Et male consultis pretium est: prudentia fallax --is sufficiently close to Shakespeare's phrase.

12. "O heaven! a beast that wants discourse of reason" (Act I, Scene 2.)

13. Act II, Sc. 2.

14. Act IV, Scene 2.

15. Act IV, Scene 4.

16. See Furniss's Variorum edition of Hamlet, in loc.

17. B. I, Chap. 19; Edit. Firmin-Didot, vol. i, p. 68.

18. B. II, Chap. 4; Ed. cited, p. 382.

19. B. II, Chap. 12; Ibid, p. 459.

20. B. II, Chap. 33.

21. Shakespere and Montaigne, 1884, p. 88.

22. B. III, Chap. 12.

23. Act III, Scene 3.

24. B. I, ch. 22.

25. Act II, Scene 2.

26. Othello, Act II, Scene 3.

27. B. I, ch. 40, "That the taste of goods or evils doth greatly depend on the opinion we have of them."

28. B. I, ch. 50.

29. B. I, ch. 22.

30. B. III, ch. 10.

31. Act V, Scene 4.

32. On reverting to Mr. Feis's book I find that in 1884 he had noted this and others of the above parallels, which I had not observed when writing on the subject in 1883. In view of some other parallels and clues drawn by him, our agreements leave me a little uneasy. He decides, for instance (p. 93) that Hamlet's phrase "foul as Vulcan's stithy" is a "sly thrust at Florio" who in his preface calls himself "Montaigne's Vulcan"; that the Queen's phrase "thunders in the index" is a reference to "the Index of the Holy See and its thunders"; and that Hamlet's lines "Why let the stricken deer go weep" are clearly a satire against Montaigne, "who fights shy of action." Mr. Feis's book contains so many propositions of this order that it is difficult to feel sure that he is ever judicious. Still, I find myself in agreement with him on some four or five points of textual coincidence in the two authors.

33. Act I, Scene 4.

34. B. II, Chap. 33.

35. It is further relevant to note that in the essay Of Drunkenness (ii. 2) Montaigne observes that "drunkenness amongst others appeareth to me a gross and brutish vice," that "the worst estate of man is where he loseth the knowledge and government of himself," and that "the grossest and rudest nation that liveth amongst us at this day, is only that which keepeth it in credit." The reference is to Germany: but Shakespeare in Othello (Act II, Sc. 3) makes Iago pronounce the English harder drinkers than either the Danes or the Hollanders; and the lines:

"This heavy-headed revel, east and west,
Makes us traduced and taxed of other nations;
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase,
Soil our addition."

might also be reminiscent of Montaigne, though of course there is nothing peculiar in such a coincidence.

36. B. III, Chap. 7.

37. B. III, Chap. 4.

38. B. III, Chap. 10.

39. B. III, Chap. 2.

40. B. III, Chap. 13.

41. B. I, Chap. 38.

42. B. III, Chap. 4.

43. B. I, Chap. 40.

44. B. II, Chap. 8.

45. B. II, Chap. 18.

46. De Officus i, 4: cf. 30.

47. 1534, 1558, 1583, 1600. See also the compilation entitled A Treatise of Morall Philosophie by W. Baudwin, 4th enlargement by T. Paulfreyman. 1600, pp. 44-46, where there is a closely parallel passage from Zeno as well as that of Cicero.

48. Mr. Feis makes this attribution.

49. B. II. Chap. 1.

50. This may fairly be argued, perhaps, even of the somewhat close parallel, noted by Mr. Feis, between Laertes' lines (I, 3):

"For nature, crescent, does not grow alone
In thews and bulk, but as this temple waxes
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal,"

and Florio's rendering of an extract from Lucretius in the Apology

"The mind is with the body bred, we do behold.
It jointly grows with it, it waxeth old."

Only the slight coincidence of the use of the (then familiar) verb "wax" in both passages could suggest imitation in the case of such a well-worn commonplace.

51. See some cited at the close of this essay in another connection.

52. B. II, Chap. 12.

53. Act IV, Scene 3.

54. Le monde est un branloire perenne (Book III, Essay 2). Florio translates that particular sentence: "The world runs all on wheels" a bad rendering.

55. B. III, Chap. 3.

56. B. II, Chap. 17.

57. It may fairly be laid down as practically certain, from what we know of the habit of circulating works in manuscript at that period, and from what Florio tells us in his preface, that translations of some of the essays had been passed about before Florio's folio was printed. Varia Historia, XII, 23.

58. The story certainly had a wide vogue, being found in Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, iii, 1, and in Nicolas of Damascus; while Strabo (vii, ii. Sec. 1) gives it further currency by contradicting it as regards the Cimbri.

60. B. II, 59.Chap. 5.

61. B. II, Chap. 3.

62. Richard III, I, 4; V, 3.

63. The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy, 1893, p. 80-5.

64. Actus III, 865-866.

65. Actus IV, 1526-7.

66. This in turn is an echo from the Greek. See note in Doering's edition.

67. See Boswell's edition of Malone's Shakespeare, in loc.

68. Yet again, in Marston's Insatiate Countess, the commentators have noticed the same sentiment.

"Death, From whose stern cave none tracks a backward path."

It was in fact a poetic commonplace.

69. Act 5, Scene 6.

70. Act v, sc. 1.

71. I, 22.

72. 2 H. IV, iv. 3

73. ii, 2

74. ii, 10.

75. So far as I remember, the idea of suicide as a desertion of one's post without the deity's permission is first found, in English literature, in Sidney, and he would find it in Montaigne's essay on the Custom of the Isle of Cea (edit. Firmin-Didot, i. 367).

How to cite this article:
Robertson, J. M. Montaigne and Shakespeare. London, University Press, 1897. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2013. < >.


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Montaigne's Thoughts

"Our religion hath had no surer humane foundation, than the contempt of life. Discourse of reason doth not only call and summon us unto it. For why should we feare to lose a thing, which being lost, cannot be moaned? but also, since we are threatned by so many kinds of death, there is no more inconvenience to feare them all, than to endure one: what matter is it when it commeth, since it is unavoidable? Socrates answered one that told him, The thirty Tyrants have condemned thee to death; 'And Nature them,' said he. What fondnesse is it to carke and care so much, at that instant and passage from all exemption of paine and care? As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so shall our death the end of all things." (That to Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die). Read on...


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