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Shakespeare’s stolen goods

The first English version of Montaigne’s essays inspired England’s greatest playwright

Simon Willis | July/August 2014

ENGLISH TITLE Shakespeare's Montaigne 
AUTHOR Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) 
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE French 
TRANSLATOR John Florio 

“Immature poets imitate,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “mature poets steal.” There’s no one more mature than Shakespeare, who was fond of pilfering plots and, in the case of “The Tempest”, passages, almost verbatim. His source was an English translation of Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibals”, made by John Florio, Shakespeare’s contemporary. That debt, and another in “King Lear”, lend the publisher of this majestic new edition of Florio’s translations an appealing title, which also prompts the reader to listen out for echoes of sentiment. When Montaigne writes that a king “is but a man, at all assays”, he could be buffing Richard II’s hollow crown. But the pleasures of the book have little to do with Shakespeare and everything to do with Montaigne’s agile eye. “If I speak diversely of myself,” he wrote, “it is because I look diversely upon myself.” 

His sense of human mutability is why his essays still speak to us today. Take “An Apology for Raymond Sebond”, an argument for scepticism which begins by asking why we think we’re above other animals, when you consider the intricacies of a spider’s web and that we communicate as much with mute gesture as any other creature. Elsewhere he writes about a pair of conjoined twins, and warns us not to confuse the unfamiliar with the unnatural, to “expel the astonishment which...strangeness causeth in us”. 

Florio’s language can be dense, but it often rings out agelessly. Is there a greater compliment than Shakespeare taking the words right out of your mouth? That even he was enriched by the translator’s art is a powerful argument for translation itself. 

New York Review Books, out now

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