This is the first English edition of the celebrated Essayes by Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). The collection was first published in French in 1580–88, and translated here by John Florio in 1603. The Essayes cover a dazzling array of subjects from ‘Drunkennesse’ to ‘Smels and odors’, from ‘Friendship’ to ‘Cruelty’, and from ‘Caniballes’ to ‘the ‘education of Children’. The fly-leaf of this copy is tantalisingly signed ‘Willm Shakspere’, though some critics insist that the signature is a forgery. There are various reasons why people have questioned the authenticity of the signature, including the unusual form of the W, which is much larger than in verified Shakespeare autographs; the letter p, which is not typical of the period; and the location of the signature on the flyleaf when ownership marks would more commonly appear on the title page itself.
The inventor of essays
Montaigne is often seen as the inventor of the modern ‘essay’ form. He was the first to use the French word essai – meaning ‘trial’ or ‘attempt’ – to describe a genre of writing which combines rigorous testing of intellectual ideas and a new type of self-exploration. As he says in his letter ‘to the Reader’, ‘it is my selfe I pourtray’ in all my ‘imperfections’. In Shakespeare’s approach to drama, he could be said to reflect this sense of open-mindedness and internal conflict. In his use of soliloquy and dialogue, he shares Montaigne’s willingness to explore diverse perspectives rather than defending a single idea.
Montaigne as a source for The Tempest
Though the signature in this copy may not be genuine, there seems no doubt that Shakespeare read Florio’s version of Montaigne. The Tempest contains clear echoes of Montaigne’s essay ‘Of the Caniballes’ (p. 102). In Gonzalo’s description of his perfect natural commonwealth (2.1. 148–65) there is ‘no kind of traffic’, ‘no name of magistrate’, no ‘riches, poverty / And use of service’.
The essay also raises key questions explored in the play through Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caliban and the Italians on the island. Inspired by reports into the exploration of Brazil, Montaigne celebrates the ‘puritie’ of societies governed by ‘the lawes of nature’ (p. 102). He challenges any clear division between civilised Europeans and so-called ‘savage’ nations, arguing that ‘we exceede them in all kinde of barbarisme’ (p. 104). In ‘prying so narrowly into their faults’, he says, we are ‘blinded’ to our own (p. 104). As Shakespeare seems to suggest in the treachery of his Italian characters – Antonio, Sebastian, Trinculo and Stephano – barbarism is not inherent in one nation or another but a matter of individual behaviour.