Shakespeare and Montaigne. An unsigned review of Shakspeare’s Debt to Montaigne, by George Coffin Taylor
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600 ] Shakespeare and Montaigne An unsigned review of Shakspeare’s Debt to Montaigne by George Coffin Taylor London: Milford, 1925. Pp. vi + 66. Times Literary Supplement, 1249 (24 Dec 1925) 895 Professor Taylor has written a useful book.1 He has shown wisdom in presenting his conclusions in the briefest and most compact form – the whole treatise, including appendices, runs only to sixty-six pages – and his appendices exhibit his evidence in a manner most convenient for the reader. In general, he is in accord with Mr. J. M. Robertson’s views on the subject of Shakespeare’s relation to Montaigne;2 but his own methods are of considerable interest, and his modesty and caution in limiting the scope of his inquiry give them added plausibility. Mr. Taylor confines himself, and rightly, to determining the extent of verbal influence. His method is simple but persuasive. First he brings to light a number of fresh parallel passages of Florio’s translation with passages in plays written after 1603 (the date of Florio’s publication).3 He does not rely on any one of the Shakespeare passages as obviously derived from Montaigne – though several of the parallels are to an unprejudiced mind quite convincing – but contends that the number of the parallels is sufficient to establish a strong probability that Shakespeare had the Florio Montaigne much in his mind, especially in the years immediately following 1603 – the later plays show fewer parallels. These parallels themselves are very interesting reading. But this mass of evidence is supported by evidence of another type, the presentation of which is Professor Taylor’s most important contribution. Mr. Taylor has compiled a list of words and phrases which are found in the Florio, and which were used by Shakespeare after Florio’s book appeared and not before; words and phrases numerous enough to create a presumption that Shakespeare picked them up from Florio. Furthermore, Mr. Taylor has drawn up a table showing the number of such words and phrases occurring in each play, and the percentage to each page: with the highly satisfactory result that (with two exceptions) the highest percentage is found in the plays written about or soon after [ 601 Shakespeare and Montaigne 1603; from this date they decrease steadily, as, it would seem, the detailed impressions of the Florio faded from Shakespeare’s mind. Of the two exceptions, Mr. Taylor admits that “the strong influence in The Tempest is inexplicable, except on the theory that Shakespeare returned for a brief interval to his reading of Montaigne” [32]. This hypothesis may look rather weak, but we think there is a great deal to he said for it. There is no doubt that The Tempest is a very late play, and it is the one play in which the influence of Montaigne is commonly acknowledged. As for Othello, in which the influence of Montaigne ought, on the theory, to be strong (the table shows a percentage of only 2.2 Montaigne words to the page, compared, for instance, with 2.8 in The Winter’s Tale), we think that Mr. Taylor should have expounded his explanation at greater length. But, in any case, Mr. Taylor attempts no more than to found a presumption ; and in this we think he succeeds. As to the nature of the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare he is wisely reserved. At most, a large part must be conceded to Florio himself – and here Mr. Taylor renders a needed tribute to the work performed by the Elizabethan translators in enriching the language. Florio was compelled to draw upon every available source of word-supply in our language, and, when that supply was exhausted, to press into service foreign emissaries , words new and never spoken before in England. No one who will take the pains to read carefully two or three times through the Florio will doubt the vastness of the vocabulary. Let one cast about in one’s mind for a source of available word-supply which could, about 1603, afford Shakspere an opportunity for sudden expansion in vocabulary, and one will come at last to the Florio Montaigne. [29] Even, Mr. Taylor adds, if we allow that Shakespeare may have got many of the words from other sources, such as the North Plutarch, or if Florio and Shakespeareweredrawingoncommonsources,theevidencethatShakespeare read with the most prodigious memory for words that has ever existed is almost indisputable, and is consonant with everything that we do know of Shakespeare.4 And in bringing more clearly...