- Reading and Rhetoric in Montaigne and Shakespeare by Peter Mack
Peter Mack's book is the first publication of the Warwick Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (WISH) List, a series aiming to promote interdisciplinary academic work. The seemingly disparate subjects of French philosophy and English playwriting provide the basis for Mack's comparative study of Michel de Montaigne and William Shakespeare. In the Introduction that is also Chapter 1, Mack explains how, in his attempt to ascertain the extent of Montaigne's influence on Shakespeare's work, he discovers that Montaigne and Shakespeare use the same sources in similar ways. Both writers were attentive readers of the classics who practised what is known today as research. Mack's argument that Montaigne and Shakespeare studied past writers for information pertinent to their own work appears so obvious that its importance is easily overlooked.
Therefore, in Chapter 2, Mack reconstructs Montaigne's reading habits through the French writer's quotations and annotated books from his own personal library. Montaigne continually reread, made notes, and copied excerpts from his favourite writers who included Plutarch, Seneca, Ovid, Virgil, Lucretius, Horace, Catullus, and Caesar. The influence from these authors stimulated Montaigne's own thinking as he wrote his Essais. Mack then argues that Montaigne deliberately studied texts that might provide material for his own writing. Rather than being a casual reader as popularly thought, Montaigne was a hard-working intellectual.
As his thinking developed, Montaigne constantly revised his texts in later editions. In Chapter 3, Mack argues that Montaigne's style of thought is 'derived [End Page 274] from Renaissance rhetorical training' (p. 42). He argues that Montaigne took small blocks of quotations or what Mack terms 'material fragments' in order to extend his ideas (p. 61). Mack contends that Montaigne's rhetorical training adapted his logical thinking to look for connections in other texts and, by adding his own new material, create a new structure.
Chapter 4 begins with Mack's first detailed study of Shakespeare. He analyses Coriolanus, Hamlet, As You Like It, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Othello, and Richard III for how Shakespeare adapted his sources. In particular, Mack finds in Hamlet a striking similarity to Montaigne's writing strategies. Hamlet's second soliloquy becomes an inward debate in which he assesses both sides of the argument. Mack maintains that this internal questioning 'clearly resembles Montaigne's portrayals of the mind in motion and of the changeability of human character' (p. 82). While the chief similarity between the writers is their fondness for logical contradictions and paradoxes, later in the chapter, Mack finds a strong contrast in how the writers depict acts of atrocity: Montaigne uses images of torture to encourage his readers to be more compassionate; Shakespeare's characters, such as those in Titus Andronicus, Mack argues, are never deterred from using violence no matter the consequences.
Montaigne's and Shakespeare's use of history is the focus of Chapter 5. It begins with Mack examining Plutarch and Tacitus, the most important historians to Montaigne in his De l'utile et de l'honneste. Montaigne uses history to compose a moral argument in order to establish if violence is necessary by considering the outcomes. History dictates the structure and theme to some of the French writer's most memorable essays. The two main historic sources Shakespeare used are well known. However, Mack further clarifies that Shakespeare consulted the 1587 second edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland with added material by Francis Thynne, Abraham Fleming, and John Stow, and Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives. In Julius Caesar, Mack discovers that what appear to be additions to history - such as 'dramatizing Portia's concern to be taken into her husband Brutus's confidence' - are copied straight from Plutarch (p. 122). Another interesting point is that Shakespeare's Brutus is a more ambiguously moral figure than Montaigne's hero-worshipped Roman figure. However, Mack finds that both writers are fascinated with the exploits...