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Montaigne’s work raises all sorts of questions about the self: not just that of the writer, but also that of the reader and their contribution to creating the meaning of a text (just as directors and even audiences could be said to be significant in creating the meaning of a play).
At the time, I had no idea of the significance of this book to a Shakespeare library.
Researching for A Level displays last year, I found that whilst The Tempest is one of the few plays not to be strongly linked to any particular historical or contemporary narrative, one of the few proven sources is Montaigne’s essay “Des Cannibales”.
To the cannibalistic natives who operate a society that is much more primitive than the Europeans and who are concerned with the mere rudimentary aspects of life, the European society is peculiar. This is assuming the belief that the Europeans are the norm.
The Europeans “consent to obey a boy” (p.240) and have extreme social injustice where “... By identifying the “self” and the “other”, he first sets the differences between the two and then blurs them to state that the universal human posses characteristics of both societies and that one is not necessarily more civilized than the other.
It is frequently the case that people try to “read” Shakespeare in their reading of his plays.
Whilst it is perhaps too simplistic to consider particular characters/aspects of the plays biographical, I would argue that a writer is necessarily present in their own work.
Montaigne concludes that the civilized and uncivilized both possess aspects that deviate from the idealized state of purity of Nature.
The Europeans are far more corrupted but upon further introspection, the Cannibals are evolving towards the same nature of developing a more inorganic society.
(Thinking about this is almost setting me off on some kind of Montaigne like self-reflection on how a single day or event can change the course of your life…)The one item that stood out for me that day was John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s Essais (Volumes I and II published in 1580, Volume III in 1588).
Not perhaps the most obvious item to be excited by, but having studied French literature at university, this really impressed me and I had to stop myself from taking it off the shelf to have a quick flick through it.