Shakespeare, Montaigne, and philosophical anti-philosophy

Authored by: Philip Smallwood

The Routledge Companion to Shakespeare and Philosophy

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138936126
eBook ISBN: 9781315677019
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315677019-2

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Abstract

This essay addresses the long-standing interest in Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare, and in particular the philosophical consequences for Shakespearean “thought” or “ideas” that follow from Shakespeare’s contact with Montaigne, or his contemporary translator John Florio. The essay considers the disparity, on the one hand, between the quantity of speculation by professional philosophers that identifies Montaigne as a source of Shakespearean thinking, and on the other hand the scarcity of proof (except on one exceptional occasion) that Shakespeare actually read Montaigne, whose Essais constituted one of the most prestigious foreign publications of Shakespeare’s lifetime. Despite the generic and formal discontinuities between Montaigne’s essays and Shakespeare’s “riffe-raffe” play-texts (Hamlet being a paradigm case), the essay argues that speculation remains philosophically and critically productive. This is not least because for both authors, literary form and intellectual content are at important levels indivisible. Montaigne’s essayistic liberty and Shakespeare’s dramatization of concepts via situation, character and plot are convergent instruments. Neither can be adequately described via the “-isms” of philosophical categories and schools—skepticism, Epicureanism etc. Their common hostility to doctrine and propositional absolutes in favour of the process of thought, where content is enacted and form is itself a thinking medium, enables the two authors to shed light on each other in the spirit of a “philosophical anti-philosophy.”

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