An NYRB Classics Original
Shakespeare, Nietzsche once wrote, was Montaigne’s best reader. It is a typically brilliant Nietzschean insight, capturing the intimate relationship between the ever-changing record of the mutable self constituted by Montaigne’s Essays and Shakespeare’s kaleidoscopic register of human character. For all that, how much Shakespeare actually read Montaigne remains a matter of uncertainty and debate to this day. That he read him there is no doubt. Passages from Montaigne are evidently reworked in both King Lear and The Tempest, and there are possible echoes elsewhere in the plays. But however closely Shakespeare himself may have pored over the Essays, he lived in a milieu in which Montaigne was widely known, oft cited, and both disputed and respected. This in turn was thanks to the inspired and dazzling translation of his work by a man who was a fascinating polymath, man-about-town, and master of language himself, John Florio.
Shakespeare’s Montaigne offers modern readers a new, adroitly modernized edition of Florio’s translation of the Essays, a still-resonant reading of Montaigne that is also a masterpiece of English prose. Florio’s translation, like Sir Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and the works of Sir Thomas Browne, is notable not only for its stylistic range and felicity and the deep and lingering music of many passages, but also for having helped to invent the English language as we know it today, supplying it, very much as Shakespeare also did, with new words and enduring turns of phrase. Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction also explores the echoes and significant tensions between Shakespeare’s and Montaigne’s world visions, while Peter Platt introduces readers to the life and times of John Florio. Altogether, this book provides a remarkable new experience of not just two but three great writers who ushered in the modern world.
[Montaigne] was the first who had the courage to say as an author what he felt as a man.
That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on Earth.
Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: “How did he know all that about me?”
—Bernard Levin, The Times (London)
So much have I made him my own, that it seems he is my very self.
Here is a ‘you’ in which ‘I’ is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished.
Don’t read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live.
It is not in Montaigne but in myself that I find everything I see there.
Upon his version of Montaigne’s Essays [Florio] exhausted his gifts and lavished his temperament…. Turn where you will in his translation, and you will find flowers of speech.
—The Cambridge History of English and American Literature
Like Montaigne, [Florio] wrote by exuding ever more complex thoughts as a spider exudes silk. But while Montaigne always moves forward, Florio winds back on himself and scrunches his sentences in a puff of syntax. The real magic happens when the two writers meet. Montaigne’s earthiness holds Florio’s convolutions in check, while Florio gives Montaigne an Elizabethan English quality, as well as a lot of sheer fun.
—Sara Bakewell, How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne