Montaigne’s Influence on King Lear
John Florio’s English translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays was published in 1603. William Shakespeare’s King Lear was written between 1604 and 1605, after he wrote Othello and before he wrote Macbeth. The extremely close time relationship between Essays and King Lear has led many to believe that Montaigne had a great influence on the play. It has been noted by critics that King Lear contains more than one hundred words which Shakespeare had never before used, words which can be found in Essays. In addition, many themes that Montaigne addresses in Essays play a vital role in King Lear.
One theme common in the two works is the conflict between nature and culture, between the natural state of humanity and the state which culture has imposed on it. Montaigne stresses his preference for the natural from the beginning. In “To the Reader,” he writes:
Had it been my purpose to seek the world’s favor, I should haveput on finer clothes, and have presented myself in a studiedattitude. But I want to appear in my simple, natural, andeveryday dress, without strain or artifice; for it is myself thatI portray. (p. 23)
Montaigne sets up clothing as a metaphor for culture, a metaphor which he uses often in the course of the book. As clothing hides the body, culture hides the true self. Montaigne’s “essays,” which literally mean “attempts,” are his attempts at finding the truth. Nature is closer to truth than the artifice of culture. Culture can also distort our view of reality, which Montaigne notes in “On Cannibals”:
Now, to return to my argument, I do not believe, from what I havebeen told about this people, that there is anything barbarous orsavage about them, except that we all call barbarous anythingthat is contrary to our own habits. Indeed we seem to have noother criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind ofopinions and customs current in the land where we live. (pp. 108-109)
It is important that Montaigne constantly uses “we” instead of a more universal word like “people.” “We” refers to those in his society whose opinions have been tainted by culture, those who have bastardized natural virtues “and adapted them only to gratification of our corrupt taste.” (109) In contrast to harsh words like “bastardized,” Montaigne uses glowing words in describing the cannibals; their values are “the true, most useful and natural.” (109) Montaigne goes on to describe an almost-utopian society which others might dismiss as barbaric. In “On Experience,” Montaigne almost dismisses culture altogether, stating that man’s focus should be on himself and not on any other matters.
King Lear also deals heavily with the notion that culture is unnecessary and troublesome. In Act II, Scene 4, King Lear says,
O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beasts. (264-67)
Lear is saying this to his daughters Regan and Goneril, because culture has made them lose sight of the truth and what is most important; they are fiercely driven by their greed. For instance, Regan uses the word “need” when she says, “What need one?” in line 263, but Lear emphasizes that the followers she speaks of are in no way a necessity. “Base” is also an important word; it is used to refer to the uncivilized in a negative tone. Edmund, for instance, bemoans the fact that he is called a bastard, and repeatedly uses the word “base”: “Why they brand us/With base? With baseness? Bastardy base? Base?” (I.2, 10) Shakespeare’s message, however, is that Edmund should not have to bemoan his baseness; he is only a victim of “the plague of custom.” (10)
Another tactic often at work in both texts is irony, or the contradiction of words prior in the text. Montaigne realizes that this is present in his text and notes in “On Repentance,”
I must suit my story to the hour, for soon I may change, not onlyby chance but also by intention?Hence it is that I may wellcontradict myself, but the truth, as Demades said, I do notcontradict. Could my mind find a firm footing, I should not bemaking essays, but coming to conclusions, it is, however, alwaysin its apprenticeship and on trial. (235)
By using the word “hour,” Montaigne emphasizes the great impact that time has on all things, similar to Herodotus when he write how kingdoms that are great now will fall and kingdoms that are struggling now will later rise. Like Montaigne, Lear is making “essays” or attempts at finding the truth; he believes his daughters Regan and Goneril when he hears how much they love them, and treats them accordingly, but when they fail him, he revises his position. It is also ironic that despite Lear’s growing madness throughout the play, he is also getting closer and closer to the truth, like Montaigne does in his book, although he is most likely not mad. Gloucester is another character who throughout the course of the play gets closer and closer to knowing the truth, despite the fact that is he is physically blinded in the course of the play.
Shakespeare is often criticized for taking credit for the work of others. Even if he did write King Lear himself, the themes present in the play are almost undeniably a result of his reading Montaigne. However, Shakespeare is perhaps able to accomplish more in his play than Montaigne did with the same themes in his Essays. The context of the play provides for dramatic irony and multiple viewpoints. With the passage of time he can more accurately portray cause-and-effect relationships. Also, the choice to write a play means that Shakespeare will reach a far larger audience than Montaigne.
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