Download The Tempest Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Virtue, Vice, and Compassion in Montaigne and The Tempest

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Arthur Kirsch, University of Virginia

It has long been recognized that Shakespeare borrowed from Montaigne. Gonzalo's Utopian vision in The Ternpest (II.i.142-76)1 is indebted to a passage in Florio's translation of Montaigne's essay, "Of the Cannibals,"2 and Prospero's speech affirming that "The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" (V.i.20-32) is derived from the opening of Florio's translation of the essay, "Of Cruelty" (2:108). The king's speech in All's Well That Ends Well on the distinction between virtue and nobility (II.iii.117-44) appears to be a similarly direct, if less well-known, borrowing from "Upon Some Verses of Virgil" (3:72-3), an essay whose treatment of the polarization of sensuality and affection also has bearing upon Othello.3 Leo Salingar has perspicuously shown that a number of the major themes of King Lear, as well as much of its distinctive vocabulary, are drawn from "An Apology of Raymond Sebond" and "Of the Affection of Fathers to their Children" as well as other essays;4 and D. J. Gordon brilliantly demonstrated analogies between the critical stress upon names in Coriolanus and Montaigne's essay, "Of Glory."5 Finally, as Robert Ellrodt has argued, the inward characterizations of Hamlet as well as of many of Shakespeare's other tragic heroes show clear affinities with the dynamics of self-consciousness, "a simultaneous awareness of experience and the experiencing self,"6 that is fundamental to Montaigne's quest in all his essays to represent what he called "le passage" (3:23), the "minute to minute" movement of his mind.

The Tempest, however, remains the work in which Shakespeare's relation to Montaigne is most palpable and most illuminating. Shakespeare's play, of course, is exceptionally elusive. A variety of models and analogues have been proposed for it—Roman comedy, the Jacobean masque, and voyage literature among them—but it has no single governing source to offer a scaffold for interpretation, and it remains in many ways as ineffable as Ariel's songs. Confronted with such suggestiveness, and in revolt against the apparent sentimentality of traditional readings, the disposition of most critics of the last two decades has been to follow W. H. Auden's lead in The Sea and the Mirror (1942-44)7 and stress ironic and subversive ambiguities in the play as well as its apparently patriarchal and colonialist assumptions.8

Shakespeare's demonstrable borrowings from Montaigne in The Tempest, which are among the very few verifiable sources for the play, can provide a complementary, and I think more spacious, way of understanding The Tempest's ambiguities. In the absence of a narrative source, Shakespeare's organization of the action, as well as Prospero's, seems unusually informed by the kind of working out of ideas that suggests the tenor of Montaigne's thinking: inclusive; interrogative rather than programmatic; anti-sentimental but humane; tragicomic rather than only tragic or comic, incorporating adversities rather than italicizing them as...

(The entire section is 6,440 words.)