Virtue, Vice, and Compassion in Montaigne and The Tempest

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6440

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 subversive ironies. The particular constellation of ideas in the play, moreover—the mutual dependence of virtue and vice, forgiveness, compassion, imagination—is habitual in Montaigne.

Of the two clear borrowings from Montaigne in The Tempest, Gonzalo's vision of Utopia is by far the most well-known and most discussed, but it is the play's more neglected relation to "Of Cruelty" as well as several associated essays that is more fundamental and that I wish mainly to focus upon in this essay. Montaigne remarks in "Of Cruelty" that "If vertue cannot shine but by resisting contrarie appetites, shall we then say, it cannot passe without the assistance of vice, and oweth him this, that by his meanes it attaineth to honour and credit" (2:110). He elaborates on the same theme in "Of Experience": "Even as the...

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Stoickes say,that Vices were profitably brought in; to give esteeme and make head unto vertue, So may we with better reason and bold conjecture, affirme, that Nature hath lent us griefe and paine, for the honour of pleasure and service of indolency" (3:357). He also writes in "Of Experience," in a passage drawn from Plutarch: "Our life is composed, as is the harmony of the World, of contrary things; so of divers tunes, some pleasant, some harsh, some sharpe, some flat, some low and some high: What would that Musition say, that should love but some one of them? He ought to know how to use them severally and how to entermingle them. So should we both of goods and evils, which are consubstantiall to our life. Our being cannot subsist without this commixture, whereto one side is no lesse necessary than the other" (3:352-3).

Such a view of virtue's dependence on vice—paradoxical rather than invidiously binary—is clearly relevant to both the structure and texture of The Tempest. Antonio and Sebastian's unregenerate rapaciousness and desperation are contrasted throughout to Gonzalo's beneficence and hopefulness, quite directly during the very speech in which Gonzalo paraphrases Montaigne. Venus is counterpointed with Ceres within the wedding masque, and the conspiracy of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo complements as well as disrupts the performance of the masque itself, whose high artifice and graciousness remain in our memory as much as the drunken malice of the conspiracy does in Prospero's. Caliban's own earthiness is constantly in counterpoint to Ariel's spirit—they are conceived in terms of each other.

Similarly, Miranda's celebrated verse, "O brave new world / That has such people in't," is not denied by, but co-exists with, Prospero's answer, "'Tis new to thee" (V.i.183-4). Neither response is privileged: youth and age are as consubstantial in the play as good and evil. Prospero's skepticism is directed toward the court party Miranda admires, not toward her and Ferdinand, whose marriage he himself speaks of with reverence and hope:

Fair encounter Of two most rare affections! Heavens rain grace On that which breeds between 'em.


The marriage, indeed, is at the heart of Prospero's "project" within the play and is finally associated with the "project" of the play itself, "Which was to please," that the actor playing Prospero refers to in the Epilogue.

Both projects depend upon a union of opposites, of goods and evils, that ultimately suggests transformation as well as symbiosis. At the outset of the action Prospero tells Miranda, when she sees the shipwreck, that there is "no harm done . . . No harm," and that he has "done nothing but in care" of her (I.ii.15-7). His care culminates in Miranda's betrothal, but evolves through her suffering as well as his own, and he associates that suffering with the blessing as well as pain of their exile from Milan. They were driven from the city, he tells her, "By foul play," but "blessedly holp hither" (I.ii.62-3):

There they hoist us To cry to th'sea that roared to us, to sigh To th' winds, whose pity, sighing back again, Did us but loving wrong.


The same motif is expressed by Ferdinand as he submits to Prospero's rule and works as a "patient logman" (III.i.68), a ritual ordeal that Prospero contrives to make him earn and value the love of Miranda:

There be some sports are painful, and their labour Delight in them set off; some kinds of baseness Are nobly undergone; and my most poor matters Point to rich ends. This my mean task Would be as heavy to me, as odious, but The mistress which I serve quickens what's dead, And makes my labours pleasures. O, she is Ten times more gentle than her father's crabbed, And he's composed of harshness. I must remove Some thousands of these logs and pile them up, Upon a sore injunction. My sweet mistress Weeps when she sees me work, and says such baseness Had never like executor. I forget. But these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labours, Most busil'est when I do it.


This paradoxical combination of opposites—delight and pain, gentleness and harshness, the quickening of the dead—is analogous to the Christian idea of felix culpa that nourished Guarini's conception of the genre of tragicomedy to which The Tempest belongs and that is also to be found in the voyage literature frequently associated with The Tempest.9 In "A true reportory of the wreck" off the islands of Bermuda, for example, William Strachey exalted the marvelous beneficence of the shipwreck at the same time that he delineated the vicious dissension among the voyages that developed in Bermuda and later in Virginia, the result, he wrote, of "the permissive providence of God."10

The manner in which the possibility of fortunate suffering informs the moral consubstantiality of the action of The Tempest, however, suggests the particular force of the process of Montaigne's thought in the play, a process that reaches its climax in Prospero's forgiveness of his enemies, the speech that Shakespeare derived directly from "Of Cruelty." In the ostensibly digressive manner that is typical of him, Montaigne opens the essay with a discussion of virtue, the passage Shakespeare paraphrases in the play. "Me thinks vertue is another manner of thing," Montaigne writes,

and much more noble than the inclinations unto goodnesse, which in us are ingendered. Mindes well borne, and directed by themselves, follow one same path, and in their actions represent the same visage, that the vertuous doe. But vertue importeth, and soundeth somewhat I wot not what greater and more active, than by an happy complexion, gently and peaceably, to suffer it selfe to be led or drawne, to follow reason. He that through a naturall facilitie, and genuine mildnesse, should neglect or contemne injuries received, should no doubt performe a rare action, and worthy commendation: But he who being toucht and stung to the quicke, with any wrong or offence received, should arme himselfe with reason against this furiously-blind desire of revenge, and in the end after a great conflict, yeeld himselfe master over-it, should doubtlesse doe much more. The first should doe well, the other vertuously: the one action might be termed goodnesse, the other vertue. For, It seemeth that the verie name of vertue presupposeth difficultie, and inferreth resistance, and cannot well exercise it selfe without an enemie. It is peradventure the reason we call God good, mightie, liberall, and just, but we terme him not vertuous.


Shakespeare's version of this passage occurs in the last act of The Tempest, after Ariel tells Prospero of the sufferings of the court party.

Ariel. Your charm so strongly works 'em That if you now beheld them, your affections Would become tender.Prospero. Dost thou think so, spirit?Ariel Mine would, sir, were I human.Prospero. And mine shall. Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling Of their afflictions, and shall not myself, One of their kind, that relish all as sharply Passions as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' quick, Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury Do I take part. The rarer action is In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent, The sole drift of my purpose doth extend Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel. My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore, And they shall be themselves.


Shakespeare's reliance upon Florio's translation of Montaigne in this speech was first pointed out by Eleanor Prosser in 1965 and now seems self-evident.12 "Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' quick / Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury / Do I take part" is clearly indebted in phraseology as well as conception to Montaigne, and "The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" is particularly indebted to Florio's phrase, "performe a rare action," which in the original reads "feroit chose très-belle et digne de louange," "do a fine and praise-worthy thing." These verbal parallels have been generally accepted in Shakespeare criticism, but their larger implications for the characterization of Prospero and for much else in the play have been, I think, almost willfully neglected.13 A figure of supernatural as well as patriarchal authority, Prospero has godlike attributes, including a disquieting measure of the kind of irritability and wrath that often characterizes the Lord God in the earlier books of the Old Testament, but he learns about his humanity in the course of the action,14 and he transforms himself (as well as others) in a way that Montaigne specifically illuminates. His speech on compassion constitutes both an implicit acknowledgment of the difference between God's power and man's, a prologue to the adjuration of his "rough magic" that immediately follows, and an elucidation of the consequent strife that his human virtue entails. Many, if not most, of the traits and actions that in recent years have been thought to falsify Prospero's ostensible motives and to signify his intractably tyrannical, if not colonialist, mentality, are made immediately intelligible by Montaigne's essay. His impatience with his daughter, and with her suitor, the son of his enemy, his "beating mind," his insistent asperity, his marked reluctance in forgiving his brother, and his violence to Caliban: all are ultimately signs of the struggle of virtue that Montaigne describes. Rather than subverting Prospero's "project," they constitute and authenticate it. Touched and stung to the quick in the present as well as in the past, animated by a "furious," if not "furiously-blind desire of revenge," Prospero "in the end after a great conflict, yeeld[s] himselfe master over-it" (2:108). The emotional keynote of the play is precisely this sense of Prospero's labor pains, of the "sea-change," to paraphrase Ariel's luminous song, that he "suffer[s],"15 of his "groanfing]" "Under [the] burthen" of his "sea-sorrow" (I.ii.401, 156, 170) to give birth to new and resolved feelings. The action of the play dramatizes this process. The ordeals to which Prospero subjects others on the island are at once recapitulations of his beating memories and images of his effort to overcome them. His interruption of the wedding masque when he remembers Caliban (and perhaps thereby unconsciously expresses the threat of his own sexual desires)16 is intelligible in just these terms, as is his ultimate and pained recognition that Caliban is native to him, has been made, indeed, partly in his image: "this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine" (V.i.275-6). The play's unusual obedience to the classical unities intensifies the sense of Prospero's struggle and is exactly appropriate to the presentation of the minuteto-minute pulsations, le passage, of a mind in the throes of accepting and forgiving.

Shakespeare also explores what makes compassion possible in The Tempest, and the whole of "Of Cruelty" is germane to this exploration, not just the introductory passage from which Shakespeare directly borrows. In the subsequent argument of the essay Montaigne reiterates the proposition that to be "simply stored with a facile and gentle nature" may "make a man innocent, but not vertuous," a condition "neere unto imperfection and weaknesse," and adds that "the verie names of Goodnesse and innocentie are for this respect in some sort names of contempt" (2:113). He goes on, however, to identify his own temperament with precisely such "a facile and gentle nature," and this identification is the essay's core subject. It is what makes the whole of it coherent, what connects it with "Of the Cannibals," whose essential subject is also cruelty,17 and what forms the deepest ligament, I think, between both essays and Shakespeare's Tempest. "My vertue," Montaigne writes, "is a vertue, or to say better innocencie, accidentali and casuali . . . a kinde of simple-plaine innocencie, without vigor or art." "Amongst all other vices," he continues, announcing the theme of this essay, "there is none I hate more, than crueltie, both by nature and judgement, as the extremest of all vices" (2:115, 117). Montaigne's conjunction of his "innocence" and his hatred of cruelty has wide implications for an understanding of The Tempest. Montaigne says that he "cannot chuce but grieve" at seeing a "chickins neck puld off, or a pigge stickt," and "cannot well endure a seele dew-bedabled hare to groane, when she is seized upon by the houndes; although hunting be a violent sport" (2:117). His response is the same to cruelty to human beings. He protests that "Let any man be executed by law, how deservedly soever, I cannot endure to behold the execution with an unrelenting eye," and he condemns the "extreme point whereunto the crueltie of man may attaine," in which men torture others "onely to this end, that they may enjoy the pleasing spectacle." "I live in an age," he continues, "wherein we abound with incredible examples of this vice, through the licentiousnesse of our civili and intestine warres: And read all ancient stories, be they never so tragicall, you shall find not to equall those, we see daily practised" (2:119, 121). The contemporary civil wars in France elicit Montaigne's compassion, but they do not create it. The premise as well as the conclusion of Montaigne's response to cruelty is the recognition of his own inherently sympathetic nature: "I have a verie feeling and tender compassion of other mens afflictions, and should more easily weep for companie sake, if possibile for any occasion whatsoever, I could shed teares. There is nothing sooner moveth teares in me, than to see others weepe, not onely fainedly, but howsoever, whether truly or forcedly" (2:119).

The discrimination of such compassionate impulses lies close to the heart of Montaigne's definition of himself in the Essais as a whole. In an addition made in 1588 to the opening essay of the first volume, when the full direction of the Essais must have become clear to him, he announces, "I am much inclined to mercie, and affected to mildnesse. So it is, that in mine opinion, I should more naturally stoope unto compassion, than bend to estimation. Yet is pitty held a vicious passion among the Stoicks. They would have us aid the afflicted, but not to faint, and co-suffer with them" (1:18). This opposition between compassion and detachment, as Jean Starobinski has suggested,18 is part of the central dialectic of the Essais. Montaigne goes on to deprecate his mildness as effeminate and childish, but the Stoic self-sufficiency that at once animates his project and is its ostensible goal is always balanced, in this essay and in the Essais as a whole, by his disposition to sympathize and "co-suffer" with others. One critic has argued that in "[p]utting cruelty first" among vices, ahead even of the seven deadly sins, Montaigne in effect repudiates Christian theology.19 But that issue is at least open to debate. Montaigne has plenty to say about pride in Sebond and elsewhere, and his extraordinary capacity to "co-suffer" with other human beings, remarkable for his age, but not unlike Shakespeare's, can just as aptly and interestingly be understood as an internalization, if not embodiment, of Christian charity.

In The Tempest, in any event, cosuffering, compassion, is a tonic chord in the whole of the action, not just the work of Prospero alone. It is revealed throughout the play in the "piteous heart" of Miranda, who is animated by "the very virtue of compassion," as well as in Gonzalo. Gonzalo's "innocence," like Miranda's, is "simple-plaine . . . without vigor or art," and like Montaigne's also, it is composed of a "verie feeling and tender compassion of others mens affliction" (2:117, 119). It is the sight of "the good old Lord Gonzalo" and others in tears, "Brimful of sorrow and dismay" (V.i.14-5), that prompts Ariel's sympathy for the courtiers, and through him, the movement toward compassion in Prospero. "[I]f you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender," Ariel says to Prospero, "Mine would, sir, were I human" (V.i.18-9). And Prospero answers, as we have seen, that if Ariel, who is but air, can have a "feeling / Of their afflictions," shall not he, "One of their kind," who relishes passions as sharply as they, be "kindlier moved," take the part of "reason 'gainst [his] fury," and find the rarer action in virtue than in vengeance (V.i.21-6).

Prospero, of course, emphatically does not have the innocence that nourishes Miranda's "virtue of compassion," nor does he have the innocent nature of Gonzalo, though he has from the first understood and responded to both. They can forgive instinctively, he cannot. But in this speech, the decisive moment in the action, Prospero is able to emulate them. He speaks of his reason in the struggle of virtue, as Montaigne does, but the speech more importantly suggests another faculty as well. "Kind," as often in Shakespeare, denotes humankind as well as human kindness, and it is in the first instance Prospero's ability to imagine what others feel and to understand what he has in common with them—including, especially, Caliban—that enables him to sympathize with Alonso and to forgive Antonio and Sebastian despite the wrongs that continue to anger him.

It is particularly significant that it should be Ariel, associated throughout the play with Prospero's imaginative power, who prompts this movement, because human imagination is finally the deepest preoccupation of Shakespeare in The Tempest and a central filament in Montaigne's thoughts on compassion as well. In an apparent digression in the midst of the discussion of forgiveness in "Of Cruelty," Montaigne suggests that a lack of imagination can "sometimes counterfeit vertuous effects " and that the Germans and the Swiss, for example, appear brave in war because they have "scarce sense and wit" to imagine their danger, whereas the "subtiltie of the Italians, and the vivacitie of their conceptions" is so great, that they foresee "such dangers as might betide them . . . far-off and can provide for their safety even before they actually see the danger (2:114). Montaigne's remark may be ironic, but it is nonetheless to such "sense and wit," such "vivacitie" of imagination, that he relates his own innocence and susceptibility to the suffering of others.

That imaginative susceptibility also subsumes the indictment of the cruelty of European culture in "Of the Cannibals," and it appears as well in interesting ways in another essay, "Of Cato the Younger," in which Montaigne writes,

I am not possessed with this common errour, to judge of others according to that I am my selfe. I am easie to beleeve things differing from my selfe. Though I be engaged to one forme, I doe not tie the world unto it, as every man doth? And I beleeve and conceive a thousand manners of life, contrarie to the common sort: I more easily admit and receive difference, than resemblance in us. I discharge as much as a man will, another being of my conditions and principles, and simply consider of it my selfe without relation, framing it upon it's owne modell. Though my selfe be not continent, yet doe I sincerely commend and allow the continencie of the Capuchins and Theatines, and highly praise their course of life. I doe by imagination insinuate my selfe into their place: and by how much more they bee other than my selfe, so much the more doe I love and honour them.


Montaigne discusses an analogous imaginative "insinuation" in "Of Diverting and Diversions," where he relates cosuffering to the creation as well as effects of rhetoric and art:

An orator (saith Rhetorick) in the play of his pleading, shall be moved at the sound of his owne voice, and by his fained agitations: and suffer himselfe to be cozoned by the passion he representeth: imprinting a lively and essentiall sorrow, by the jugling he acteth, to transferre it into the judges, whom of the two it concerneth lesse: As the persons hired at our funerals who to aide the ceremony of mourning, make sale of their teares by measure, and of their sorrow by waight . . . Quintilian reporteth, to have seene Comedians so farre ingaged in a sorowful part, that they wept after being come to their lodgings: and of himselfe, that having undertaken to move a certaine passion in another: he had found himselfe surprised not only with shedding of teares, but with a palenesse of countenance, and behaviour of a man truly dejected with griefe.


Quintilian's remark is a commonplace of the period, but Montaigne's mention of it in "Of Diversions" has a special suggestiveness because, like The Tempest, the essay associates the virtue of compassion not only with the salutary effects of the imagination but also with its illusoriness.20 Right after mentioning Quintilian, Montaigne remarks that no cause is needed

to excite our minde. A doating humour without body, without substance overswayeth and tosseth it up and downe. Let me thinke of building Castles in Spayne, my imagination will forge me commodities and afford me meanes and delights where with my minde is really tickled and essentially gladded. How ofte do we pester our spirits with anger or sadnesse by such shadowes, and entangle our selves into fantasticali passions which alter both our mind and body? what astonished, flearing and confused mumpes and mowes doth this dotage stirre up in our visages? what skippings and agitations of members and voice, seemes it not by this man alone, that he hath false visions of a multitude of other men with whom he doth negotiate; or some inwarde Goblin that torments him? Enquire of your selfe, where is the object of this alteration? Is there any thing but us in nature, except subsisting nullity? over whom it hath any power?


In a well-known passage in "An Apology of Raymond Sebond," Montaigne remarks that "We wake sleeping, and sleep waking . . . Our reason and soul, receiving the phantasies and opinions, which sleeping seize on them, and authorising our dreames actions, with like approbation, as it doth the daies. Why make we not a doubt, whether our thinking, and our working be another dreaming, and our waking some kind of sleeping" (2:317).

The same consciousness both of the force of human imagination and of its evanescence in human existence haunts Shakespeare's Tempest as well. Caliban expresses it with the greatest immediacy in his moving speech about the magic of the island and of his own dreams:

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices, That if I then had waked after long sleep, Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming

The clouds methought would open and show riches Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked I cried to dream again.


Prospero conveys a similar apprehension of imaginative impalpability and wonder, in a more metaphysical key, in his famous speech to Ferdinand after the interruption of the masque. He is enraged with Caliban, but in that very process, he incorporates Caliban's dreaming as well as interprets it. "You do look, my son, in a moved sort," he tells Ferdinand,

As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir; Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air, And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstanial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.


The topos of life as a dream is of course very common in the Renaissance, but its collocation in The Tempest with the impalpable realities of the imagination as well as with Prospero's achievement of compassion, suggests the particular matrix of ideas found in Montaigne's essays. If not a source, Montaigne's association of these ideas is an explanation. One tendency in recent criticism of The Tempest has been to see Prospero's magnificent speech and the play itself as an expression of Shakespeare's disenchantment with the limitations of theatrical illusion.21 But Caliban's dreaming and Prospero's incorporation of it in his reflection on the "baseless fabric of this vision" do not so much question the value of the theater, as characterize the dream-like nature of the human experience it imitates; and what the analogues to Montaigne should make clear is that Shakespeare's sense of this insubstantial pageant, of the subsisting nullity both of human existence and of the theater, is not ironic, but the "stuff of wonder and a motive to charity.

The idea of imaginative insinuation and compassion is given a final, hauntingly expansive, turn in the epilogue to The Tempest, when Prospero, still the character but now also an ordinary human being, an actor, asks the audience for applause. He speaks at precisely the moment in a play when we too are midway between our own world and the world of the theater.22 "Let me not," he says to us,

Since I have my dukedom got, And pardoned the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell, But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands. Gentle breath of yours my sails Must fill, or else my project fails, Which was to please. Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; And my ending is despair Unless I be relieved by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself, and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulence set me free.


Jan Kott23 as well as other critics and directors have wished to place the entire stress in this epilogue on "despair." The emphasis is more naturally placed, if we attend to the syntax, on the "piercing" power of prayer, a phraseology common in Shakespeare but never in this self-consciously theatrical context. Montaigne, very appositely, uses the word "pierce" in his essay, "Of the Force of the Imagination," to describe his vulnerability to the suffering of others: "I am one of those that feels a very great conflict and power of imagination . . . The impression of it pierceth me . . . The sight of others anguishes doth sensibly drive me into anguish; and my sense hath often usurped the sense of a third man" (1:92). The same thought and the same image of piercing inform Montaigne's description of the moving power of poetry, and especially of plays, in "Of Cato the Younger," the essay in which he talks of imaginatively insinuating himself into the place of others. "It is more apparently seene in theaters," he writes, "that the sacred inspiration of the Muses, having first stirred up the Poet with a kinde of agitation unto choler, unto griefe, unto hatred, yea and beyond himselfe, whither and howsoever they please, doth also by the Poet strike and enter into the Actor, and [consecutively] by the Actor, a whole auditorie or multitude. It is the ligament of our senses depending one of another." "Even from my infancie," he concludes, "Poesie hath had the vertue to transpierce and transport me" (1:246).

The religious reverberations of the allusion to the Lord's prayer in Prospero's epilogue may be peculiarly Shakespearean (though Montaigne too repeatedly identifies the verse "forgive us our trespasses" with the virtue of forgiveness), but the correspondences between the sympathetic illusions of the theater and of life, between theatrical imagination and human compassion, are essentially the same as they are in Montaigne. The Tempest, of course, calls attention to theatrical imagination not only in its evident meta-theatrical references but also in the distinctive manner in which it moves us. It begins with the depiction of a storm that captures Miranda's imaginative sympathy as well as ours, and then immediately makes us understand that the storm was not real, that it was an illusion of an illusion; and this exponential consciousness of our own imaginative work in the theater informs our response throughout the action. We are thus peculiarly receptive to Prospero's epilogue. For what the actor playing Prospero suggests, in his grave and beautiful plea for our applause, is a recapitulation and crystallization of what the experience of the play itself has all along induced us to feel: that the illusory and evanescent passions of the theater are like those of actual life, and that both can be cosuffered, that the imaginative sympathy which animates our individual responses to the play also binds us together, "our senses depending one of another." He suggests, in a plea which is like a prayer, that an audience's generosity to the fictions of the actors is like mercy itself, and that the com-passionate imaginative ligaments which form a community within the theater can also compose a community, in Montaigne's words, "void of all revenge and free from all rancour" (1:365), outside of it. There is no more spacious and humane a justification of the theater in all of Shakespeare.24


1 All references to The Tempest are to the New Oxford edition, ed. Stephen Orgel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) and will be cited parenthetically in the text by act, scene, and line numbers.

2Montaigne's Essays, trans. John Florio, ed. L. C. Harmer, 3 vols. (London: Everyman's Library-Dent, 1965), 1:220. Subsequent references to Montaigne's essays are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text by volume and page number.

3 For a discussion of Shakespeare's affinities to Montaigne in All's Well That Ends Well and Othello, see Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 121-7, 38-9.

4 Leo Salingar, Dramatic Form in Shakespeare and the Jacobeans (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 107-33. See also Kenneth Muir, ed., New Arden edition of King Lear (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 249-53.

5 D. J. Gordon, "Name and Fame: Shakespeare's Coriolanus," in The Renaissance Imagination: Essays and Lectures by D. J. Gordon, ed. Stephen Orgel (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1980), pp. 203-19.

6 Robert Ellrodt, "Self-Consciousness in Montaigne and Shakespeare," in ShS 28 (1975): 37-50, 42.

7 See also W. H. Auden's brilliant interpretation of The Tempest in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 128-34.

8 For the most comprehensive and elegant instance of contemporary interpretations of The Tempest, see Stephen Orgel's introduction to his New Oxford edition of the play, pp. 1-87. For discussions of the subject of colonialism, specifically, see, e.g., Stephen J. Greenblatt, "Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century," in First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, ed. Fredi Chiapelli, vol. 2 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1976), pp. 561-80; Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, "Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest," in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 191-205; Terence Hawkes, "Swisser-Swatter: Making a Man of English Letters," in Alternative Shakespeares, pp. 26-46; and Paul Brown, "'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine': The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism," in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 48-71. For a full consideration of the scholarship on colonialism and The Tempest and a decisively trenchant criticism of it, see Meredith Anne Skura, "Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest" SQ 40, 1 (Spring 1989): 42-69.

9 See Arthur C. Kirsch, Jacobean Dramatic Perspectives (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1972), pp. 7-15.

10 See, e.g., William Strachey, "A true repertory of the wreck," Appendix B, The Tempest, ed. Orgel, pp. 212-3.

11 "Il me semble que la vertu est chose autre et plus noble que les inclinations à la bonté qui naissent en nous. Les ame reglées d'elles mesmes et bien nées, elles suyvent mesme train, et representent en leurs actions mesme visage que les vertueuses. Mais la vertu sonne je ne sçay quoi de plus grand et de plus actif que de se laisser, par une heureuse complexion, doucement et paisiblement conduire à la suite de la raison. Celuy qui, d'une douceur et facilité naturelle, mespriseroit les offences receus, feroit chose très-belle et digne de louange; mais celuy qui, picqué et outré jusques au vif d'une offence, s'armeroit des armes de la raison contre ce furieux appetit de vengeance, et après un grand conflict s'en redroit en fin maistre, feroit sans doubte beaucoup plus. Celuy-là feroit bien, et cettuy-cy vertuesement; l'une action se pourroit dire bonté; l'autre, vertu; car il semble que le nom de la vertue presuppose de la difficulté et du contraste, et qu'elle ne peut s'exercer sans partie. C'est à l'aventure pourquoy nous nommons Dieu bon, fort, et liberal, et juste; mais nous ne le nommons pas vertueux: ses operations sont toutes naifves et sans effort" (Michel Montaigne, Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Albert Thibaudet et Maurice Rat [Paris: Pléiade-Gallimard, 1962], pp. 400-1).

12 Eleanor Prosser, "Shakespeare, Montaigne, and the 'Rarer Action,'" ShakS 1 (1965): 261-4.

13 For a notable exception, see John B. Bender, "The Day of The Tempest," ELH 47, 2 (Summer 1980): 235-58, 250-1.

14 See Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pp. 240-4, for a suggestive discussion of the changing faces of God Himself in the Old Testament, including in Second Isaiah, the movement, through His participation in human experience, from an inhumane (because first inhuman) God to a God of "loving pity."

15 For an illuminating explication of Ariel's song and particularly the transformational resonance of the word "suffers," see Stephen Orgel, "New Uses of Adversity: Tragic Experience in The Tempest," in In Defense of Reading: A Reader 's Approach to Literary Criticism, ed. Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier (New York: Dutton, 1962), pp. 110-32, 116.

16 See Skura, p. 60.

17 See David Quint, "A Reconsideration of Montaigne's Des Cannibales" MLQ 51, 4 (December 1990): 459-89. Quint argues that Montaigne is less interested in investigating the new world in "Des Cannibales" than in criticizing the old and concludes that Montaigne "may not so much create the figure of the noble savage" in the essay "as disclose the savagery of the nobility" (p. 482).

18 Jean Starobinski, Montaigne in Motion, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985).

19 Judith N. Shklar, Ordinary Vices (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 7-44.

20 For a discussion from a different perspective of the possible relevance of "Of Diversions" to The Tempest, see Gail Kern Paster, "Montaigne, Dido, and The Tempest: 'How came that widow in?'" SQ 35, 1 (Spring 1984): 91-4.

21 See, e.g., Alvin B. Kernan, The Playwright as Magician: Shakespeare's Image of the Poet in the English Public Theater (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 129-59.

22 See Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 147-8.

23 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City NY: Anchor Books—Doubleday, 1966), pp. 237-85.

24 An abbreviated version of this essay was presented in a talk at a symposium on "Cultural Exchange between European Nations" in Uppsala, Sweden and published in Studia Acta Universitatis Upsaliensia Anglistica Upsaliensia 86, ed. Gunnar Sorelius and Michael Srigley (Uppsala, 1994), pp. 111-21.

Source: "Virtue, Vice, and Compassion in Montaigne and The Tempest" in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 37, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 337-52


The Tempest and Interruptions