Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Montaigne's English Journey: Reading the Essays in Shakespeare's Day

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Montaigne's English Journey: Reading the Essays in Shakespeare's Day

Article excerpt

Montaigne's English Journey: Reading the Essays in Shakespeare's Day

By William M. Hamlin

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013

"[E]very abridgement of a good booke," Montaigne cautions, "is a foole abridged." Montaigne's warning was sound advice for early modern readers striving to reduce ponderous folios to neat epitomes for their commonplace books, and it remains good counsel for book reviewers--not least one undertaking a review of William M. Hamlin's Montaigne's English Journey: Reading the Essays in Shakespeare's Day, a tremendously rich and ambitious "good booke" that dedicates considerable attention to extractive reading and its limitations. Hamlin presents his project as "a descriptive account of English response to Montaigne during the early decades of his presence within the national vernacular and the English readerly imagination" (3). Naturally then, the focal point of Hamlin's book is the first complete translation of Montaigne's Essais into English: John Florio's The Essayes or, Morall, Politike and Militarie Discourses, of Lo[rd] Michaell de Montaigne, the version of Montaigne from which Shakespeare famously borrowed while composing The Tempest, and the volume Ben Jonson more than likely had in mind when a character in his Volpone names Montaigne among the authors from whom "English authors" habitually "steal" (3.4.87-90).

While such renowned appropriators have their place in Hamlin's study, evidence left by humbler, and far more numerous, readers forms the backbone of Hamlin's "descriptive account." Hamlin is no stranger to things Montaignian--the French essayist also features prominently in his earlier monographs Tragedy and Scepticism in Shakespeare's England and The Image of America in Montaigne, Spenser, and Shakespeare--but here he couples that expertise with a methodological approach established by recent scholarship on early modern readership and manuscript culture. Following in particular the work of Heather Jackson (Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books), Heidi Brayman Hackel (Reading Material in Early Modern England), and William Sherman (Used Rooks: Marking Readers in Renaissance England), Hamlin offers a "large-scale case study of Florio's Montaigne during the first hundred years of its existence" with an eye toward the annotations made therein by early modern readers (2-3). To be precise, Hamlin has personally examined three-quarters of the surviving, publicly available copies of Florio's volume--263 of 353 institutional copies of the text's first three editions of 1603, 1613, and 1632--documenting in the process over 7000 annotations in seventeenth-century hands. He has also obtained digital images of relevant marginalia in any copies that he has not inspected in person, and he has compiled a working census of extant volumes (Appendix D). Moreover, Hamlin fleshes out his account of Montaigne's English reception by looking beyond Florio and his annotators. In addition to traditional close analysis of print appropriations by canonical authors, Hamlin considers letters and diary entries that discuss the Essayes, as well as commonplace books that excerpt from them. He even transcribes and edits three relevant manuscripts and includes them as appendices: a previously unknown English translation of large selections from eleven chapters of Book Two of the French Essais (Appendix A), an anonymous commonplace book dating from around 1650 that includes 198 extracts from Florio's Essayes (Appendix B), and "Montaigne's Moral Maxims," a collection of 297 aphorisms derived from Florio's text (Appendix C). Still, it is Florio's vibrant rendering that emerges as the key to the Montaigne's English reception in Hamlin's account. "Florio's Montaigne is not merely an English translation of a remarkable French book, but a reading of the Essays, indeed a reading in the service of a major act of rewriting" (32), Hamlin writes, and the claim is borne out by what follows.

Hamlin demonstrates adroitly the mediating influence of Florio on the early modern English reception of Montaigne in his first chapter, "Florio's Theatrical Montaigne. …

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