The Influence Of Montaigne On Shakespeare
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a French Renaissance writer who pioneered the form of writing known as the essay. He is one of the few writers that historians can confirm as being an influence on Shakespeare thanks to his essay ‘On Cannibals’ which was used as a direct source for The Tempest. One may go further than this to argue that from around at least the time when he wrote Hamlet his plays contain elements of Montaigne’s thought.
The first man to translate his works into English was John Florio who had been a tutor to Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton.  In 1603 he published the Essais in three volumes. Montaigne made it clear in the introduction to his Essais that he would make himself the subject in his writings. While this may seem innocuous to the modern reader, his contemporaries felt that his focus on the self was an eccentric weakness.  Nevertheless, in Hamlet, the main protagonist is constantly attempting to read himself and the situation in which he has become embroiled. Like Montaigne he demonstrates a degree of scepticism in the world around him and the events unfolding before him. There is a clear sense of self in Hamlet which is reinforced by the large number of soliloquies which he has in the play, and he also philosophises more than any other character in the works of Shakespeare.
Montaigne also believed that as physical contagion existed there was also a moral kind of contagion which could afflict people. This belief would have had a significant resonance among Shakespeare’s contemporaries as in the early years of the 1600s the playhouses were rife with plague. Philip D. Collington uses this premise as the basis for his argument that Montaigne’s essay ‘Of Solitarinesse’ was a strong influence on King Lear. Instead of quiet retirement and solemn contemplation, Lear may have retired from his position, but is wholly unwilling to give up his status in society. His actions throughout the play are the antithesis of the recommendations made by Montaigne in his essay. Collington goes as far as to say that, ‘It is as if Shakespeare's use ‘Of Solitarinesse’ [was] source material but inverted its core contents so as to produce a kind of negative exemplum in dramatic form.’ 
In 1925 George Coffin Taylor examined the plays of Shakespeare and matched passages in them to Montaigne’s writings. He detected fifty-one passages in Hamlet, twenty-three in King Lear, seven in Antony and Cleopatra, and four in Othello that could have had their origin in the Essais.  However, the critic Alice Harmon rightly pointed out that many of these observations were merely circumstantial and had no basis in fact. 
The truth of the matter is that there are almost as many arguments against the direct influence of Montaigne’s Essais on Shakespeare as there are in favour of it. Nevertheless, the fact that his works had recently been translated into English by a man who had such close ties with his patron in the early 1600s, the volume of material that can be attributed to Hamlet and King Lear, and the fact that there is direct use of ‘On Cannibals’ in The Tempest illustrate that Montaigne would have been a source that Shakespeare would have recourse to in the composition of his plays.
1. Frances A. Yates, John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England
(New York, 1968), pp. 215-24 Return to text
2. Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet, (Oxford, 2002), p. 116 Return to text
3. Philip D. Collington, ‘Self-Discovery in Montaigne’s ‘Of Solitarinesse’ and King Lear’, in, Comparative Drama Vol. 35 (2001), p. 248 Return to text
4. George Coffin Taylor, Shakspere’s Debt to Montaigne (Cambridge (USA), 1925), p. 29 Return to text
5. Alice Harmon, ‘How Great was Shakespeare’s Debt to Montaigne?’, in, PMLA Vol. 57 (1942), pp. 988-1008 Return to text