Musings on Montaigne’s Cannibals


Montaigne’s essay On Cannibals contributed at least some of the content and ideas in Shakespeare’s late play, The Tempest. A speech by the recently-shipwrecked counsellor Gonzalo in Act 2, Sc.1 about creating a utopian community on the island is lifted almost word-for-word from this essay.*

Montaigne’s other essays might have added to other of The Bard’s plays as well, although we can’t be sure when he read the Essays. If it was at the time he was writing The Tempest, by then (1611) Shakespeare was not writing as much and his time with the theatre was coming to an end (traditionally, he is credited only with collaborations after The Tempest: Pericles, Cardenio, and Two Noble Kinsmen). There are those who believe Shakespeare read Montaigne before he wrote King Lear, and included ideas plucked from the essay, Apology of Raymond Sebond, into his own text.

The first English translation of Montaigne’s Essays was done in 1603, translated by John Florio, which Shakespeare had access to. Coincidentally, the publisher of that book, John Blount, was also the publisher of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. The actual title of this edition was, “The Essayes or Morall, Politike and Millitarie Discourses of Lord Michaell de Montaigne, Knight of the noble Order of St Michaell, and one of the Gentlemen in Ordinary of the French king, Henry the third his Chamber . . . First written by him in French. And now done into English by John Florio.” Whew.

As noted in the Oxford University Press blog:

Published in 1603, this work was probably known to Shakespeare even before it appeared in print. Florio, after all, had obtained the patronage of the Earl of Southampton in the early 1590s – the same Earl to whom Shakespeare had dedicated Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece a year later. So there’s every likelihood that the two writers met and talked shop within the Southampton circle. Florio also mentions that half a dozen other scholars had attempted to translate Montaigne, but that none were sufficiently adept in French to succeed at the task. Montaigne, in other words, was something of a sensation in late sixteenth-century London. And Shakespeare, a voracious and opportunistic reader, would have been curious to know whether this was a writer from whom he might learn, take pleasure, or steal.

It ends by calling Montaigne, “…less a source for Shakespeare than a catalyst, a provocation, a spur.”

In that essay on cannibals, Montaigne used stories about the “New World” as a mirror to his own. He looked beyond the superficial notion of barbarians, beyond the political and cultural dichotomy of us/them that was propelling colonialism and imperialism of his day (and does still, today). Montaigne asked who’s the real barbarian here: the people who simply, and live in harmony with nature, of those who torture and kill others in the name of power and religion? He wrote (Frame trans):

I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.

Midway into the essay, he wrote what to me was the keystone in his discussion, a comparison between the so-called savages and his own society which practiced institutionalized torture and brutality:

I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbors and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under color of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.

Montaigne has long been a favourite author of mine, and runs a close second to Shakespeare himself for many of the same reasons: he shines a light into that dark cabinet of what it means to be human. His mind wandered into all corners of human behaviour, thought, and experience. And he was skeptical of overbearing officialdom, bureaucracy, and popular piffle, with little patience for the gullibility of the masses. He commented in words that would suit today’s anti-vaccine/pro-disease or pro-Trump crowd:

It is not perhaps without good reason that we attribute to simplemindedness a readiness to believe anything and to ignorance the readiness to be convinced…
Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Book 1, Ch. 27 (Screech trans).

If you have yet to discover Montaigne, I highly recommend him. I have written about him numerous times since I first started reading him, seven years past, and I continue to find wisdom in his words these many years later. I trust you will, too. There are two popular translations available today: The Everyman Library edition translated by Donald Frame, and the Penguin edition translated by M. A. Screech. I tend to like the Screech translation better for its language, but the Frame version also has Montaigne’s letters and travel diary. Or you could get both.


* The paragraph in Montaigne reads (paragraphs breaks added for legibility, Frame trans.):

These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but ’tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are.

I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork.

I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.

Gonzalo’s speech in Shakespeare‘s The Tempest reads (with dialogue from other actors for context):

GONZALO Had I plantation of this isle, my lord,–

ANTONIO He’ld sow’t with nettle-seed.

SEBASTIAN Or docks, or mallows.

GONZALO And were the king on’t, what would I do?

SEBASTIAN ‘Scape being drunk for want of wine.

GONZALO I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;–

SEBASTIAN Yet he would be king on’t.

ANTONIO The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the

GONZALO All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

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One comment


    At the age of thirty-eight, Montaigne retreated from the public sphere in Bordeaux to the family chateaux thirty miles inland. He carved quotes by his favourite authors into the wooden beams of his library, and poured much of the remaining twenty years of his life into his meditations. The resulting Essais (1580–88) interrogate a dizzying array of subjects: grief, friendship, coaches, drunkenness, impotence, smells, theology, education, war, animal intelligence, music, the New World, idleness, death, thumbs. Montaigne called his Essais:

    A register of varied and changing occurrences, of ideas which are unresolved and, when needs be, contradictory, either because I myself have become different or because I grasp hold of different attributes or aspects of my subjects. So I may happen to contradict myself but, as Demades said, I never contradict truth.

    Probably the most revolutionary thing about the Essais is their self-awareness… Thousands more early modern English readers were influenced by Florio’s Montaigne. In the marginal notes of their copies of the Essayes you will find agreement and disagreement, offence, and enjoyment — but never boredom.

    As the clergyman Abiel Borft put it in his copy: “Montaign hath the Art above all men to keep his Reader from sleeping.”

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