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

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." Juxtaposing key passages from the 1595 edition of Montaigne's Essais in the original French with Florio's 1603 "englishing," Hamlin discovers that the translator both "introduces theatrical expression" where none exists in Montaigne's text and "augments or amplifies theatrical language initially supplied by Montaigne" (40). Florio, Hamlin finds, thus produced "a Montaigne theatricalized" by rendering his Essayes in "an English sharply attuned to contemporary interest in stage-plays, spectacle, and the conscious adoption and performance of roles" (36). Furthermore, Hamlin draws on his enormous store of archival evidence to demonstrate that this theatrical inflection was not lost on contemporary readers. The resultant picture of the Essayes as profoundly imbricated in seventeenth-century theatrical culture more than substantiates the chapter's concluding effort to unsettle traditional scholarly treatment of Florio's Montaigne as an often-raided source for early modern dramatists. When we understand that Florio not only theatricalized Montaigne but borrowed from literary critics like Sidney and dramatic poets like Marlowe and Shakespeare, it is easy to accept Hamlin's assertion that "the vectors of this relationship are less linear than we have supposed, the progressions more recursive" (49).

"Sexuality and Censorship in the Essayes," Hamlin's second chapter, broadens and deepens the author's exploration of the complex intertextualities in which Florio's Montaigne participates. Hamlin grounds the chapter on the telling observation that though Florio chose to translate more than 800 Greek and Latin extracts from classical authors included in Montaigne's text (a choice Montaigne himself and an earlier Italian translator decline), he left untranslated twenty-two extracts largely sexual in content, gleaned by Montaigne from sources such as Lucretius, Martial, Catullus, Juvenal, Horace, and Ovid. In fact, Hamlin also finds that Florio "displays deep reluctance to reproduce sexual slang" when translating Montaigne's own French, often "weaken[ing the essayist's] vocabulary" to avoid doing so (55-56). Hamlin thus suggests that Florio's translation practice serves somewhat antithetical ends. On the one hand, Florio initiates a "radical shift in the construction of Montaignian readership" by rendering Latin and Greek extracts in the vernacular, thus opening the Essayes to women and men unfamiliar with classical languages (54). One the other hand, he engages in a rather prudish (and decidedly anti-Montaignian) "sexual censorship" (55). Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the chapter, however, is Hamlin's interpretation of early modern reader response to this censorship. As Hamlin wryly concludes, evidence from the manuscript archive suggests that "Florio's readers were in fact ready for all of Montaigne, even if Florio was not" (66). All told, this chapter's account of Florio's Montaigne as the locus of complex intertexualities--bringing together the works of the classical authors cited in Montaigne's extracts, Montaigne's original French Essais, and the annotations of Florio's contemporary English readers--constitutes an impressive showcase for the sort of probing analysis enabled by Hamlin's archival approach.

The third and perhaps most ambitious chapter, "On the Tyranny of 'Custome': Ideology and Appropriation," begins with a summary of Montaigne's complex discussion of "custome," a concept comprehending not only established social practice, but also habituation and individual habit (70). As in his first two chapters, Hamlin proceeds by considering Florio's augmentation of Montaigne's text. "[W]hile Florio's English vocabulary is enormous," Hamlin asserts, "he nonetheless reduces the diversity of Montaignian reference to custom, flattening out and simplifying the Frenchman's thoughts" (74). Again following his established practice, Hamlin then turns to English annotators of the Essayes, discovering that--perhaps as a result of Florio's "reduc[tion]"--they concentrate overwhelmingly on custom as the strange conventional social practice of foreign cultures, only rarely registering the concept's other important significances and the openness to cultural self-examination that might result. Thereafter, however, Hamlin adds a new wrinkle. He couples his exploration of manuscript responses to Montaignian treatment of custom with a consideration of printed appropriations on the same subject--drawn from the works of Samuel Daniel, Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, and, to a lesser extent, William Cornwallis and Robert Burton--analyzing in particular "differences in purpose and ideological valence" (69) evident in differing media in an effort to extrapolate "fundamental patterns of reception among early modern readers" (67). Hamlin concludes that, despite their often-limited sense of Montaignian custom, manuscript annotations offer a glimpse of "spontaneous, emphatic, and even visceral forms of reader reaction" (93) very much in keeping with Montaigne's own readerly ideal of "incisive, unabashedly personal response" (92). By contrast, he finds that printed borrowings generally evidence "a movement toward ideologically-driven appropriations which, while sometimes impressively attuned to the broader range of Montaignian thought, are nonetheless largely antithetical to the genial discursivity of Montaigne" (75).

Hamlin continues to examine English print appropriations of Montaignian concepts of "custome" in his fourth chapter, focusing more narrowly on John Marston's 1605 city comedy The Dutch Courtesan. Marston's appropriation of both Montaigne's vision of custom and Florio's prefatory remarks likening translation and prostitution is, for Hamlin "a structuring principle in [the play], aiding the development of crucial ideological oppositions and enabling readers and auditors to contemplate levels of meaning unavailable even to the play's most knowing characters" (95). This reading shifts traditional scholarly understanding of the play's moral landscape, particularly with regard to the putative hero, Freevill. Hamlin views the character as "ethically indolent" and concludes that "Marston makes it evident that he and the social values he ultimately represents are open to sharp scrutiny" (107).

In chapter 5, Hamlin turns from custom to conscience, and from Marston to Shakespeare. Like the chapter that precedes it, this one offers a more traditional approach to Montaigne's English reception, though Hamlin wisely sidesteps the vexed issue of Montaigne's influence on Shakespeare by positing only a "synchronic affinity" between the two authors with regard to their various treatments of conscience (110). Montaigne, Hamlin finds, understands conscience as "an authentic cognitive faculty but intimates that premature societal confidence in the manner of its workings has led to abusive applications which oblige us to reconsider our claims about its nature" (128). Shakespeare, meanwhile, offers less certainty about whether conscience actually exists, focusing instead on the valuable social appeal of declared belief in the faculty and the related conviction that it "responds to mimetic presentations of truth, virtue, and innocence" when it fails to prompt itself (127)--theatrical displays Hamlin terms "god-surrogates" (116).

In his final chapter, Hamlin returns fully to the archival analysis that makes his first three chapters so fascinating and successful. Here however, his focus is not annotations (though these also factor) but "extractive appropriations" (135): commonplace books, maxims, and abstracts. Through an examination of each of the manuscripts painstakingly transcribed in his appendices alongside three commonplace books compiled by Sir William Drake (1606-1669), Hamlin suggests we might "significantly advance our understanding of the ways in which Montaigne was studied, evaluated, and deployed by seventeenth-century English readers who sought to incorporate large portions of the Essays into compositions of their own" (135). Among the most compelling insights yielded by Hamlin's investigation is the extent to which commonplacers are influenced in their choices by Florio's typographical choices. Passages that the translator chooses to italicize, Hamlin finds, are substantially more likely to appear in commonplace books, and indeed in print appropriations such as Marston's Dutch Courtesan--a powerful demonstration of Hamlin's claim that Florio's translation "establishes basic parameters within which readers form their responses to Montaigne," thus profoundly shaping his English reception (135). Nonetheless, Hamlin also discovers readers who "select, suppress, amplify, and redirect various Montaignian ideas" in ways that reveal not only dependence upon, but also philosophical and ideological independence from, both the essayist's thought and Florio's "shaping" transmission (157).

In the short "Afterward," Hamlin revisits a favorite conceit. Throughout his book, he is attracted to Heidi Brayman Hackel's notion that successive reader-annotators engage in a gradual process of "perfecting" a text (Reading Material in Early Modern England, 30), and here Hamlin builds on this idea to advance a thought-provoking vision of not just early modern readership, but early modern authorship as well. "[T]he habits of reader-annotators contribute to an understanding of early modern authorship as a social phenomenon decidedly more porous and less monolithic than it would become during later centuries," Hamlin writes; "A presupposition of textual instability or incompletion underlies a huge portion of the annotational amendment that we find, for instance, in Florio's Montaigne, and this presupposition in turn generates the movement of readers into positions of editorial and authorial collaboration" (169). While this analysis brings Hamlin's account of Montaigne's place in English manuscript culture to a compelling and satisfying conclusion, his implicit valuation of the essayist's English print appropriators and commonplace extractors here and elsewhere in the text is sometimes less convincing. When Hamlin discusses annotations, they participate in an "intertextual augmentation" that is profoundly sympathetic with the Montaignian project (29, 163). When he discusses intertexual links to the Essayes in other printed texts or commonplace books, they are evidence of "extractive appropriation" (163) or even "aggressive borrowing" (163), and they often exhibit a "tendentious instrumentality" (81) that countermands their Montaignian origin. While Hamlin's stated goal of investigating the "appropriative norms within differing media" does indeed suggest "useful considerations for reception studies more broadly" (68), his attendant valuation of those norms is less effective. I could not help but feel that such valuation finds its root in the modern critical language of originality and derivativeness that also occasionally crops up in Hamlin's text--a terminology that scholars such as Terence Cave (The Cornucopian Text, [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979], 76-77), Michel Jeanneret [A Feast of Words [English edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991], 270-75), and, more recently, Gregory Machacek ("Allusion," PMLA 122.2 [2007], 522-36) have found to obscure and devalue the possible meanings of what Jeanneret terms "the linguistic and stylistic hotch-potch" of the imitative early modern text (273). In short, if Hamlin more consistently extended to the print appropriations already incorporated within early modern texts the sensitivity he so amply displays in his analysis of the manuscript traces that grace their margins, his vision of early modern "authorial collaboration" would be stronger for it. Nevertheless, Hamlin has enhanced immeasurably our understanding Montaigne's early English reception, and made in the process an important new contribution to the social history of early English readership. Moreover, his thoughtful and meticulously researched study serves as another admirable model for scholars who would scour the pages of other important volumes for the precious traces left by early modern readers that we might better understand their practice.
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Author:Rothschild, N. Amos
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Words:2334
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