The Role Of Montaigne’s Essays In King Lear

In 1603 John Florio published an English translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. William Shakespeare’s King Lear was completed between 1604-1605. This was after Shakespeare had written Othello. Many believe Montaigne played a significant role in the play because of their close friendship. Criticians have noted that King Lear contains over one hundred words that Shakespeare never used before. These words are found in Essays. King Lear also features many of the themes Montaigne discusses in Essays.

Both works share a common theme: the struggle between culture and nature. This is between the natural state for humanity and the culturally imposed status. Montaigne has always emphasized his preference to the natural. He wrote:

If it had been my intention to win the favor of the world, I would have worn more expensive clothes and presented myself with a more educated attitude. But, I prefer to be in my everyday, simple, and natural dress. It is me that I portray. (p. 23)

Montaigne uses clothing to represent culture. He often uses this metaphor throughout the book. Culture conceals the true person, while clothing hides its body. Montaigne’s essay, which literally means “attempts,” is his attempt to find the truth. The truth is closer to nature than the cultural artifice. Montaigne also points out that culture can distort our perception of reality in “On Cannibals”.

Now to get back to my argument. From what I’ve been told, I don’t believe they are barbarous. It seems that we have no other way to judge truth and reason apart from the nature and variety of beliefs and customs in the place where we live. (pp. 108-109)

Montaigne insists on using the term “we” in all his writings. Montaigne almost dismissed culture in his “On Experience”, saying that man should keep his eyes on himself, and not worry about other things.

King Lear is also very concerned with the notions that culture can be troublesome and unnecessary. In Act II, Scene 4, King Lear says,

There is no reason to beg! Our basest beggars

Are the most essential things superfluous.

Do not give more to nature than it needs.

Man’s existence is as fleeting as that of beasts. (264-67)

Lear is addressing his daughters Regan & Goneril with this statement. Their culture has led them to lose sight and be driven by their greed. Regan’s use of the word “need,” when she asks, “What do you need one?” at line 263, is an example. However, Lear insists that her followers are not necessary. “Base”, a word that is often used to denote the uncivilized, is another important word. Edmund, for instance, complains about being called a Bastard. He uses the term “base” a lot: “Why are they branding us/With base?” Baseness? Bastardy base? Base?” (I.2,10) Shakespeare’s message to Edmund was that he should not be ashamed of his baseness. (10)

Irony or the contradictions of words that are in the text is another common tactic. Montaigne recognizes this and writes in “On Repentance”

My story must be adapted to the moment, because I might change. Could my mind find a firm footing? (235)

Montaigne makes a strong case for the impact of time on all things by using the term “hour”. This is analogous to Herodotus, who said that kingdoms that have fallen are going to be destroyed and that those that struggle will rise. Lear is also trying to find the truth, making “essays”, which are attempts at finding it. He believes Regan and Goneril, and treats them accordingly. When they fail him, however, he revises. Ironically, Lear also seems to be growing mader throughout the play. Although he may not be mad, he is becoming closer and closer the truth. Gloucester, another character in this play, is also closer to the truth than he appears.

Shakespeare is often criticized because he takes credit for others’ work. The themes of King Lear are almost indefinable because Shakespeare read Montaigne. Shakespeare’s play is able to do more than Montaigne with the same themes as his Essays. Dramatic irony is possible in the context of this play. As time passes, he is able to more accurately depict cause-and-effect relationships. Shakespeare can also write plays, which will make him more popular than Montaigne.


  • jessicawilson

    Jessica Wilson is a 33-year-old essay writer and blogger from the UK. She has been writing since she was a teenager and has always been interested in writing about personal experiences and thoughts. Jessica has written for a number of online magazines and websites and has also published a number of essays and short stories. Jessica currently works as a freelance writer.