Saturday, November 23, 2013

Montaigne and Hamlet

I don't know if Shakespeare actually read Montaigne's essays, but in Hamlet at least he seems to be saying much of the same thing.  Montaigne begins Of the Power of Imagination with the sentence "A strong imagination creates the event" and proceeds with a series of examples of how people's expectations shape their reactions to events.  Hamlet says "there is nothing/either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"; they are both expressing the same sense of relativism.  In the Hamlet quote, I think he uses "but" in the sense "except when"--the distinction is important, since if he uses it in the modern sense, he is actually saying that nothing is either good or bad, while if he uses it in the former sense, he is saying that things can only be good or bad in one's judgment, which is a much milder brand of relativism, and more similar to that of Montaigne.  Anyway, another point where the two authors converge is the premise of Of the Inconsistency of our Actions--Hamlet constantly thinks about how indecisive and slow he has been in pursuing his revenge, and Montaigne takes the stance that nobody can take a consistently reasonable course of action at all.  Obviously, Hamlet is a play and Montaigne wrote a series of philosophical essays, so Shakespeare doesn't deliver any kind of thesis or resolution to the issues it raises, but the same sort of issues seem to pre-occupy both authors.

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