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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Lie


I believe when Shakespeare wrote As You Like It (AYL) between 1598-1600 he was aware of Montaigne’s essay “Of Liars” written between 1572-74. Although Montaigne’s essays were not available until 1603 in English, Shakespeare, an educated man and a resourceful man, had to be aware of the French genius.  He had to have had early access. Shakespeare had access to many tomes that served as sources for all of his plays. Shakespeare was a resourceful and well-read man.
My focus is on the character Touchstone. Touchstone is a jovial clown in AYL with the third most amounts of lines in the play. Touchstone reminds me of Montaigne. As I read Montaigne’s essays, especially “Of Liars” I hear, I sense a little bit of Touchstone or should it be when I read and see Touchstone, I hear and see Montaigne. This is not to say that Touchstone in any way comes near Montaigne’s genius. I think Shakespeare is using sarcasm when he created the character of Touchstone who behaves like an intellectual on the level of a Montaigne. Montaigne is an intellectual genius pretending to be a rube or a fool and Touchstone is a rube or a fool pretending to be an intellectual genius.
In his essay “Of Liars,” Montaigne begins telling us how unworthy of anything he is: “All my other faculties are poor and ordinary.” He began by telling us how bad his memory is. He is putting himself at the lowest point of mankind in memory and his other facilities. Is he lying? Yes he is because he is actually more able than any man of his age. In the final act of AYL, Touchstone does a similar thing but in reverse, he is bragging about his intellect and yet he is a fool as we learn from Jacques: “Is this not a rare fellow, my lord? He’s as good at any thing and yet a fool.” Both are putting on airs and are opposite of what they tell us they are.
As a side note, I find it curious that in this play we have ‘the seven ages of man’ speech by Jacques and the ‘seven degrees of lie’ speech by Touchstone. The former is a melancholy fool and the latter is a sanguine fool.
In the second paragraph of his essay, Montaigne calls himself a fool in a backhanded way, ‘they say that he has no memory; and when I complain of the shortcomings of my own, people correct me and refuse to believe me, as if I were accusing myself of being a fool. They can see no difference between memory and intellect.’ On the other hand, Touchstone is constantly raising himself above his station since he sees himself as the superior city dweller amongst rural rubes. The details of the essay provide many good instances that lay the groundwork for Touchstone’s treatise on the seven degrees of the lie.
When I first encountered Montaigne’s essay “Of Liars,” I was not familiar with Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Then when I saw the play and heard Touchstone’s very funny delivery of the seven degrees of the lie, I was stuck at how familiar it was to me. It wasn’t until my first year of teaching and I was using the essay in a class that it came to me, the essay was a source for the Touchstone speech. This coincidence has been with me for the past forty years. I’ve become more interested in the connection between Shakespeare and Montaigne after reading Will in the World, How Shakespeare became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt and Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts to an Answer. There are so many more books on each of these men and about both of them that I need to consult. I am content for now with this simple little investigation of the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare. I only regret that Montaigne didn’t live longer so he might have enjoyed some Shakespeare. I’m fortunate to enjoy both of these brilliant men.

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