Whenever Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt comes out with a new book – in this case, Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection – Charlie Rose invites him to sit “at this table”. And it always makes us crazy!
Out of one side of his learned mouth Mr. Greenblatt says, “We know almost nothing about William Shakespeare, despite the fact that I have written a biography about him. He’s very hidden. He conceals himself.”
Out of the other side he talks about Shakespeare as if he lived next door.
“I believe he thought money – which he was very interested in – was bound up in what his long term life would be. I think earlier in his life he thought poetry, lyric poetry, would probably carry him forward. And he was quite famous in his own lifetime as a great lyric poet. But I think he understood his long term prospects would be in the commercial theater; and that there was no gap; there was no division, between doing well in the commercial theater and having the life that’s led to this conversation 400 years later.”
In the admitted absence of any evidence, Mr. Greenblatt seems to know an awful lot about the great writer’s inner life: what Shakespeare thought about money; what he felt his prospects were as a lyric poet, and what he thought about the relationship between the Elizabethan market economy and the arts. Without any source documents whatsoever, it’s as if Mr. Greenblatt were practicing a kind of imaginative scholarship, and knew quite well that he was making up most of his assertions; an historical fiction of sorts, about which he seems quite proud. His conjectural point in this case was that the greedy, litigious shit we know as the Stratford man, could easily have also been the great lyric poet and playwright.
The part that makes us crazy is that the “made up” assertions give pause to neither Mr. Rose, nor Mr. Greenblatt, nor ninety-five percent of the other practicing Shakespeare scholars. And yet they control what the general public believes about William Shakespeare. And they stifle research.
That’s why we must continue to challenge the academy. That is why we must be steadfast in our inquiry!
On the other hand, Mr. Greenblatt IS an awesome intellectual and elegant writer. His “Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection” looks like a really fascinating book that could indeed shed light on the creative process that led to Shakespeare’s revolutionary depiction of the human character, what Harold Bloom called, “The Invention of the Human.”
No doubt, Shakespeare did read Montaigne, but not in the original French. He (or she) read him in the English translation made by the remarkable Elizabethan scholar, linguist and translator, John Florio. “Shakespeare’s Montaigne” was, in truth, Florio’s Montaigne. Mr. Greenblatt has done everyone a great service not only by reviving the translation, which does enable us to sort of “look over the shoulder” of the writer as he drew on Montaigne to create deeply human characters like Hamlet and Lear, but also by renewing our interest in John Florio himself.
Within the Shakespeare Authorship community , Florio is considered a credible candidate for the “true” writer of the poems and plays. Indeed, Montreal scholar and writer Lamberto Tassinari has beautifully documented the case for Florio in his book, “John Florio, The Man Who Was Shakespeare.”
Professor Greenblatt argues with his usual erudition that even though they never met, there was a close relationship between Montaigne and Shakespeare. And we agree. In addition, we suggest that there was probably an even closer relationship between Florio and the bard; that is, if they were not one and the same.