Article Title

Self-Discovery in Montaigne's "Of Solitarinesse" and King Lear


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

There is not much lesse vexation in the government of a private family, than in the managing of an entire state.… [T]hough domesticall occupations to be lesse important, they are as importunate. Moreover, though we have freed our selves from the court, and from the market, we are not free from the principall torments of our life.

—Michel de Montaigne

Shortly before the composition of King Lear, Shakespeare’s England saw the appearance of John Florio’s 1603 translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, including a chapter, “Of Solitarinesse,” in which the French author explores the implications of a simple axiom: “Contagion is very dangerous in a throng.”1 In addition to the very real danger of spreading disease (such as the outbreak of plague that closed the London theaters that same year), there was a kind of “moral contagion” that could be contracted by consorting with the wrong sort of people, especially in close: “Merchants that travell by sea, have reason to take heed that those which goe in the same ship, be not dissolute, blasphemers, and wicked” (189). Likewise, those who traveled on land risked encountering highwayman, vagrants, and a host of other dangers on the roads and at crowded inns along the way. Montaigne learned these lessons the hard way. Famous for doing much of his thinking on horseback, his personal encounters with unsavory elements of his “backward region” of southern France included one episode in which he was captured and threatened with death by a group of armed thugs.2 As a remedy against such dangers, he recommends retirement from active life, luxury of retreating into the relative safety of their homes and privacy of their studies. At long last freed of importunate “domesticall occupations” and time-consuming public obligations, such men can take stock of their lives and, above all, contemplate the self.


1Montaigne, “Of Solitarinesse,” in The Essayes of Montaigne, trans. John Florio, ed. J. I. M. Stewart (New York: Modern Library, 1933), 188–98, quotation on 189. Florio’s table of contents lists this essay as I.xxxviii, though it is occasionally numbered I.xxxix in modern editions. Unless otherwise stated, quotations from Montaigne are taken from the Modern Library’s single-volume edition of Florio’s translation, and will be cited parenthetically in my text. I have omitted Florio’s italics throughout.

2See Donald M. Frame, Montaigne: A Biography (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1965), 121, 131–32.

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