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The Tempest: Montaigne "On Cannibals"

Shakespeare uses Montaigne's essay "On Cannibals" (as translated by John Florio) in The Tempest, notably at the point when the "good old Gonzalo" tries to cheer up King Alonso by describing the ideal commonwealth he would institute on the island (2.1.152-73).

Now . . . I find (as far as I have been informed) there is nothing in that nation that is either barbarous or savage, unless men call that barbarism which is not common to them. As indeed we have no other aim of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country we live in. There is ever perfect religion, perfect policy, perfect and complete use of all things. They are even savage, as we call those fruits wild which nature of herself and of her ordinary progress hath produced; whereas indeed they are those which ourselves have altered by our artificial devices and diverted from their common order, we should rather term savage. In those are the true and most profitable virtues and natural properties most lively and vigorous, which in these we have bastardized, applying them to the pleasure of our corrupted taste. And if notwithstanding, in divers fruits of those countries that were never tilled we shall find that in respect of ours they are most excellent and as delicate unto our taste, there is no reason art should gain the point of honor of our great and puissant [powerful] mother nature. We have so much by our inventions surcharged the beauties and riches of her works that we have altogether overchoked her. Yet, wherever her purity shineth she makes our vain and frivolous enterprises wonderfully ashamed.

. . . Those nations seem, therefore, so barbarous unto me, because they have received very little fashion from human wit and are yet near their original naturality. The laws of nature do yet command them which are but little bastardized by ours; and that with such purity as I am sometimes grieved the knowledge of it came no sooner to light, at what time there were men that better than we could have judged of it. I am sorry Lycurgus and Plato had it not, for meseemeth that what in those nations we see by experience doth not only exceed all the pictures wherewith licentious poesy hath proudly embellished the golden age and all her quaint inventions to feign a happy condition of man, but also the conception and desire of philosophy. They could not imagine a genuity [nature] so pure and simple as we see it by experience: nor ever believe our society might be maintained with so little art and human combination.

[This is the passage Gonzalo paraphrases.]

It is a nation, would I answer Plato, that hath no kind of Traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulations, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them. How dissonant would he find his imaginary commonwealth from this perfection! . . . Furthermore, they live in a country of so exceeding pleasant and temperate situation that, as my testimonies have told me, it is very rare to see a sick body amongst them; and they have further assured me they never saw any man there either shaking with the palsy, toothless, with eyes dropping, or crooked and stooping through age. They are seated along the sea-coast, encompassed toward the land with huge and steepy mountains, having between both a hundred leagues or thereabout of open and champain [open] ground. They have great abundance of fish and flesh that have no resemblance at all with ours, and eat them without any sauces or skill of cookery, but plain boiled or broiled. The first man that brought a horse thither, although he had in many other voyages conversed with them, bred so great a horror in the land that before they could take notice of him they slew him with arrows.

Their buildings are very long, and able to contain two or three hundred souls, covered with barks of great trees, fastened in the ground at one end, interlaced and joined close together by the tops, after the manner of some of our granges [farmhouses]; the covering whereof hangs down to the ground and steadeth [serves] them as a flank. They have a kind of wood so hard that, riving [splitting] and cleaving the same, they make blades, swords and gridirons to broil their meat with. Their beds are of a kind of cotton cloth, fastened to the house roof, as our ship cabins. Everyone hath his several [separate] couch, for the women lie from their husbands. They rise with the sun, and feed for all day as soon as they are up, and make no more meals after that. They drink not at meal, as Suidas reporteth of some other people of the East which drank after meals, but drink many times a day and are much given to pledge carouses. Their drink is made of a certain root, and of the collar of our claret wines, which lasteth but two or three days. They drink it warm. It hath somewhat a sharp taste, wholesome for the stomach, nothing heady, but laxative for such as are not used unto it, yet very pleasing to such as are accustomed unto it. Instead of bread, they use a certain white composition, like unto corianders, confected. I have eaten some, the taste whereof is somewhat sweet and wallowish [insipid].

They spend the whole day in dancing. Their young men go a-hunting after wild beasts with bows and arrows. Their women busy themselves therewhilst with warming of their drink, which is their chiefest office. Some of their old men, in the morning before they go to eating, preach in common to all the household, walking from one end of the house to the other, repeating one selfsame sentence many times till he have ended his turn (for their buildings are a hundred paces in length). He commends but two things unto his auditory: first, valor against their enemies; then lovingness unto their wives. They never miss (for their restraint) to put men in mind of this duty, that it is their wives which keep their drink lukewarm and well-seasoned. The form of their beds, cords, swords, blades, and wooden bracelets (wherewith they cover their hand wrists when they fight) and great canes, open at one end (by the sound of which they keep time and cadence in their dancing) are in many places to be seen, and namely in mine own house.

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This page last updated on 27 October 2002. © Michael Best, 2002.