Monday, June 27, 2011

Something for Everyone and No One: Where appealing to the masses goes horribly wrong

A film study
Part One: On Genre and audience

Who the duck was I written for?
When you ask writers who our intended audience is on a given piece, most of us will just shrug our shoulders at first: unless we go into a piece with a particular demographic in mind, we don’t really know who our intended readers are. Nonfiction usually has a natural aim that develops along with the argument, and by the time a work is finished you may discern the audience simply by reading the title. Creative writing rarely has such a natural bridge to its reader. Genre[1] helps, but only so much: if we’re writing science fiction we know some things about our readers’ demographic, but we have to consider that there is space opera and hard science fiction, and the demographic for each brings different expectations. The most constant audience is, of course, the writer. We write something that is informed by us, and as a result we are inclined to write what we would be interested in reading ourselves. Writing for children, which would seem to be detached from an adult readership, often retains the mature themes relevant to the writer’s perspective[2].

What else will you let your kids
watch these days?
If our goal in a particular piece is to make money, which must be considered for anyone making a career out of it, then we should aim to transcend genre specifics and appeal to a mass audience: the more demographics we can involve, the better. Walt Disney was able to turn mass appeal into an art form of its own; from the studio’s animated features to its live-action productions, Disney films blend action, science fiction, fairy tale, and a host of other genres into a blanket genre we have come to call “family”. Something for everyone. Countless other writers and directors have consistently defied genre limitations with varying degrees of success; those who survive are often known by name[3], and those who fail are as forgettable as their films.

But how does genre-bending break a film? Is it really that difficult to put a romance story in a science fiction film? The answer to that lies not in the writing per se, but in audience expectations. When we go into a story, the first rule after suspension of belief that we must address is our ability to “take it for what it is”. Genre is not an excuse to leave our interpretive skills at the door, as the accusation so often goes, but rather genre gives us a powerful toolset with which to deconstruct the meaning of a film: for instance, if we know something is science fiction, we know to pay attention to the way science works to influence the plot, as it will be crucial to interpreting the story. If something is fantasy, we conversely know that how everything works is irrelevant to the human element of the story: there’s nothing in the metal composition of the One Ring that gives it its power, and no logical explanation why only the fires of Mount Doom can destroy it; it is allegory. Genre helps us to know what to give our attention and ultimately what we’re supposed to get out of the story. When we mix genres, we introduce new toolsets that can add to or detract from the readings we’re able to gather from the text. At its worst, genre-bending is the intellectual version of the kid kicking your chair; it’s distracting and causes you to miss important elements of the overall story.

I love you and all, but those military
guys made a pretty good argument.
One pet peeve of mine is the omnipresent romance subplot in popular science fiction. One typical science fiction plot involves an outsider with advanced technology coming into a civilization, seeing that that civilization is threatened by another, and then making the choice of whether to assist either culture. This is a deeply meaningful choice when handled well, notably in the case of the Star Trek series. What do you get when you throw romance into the equation? Avatar. We know it isn’t necessarily the handicap issue that motivates Sully to betray the military, but the introduction of a love interest makes his decision much more questionable and less meaningful than it would have been without it. But then, there are so many other elements in the story already driving Sully’s decision that the film only borders on science fiction. If we don’t bother to try to group it into the science fiction genre and just call it a fantasy film with science fiction elements, a futuristic Dances with Wolves, then it’s a film anyone can appreciate. Just ignore all of that crap about the planet being a big computer and the Na’vi being networked to it.

But even Star Trek has been guilty of this same poor use of romance. “Mr. Plinkett” notes in his extensive review of Star Trek: Insurrection not only that the romance between Picard and Anij forces us to question Picard's willingness to help the native people, but his actions run counter almost point by point to his actions in a series episode “Journey’s End”, suggesting that Anij's presence alone is the cause of his “insurrection”[4]. Similarly, First Contact makes use of a love triangle with Picard, Lily, and the Borg Queen, all to a completely unnecessary, distracting effect. In case you were worried Picard might sell out Earth to the Borg, we needed to use his relationships with women to compare the worth of the two cultures. On second thought, no, we didn't. Not only is it unnecessary, but it throws a sexist angle on a franchise known for being progressive.

"It's too bad she won't live, but then
again who does?"
In contrast, one of the best examples of romance as a science fiction sub-genre is in the episode “City on the Edge of Forever” from the original Star Trek series, written by Harlan Ellison. The premise of the episode is that, through the use of a time gate on an unexplored planet, McCoy has gone back to 1930s Earth and accidentally changed history to the point that Starfleet no longer exists. Kirk and Spock must travel back to stop him from doing so, and they eventually discover that what McCoy will do is to save the life of a young idealist with whom Kirk has become infatuated. To preserve history, Kirk must allow her to die. While a one hour show only allows for so much believability in a romance, especially with half of that time being spent on "stone knives and bear skins," the writers got around this through excellent dialogue, the casting of Joan Collins, and by forcing Kirk to be present for her death: a haunting moment that both confronts us with what could have been historically and what could have been for Kirk. While the idea of allowing someone you love to die for the sake of a better future is at least as old as myth itself, the use of time travel as a scientific means of discerning future events applied to a romantic tragedy was fairly novel. It struck a chord with both the science fiction demographic as well as those less interested in science fiction, and would go on to be one of the show’s most enduring episodes[5].

My apologies and condolences to anyone who has not seen that episode of Trek, but my point is that most genres can be interwoven if done in a way that complements them both. Romantic comedy, space opera, and crime drama are just a few of the successful hybrid formulas that work consistently for larger audiences. Science fiction is perhaps most guilty of poor genre mixing because of the expectation of realism that goes with it, which is why it prefaces this discussion so heavily. Genres like comedy and tragedy, the two “original” genres, mix pretty well with just about any other genre except for each other, and even that can work in the right circumstances (see the Coen brothers). If the mix fails to work, then the writer asks us to bring a toolset that we do not need into the film, and this will ultimately result in confusion, frustration, and things not “making sense”.

So it's about a guy... and his sled...
Whether or not we know the details of how genre works, we’re all aware of this rule of genre. People who comfortably dismiss an entire genre of films often do so with a phrase like: “I just don’t get it”. Most people would call this approach lazy or ignorant, but such an accusation is itself dangerous and ignorant, perhaps a symptom of trying to separate arbitraries like “high” and “low” art. Instead, I will translate it as “I do not have the toolset to analyze that genre.” You may think that giving someone such a toolset is an easy way to help them appreciate the genre, but the fact is we acquire genre appreciation by personal relevance, just like we acquire our taste in music or food. Science fiction is relevant to people who care about science and like to think in theoreticals, but has little relevance for people more focused on “here and now” issues, or who have no real scientific background. This is why we have demographics in the first place: writers need to know what is relevant to our audiences, but our audiences don’t have to adapt to what writers think is relevant, nor should they, if we are to agree with Roland Barthes[6].

What could this movie be about?
In order to take something for what it is, we must know what it is, or at least, what it is trying to be. The issue with mixed-genre films in general is that they must establish an identifying tone or risk leaving an audience with the feeling “What the hell did I just watch?” and denying them any clear way to make sense of the film. But how does tone work for the audience? What is it specifically that makes these films so inaccessible, despite their original intention? How does bending complement genre, and how specifically does it fail to appeal? To illustrate the answers to these questions I will begin a series of film analyses that focus on films that are arguably similar in approach, yet one fails and the other succeeds. In doing so, we may be able to analyze what lends to a “bad” mix, how this blending could have been done better, and understand on a more conscious level what it is that allows a film both uniqueness and commercial success.

As a brief addendum, I must point out that my focus will be on writing, editing, timing, and maybe a bit of casting, as films do not exist in a bubble. I will not focus so much on cutting, music, or the quality of the acting. While these things can make a huge difference in one’s ability to interpret a film, they are not my areas of expertise and so I will only mention them as they make a significant impact on the audience’s viewing experience (for instance, Last Action Hero has a soundtrack that is very self-aware, and at one point is changed by the main character). Most of the films I will be covering will be traditionally-composed films by Hollywood standards, so the audience isn't likely to be focused on elements other than character and story in deciding if it is a good film or not. And though I will be talking about “bad” films, these are all films I adore. Whether or not they were commercially successful doesn't mean they do not have their fan base (I like to believe there are no bad films, just bad reviews). The task here isn't to rail movies I don’t like, so don’t get mad if I insult a movie you like, because I like it too.

With all that said, stay tuned for Part Two, in which I will analyze McTiernan’s lackluster Last Action Hero and Wes Craven’s horror revival Scream.

[1] Genre is, by definition, a means of grouping texts together by their common themes. It is not as definitive a science as we might like, and the term is used here to indicate a grouping defined by fans rather than scholars. A proper genre study would occupy at least a textbook.
[2] I have made this argument in the case of Bucky O’Hare in my article A Man in Sheep’s Clothing: Fan Subculture and the Furry Phenomenon, and would love to expound on this with other children’s media in a future article.
[3] Hitchcock, Kubrick, Tarantino, Allen, Lynch, King, and Kurosawa, to name a few.
[5] As of this writing, “City on the Edge of Forever” maintains the highest user rating of the series with a 9.3.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Montaigne, Shakespeare and Knowing: Early Modern Skepticism and its role in the development of empirical science

During the rediscovery of ancient philosophy in the Renaissance, the work of Sextus Empiricus, the most comprehensive on ancient skepticism, was neglected amid a torrent of other well-known works. Michel de Montaigne in his 1580 Essais attempts to understand a series of different issues based not on academic reasoning, but on personal experience, which would revive the ideas of Sextus Empiricus in the forms of Pyrrhonism and empiricism. These ideas went directly against the Aristotelian standard of philosophy at the time, which denied the legitimacy of personal experience and held inductive reasoning as the basis of all true knowledge, with the works of the ancients as standards to which future knowledge must refer. According to the empirical skepticism of Sextus Empiricus and Montaigne, individual perception of events, which was understood by philosophers to be corrupted by human imperfection, was acceptable evidence for an argument and could rival an established authority.
The remarkable popularity of Montaigne’s work in England, introduced by John Florio’s 1603 translation, shows a growing social awareness of skeptical empiricism as a legitimate approach to knowledge. This awareness is clear in the works of Shakespeare, whose Tempest exemplifies storytelling from a skeptical viewpoint. Through exposing the weaknesses of the classics, emphasizing empiricism over Aristotelian inductive reasoning and finally questioning the capacity for humans to perceive truth, the skeptics were able to liberate knowledge from the grips of the classics, providing a window for a new means of scholarship that would find its ground in empirical evidence.
To understand the impact of Montaigne’s skepticism, we must evaluate the democratization of medieval philosophy leading into the Renaissance. The diffusion of thought during this era was complemented by the dissemination of texts. William Bouwsma’s Waning of the Renaissance begins by describing an England of increasing readership: the Gutenberg press meant relatively cheap and profitable reproductions of texts, leading to a much greater literacy and readership of classical material. Initially, most of these texts were only reproduced in their original language; John Florio’s preface to Essayes includes an apology for the translation, an apology he deems necessary because “some holde… that such conversion is the subversion of Universities” (7). Florio informs us that readership of texts in their original language was the academic standard of the time and that translation was a profession for lesser writers, an attitude which Florio is quick to rectify.
However, works in translation were becoming increasingly common in England, and Bouwsma reports that during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, twenty percent of all publications were translations (15). This provides evidence that many without a scholarly background were reading foreign works in their own vernacular as well as religious and philosophical works first published in Latin: works which the university and the Church could control until this period. By 1621, scholarship in the vernacular would become such a standard that Robert Burton was unable to find a publisher willing to print Anatomy of Melancholy in Latin (Bouwsma 6). With such a wealth of texts from all over Europe and the ancient world, as well as a greater democratization of readership, scholarly writing became an exercise in reconciling greater and greater differences in theory (35). If the exhaustive and skeptical discourse of Anatomy of Melancholy is any evidence, reason was quickly becoming an impractical means by which to produce truth.
The notion that individual perception should take precedence over classical reason was not an entirely new concept in Renaissance thought. Bouwsma documents two earlier movements that were adopted by scholars and instrumental in the shift toward humanism and skeptical doubt. The first of these is nominalism, an early notion of empiricism which Bouwsma presents as the belief that “human beings could only know what was accessible to the senses; beyond this, there was only the higher knowledge revealed in Scripture and grasped by faith” (21). The second of these movements, and perhaps more influential to Montaigne, came from the writings of Augustine of Hippo, whose 4th century work Confessions introduced a skepticism that was grounded in rhetoric and proposed that human understanding could not be grounded in reason, but rather in the “quality of the heart” (Bouwsma 21).
The revival of Augustine can be linked to the Protestant Reformation, as Martin Luther spent time as an Augustinian monk prior to his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 (“Martin Luther”). Augustine’s writings argued that the Bible should be relied upon as the ultimate authority, not the esoteric teachings of corruptible Church officials. More than ever before, Lutheranism challenged the Catholic Church’s authority and interpretation of Biblical truth, and this challenge became more pronounced as sect after sect cropped up across Europe. A secondary authority was needed to help make sense of the conflict between churches, and Augustine provided such an authority: the purified self. It was not by traditional dogmatism that one could achieve true knowledge, but solely by individual readership of the Bible and through personal faith. Augustinian thought allowed for a model of the body where the heart ruled in the place of reason and there was nothing to separate the passionate will of the individual from God (22). Bouwsma explains the importance of Augustine as a shift away from the classics and toward the Bible as authority, but also as a significant leap away from the Medieval model of cosmological hierarchy that placed both the Earth as the lowest place in the cosmos and reason “in a position analogous to that of God” (21).
Unlike the nominalists, Augustine followed the Biblical belief that individual perception, while unreliable in its natural state, could be purified through faith and dedication, and Augustine felt this purification could only be achieved by complete asceticism. As Alan Levine explains in Sensual Philosophy, Augustine’s skepticism applies to the secular world as well as the secular self: the purpose of looking inward is not to find truth, but to acknowledge the imperfections that prevent humans beings from perceiving truth, and to look to God instead (124). Augustine may announce the “dethronement of reason” as Aristotle saw it, but would replace one kind of dogmatism with another.
When Montaigne’s Essayes hit England in 1603, it entered into an environment where Augustinian skepticism was very much alive and known to the scholastic world. In the Augustinian mode, rhetorical devices and exempla of exceptions to commonly accepted truths are used frequently to argue against classical dogmatism, and Montaigne picks up this style well. Montaigne also refers back to Augustine directly on several issues. In “That a Man Ought Soberly to Meddle with Judging of Divine Laws,” Montaigne credits Augustine with the dethronement of reason: “It is a conflict, no more decided by the armes of memorie, than by the weapons of reason” (I.231).
However, within Book I and certainly by Book II it becomes evident that Montaigne moves past Augustinian skepticism into a mode introduced by the writings of Sextus Empiricus. A Greek scholar grounded in the Roman Empire between 160-210 CE, Sextus Empiricus collected the work of Pyrrho of Elis (ca. 365-275 BCE) as recorded by Timon (ca. 325-235 BCE), and expounded on the work of Pyrrho by engaging with Roman contemporaries. John Christian Laursen’s Politics of Skepticism offers a concise, but thorough summary of the work of Pyrrho as well as Sextus Empiricus’s original contributions, which I will further summarize for the sake of discussion.
 Pyrrhonian skepticism is one of two branches of ancient skepticism, with the other being Academic skepticism. Academic skepticism, credited most often to Socrates but also to a number of other prominent minds of the time, is the form that is most familiar to readers today. Its primary contention is that the “wisest” of men was one who, like Socrates, was aware “how little he knew” (Laursen 53). Cicero describes Socrates as a man who “argued both sides of every issue but never came to conclusions” (53). The Academic skeptics found little point in defending truth claims because a contrary and equally credible argument must exist for all such claims, and it was therefore impossible to arrive at any true conclusion. While this manner of skepticism promoted tolerance and rejected dogmatism, its practitioners were often accused of nihilism (4). In Renaissance Europe, Academic skepticism often translated to atheism, which Don Cameron Allen characterizes as “a majestic term of reproach and condemnation…seldom separated from heresy or even theological disagreement” (1-3). Open atheism in this period was harshly persecuted, and this is why Augustine’s mode of skepticism was favored by many in the Renaissance, as it allowed questioning of dogmatic principles and reason, but afforded the comfort of a Christian truth, or at least acceptance within the dominant Christian intellectual community.
Pyrrhonism was a school of skepticism close to Academic skepticism: so close that early commentators noted “very little difference between them” (15). Both schools emphasized a tolerance toward cultural traditions and an obedience to law, regardless of the truth value of such laws. Both Pyrrho and Socrates refrained from making universal dogmatic claims, but the primary difference was that Socrates grounded his skepticism in rhetoric, while Pyrrho did so in empiricism (46). To Pyrrho and his followers, truth could not be obtained because of a perpetual lack of conclusive physical evidence. Sextus Empiricus summarizes this problem in a famous passage from Against the Logicians:
The person who says that he himself is the criterion [of truth] maintains this either by assertion or by demonstration. And he cannot do so by assertion [as he will be checked by assertion], but if by demonstration, it must certainly be by a sound one; but that such a demonstration is sound is said either by assertion or by demonstration, and this goes on ad infinitum. Therefore for this reason too it has to be said that the criterion for truth is undiscovered (66).
The skepticism Sextus Empiricus describes comes from the lack of any authority of truth, including empirical observation (which he calls demonstration), as to call any authority valid requires another authority to validate it, to the point of infinite regress. It is understandable how this kind of skepticism can be confused with what Socrates and Plato describe, as there can be no established authority for truth.
However, this confusion is due largely to Sextus Empiricus responding to the Stoic idea of belief in the “non-evident” or metaphysical. Pyrrhonism allowed for truths that were “self-evident” or “apparent” (Laursen 37). Unlike Plato and Diogenes, who denied the reliability of human perception, the Pyrrhonist could claim something true if it were plainly observable, but could not claim to know anything about the nature of things beyond what was observable.
However, as Sextus Empiricus describes above, this also meant that the Pyrrhonist could not expect his perception to be considered authoritative to anyone else. Pyrrhonism occupies a space between dogmatism and skepticism, where one can live in a world of observable phenomena, but maintain a skeptical view toward any unapparent truth. For this reason, Pyrhhonism follows an understanding of skepticism that is acceptable by Christian reason: the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, published around 1274, argues that the existence of God is self-evident (18).
Finally for our purposes, the Pyrrhonists professed a desire to attain a state of ataraxia: a calmness or peace of mind that came from the “suspension of judgment” (epochÄ“) (16). “Suspension of judgment” was a key concept in Pyrrhonism that separated it from Academic skepticism. The Pyrrhonists did not believe it was impossible for any kind of truth to exist as the Academics did, but rather that the lack of apparent evidence made it impossible to gauge truth at the moment. Thus, Pyrrho created a philosophy providing that the unobservable could eventually become observable, and thus the seeking of knowledge was not a wasteful activity. However, it was taxing to attempt to prove truths without adequate evidence, and the skeptic who avoided doing so could enjoy life in a world surrounded by unexplainable phenomena (16-17).
Sextus Empiricus’s work was published for the first time in Latin in 1562 by Henricus Stephanus, and through this publication Montaigne was able to read and integrate his ideas into Essais. Empiricism appears early in Montaigne’s work, and we see it extensively in “On the Force of Imagination” in which Montaigne uses observed exempla from major writers as well as personal experience to assert that the imagination can not only affect the senses, but manipulate the outer world as well (I.92-104). This is the earliest and perhaps weakest example of Pyrrhonism Montaigne offers in his essays: more apparent is a reliance on inductive reasoning weakened by claims of an unobservable force to prove a cause and effect reaction.
Defending his conclusions, Montaigne writes “The Histories I borrow, I referre to the consciences of those I take them from” (I.102). Montaigne argues that the truth of his examples rests on the sources, but if we accept the empirical data as truth, then the reason is solid enough to provide a true conclusion. In this way, Montaigne criticizes his own evidence, though he again counters this with “each man may adde his example to them: and who hath none, considering the number and varietie of accidents, let him not leave to think, there are store of them” (I.102). While this has the effect of democratizing empiricism, it can only loosely be called Pyrrhonism: Montaigne feels validated in making a truth claim because he believes that everyone can observe the effects of the imagination to the point that it is self-evident. The positive effects of imagination are commonplace: art, music, and even the audience of a play rely on imagination. Modern readers know better than to associate imagination with external cause and effect, however: to assume imagination alone could empower a cat to kill a bird or a girl to sprout a penis is a fallacy of false cause. Yet Montaigne’s readers knew the imagination to be a much more powerful force. “Imagination…seemed a blasphemous effort to rival the Creator,” writes Bouwsma, who goes on to cite Johann Weyer’s 1583 work On the Deceptions of Demons: “witches can harm no one through the most malicious will or the ugliest exorcism, that rather their imagination… makes them only fancy that they have caused all sorts of evil” (28). Imagination was a creative force in the most literal meaning of the expression, and Montaigne’s purpose is to prove that evidence of the imagination as such a force is self-evident, as no other possible observable cause can be noted.
The Pyrrhonist mode of argument features more strongly in “On the Resemblance of Children to their Fathers”, which ends Book II. In it, Montaigne argues that medical practices are completely without reliable authority or standard and are thus unreliable. This essay combines two ideas of his earlier essays from Book I, “By Divers Means Men Come to a Like End” and “Diverse Events From One Selfe Same Counsell” and applies these problems of cause and effect to medical practitioners. This is most pronounced in a passage in which he lists a series of treatments based on ancient humoral theory: “aperients substances are good for a patient suffering from colic paroxysm… aperients substances are dangerous for a patient suffering from colic paroxysm… it is good to pass water frequently… it is good not to pass water frequently… [etc]” (II.875-876). Montaigne lists side effects with every treatment, to the point that medicine becomes an unwarranted gamble. “If we could only be sure that their mistakes did us no harm even if they did no good it would be a reasonable bet to chance something without risk of losing everything” (II.873). He does not propose that medicine is incapable of healing, but rather that it has become so defined by conflicting viewpoints that it is more likely to damn, and he gives plenty of examples of this.
Montaigne briefly compares the practice of medicine to justice, stating that “What we call justice is a farrago of any old laws which fall into our hands, dispensed and applied often quite ineptly and iniquitously; those who mock at this and complain of it are not reviling that noble virtue itself but only condemning the abuse and the profanation of that venerable name of justice” (II.866). While he is using this statement to convey his belief in medicine as a virtue but not as a practice, it also reflects a very skeptical view of justice itself. This skepticism of law is a common practice, though both Academic and Pyrrhonist skeptics adhere to the code of law as a general rule when it is not destructive (Laursen 48-49).
Montaigne finishes Book II with a profound paragraph, which begins and ends respectively “I do not loathe ideas which go against my own… In the whole world there has never been two identical opinions, any more than two identical hairs or seeds. Their most universal characteristic is Diversity” (II.887). Somewhat removed from this opinion up to this point, which has been strongly judgmental, Montaigne takes a step backward to acknowledge not only that differing opinions exist, but that they are just as valid as his own. Thus, after such a scathing review of medicine, he ultimately ends his second volume with an epochÄ“. In Pyrrhonic form, Montaigne’s reproach of medicine can only be based on the empirical; in theory, the idea of medicine is one he completely understands, though he isn’t sure how necessary it is.
As Florio was working on this important translation of Montaigne, there was evidence that Shakespeare was already engaging with skepticism. Robert Pierce’s essay “Shakespeare and the Ten Modes of Scepticism” shows that examples of skepticism and skeptical characters appear in virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays, supporting the idea that a general sense of skeptical doubt was already in practice in his work before his introduction to Montaigne’s Essayes. Pierce argues more specifically that “one cannot find an upheaval in mid-career suggesting that his plays suddenly embody a new philosophy on life” and suggests that if Shakespeare did become more skeptical by his final writings, it was a gradual process with many other potential influences (158). The best evidence for Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare lies in The Tempest, in which Gonzalo proposes a Utopian community to Alonso as the noblemen find themselves stranded on a remote island (II.i.138-164). This speech borrows directly from the Florio translation of Montaigne’s essay “Of the Caniballes” and thus The Tempest is the key to analyzing Shakespeare’s response to Montaigne’s skepticism.
Montaigne’s “Of the Caniballes” is a discussion of the practices of Native Americans as observed by Europeans, and is informed by many potential sources, among them Girolamo Benzoni’s Historia del mondo novo published in 1565 (“Cannibals” 228). In Montaigne’s essay, he acknowledges the Natives as “savage” and “barbarous,” particularly in their practices of ritual decapitation and cannibalism (which Montaigne assures us is not intended for nourishment, but for “inexpiable revenge”) (I.231-3). However, he immediately follows his portrayal of the Natives with the statement: “I am… grieved, that prying so narrowly into their faults we are so blinded in ours… We may then well call them barbarous, in regard of reasons rules, but not in respect of us that exceed them in all kinds of barbarisme” (I.223-224). Montaigne goes on to discuss the barbaric practices of the French in torturing their kinsmen, and asserts that many Native practices are also Biblical, though dated (I.224-228). His conclusion is not a complete defense of the practices of the cannibals, avoiding the “noble savage” imagery apparent in other defenses, but rather approaches both the Native culture and European culture from a skeptical viewpoint, and argues that one has no right to claim superiority over the other.
Warren Boutcher outlines three possible explanations for the language shared by Gonzalo’s speech and Montaigne’s essay: “a coincidence explained by a shared stock of rhetorical commonplaces; a matter of “phrasal” or rhetorical but not philosophical influence; [or] the effect of… Florio’s Montaigne… into which Shakespeare enters with Hamlet?” (3). The first suggestion seems unlikely, given the closeness with which Shakespeare follows Montaigne’s “Of the Caniballes”. To illustrate:
Montaigne: “It is a nation , would I answer Plato, that hath no kind of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, of riches or of poverty; no conracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle; no respect of kindred, but common, no apparell but naturall, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corne, or mettle” (I.220).

Shakespeare: “I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries / execute all things, for no kind of traffic / would I admit, No name of magistrate. / Letters should not be known. Riches, poverty, / And use of service – none. Contract, succession, / Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard – none. / No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil. / No occupation: all men idle, all. / And women too, but innocent and pure. / No sovereignty…” (II.i.138-152).

While Montaigne is responding to the ideals of Plato’s Republic, a text to which Shakespeare likely had access, it is the order and vocabulary that Shakespeare and Montaigne share to an extent conclusive enough to show that Shakespeare read Montaigne. Though Shakespeare does not use exact wording or the exact same phrasal order, the closeness and the quantity of similarities defy the notion that this was an accidental case of shared rhetorical language. We can reconcile the differences between the authors as a matter of style (Montaigne’s prose set to Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter) as well as relevance: the points Shakespeare misses are not necessary to Gonzalo’s argument, and the additions of oil and female idleness tie Gonzalo’s utopia to a contemporary European context rather than that of the cannibals.
Boutcher’s second suggestion, “a matter of “phrasal” or rhetorical but not philosophical influence,” shows the weakness of relying on this speech as the sole evidence for Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare (3). A reading of this passage in The Tempest shows skepticism toward European influence in the New World: Gonzalo’s speech offers an idealized vision of a world untainted by the corruptions of European traditions, analogous to the innocent world of the cannibals, but Sebastian and Antonio are quick to identify the contradictions in Gonzalo’s vision, which include monarchy where there would be no sovereign and idleness where idleness is believed to cause sin (II.i.152-162). These problems are reflective of the European worldview that Montaigne criticizes in his essay.
However, an earlier exchange involving the location of Carthage leads the audience to view Gonzalo as a fool (II.i.80-89), and later in the same scene Antonio and Sebastian design to kill Alonso and Gonzalo, exposing their own comic degree of corruption (II.i.285-291). This validates any number of opposing interpretations of Montaigne’s role, including the possibility that Shakespeare meant to parody Montaigne by using the innocent fool Gonzalo as his mouthpiece. Whether this reading is accurate, the passage alone is not enough to show conclusively that Shakespeare shares in Montaigne’s skepticism. Pierce takes this further by stating that “plays are not a very good way of making assertions. Their words are largely spoken by characters, and it is not clear which of their assertions are endorsed by the author” (“Shakespeare” 146). Pierce addresses a common fallacy in literary criticism: assuming any character’s voice is reflective of the author’s.
Addressing the possibility that Florio’s Montaigne directly influenced Shakespeare, writers such as J.M. Robertson have convincingly argued that Montaigne played a role in Shakespeare’s “culture-evolution” that informs his plays from Hamlet; however E.A.J. Honigmann dates Hamlet between 1600 and 1602, before Florio’s translation of Essays in 1603 (Boutcher 3; Honigmann 24). This would suggest either that Hamlet was informed by Academic skepticism, or that Shakespeare had access to Montaigne slightly earlier than Florio’s publication[1]. More likely is the argument that Shakespeare was already familiar with Academic skepticism leading up to his publication of The Tempest, and that it is this skepticism which informs his plays prior to The Tempest.
Two possible explanations might suggest how Shakespeare could have come upon Pyrrho without Montaigne’s assistance. In Seeming Knowledge, John Cox proposes that the publication of Outlines of Pyrrhonism created an intellectual crisis in which Shakespeare would have been as involved as Montaigne and Descartes (227). Boutcher uses a similar argument, though his proposal is admittedly just as circumstantial: the prominence of tutors in England, particularly in teaching foreign language, who would frequently use texts written by prominent authors around Europe, and Boutcher proposes Florio did this with Montaigne (4). Florio’s Montaigne begins with a dedication “To the right ho-nor-able and best-best Benefactors, and most-most honored Ladies, Lucie Countesse of Bedford; and hir best-most loved-loving Mother, Ladie Anne Harrington” (1). The dedication and its superfluous language show the necessity of appealing to patrons as well as the role of tutoring in Florio’s career. Boutcher also argues that because the Essais use subjects familiar to young nobles, they can be used to teach practical philosophy as well as language. Of course, how influential this was cannot be truly known: Boutcher notes several references to Montaigne from 1592-1600, but none of these are conclusive enough to show Montaigne’s spread throughout Europe prior to 1603 (5-6).
If Montaigne did not play a role in Shakespeare’s writing prior to The Tempest, we must look to other possible explanations for Shakespeare’s skepticism. Cox argues that “it is not… clear that Shakespeare’s plays move very far beyond the position of Augustine” (237). Cox rejects the idea that Shakespeare concerned himself with epistemology, a position this paper will contest. Hugh Grady, in Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Montaigne, posits that what appears to be skepticism in Shakespeare’s earlier plays is actually a kind of subjectivity informed by “Machiavellian themes” (44). Grady’s position, which mostly affects Shakespeare’s histories wherein issues of power and authority are most questioned, supports that Shakespeare is responding to a crisis of monarchical power, with a conclusion in Hamlet to “reveal Machiavellianism as self-destructive if, perhaps, an unavoidable outcome of power politics” (49). Thus, Grady’s Shakespeare would appear to follow a trajectory of increasing skepticism toward power and authority which would transition into his later skeptical plays.
To avoid all of these problems that come of focusing on the cannibal passage alone, Arthur Kirsch calls attention to a much shorter, but perhaps more substantial borrowing from Montaigne’s Essayes in The Tempest: Prospero’s statement “The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (V.i.27-28). This line appears in Florio’s translation of the essay “Of Cruelty” in its opening, and suggests that Shakespeare’s reading of Montaigne is much broader than “Of the Caniballes” alone (Kirsch 337). “Of Cruelty” begins with a question of the definition of virtue, which is followed by the suggestion that “If virtue cannot shine but by resisting contrarie appetites… it cannot passe without the assistance of vice…” (Kirsch 338). Thus, Montaigne writes that virtue and vice are interrelated ideas which depend on each other to operate. As Kirsch illustrates, Montaigne later writes in “Of Experience” that “Our being cannot subsist without this commixture [of goods and evils], whereto one side is no lesse necessary than the other” (339). This idea of the self as neither essentially good nor essentially evil plays through extremely well in Prospero’s character, whose actions are at once paternal and cruel. “[Prospero’s] impatience with his daughter, and with her suitor, the son of his enemy, his “beating mind,” his insistent asperity, his marked reluctance in forgiving his brother, and his violence to Caliban: all are ultimately signs of the struggle of virtue that Montaigne describes” (Kirsch 343). To view Prospero as the virtuous protagonist who is moved to give up his magical ways by the end of the play, we must see his struggle against vices. Prospero seems in stark contrast to a character like Hamlet, whose struggle is against the responsibility of virtue rather than the pitfalls of vice, lending support to the idea that The Tempest was more deeply influenced by Montaigne.
Complicating this reading is that Shakespeare already gives us a foil to Prospero that allows us to see him as the virtuous protagonist: the character of Sycorax, who we are led to believe is the antithesis of Prospero, a “damned witch” whose name alone instills fear in Ariel (I.ii.263). Shakespeare does not give us much information about Sycorax aside from her imprisoning of Ariel in a tree, as well as the physical ugliness she embodies: Shakespeare contrasts the good of Prospero and the evil of Sycorax by appearances (I.ii.258, 269). This depiction extends to their children: Miranda is frequently described in terms such as “goddess” and “wonder” while Caliban is “a feckled whelp, hag-born – not honored with / A human shape” (I.ii.283-4, 423-428). Thus, the virtuous and the evil should be “apparent.”
Foils were a common tool of the Renaissance playwright, as they allowed an audience to quickly contrast motives of characters in an external rather than internal way, and foils appear frequently in Shakespeare’s plays: Laertes to Hamlet, Hotspur to Hal, and Mercutio to Romeo. Shakespeare even shows a self-awareness of his use of foils, as young Hal and Hamlet create foils of themselves to achieve their ends. In another of Pierce’s essays, “Very Like A Whale: Scepticism and Seeing in The Tempest,” Pierce acknowledges that we see the same foiling behavior in The Tempest, as Prospero presents himself to Ferdinand as “the stock comic role of the resistant father” in order to test the youths’ relationship (171).
However, Shakespeare’s use of foils in The Tempest is more reflective of a skepticism toward virtue. As Pierce describes, Shakespeare’s goal is not to create characters that stand in opposition as stark contrasts, but to create a play in which the very design is skeptical, and perhaps even Pyrrhonist. Immediately after Prospero affirms his status as master over Ariel, he threatens Ariel with the very same sentence the spirit received from Sycorax if he “more murmur’st” about his release from service (I.ii.295). Prospero’s threat may in fact be worse than Sycorax’s original punishment, as the length of Ariel’s imprisonment depended upon Sycorax’s death before undoing the spell (I.ii.279). Similarly, we find that Prospero has imprisoned Caliban in a “hard rock” (I.ii.344). Coupled with Kirsch’s assertions regarding Prospero’s struggle against vice, we can see the ambiguity of Prospero as protagonist, a sentiment which is also shared in Montaigne’s “Of the Caniballes” toward Europeans. In the end, we are forced to suspend judgment on whether Prospero is a virtuous character.
This juxtaposition of foils applies to the relationship of Ariel to Caliban as well. While we may be tempted to see Ariel as the virtuous servant and Caliban as the “symbol of bestial lust” Frank Kermode describes in his reading of the text, Cox writes that a post-colonial reading provides that Caliban “argues his case more compellingly and speaks more lyrically at times” (235). Caliban is a character whose land, language and culture have been robbed of him by Prospero’s invasion. Prospero justifies his imprisonment of Caliban with the claim that the monster sought “to violate the honor of [his] child,” yet this is as much detail as we are given about the event from Prospero’s view (I.ii.349). Miranda[2] goes on to offer little further insight, except to say that he deserved such imprisonment after responding so ungratefully to her teaching (I.ii.332-363). The conflict here is that a base, brutish animal would not abide the patience to learn the language of Miranda if his only desire were to violate her honor, so the difference that caused the two parties to fall into such violent conflict is just as likely one of innocent cultural difference, not intended violation. Whatever the incident, Pierce describes the final result that “Caliban when he looks at Prospero sees a Caliban given great power, and in Miranda he sees only a mate” (171). Through their inhuman treatment, Caliban no longer regards Prospero and Miranda as human, but creatures as valuable as they are useful, symbolically the same way that Prospero views him through the course of the play. Again, the lack of details and the ratiocination of both parties prevent the audience from making a fair judgment.
Caliban’s immediate foil is Ariel, the obedient servant. Ariel follows Prospero’s revenge plot without any personal investment, promised only to be liberated once the revenge is carried out. Pierce describes an Ariel that “is the agent of Prospero’s art… full of pride in his craft” (169). This craft includes orchestrating a shipwreck (which is perceived from three conflicting perspectives in the course of the play) and deceiving Alonso and Ferdinand into believing each other drowned. Thus, Ariel’s pride can be interpreted in one of two ways: either pride in his ability to please Prospero, or pride in his ability to so easily manipulate humans. Ariel occupies two positions at once: obedient servant and lord over human perception of reality. Only Prospero seems above Ariel’s art, capable of imprisoning the spirit, and Ariel responds by giving him a god-like status. Caliban’s resentment of Prospero ironically leads him into similar service with Stephano and Trinculo, who similarly promise to liberate him from the hardships of imprisonment, an act for which he grants them god-like status (II.ii.119-20). Both Ariel and Caliban promise their services to their would-be saviors, and given the questions to Prospero’s virtue, we can only assume chance is responsible for Ariel’s success over Caliban’s failure.
In several such ways, Pierce argues that Shakespeare presents us with a play grounded on Pyrrhonism, where “varieties of perception” replace the comfort of truth claims and force us to evaluate empirical knowledge of the events (“Scepticism” 171). Shakespeare isn’t content to simply leave us in a state of total uncertainty about seeing: “Whatever puzzlement there may be in what Prospero, Miranda, and Ferdinand think they see, the base and wicked characters are clearly and consistently wrong” (171). This is not a simple statement of religious implication as Augustine would argue, but rather an issue of judgment without evidence: though the protagonists are all aware of the worst in man, they can still look at humanity with a sense of “wonder” and “beauty” that allows a suspension of judgment. The base characters can only look at appearances “without wonder” and “without resignation”, which corrupts their interpretations of the apparent (171).
The differences between scholars on Prospero and The Tempest are all completely intended by the author: an expression of a Pyrrhonism Shakespeare borrows from his readings of Montaigne. There is certainly enough evidence for this, though Cox would attribute this Pyrrhonism to a direct reading of Sextus Empiricus (227). Whatever the case, we are far from characters like Hal and Hamlet who, through soliloquy, announce their intentions to the audience. Shakespeare’s Tempest is an elaborate show of not knowing, and it is this absence of certainty that contributes to the play’s comic tone as well as the ambiguity of its ending.
His revenge satisfied, daughter made princess, and Ariel’s freedom restored, Prospero prepares to destroy all that made him powerful, reducing himself to mere mortal (V.i.50-57). The question we are left with is the question of what art will replace magic? Prospero’s art, which has caused him to bear much vice, is something he cannot take from the island. This is a crisis of the University as well as the mage: reason, dethroned by the skeptics, no longer held the authority it once could boast. The new scholars must be willing to leave the reason of the ancients behind them and embark upon what Bouwsma calls the “quest for certainty” (179).
Within the writings of Sextus Empiricus lay some hope for a new mode of discovering truth: empirical science. Sextus Empiricus quotes the skeptic philosopher Aenesidemus as saying “there is a difference in things apparent… that some of them appear to all men in common, others to one person separately, and of these such as appear to all in common are true” (Laursen 44). This means that observable apparent truths, i.e. empirical knowledge, could be ascertained if enough people could perceive the event to call it “common” knowledge. Such knowledge only dealt with the observable, not the “unobservable nature of things,” so it would not fall victim to skeptical rejection from the Pyrrhonists.
The Stoics maintained a similar belief in the apparent, but Roderick Chisholm notes that much of what would be called “apparent” Sextus Empiricus knew could turn out to be delusive. Chisholm argues for Sextus Empiricus that “We can attribute cognitive significance to an appearance only if we appeal to further experience” (373). Sextus Empiricus further denies induction based on appearances, as established at the beginning of this essay. This skeptical approach to the apparent creates a basis for the idea of what we call empirical science: repeatable demonstrations of observable phenomena for a wide audience.
Montaigne’s criticisms of the imagination and of medicine call for a similar empirical ideal. Because the imagination is wont to fancy, individual perception of reality may not be as reliable as collective perception. There is also a major problem with observing correlation versus cause and effect relationships, an issue of which he is self-aware. In the case of medicine, he says “The wisest… was he who decreed that each patient should be treated by only one doctor” (II.871). Montaigne acknowledges that not only is reliable data important, but also the control of variables. To say anything conclusive about the cause of a phenomenon, all dependent variables must be observed and limited as much as possible. Thus, we see in Montaigne’s critique a need for controlled experiments.
Finally, Shakespeare calls attention to the attitude of observing phenomena. We cannot distance ourselves from phenomena completely or we will fail to see anything beyond a subject’s apparent usefulness to us; instead, we must see like Miranda, and approach all subjects with a sense of wonder in order to see the potential they may offer. However, we must also see as Prospero and practice resignation. We must be able to acknowledge when a lack of empirical data prevents conclusions, and refrain from making judgments in such cases. Thus, The Tempest offers an idea of a kind of scientific skepticism that could be both productive and self-critical.
The end of The Tempest and the beginning of the scientific age in some ways mark the end of the magical: an end of alchemy, humors, spirits, witchcraft and some might argue spirituality. Yet, if we are to be skeptics, we must realize this is a matter of perception: empirical science would promise to be every bit as wondrous as magic. Frances Bacon’s proposed college “Salomon’s House” of New Atlantis (1624) describes a group of “natural philosophers” who, through a system of controlled, repeated experimentation and critical analysis, are able to overcome disease and manipulate the natural world.
Of course, we would be remiss to assume that our modern notion of science replaced reason in Renaissance England in the span of time this essay makes it appear. The ideas were there, fragmented as they were, yet natural science was yet in its infancy, tied closely to theological limitations by a belief in nature as a “second book of God,” and the criterion of falsifiability had yet to be proposed (Bouwsma 185). The success of science has been an incredibly slow and hard-fought process which continues to be fought today, but it is evident that Renaissance reason was defeated by the skeptics, who in turn set up the problems and ideas that the scientific movement would need to address.

[1] It is no surprise that John Florio is one of the many names that has been considered in the Shakespeare authorship question. It may be possible that Shakespeare read Montaigne in the original French, or that Florio was a friend of Shakespeare and shared early translations with him, but there is no decisive textual or historical evidence to support these claims.
[2] Miranda’s words here have been attributed to Prospero by some editors, though Kermode defends the attribution to Miranda in his edition, according to Pierce (“Scepticism” 172). If we read these words as Prospero’s, it negates the point that Caliban and Miranda may have had a teacher-student relationship prior to his transgression, but it does little to clear the ambiguity of the accusation.

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