Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays: A Selection edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Peter G Platt (New York Review Books, 2014)
Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism by Slavoj Žižek (Allen Lane, 2014)
The date: February 1999. The place: Upper-Middles Religious Studies class. The emotion: pure, all-consuming, soul-destroying rage. It’s hard to type with clenched fists, but consider this, dear reader: yours truly stood accused of copying R.S. homework. I repeat: COPYING R.S. HOMEWORK. The scandal of it! For the record, Reverend Raynor, I never have, nor never will, copy someone else’s R.S. homework. And I can hardly be blamed if other people copy mine, can I? In what possible world is it my fault if Max Jones takes it into his head to borrow my exercise book for illegal facsimiles?
And what, I ask you, is so wrong with a bit of light plagiarism anyway? Do you like Shakespeare, Reverend? Eh? You know, William freakin’ Shakespeare, the greatest author in the English language? The man was a total, unashamed, dyed-in-the-wool copycat. Don’t believe me? Check out Stephen Greenblatt and Peter (Green?) Platt’s latest edition of John Florio’s translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. The Bard, it turns out, was an avid reader of Florio’s translation, and had the audacity – or Smarts – to do a little bit of playful “re-appropriation”. And not just of the fart jokes (see his Journal).
The reviewers – among them, Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian and Andrew Hadfield in The Irish Times – have been enjoying all the variously slight and substantial “homages” to Montaigne that Florio’s translation reveals in The Tempest and King Lear. At points, Lezard hazards that the Poet was more than your common-or-garden plagiarist, and critically engaged with the Montaigne found in Florio – but at the end of the day, Reverend, a copycat is still a copycat, right? Maximillian Jones might well have been offering an insightful commentary on my cack-handed attempts to list the six main items on the Passover Seder plate – but what concerned you was originality, wasn’t it? The authenticity of the homework — you Heideggerian, you!
Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to (the collection) (of selections) (from the translations of) the Essays (in The Guardian) also exposes certain points in Hamlet that bear uncanny resemblances to certain phrases in Florio’s text:
“When Hamlet exclaims to his mother, ‘Ecstasy? My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time,’ Shakespeare may have picked up a hint from Montaigne’s ‘during his ecstasy, he seemed to have neither pulse nor breath’… And Polonius’s ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’ may owe something to ‘That above al, he be instructed to yield, yea to quit his weapons unto truth…’”
More than a little suspicious, I would say. And this peregrination brings me on to Book Two of this issue’s review of reviews, Slavoj Žižek’s Trouble in Paradise, and Terry Eagleton’s commentary on said book, in The Guardian:
“In Trouble in Paradise, [Žižek] speaks of Hamlet as a clown, and he himself is both intellectual and jester. Shakespeare’s jesters are conscious of their own unreality, and Žižek seems to be, too.”
Part of the reason for his “unreality”, Eagleton writes, is his constant attempts to deconstruct himself by means of post-modern self-plagiarising:
“He is postmodern … in his suspicion of originality. A good deal of what he says has been said before, not by others but by himself. He is one of the great self-plagiarisers of our time, constantly thieving stuff from his own publications. Whole chunks of Absolute Recoil reappear in Trouble in Paradise, and whole chunks of Trouble in Paradise appear twice over. He has now told the same jokes, recycled the same insights and recounted the same anecdotes dozens of times over.”
Too late, Žižek – too late! What use is this now, a good fifteen years after the burning shame of Reverend R’s accusation? Oh to have had the combined forces of Shakespeare and the post-modernists at my back! To have been able to tell the reverend Reverend that I harboured deep political suspicions of originality – alas to have been denied by piffling temporal constraints.
But let all school children that follow learn from my defeat: Shakespeare was a copy-cat, and (leaving aside the recent accusations of non-self-plagiarism (see news, TPM 67)) Žižek’s done one better. Copy from each other, children, and failing that, copy from yourself!