Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 5. Her Essay on Shakespeare; Mrs. Montagu and Voltaire

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XV. The Bluestockings

§ 5. Her Essay on Shakespeare; Mrs. Montagu and Voltaire

It was not, however, till nine years later, that the great literary effort of her life appeared, an Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare, carrying the sub-title “with some remarks upon the misrepresentations of Mons. de Voltaire.” In her letters, one may trace its germ at an early stage, with here and there evidences of its gradual growth. In a letter to Lord Bath, in 1761, she writes a long criticism of Voltaire’s Tancred, in which she compares the “natural sallies of passion in our Shakspear” with “the pompous declamation” of Voltaire in Tancred. Three years later, Mrs. Carter mentions Mrs. Montagu’s “criticism on Macbeth” and, when Johnson’s preface to the 1765 edition of Shakespeare with all the other prefaces appeared, she writes of Johnson’s as the ablest of them all. Mrs. Montagu’s Essay was, in great measure, a protest against the strictures that Voltaire had for years hurled at Shakespeare, from whom he had freely borrowed. As many English readers knew, he had taken whole scenes from Macbeth for his Mahomet; the plot of his Zaïre was only Othello slightly disguised; but indignation in England deepened to disgust at Voltaire’s introduction to Sémiramis. Miss Talbot, a bluestocking, wrote to Mrs. Carter in 1745, “Voltaire has just published with his Sémiramis, the foolishest, idlest, coarsest critique that ever was.”

In her introduction, Mrs. Montagu says, “I was incited to this undertaking by great admiration of his genius, and still greater indignation at the treatment he has received from a French wit.” The whole gist of the Essay, however, so far as Shakespeare is concerned, is summed up in the trite conclusion of the introduction, “Nature and sentiment will pronounce our Shakespear a mighty genius; judgment and taste will confess that, as a writer, he is far from faultless.” Her vindication of Shakespeare, it may at once be admitted, was what a contemporary called it, “a work of supererogation”; but the attack on the literary dictator of Europe, even though, in its daring, it may suggest the proverb concerning fools and angels, was at least, well-merited. In Paris, particularly, when, five years later, the Essay was translated into French, Voltaire’s credit as an authority on Shakespeare was felt to be seriously damaged. He had boasted that his translation of Julius Caesar was “the most faithful translation that can be, and the only faithful one in the French language of any author, ancient or modern.” Such confidence invited attack, and Mrs. Montagu fell on his errors with a pitiless enjoyment that gives life and vigour to this part of her destructive criticism. She points out that, in this only faithful translation, Voltaire has utterly misread the meaning of several words and phrases, and, with a relish sharpened by indignation, her unsparing pen points out “the miserable mistakes and galimathias of this dictionary work.” After an attack on Corneille, with whom Voltaire had compared Shakespeare, to the disadvantage of the latter, she finally hopes that “the many gross blunders in this work will deter other beaux esprit from attempting to hurt works of genius by the masked battery of an unfair translation.”

The essay, though published anonymously, met with a flattering reception. The Critical Review wrote of the author as “almost the only critic who has yet appeared worthy of Shakespeare,” and most of the other reviews—save The Monthly Review, which condemned the language of the Essay as affected—were, on the whole, favourable. From the bluestocking circle, she received reams of eulogy, and perhaps Johnson was the only dissentient in the chorus of praise when he remarked to Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Sir, it does her honour, but it would do nobody else honour.” Modern criticism agrees with Johnson, and the Essay is condemned as “well-intentioned, … but feeble,” and quite without value in the enormous bulk of Shakespeare criticism.

It brought her, however, a considerable measure of contemporary fame in England, and her bluestocking adherents were proud of their “queen’s” achievement in the world of letters. “She is the first woman for literary knowledge in England,” said Mrs. Thrale, while Fanny Burney wrote that the general plaudits given to the book “mounted her … to the Parnassian heights of female British literature.” When, in 1776, she visited Paris she had the satisfaction of finding her Essay well known, and herself a celebrity. She was a welcome guest at many of the Parisian salons, she adopted Parisian rouge, criticised French plays and French acting with severity and, by a singular chance, her visit coincided with the opening of the French academy on the occasion when Voltaire’s famous abusive Letter to the Academy was read by d’Alembert. Shakespeare was again denounced in language so unrestrained that even some of the forty, wrote Mrs. Montagu, “shrugged their shoulders” and showed other strong signs of disapprobation. At its conclusion, Suard said to her, Je crois, Madame, que vous êtes un peu fâchée de ce que vous venez d’entendre. Moi, Monsieur! she replied, with her ever ready wit, point du tout! Je ne suis pas amie de Monsieur Voltaire. Her bluestocking friends rather feared that her Parisian success would unduly inflate her self-esteem. Mrs. Delany wrote to Mrs. Boscawen a witty little sketch of her as Madame de Montagu, to which Mrs. Boscawen replied, “Much I fear that she will never be Mrs. Montagu, an Englishwoman again!” However, their fears were not realised. She came back to England and was soon her former English self, something of a poseuse perhaps, a good deal of an egotist, but always possessing such brilliant qualities of mind and intellect, such a gift for steady friendship, that she remained as firmly fixed as hitherto on her bluestocking throne, on which she had still more than twenty years to reign.