Essays: we’ve all written them, whether as school projects or as university assignments. (For those going through esay trauma, we’ve even compiled a list of some of our favourite tips for writing a good English Literature essay.) But where did the essay form come from? It was effectively invented by one man, the French writer Michel de Montaigne (usually known just by his surname): in 1580 he published a volume of 107 pieces on various subjects, and he labelled these pieces Essais (from the French meaning ‘trial’ or ‘test’). The word ‘essay’ is linked to the word ‘assay’, which refers to the weighing or testing of gold for quality.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the essay as a ‘composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject; originally implying want of finish, “an irregular undigested piece” ([Doctor] Johnson), but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.’ In the wake of Montaigne, these short prose pieces took off: Francis Bacon became the first person to publish essays in English (1597), while Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, gave us the first recorded use of the word ‘essayist’ (1609).
Clearly, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries witnessed the birth and growth of the essay form, although it didn’t really catch on in any meaningful sense until the likes of Dr Johnson took it up again in the eighteenth century. But the arrival of the essay form was also the time of William Shakespeare, and numerous critics and literary historians have drawn a link between Shakespeare and the essay. Although the Bard never wrote essays, his work is suffused with the influence of this new form.
As James Shapiro points out in his acclaimed 2005 book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, something happens to Shakespeare’s soliloquies (that is, the monologues spoken by characters when left alone on the stage; usually a voicing of their innermost thoughts) around the turn of the sixteenth into the seventeenth century. This is also the time when Shakespeare most probably first encountered Montaigne’s essays. We see this in Hamlet, written around 1600-1. As Shapiro writes, ‘The breakthrough is one that Shakespeare might have arrived at sooner or later, but it was given tremendous impetus at the time that he was writing Hamlet by his interest in a new literary form: the essay.’ Shapiro goes on, ‘Shakespeare cared less about appropriating Montaigne’s language or philosophy than about exploring how essays – with their assertions, contradictions, reversals and abrupt shifts in subject matter and even confidence – captured a mind at work’. Indeed, Montaigne’s new form had such an impact in England that Ben Jonson even has a character in his play Volpone quip that English writers were stealing from poets ‘Almost as much as from Montaigne’.
We can see what we might call the ‘spirit of the essay’ in Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy – Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ speech – in the way that Hamlet is chewing over the issue by considering the two opposing sides of the argument (should I die, or carry on?). The internal wrestling, turnabouts, contradictions, and disagreements which follow – ‘Ay, there’s the rub’ and so forth – exhibit all the classic hallmarks of the essay form as originated by Montaigne. So, next time you go to write an essay, mark one, or read one, remember that we may never have had half of Shakespeare’s greatest lines if the form had never been invented.