Shakespeare's Philosophy : Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-11-10
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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Shakespeare's plays are usually studied by literary scholars and historians and the books about him from those perspectives are legion. It is most unusual for a trained philosopher to give us his insight, as Colin McGinn does here. In his brilliant commentary, McGinn explores Shakespeare's philosophy of life and illustrates how he was influenced, for example, by the essays of Montaigne that were translated into English while Shakespeare was writing. In addition to chapters on the great plays, there are also essays on Shakespeare and gender and his plays from the aspects of psychology, ethics, and tragedy. As McGinn says about Shakespeare, There is not a sentimental bone in his body. He has the curiosity of a scientist, the judgement of a philosopher, and the soul of a poet. McGinn relates the ideas in the plays to the later philosophers such as David Hume and the modern commentaries of critics such as Harold Bloom. The book is an exhilarating reading experience about one of the greatest writers in English.


Shakespeare's Philosophy
Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays

Chapter One

General Themes

In Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, published in 1817, William Hazlitt remarks (discussing Iago in Othello) that Shakespeare "was as good a philosopher as he was a poet."1 In his discussion of Coriolanus, he observes that Shakespeare writes with "the spirit of a poet and the acuteness of a philosopher."2 And the philosophical tenor of Shakespeare's plays has not gone unnoticed by other readers and audiences. We feel that large themes are at work in the plays, shaping the poetry and the drama. But little attempt has been made to identify and articulate these philosophical themes in any systematic way.3 Critical studies tend to focus on issues of character, plot, and diction, as well as the social and political context of the plays, but the philosophical ideas suffusing them receive only passing mention. This is no doubt because those professionally involved in Shakespeare studies are not in general philosophers by training or inclination; they are literary scholars. Philosophy, perhaps, makes them nervous. It will be my contention in this book that an avowedly philosophical approach to Shakespeare can reveal new dimensions to his work, and that his work can contribute to philosophy itself. It is not my intention to replace poetic or dramatic treatments of Shakespeare, or even historical ones; I mean merely to supplement them with something more abstract. I want to look at Shakespeare's plays expressly from the point of view of their underlying philosophical concerns. This will, I believe, reveal the source of their depth.

The plan of the book is as follows. In this chapter I shall outline in a preliminary way what I take to be the main philosophical themes in Shakespeare's plays, with minimal attention to the text. I want to give the reader a sense of the issues themselves, before using them to interpret the plays. These issues are by no means antiquated, but have a continuing relevance. Then I shall move on to a close reading of Shakespeare's main plays, with these themes in hand, elaborating them as I go. At the end of the book I shall treat a small number of philosophical matters that are ancillary to my main themes. We shall see that Hazlitt was quite correct in his assessment of Shakespeare's talents.

Shakespeare is often commended for his "timelessness," rightly so, but of course he also wrote at a particular period in history—the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. For my purposes, the most relevant fact about this period is that it precedes the Scientific Revolution, so that science was in its infancy in Shakespeare's day. Very little that we now take for granted was understood—in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology. The achievements of Descartes, Leibniz, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Boyle, and other heroes of the Renaissance were still in the future. The laws of mechanics were unknown; disease was a mystery; genetics was unheard of. Intelligent people believed in witchcraft, ghosts, fairies, astrology, and all the rest. Eclipses were greeted with alarmed superstition. Scientific method was struggling to gain a foothold (Francis Bacon was laying the groundwork). The conception of the world as a set of intelligible law-governed causes was at most a distant dream. The most advanced learning available came from the ancients; intellectually things hadn't changed much in two thousand years. When Shakespeare looked up into the night sky, he had very little idea of what he was seeing, and the earth was still generally considered the center of the universe. Nor was much known about the extent of the earth and of other cultures (though global exploration had already begun). It can be hard to remember this when we are confronted by Shakespeare's sophistication in other matters. Nothing much was known about the natural world then, and this was known to be so; uncertainty and ignorance seemed man's natural lot. To give one striking example: so little was understood about the plague that devastated Europe in the late sixteenth century that orders were given in London to exterminate all cats and dogs—which were in fact the best enemies of the true carriers of the germs responsible, rats.

It was also a period of religious upheaval in which the source of divine authority was very much in doubt. The Protestant Reformation had challenged Catholicism, and the question of how we might know God was intensely real (you could die for taking the wrong view). Should believers rely on their own unaided reason to know God's ways, or must they depend ultimately on church dogma? How to interpret Scripture was a vexed question, with a great deal turning on it. Thus there was a strong interest in knowledge and how it might be acquired, but not very much that seemed to qualify as beyond doubt. It was an age of uncertainty, following a period (the Middle Ages) of dogmatism, and preceding the age in which human reason seemed to achieve undreamed-of understanding of the universe (the Age of Enlightenment in which we still live). It is fair, I think, to characterize Shakespeare's time as transitional—as one kind of authority (the church, monarchy) began to give way to another (science and human reason, a new social order). We might say, simplifying somewhat, that Shakespeare was "between cultures." Questioning is the spirit of this period, and a sense of shifting foundations. It would not be surprising, then, to find doubt and uncertainty running through Shakespeare's plays. And these aporias would run deep: the nature of man, his place in the cosmos, the very possibility of knowledge.

There are three areas in which I think this spirit of uncertainty pervades the plays: knowledge and skepticism; the nature of the self; and the character of causality. I shall consider these in turn.

Knowledge and Skepticism

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the terse sentence: "All men naturally desire knowledge." That sounds like a truism, but if it is, it is a truism with profound consequences. There are three parts to it: that it is in . . .

Shakespeare's Philosophy
Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays
. Copyright © by Colin McGinn. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays by Colin McGinn
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