Monday, May 07, 2018

Shakespeare once more

Multifarious as his talent was, Shakespeare is not usually thought to have embraced or expounded any one philosophical system.  Appropriately enough, the literary and dramatic aspects of the bard have evoked a vast amount commentary which I will not attempt to summarize here  Still, there are significant concepts and hints of philosophical themes that reside in the copious work of the Bard . Hence, the emphasis here will be on Shakespeare as a thinker, an elusive but perhaps not intractable subject.

In fact two recent monographs have addressed these issues: Colin McGinn, Shakespeare’s Philosophy (2007), and A. D. Nuttall, Shakespeare the Thinker (also 2007).

Writing as a professional philosopher, McGinn focuses on six of Shakespeare's plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest. Among other themes, the writer.notes how he was influenced by the essays of Michel de Montaigne,.whose thinking was saturated with ideas from writers of antiquity, including philosophers. In addition to chapters on the major plays, McGinn also offers essays on Shakespeare and gender, as well as on aspects of psychology, ethics, and tragedy. Perhaps anachronistically, McGinn relates the ideas he detects in the plays to later philosophers such as David Hume, and to the modern commentaries of such critics as Harold Bloom.

In the first chapter McGinn offers a more general approach, maintaining that three basic  philosophical themes permeate Shakespeare's plays: (a) the tension between knowledge and skepticism; (b) the self; and (c) causality. Let us look at each of them in turn.  

Aristotle held that the  quest for knowledge is central to human existence.  According to McGill knowledge is a normative concept. In this sense, it is useful to distinguish it from information, which is not normative. Information can be true or false, good or bad, useful or useless. Knowledge is true, good and useful. Information is ubiquitous; knowledge is rare.

In all candor then we have imperfect access to what is true, good and useful. Our senses often mislead us, as do other people. This has been a perennial philosophical concern, present in the sayings of Socrates and the writings of Plato. Socrates, in particular, was skeptical about those who claimed to have certain knowledge.

The problem has seemed so acute to some that they have dismissed the quest for knowledge. The school of thought known as Pyrrhonism as for example, argues that it is irrational to believe in anything, given our knowledge-accessing problems.

As has been noted, Shakespeare was exposed to the writings of one arch-skeptic, Montaigne, who wrote scintillating  essays fusing personal anecdote with serious intellectual concerns. In a major essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond,.”, Montaigne articulated the skeptical position. 

Moreover, Shakespeare was, McGinn asserts, confronted the problem of other minds. This concerns our difficulties in figuring out what others are thinking, plotting, hoping. and intending. The plays team with characters who misunderstand each other. Indeed, the comedies routinely involve misunderstandings of some sort.

We turn now to the second aspect addressed by McGinn, the self. In essence a play amounts to an assemblage of characters or selves engaging in activities and events. These occurences constitute the “plot,". The question is whether the self remains constant throughout the plot or whether it is changed by the plot.

McGinn maintains that Shakespeare doubts the notion that the self is a constant, definite, singular "thing" or "essence". Instead, McGinn suggests that for Shakespeare the self is both interactive and theatrical.  

It is interactive in that it never makes sense to treat the self in isolation. The self only emerges tin social interactions. For example, if we describe someone as being contentious, what we mean is that they behave in certain ways towards other people.

It is theatrical in that it is best understood in terms of the roles a person plays in life. This idea is manifest in the famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It. We treat life like a stage play in which we play different roles, each designed to make an impression on an audience of some kind. 

In McGinn’s view the final philosophical concern of Shakespeare is with causality. Causality - meaningful sequence - serves to structure the events and processes through which we live. The philosophical concern is with the search for some overarching causal principle that explains the structure and sequence of all events.

We can distinguish between two types of overarching causal principle. The first would be a teleological principle.which seeks to explain events in terms of the whims, desires, preferences, or intentions of some agent, usually God. This principle imbues events with great moral and ethical significance. For example, if a battle is won, it is because God favors us; if a person is injured, it is because God is angry.

The second type of principle would be naturalistic and amoral. It explains events in terms of mindless processes and mechanisms. What morality and purpose there is in the universe is projected onto it by us, it is not out there.  McGinn maintains that Shakespeare avoids commitment to teleological causation. In his comedies and tragedies he seems to reject the idea that there is rational purpose or order in the universe. As we encounter it, the universe is unruly, morally blind, and even sometimes unintelligible. McGinn thinks that this skepticism helps to give Shakespeare's plays their power, for: they challenge complacent views about causality.

The late A. S, Nuttall was professor of English at Oxford University.  In preparation for his book, the writer reread all of the plays, tracing the evolution of  Shakespeare’s ideas over time.  Still there is unity in variety, for Nuttall maintains that certain questions engross Shakespeare from his early plays to the late romances: the nature of motive, cause, personal identity and relation, the proper status of imagination, ethics and subjectivity, language and its capacity to occlude and to communicate. Yet Shakespeare’s thought, Nuttall asserts, is anything but static. The plays keep returning to, modifying, and complicating his creative preoccupations. 

Much recent historicist criticism has tended to “flatten” Shakespeare by confining him to the thought-clichés of his time, and this in its turn has led to an implicitly patronizing view of him as unthinkingly racist, sexist, and so on. Nuttall shows us that, on the contrary, Shakespeare proves again and again to be more intelligent and perceptive than his twenty-first-century readers. This book challenges us to reconsider the relation of great literature to its social and historical matrix,

As noted at the outset ,formal connections with specific philosophical schools are generally lacking, though Stoicism, mediated by Montaigne may be an exception.  

Shakespeare was writing for the theater during the reigns of two monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. The plays he wrote during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, are often seen to embody the generally happy, confident and optimistic mood of the Elizabethans.  On the whole he emphasizes the continuity of the British monarchy, as a force for stability, without leaving out some darker episodes.

Politically, was Shakespeare a conservative?  He certainly did not support any efforts to overturn the Elizaabethan and Jacobean orde in which he thrivedr.  Yet perhaps there is more of be said.  In his book The Elizabethan World Picture, E. M. W. Tillyard maintained that Shakespeare inherited a basic medieval idea of an ordered Chain of Being.  This concept involved a number of stabilizing elements, including Angels; the Stars and Fortunes; the Analogy between Macrocosm and Microcosm; the Four Elements; the Four Humous; Sympathies; Correspondences; and the Cosmic Dance—ideas and symbols that engaged the minds and imaginations not only of the Elizabethans but throughout the Renaissance. With this dominance, or so it seemed, it was best to accord with the cosmic principle, rather than to struggle against it.

Be that as it may, Shakespeare lived at time of religious transition, and some scholars have suggested that he may have been a Catholic or crypto-Catholic.  Yet the evidence that has been produced is thin, affording no definitive conclusion.
Recent decades have seen the rise of a comprehensive, though controversial trend informed by leftwing politics.  Cultural materialists claim to detect and analyze the processes by which dominant forces in society maintain control over canonical texts, kidnapping sos as to implant hegemonic  values on the cultural landscape.  In this vein Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, authors of Political Shakespeare, have identified four defining tasks of cultural materialism:  historical context; close textual analysis; political commitment; and theoretical method. Through its engagement with issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class, cultural materialism has had a significant impact on the field of literary studies, especially in UK.  

Yet  British critic, Graham Holderness, who sympathizes with the trend, concedes that cultural materialism is a "politicized form of historiography”.  Now its influence is receding. - and a good thing too.

The last word is reserved for the late Professor Nuttall;  “Of course [Shakespeare] is not a systematic philosopher; he Is a dramatist. But the very avoidance of system may be shrewd - even perhaps philosophically shrewd. He shares with the major philosophers the knack of asking fundamental  .  .  . questions.” (p. 378).


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