Shakespeare as a Way of Life: Skeptical Practice and the Politics of Weakness

Shakespeare as a Way of Life: Skeptical Practice and the Politics of Weakness

Shakespeare as a Way of Life: Skeptical Practice and the Politics of Weakness

Shakespeare as a Way of Life: Skeptical Practice and the Politics of Weakness

Synopsis

Shakespeare as a Way of Life shows how reading Shakespeare helps us to live with epistemological weakness and even to practice this weakness, to make it a way of life. In a series of close readings, Kuzner shows how Hamlet, Lucrece, Othello, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and Timon of Athens, impel us to grapple with basic uncertainties: how we can be free, whether the world is abundant, whether we have met the demands of love and social life.

To Kuzner, Shakespeare's skepticism doesn't have the enabling potential of Keats's heroic "negativity capability," but neither is that skepticism the corrosive disease that necessarily issues in tragedy. While sensitive to both possibilities, Kuzner offers a way to keep negative capability negative while making skepticism livable. Rather than light the way to empowered, liberal subjectivity, Shakespeare's works demand lasting disorientation, demand that we practice the impractical so as to reshape the frames by which we view and negotiate the world.

The act of reading Shakespeare cannot yield the practical value that cognitive scientists and literary critics attribute to it. His work neither clarifies our sense of ourselves, of others, or of the world; nor heartens us about the human capacity for insight and invention; nor sharpens our ability to appreciate and adjudicate complex problems of ethics and politics. Shakespeare's plays, rather, yield cognitive discomforts, and it is just these discomforts that make them worthwhile.

Excerpt

Reading Shakespeare helps us to live with epistemological weakness and even to practice this weakness, to make it a way of life. in this book I show how his works offer a means for coming to terms with basic uncertainties: about how we can be free, about whether the world is abundant, about whether we have met the demands of love and social life. I also show how this offer of Shakespeare’s implies a politics.

Despite its title, this book is not bardolatrous. Later I consider many mea sures of Shakespeare’s worth, but I begin by dwelling on an unusually influential one, related to but distinct from my own, set out by Keats. What “Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” Keats explains, is “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats never precisely defines negative capability, but as it unfolds across letters, Li Ou points out, such capability requires abandoning “the comfortable enclosure of doctrinaire knowledge” in favor of “the actual vastness and complexity of experience.” Such receptive openness gives us two abilities important for my purposes here: the ability to contain contradictory ideas and to pass beyond the threshold of self-loss.

The ability to contain contradictory ideas entails the inability to make up one’s mind, an inability that Keats regards not as weakness but as strength. Indeed “[t]he only means of strengthening one’s intellect,” Keats writes, “is to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” Only by relinquishing doctrinaire ideas, being “certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination,” can we comprehend true beauty (54). Making the mind a passage for all thoughts evokes passivity . . .

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