Academic journal article Cithara

Shakespeare and Philosophy

Academic journal article Cithara

Shakespeare and Philosophy

Article excerpt

Shakespeare and Philosophy. By Stanley Stewart. New York: Routledge, 2010. Pp. xvii, 225. $95.

Stanley Stewart's very sensible study of Shakespeare and philosophy focuses on Shakespeare's influence on philosophers rather than on philosophy per se. The late Colin McGinn's book Shakespeare's Philosophy credits Shakespeare with original philosophical insights, but as Stewart wryly notes, Shakespeare had no influence whatever on seventeenth-century philosophy: "It would not overstate the case to say that seventeenth-century philosophy would remain as it is had Shakespeare never written a line. ... So we know what the world would look like without Shakespeare. Those living in the world of seventeenth-century philosophy were occupied - a better word might be 'preoccupied' - with other subjects" (30). Stewart also succinctly disposes of another book with an extravagant claim, A. D. Nuttall's Freudian study, Shakespeare the Thinker. Stewart mocks "Nuttall's claim that every thought that came after Shakespeare, Shakespeare already had" (15). It becomes clear that other studies of Shakespeare and philosophy are really exercises in bardolatry. Shakespeare can do no wrong, for his tremendous literary reputation is extended and edited to include all of knowledge.

The actual pairing of Shakespeare and philosophy, in any discussable sense, does not occur until the eighteenth century: "After a century in which philosophers, with their epistemological, political, and religious concerns, barely mention poetry, and do not refer to Shakespeare at all, the Earl of Shaftesbury breaks the long silence, with his very influential Characteristicks (1711)" (37). For Shaftesbury, the (in his view) unpolished style of Othello and its crude appeal to a female audience through the lurid tales of the protagonist indicate Shakespeare's "prescience concerning the English reading audience, which had come to exhibit the taste of 'the silliest Woman, or merest Boy'" (39). While Shaftesbury offers Shakespeare at least faint praise, David Hume, one of the most influential philosophers of the eighteenth century, found Shakespeare's works profoundly distasteful. Against the background of Elizabeth Montagu's shameless panegyric, Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare, Hume, in his essay, "The Rise of the Arts and Sciences," pointedly does not list Shakespeare among his list of geniuses. "In this company, only two English poets, Milton and Pope, deserve mention" (44). Ironically, Hume's contemporaries seemed to be as upset with his disdain for Shakespeare as they were with his supposed atheism:"., .to some of his contemporaries, Hume's philosophical project involved two related absurdities: his atheism and his unbelief in Shakespeare's genius" (42). Hume insists, along with Shaftesbury, that Shakespeare's greatness is qualified by both his ignorance and the rudeness of his age: "If Shakespeare be considered as a man, born in a rude age, and educated in the lowest manner, without any instruction either from the world or from books, he may be regarded as a prodigy: if represented as a poet, capable of furnishing a proper entertainment to a refined or intelligent audience, we must abate much of this eulogy" (53).

William Richardson's Philosophical Analysis and Illustration of Some ofShakespeare's Remarkable Characters (1774, etc.) appears to be the progenitor of Colin McGinn's and A. J. Nutall's attempts to turn Shakespeare into a philosopher. Richardson's real aim, according to Stewart, is to elevate the status of literary criticism to the level of scientific inquiry by combining it with philosophy: "Richardson longed for his literary work to be recognized as worthwhile. He lived at a time when what was intellectually respected depended on the evidence and reasoning behind the particular 'theory,' on how closely an argument adhered to the norms of scientific inquiry" (69). Thus he is not really a philosopher, but an effective antidote to the subjectivism and uncritical praise of ravers like Elizabeth Montagu. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.