Stanley Cavell: Philosophy's Recounting of the Ordinary

By Stephen Mulhall | Go to book overview

7
Shakespeare: Scepticism and Tragedy

The Nature of Shakespearean Tragic Drama

We saw in previous chapters that Cavell understands the problematic known to philosophy as scepticism to be under examination in Shakespearean texts in the form of tragedy. His early essay characterizing King Lear as a drama pivoting around failures of acknowledgement, and his later interpretation of Othello as a diagnosis of the sceptic as in the grip of death-dealing jealousy, have already been shown to be pertinent to our philosophical concerns; and these have been followed by readings of Coriolanus, The Winter's Tale, Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra, in each of which Cavell's understanding of the emotional or spiritual drive of scepticism is deepened as he forges connections between it and certain interpretations of narcissism, cannibalism, and revenge. Although I lack the space in which to offer any critical exegesis of most of these connections, it will not be possible to make progress in providing even a brief surview of Cavell's interests in this and other 'non-philosophical' domains without examining his reading of The Winter Tale in some detail. But before I do so, I want to note a fundamental element of Cavell's general approach to Shakespeare upon which I have as yet laid little emphasis: for Cavell is convinced not only that scepticism is a topic within these plays, but also that the Shakespearean corpus of which they are members -- this particular mode of poetic drama, this particular body of expressions -- itself constitutes an effort to overcome the sceptical impulse in our culture.

This doubling of issues within the plays and issues generated in and by an audience's relation to the plays themselves was already at work in 'The Avoidance of Love'.1 Cavell there takes the events of King Lear to be driven by Lear's inability to acknowledge the love of his youngest daughter, because he is unable or unwilling to respond to that love and unable or unwilling to reveal this fact about himself; he wishes to avoid this recognition and revelation of himself, and so must avoid recognizing

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1
In MWM; repr. in DK.

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