Shakespeare’s Philosophy

I’m reading Colin McGinn’s Shakespeare’s Philosophy along with the major plays he discusses in the book.  I’m about halfway through it.  McGinn tackles the philosophical aspects of Shakespeare’s work and shuns literary study of his work.  I’ve already gained a whole new appreciation of the philosophical content.

McGinn views Shakespeare as a skeptical philosopher who had read Montaigne and was very much in sympathy with his philosophy.  He sees Shakespeare concerned with many core philosophical problems and issues: appearance vs. reality and the limits of knowledge, the nature of personal identity and the self, other minds, the imagination as one of the four faculties, the nature of love, good, and evil and how they are influenced by our imaginations and created selves and abilities to interpret and know other minds, and the issue of creation, being, and nothingness as it relates to who we are and how we live out our life.

I’ve found his discussion of Shakespeare’s thoughts on personal identity and the self fascinating.  Like Montaigne and Hume, Shakespeare did not believe there was a stable core self that one could identify.  We create different characters for specific social needs.  We are like actors who are continually changing roles depending on circumstances.  We use our imaginations to create narratives that fit how we would have others see us.  In this process we easily dupe ourselves and others.  (You are who you think you ain’t.)  Character does not create actions, but actions create character.

I’ve always enjoyed McGinn as a prose stylist who makes difficult thought easier.  I can see Shakespeare’s Philosophy and the plays standing in as a good text for an introduction to philosophy course.

(This post written on the laptop. 🙂 )

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Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 7:28 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Thanks a lot for this post, Lynn. In a sense Shakespeare would then be a post-structuralist in terms of the concept of identity. Not surprising really, but still pretty thought-provoking writing as he was in a strictly feudal context. So, identity is performative. Simondon, Derrida, and Deleuze would appreciate that 400 years later 🙂

    Jaques’ diagnosis in As You Like It, though often taken as ironic, still rings true.

    All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players;
    They have their exits and their entrances;
    And one man in his time plays many parts,
    His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
    Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
    Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
    And shining morning face, creeping like snail
    Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
    Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
    Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
    Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
    Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
    Seeking the bubble reputation
    Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
    In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
    With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
    Full of wise saws and modern instances;
    And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
    Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
    With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
    His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
    For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
    Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
    And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
    That ends this strange eventful history,
    Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
    Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


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