Shakespeare's Philosophy – Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays by Colin McGinn. 2006. Read in November, 2009.
This is the kind of specialized book I like. Colin McGinn has been a philosophy teacher at such universities as Oxford, Rutgers, Miami and University College of London. He has also written lots of books. He is, to use his own words, “a professional philosopher with an interest in Shakespeare, not a professional Shakespeare scholar with a passing interest in philosophy” (p. viii).
He starts out by introducing general themes and placing Shakespeare within the philosophical framework of the Renaissance, a time for which “[q]uestioning is the spirit...and [there is] a sense of shifting foundations” (p.3). He adds, “The questions were being asked...but no clear answers seemed forthcoming” (p. 5). He mentions the influence the French philosopher Montaigne's “personal, lively and pungent“ essays (p. 6) had on Shakespeare, whose importance in the developing the role of the self as “interactive and theatrical” has been noted by many scholars, especially Harold Bloom. McGinn also shows how Shakespeare deals with the question of causality, why things happen the way they do, and he asserts that Shakespeare “sees causation as unruly, unpredictable, unintelligible, blind, weird, and even paradoxical...To this extent his worldview is atheistic.. The bleakness of his tragic vision is principally a matter of rejecting the notion of an immanent rational order...That is why his plays are so disturbing and challenging to comforting myths about how the world operates. Shakespeare shocks us out of our casual complacency” (p. 15). Again he connects Shakespeare to Montaigne in the conclusion of his introduction in which he writes that in both “there is a kind of appalling, but exhilarating candor. And some of the ruthlessness is philosophical: the determination to expose reality for what it is, to undermine dogma and complacency” (p.16). This bodes well for the book!
In which he then proceeds to analyze several of the major plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream (which I used in my text earlier on this blog), Hamlet, Macbeth and several others. Each of these analyses is so exciting that I can hardly wait to get to these plays so I can use this book.
He also has interesting things to say about Shakespeare and gender - “for Shakespeare, there is something irreducibly theatrical about gender identity” (p. 155); about Shakespeare and psychology - “he is making a point about human psychology – that it is infinitely various” (p. 173); about Shakespeare and ethics - “He is pained by humanity, also amused by it, but he wishes it well” (p.180) – perhaps my favorite line in the whole book.
In his final chapter McGinn deals with Shakespeare's genius, no small question, that! He gently takes issue with Harold Bloom's claim that Shakespeare invented the human by pointing out that human nature was already there but that Shakespeare discovered its importance to literature, he clarified it by investigating and articulating and exhibiting and dissecting all the aspects of the human. McGinn concedes graciously that Bloom is right that in doing all of this Shakespeare helped form humans as we are now. McGinn says, “humanity may have imitated Shakespeare's imitations of humanity. Thus, in this sense, Shakespeare created human nature as it now exists, at least in some measure. So pervasive has his influence on the culture been...that we cannot help but be shaped by his works...He told us how the world looks from the perspective of itself. And the world never looked the same again” ( pp.203-204).
McGinn makes a big deal of Shakespeare. Therefore I'm happy to make a big deal of McGinn. Read this book!