Shakespeare's philosophy

A newish book:

Shakespeare's Philosophy
Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays
by Colin McGinn
Publisher: HarperCollins | Date published: 11/20/2007
ISBN: 9780061551703


Shakespeare's plays are usually studied by literary scholars and
historians and the books about him from those perspectives are legion.
It is most unusual for a trained philosopher to give us his insight,
as Colin McGinn does here, into six of Shakespeare's greatest plays--A
Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and The

In his brilliant commentary, McGinn explores Shakespeare's philosophy
of life and illustrates how he was influenced, for example, by the
essays of Montaigne that were translated into English while
Shakespeare was writing. In addition to chapters on the great plays,
there are also essays on Shakespeare and gender and his plays from the
aspects of psychology, ethics, and tragedy.

As McGinn says about Shakespeare, "There is not a sentimental bone in
his body. He has the curiosity of a scientist, the judgement of a
philosopher, and the soul of a poet." McGinn relates the ideas in the
plays to the later philosophers such as David Hume and the modern
commentaries of critics such as Harold Bloom. The book is an
exhilarating reading experience, especially at a time when a new
audience has opened up for the greatest writer in English.

General Themes
In Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, published in 1817, William
Hazlitt remarks (discussing Iago in Othello) that Shakespeare "was as
good a philosopher as he was a poet." In his discussion of Coriolanus,
he observes that Shakespeare writes with "the spirit of a poet and the
acuteness of a philosopher." And the philosophical tenor of
Shakespeare's plays has not gone unnoticed by other readers and
audiences. We feel that large themes are at work in the plays, shaping
the poetry and the drama. But little attempt has been made to identify
and articulate these philosophical themes in any systematic way.
Critical studies tend to focus on issues of character, plot, and
diction, as well as the social and political context of the plays, but
the philosophical ideas suffusing them receive only passing mention.
This is no doubt because those professionally involved in Shakespeare
studies are not in general philosophers by training or inclination;
they are literary scholars. Philosophy, perhaps, makes them nervous.
It will be my contention in this book that an avowedly philosophical
approach to Shakespeare can reveal new dimensions to his work, and
that his work can contribute to philosophy itself. It is not my
intention to replace poetic or dramatic treatments of Shakespeare, or
even historical ones; I mean merely to supplement them with something
more abstract. I want to look at Shakespeare's plays expressly from
the point of view of their underlying philosophical concerns. This
will, I believe, reveal the source of their depth.

The plan of the book is as follows. In this chapter I shall outline in
a preliminary way what I take to be the main philosophical themes in
Shakespeare's plays, with minimal attention to the text. I want to
give the reader a sense of the issues themselves, before using them to
interpret the plays. These issues are by no means antiquated, but have
a continuing relevance. Then I shall move on to a close reading of
Shakespeare's main plays, with these themes in hand, elaborating them
as I go. At the end of the book I shall treat a small number of
philosophical matters that are ancillary to my main themes. We shall
see that Hazlitt was quite correct in his assessment of Shakespeare's

* * *

Shakespeare is often commended for his "timelessness," rightly so, but
of course he also wrote at a particular period in history--the end of
the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. For my
purposes, the most relevant fact about this period is that it precedes
the Scientific Revolution, so that science was in its infancy in
Shakespeare's day. Very little that we now take for granted was
understood--in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology. The
achievements of Descartes, Leibniz, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Boyle, and
other heroes of the Renaissance were still in the future. The laws of
mechanics were unknown; disease was a mystery; genetics was unheard
of. Intelligent people believed in witchcraft, ghosts, fairies,
astrology, and all the rest. Eclipses were greeted with alarmed
superstition. Scientific method was struggling to gain a foothold
(Francis Bacon was laying the groundwork). The conception of the world
as a set of intelligible law-governed causes was at most a distant
dream. The most advanced learning available came from the ancients;
intellectually things hadn't changed much in two thousand years. When
Shakespeare looked up into the night sky, he had very little idea of
what he was seeing, and the earth was still generally considered the
center of the universe. Nor was much known about the extent of the
earth and of other cultures (though global exploration had already
begun). It can be hard to remember this when we are confronted by
Shakespeare's sophistication in other matters. Nothing much was known
about the natural world then, and this was known to be so; uncertainty
and ignorance seemed man's natural lot. To give one striking example:
so little was understood about the plague that devastated Europe in
the late sixteenth century that orders were given in London to
exterminate all cats and dogs--which were in fact the best enemies of
the true carriers of the germs responsible, rats.

It was also a period of religious upheaval in which the source of
divine authority was very much in doubt. The Protestant Reformation
had challenged Catholicism, and the question of how we might know God
was intensely real (you could die for taking the wrong view). Should
believers rely on their own unaided reason to know God's ways, or must
they depend ultimately on church dogma? How to interpret Scripture was
a vexed question, with a great deal turning on it. Thus there was a
strong interest in knowledge and how it might be acquired, but not
very much that seemed to qualify as beyond doubt. It was an age of
uncertainty, following a period (the Middle Ages) of dogmatism, and
preceding the age in which human reason seemed to achieve undreamed-of
understanding of the universe (the Age of Enlightenment in which we
still live). It is fair, I think, to characterize Shakespeare's time
as transitional--as one kind of authority (the church, monarchy) began
to give way to another (science and human reason, a new social order).
We might say, simplifying somewhat, that Shakespeare was "between
cultures." Questioning is the spirit of this period, and a sense of
shifting foundations. It would not be surprising, then, to find doubt
and uncertainty running through Shakespeare's plays. And these aporias
would run deep: the nature of man, his place in the cosmos, the very
possibility of knowledge.

There are three areas in which I think this spirit of uncertainty
pervades the plays: knowledge and skepticism; the nature of the self;
and the character of causality. I shall consider these in turn.

Knowledge and Skepticism
Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the terse sentence: "All men
naturally desire knowledge." That sounds like a truism, but if it is,
it is a truism with profound consequences. There are three parts to
it: that it is in man's nature to desire knowledge, part of man's
essence, a condition of his being; that it is natural for man to
desire knowledge, to seek it, to yearn for it, to value it highly; and
that this desire is for knowledge--not just belief or probable opinion
or faith. We could paraphrase Aristotle as saying that human beings
have an innate propensity to seek and value true justified beliefs--and
what they value above all is certain knowledge. We desire solid,
reliable knowledge, a state of epistemological perfection, not false
beliefs and shaky inferences. Why we desire such a thing is a further
question, but Aristotle is surely right that we do. Ignorance is
something we scorn and try to avoid. An enormous part of Western
civilization (and others too) is founded on this desire--we are a
knowledge-hungry species--and no teacher ever got very far by promising
to fill you with error and groundless opinion. Men indeed naturally
desire knowledge.

It was Plato who made the desire for genuine knowledge a central
component of the good life. His whole philosophy is based on the
premise that we need to penetrate the clouds of appearance and acquire
authentic knowledge of reality. The parable of the cave is a warning
that knowledge is not easily obtained, and that distortions and error
are not readily detected by the knowing mind. ( Still, Plato firmly
believed that knowledge was possible, that our epistemological desires
can be fulfilled: we really can attain the desirable state of knowing
truths about the world. In Plato's system, the pinnacle of such
knowledge is knowledge of the Forms--those timeless, abstract,
unchanging entities that Plato took to be the most real of things. The
ultimate aim of life was to come to know these resplendent Forms--
truth, justice, beauty, mathematics. Aristotle had a different view of
what constitutes ideal knowledge--closer to the empirical science of
today--but he too did not doubt that knowledge is possible, though the
road to it may be arduous. For these founding thinkers, our
epistemological desires are capable of fulfillment.

Socrates, the "gadfly," also valued knowledge, but he was acutely
sensitive to impostors to knowledge. He demonstrated time and again
how people overestimate their capacity for knowledge. The Socratic
lesson is that ignorance is a lot more prevalent than we suppose--that
we really don't know as much as we think we do. Thus Socrates advises
caution and the suspension of belief; we shouldn't let our strong
desire to know fool us into misconstruing erroneous belief for real
knowledge. We are chronic epistemological overreachers, according to
Socrates, always taking ourselves to be epistemologically richer than
we really are. We can't even define our most familiar terms--such as
"just" and "good"--let alone aspire to plumb the secrets of the
universe. Socrates counseled epistemological modesty.

It was left to the Greek skeptics, notably Sextus Empiricus, to push
the Socratic lesson to its conclusion: that knowledge, however
desirable, is simply not within our grasp. Plato's entire philosophy
therefore founders, since it is just not possible to know anything
worthwhile, let alone the nature of those impossibly transcendent
Forms. Man does not have the capacity to satisfy his epistemological
desires--he is too prone to illusion, error, and uncertainty. We cannot
be sure that our senses are not deceiving us, or that our reasoning
faculties yield sound inferences, even whether we are dreaming. Man is
a small and feeble creature, epistemologically blighted, and not able
to comprehend the universe. At its extreme, such skepticism claims
that no belief has any greater justification than any other belief, so
that belief itself is an irrational act (this is the school known as
Pyrrhonism). The skeptics accepted Aristotle's dictum but argued that
it is in man's nature also to be thwarted in his desire for

What has this potted history of Greek thought about knowledge got to
do with Shakespeare? First, these worries about knowledge, in the air
since the time of the Greeks, would attain a new level of intensity in
Shakespeare's day, given the growing awareness of how little human
beings knew of the world. The questions were being asked--about what
eclipses are, about what causes the plague, about witchcraft and
astrology--but no clear answers seemed forthcoming. The crisis in
church authority, the split between traditional Catholicism and the
Protestant Reformation, in which the possibility of our knowledge of
God's will became a subject for debate, only added to this sense of
being epistemologically at sea. The ancient skeptics seemed to be
roundly vindicated. Shakespeare would have absorbed these currents of
thought; and they are manifest in several of his most important plays,
particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, and Othello. But,
secondly, there is a more specific reason to link Shakespeare to
skepticism: Michel Montaigne. Montaigne was born in 1533, Shakespeare
in 1564, and the French aristocrat was a widely celebrated author when
the English commoner was composing his most famous plays. Moreover, it
has been established by scholars that Shakespeare had studied and
absorbed Montaigne's writings (what had Shakespeare not absorbed?):
there is, for example, a virtual quotation from an essay of
Montaigne's in The Tempest. Montaigne was especially noted for his
eloquent revival of Greek skepticism, particularly in his long essay
"An Apology for Raymond Sebond." Here he dwells with some relish on
the limitations of man, his feeble senses, his preposterous
overconfidence, his desire not just to obey God, but to imitate Him.
In Montaigne's view, man is but a paltry animal, inferior to many
animals in his acuity and good sense, far too fond of his Reason (John
Locke, a century later, would argue much the same point). So
Shakespeare would be exposed to full-blown philosophical skepticism in
Montaigne's writings, and in a form I suspect he would have found
especially appealing--since Montaigne is a dramatic, anecdotal, poetic,
and powerful writer. Not for Montaigne the dry tomes of the
traditional philosopher; his essays are personal, lively, and pungent.
I myself, some five hundred years later, find them unusually
persuasive and affecting, full of rugged wisdom and brutal honesty--the
very characteristics, indeed, which leap from the page of Shakespeare.
The word "unflinching" aptly describes the style of both authors--yet
with a wry humanity. The great subject of death is never far from
either writer, with a steady-eyed contemplation of its terrors and
mysteries. But most of all it is Montaigne's contrarian skepticism
that seems to have impressed Shakespeare--as it did so many of his

I shall be arguing in subsequent chapters that Montaigne had a
profound influence on Shakespeare's works--or, to be more cautious,
that many passages in Shakespeare echo passages from Montaigne. In
particular, a skeptical thread can be seen running through the plays,
which draws upon the kind of skeptical thinking Montaigne revived from
the Greeks. What I think Shakespeare added to this ancient skepticism
was a specific form of skeptical concern--the problem of other minds.
This is a multifaceted problem, but its most straightforward statement
is simply this: How do we know what other people are thinking,
feeling, and intending? Can we know these things? The problem arises
from a basic duality in human nature--the split between interior and
exterior. It seems undeniable that all we observe of another person is
his or her body--that is all that we can see and touch and smell. But
another person's mind belongs to the interior aspect of the person--
which we cannot see, touch, or smell. There is something hidden about
other people's minds, which we can only infer from what is publicly
available. People can keep their thoughts and motives to themselves,
simply by not expressing them, and this puts us in a position of not
knowing. We are all aware of this from our own case: we know that we
can prevent other people from acquiring the knowledge of our own minds
that we immediately possess. I may know that I have dubious motives in
regard to someone else, but I also know that you do not know this--and
I know that I can easily prevent you from knowing it. This is what
makes deception possible--the asymmetry between my knowledge of my mind
and your knowledge of my mind. There is a sense, then, in which my
mind is private, and known to be so, while my body is public