Monday, August 7, 2017
Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays by Colin McGinn
Review: Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays by Colin McGinn (HarperCollins, 2006)
Let me admit something at the beginning. As a former instructor of literature, I have become more than a little suspicious (and cynical) about the hundreds of books every decade that promise new discoveries about Shakespeare's plays; after all, people (some are respected experts on Shakespeare, and some are unoriginal pretenders to expertise) have been writing about Shakespeare's plays for centuries, so the simple question remains: Can anyone offer anything new (and useful) in the ongoing (and apparently endless) commentary?
Well, the answer is this: 'Yes! Colin McGinn has brought something new and different to the perpetual roundtable discussion, and - more to the point - what he has to offer is important and interesting!'
As an academic philosopher, McGinn looks at Shakespeare's plays 'expressly from the point of view of their underlying philosophical concerns.' By using that rhetorical approach, McGinn promises (and makes good on his promise) to reveal 'the source of their depth.' McGinn reminds readers that Shakespeare wrote during a particular period of history - an age of uncertainty - that was preceded by the religious certainty of medieval Europe and followed by the scientific revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, in which we still find ourselves.
McGinn explores three main areas in which the 'spirit of uncertainty pervades the plays' of Shakespeare: knowledge and skepticism; the nature of the self; and the character of causality. With a philosopher's discipline, McGinn explores each of these areas.
First, he explains that Shakespeare's age of uncertainty exacerbated the individual's problem of acquiring reliable, verifiable knowledge, especially as it related to knowing other people's minds; second, McGinn explores the problems associated with the unfixed, constantly shifting notion of the self - especially the theatricality and interactivity of an individual's so-called personality; and third, this brilliant philosopher talks about anxiety in Shakespeare's era when people pondered a universe in which there was no longer an apparently 'rational harmonious order' by which they could understand the causes-and-effects for all that they observed and experienced in the world around them.
However, going beyond philosophical abstractions, which can be difficult for the novice to navigate, McGinn then speaks directly and clearly about Shakespeare's plays, and he delves into ways in which the 'spirit of uncertainty' can be observed in the texts and characters. Beginning with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet, McGinn also gives generous, thoughtful attention to Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest; McGinn follows those specific analyses with additional commentaries on Shakespeare's engagements with the concepts of gender, psychology, ethics, and tragedy.
The bottom line is this: Colin McGinn's book is Shakespearean explication and analysis at its best. Remarkable in its intellectual rigor, and provocative in its interpretive persuasiveness, Shakespeare's Philosophy (HarperCollins, 2006) will remain on my bookshelf as an essential companion to Shakespeare's own words.
Thank you, Professor McGinn, this book was just what I've been waiting for!