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Shakespeare and philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M070-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Known for their attention to literary logic in general, philosophers have not usually focused on the works of specific literary writers. Yet unanticipated benefits often come from grounding abstract theory in concrete examples, much like the analytical opportunities accruing to moral philosophy when attention is turned to applied issues, such as the morality of the death penalty or physician-assisted suicide. It is not surprising, then, to wonder whether Shakespeare’s works, along with the critical and scholarly studies focused on them, might offer a promising resource for clarifying and testing philosophical theories about literature. And from a reverse perspective, whether Shakespearean writings might benefit from philosophical analyses of their various formulations. This entry will suggest some mutually beneficial possibilities by sampling several philosophical problems that result from exploring this rich body of Shakespearean literature. Three topics, as expressed through three of the great tragedies, will be considered.

Shakespearean plays frequently have more than one text that have come down from the seventeenth century. Does this suggest there should be more than one work as well? In §1 the logic of how text diversity might impact the numerical identity of the work is considered, with a focus on King Lear as a case in point. The well-known problem of Borges’s Pierre Menard is discussed, as a related paradigm.

A major part of Shakespearean criticism zeros in on character analysis. Yet there are deep logical questions in determining what exactly a fictional character is. Are we referring to a human whose psychological structure is presumed to extend beyond the limits of the play, so that in analysing a fictional Lady Macbeth we may use analytical resources analogous to our analysis of any human? Or should Shakespearean characters be viewed as no more than roles in plays, designed to develop the formal and symbolic meanings of an artifact called a drama? Section 2 will consider this question, with a focus on Macbeth. Along the way general questions about fictional characters will be broached, including the applicability of possible world analysis to fictional worlds, and the indeterminability of truth values for many fictional states, such as the notorious number of children Lady Macbeth may have had.

Themes are a central part of literary construction. They lend unity to a work by organizing the disparate elements under a motif (such as retribution) or a propositional generalization (such as sinners will receive their just deserts). To what extent can these themes become transferable to the world at large, beyond the limits of the artwork’s circumscribed world? And if they can be transferred, can we speak of either the truthfulness or cognitive utility of Shakespearean themes as related to the real world? Section 3 will consider this range of questions, with attention to Hamlet as the primary example.

Citing this article:
Newman, Ira. Shakespeare and philosophy, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M070-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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