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Shakespeare the Thinker

A.D. Nuttall

(Yale University Press)

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Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays

Colin McGinn

(HarperCollins)

The readiness to deconstruct is all

To be or not to be a philosopher did not concern Shakespeare, so far as we know. And we know very little.


Indeed, it might be said that the endless interpretations of scholars who claim Shakespeare meant this or that, or wrote from a familiar ideological position—“closet Catholic” keeps rising as a trendy view in recent bios—die many times before their deaths (savaged by rival scholars), while modest approaches taste of deconstruction but once, when the books in which they appear get pulped.


And there’s the nub—the paradox of Shakespeare scholarship that continues nearly 400 years after his death.


On the one hand—a phrase Shakespeare may have invented, along with a higher percentage of English truisms than anyone else—the Bard endures as the supreme writer in the history of the English language and, to many, the most profound ever across all cultures.


When we refuse to “budge an inch,” excoriate “rotten apples,” or admonish slackers to “sink or swim,” we speak in his voice. Although the arts sections of newspapers teem with products from self-anointed “artists” who will not survive their publicity budgets, Shakespeare after roughly four centuries still pleases general audiences, challenges intellectuals, and provokes academics. How can we not presume that such a stupendous orchestrator of character and insight operated with a coherent, multifaceted theory of human nature?


On the other hand, our ignorance of Shakespeare the man—he left no diaries or letters in his short life of 52 years—and the clashing multiple versions of some of his texts, have always dovetailed with a contrary belief that his greatness arises precisely from utter openness to the varieties of human behavior, emotion and thought, his ability to render in concrete scenes and daring metaphors more non-reductionist nuances of the heart and mind than an army of writers centuries later.


This Shakespeare soars as the universal artist because his plays and poetry offer a kaleidoscope of the human condition while speculative bios, short on fact and long on inference, end up too dull an instrument to cut him down to size. He’s a channeler rather than a source of wisdom.


The genius of Shakespeare the Thinker by A.D. Nuttall, the foremost Shakespeare scholar of his Oxford generation (he died in January at age 69), lies in merging these two traditions enough to bring the magisterial wizard of diction into focus as a bearer of beliefs without losing the reportorial poet open to all experience.


In contrast, Shakespeare’s Philosophy, by the analytic philosopher and popularizer Colin McGinn, insists on a pinched approach to Shakespeare’s corpus that sinks his readings.


Why does Nuttall succeed better in mulling philosophy, described by Shakespeare as “Adversity’s sweet milk”? Because Nuttall accompanies Shakespeare as a common reader on “the fiery track of his thinking,” finding not a “systematic philosopher” but a pragmatic one, a man of the theater unfolding weakness of the will as he hovers about Hamlet, confronting the difficulties of self-identity in bringing Richard II to life, posing Brutus as the anti-Stoic in Julius Caesar. Accessibly and entertainingly, this erudite classicist cites Martin Scorsese, Tony Blair or Star Trek as casually as he mentions Apollonius of Tyre or Quintilian (one admires his segue from Vulcan Mr. Spock to Prospero querying Ariel in The Tempest).


In chapters with titles such as “Learning Not to Run,” “Stoics and Skeptics,” “Strong Women, Weaker Men,” Nuttall, who began his lifelong wedding of literature to philosophy by doing his graduate thesis under Iris Murdoch, shows how Shakespeare revisits themes from play to play, saying something about almost all of them, while analyzing with particular brilliance how literary preciousness can block engagement with reality in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and how the fantastic can deliver harsh truths in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


McGinn suffers by comparison almost as a matter of species (and we say this more in sorrow than in anger). Nuttall, trained in classics and literature as well as philosophy, radiates Shakespeare’s own humanism. McGinn, instead, comes across as the know-it-all Shakespeare often mocked. He’s out of spirit with his Elizabethan hero, who, long before he fell for Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, recognized that the heart, in almost every human endeavor, matters more than the mind.


McGinn’s concentration on a “close reading” of just six “major” plays thus ends up a skimpy choice beside his subject’s cornucopia of plot and theme. McGinn boxes Shakespeare into categories of a now passe era of analytic philosophy. He seeks “a systematic treatment of the underlying philosophical themes of the plays,” which include “skepticism and the possibility of human knowledge; the nature of the self and personal identity; the understanding of causation. ...” He flatly says he’d like to supplement previous readings of Shakespeare with “something more abstract.”


Imagine a music critic trying to explain Springsteen or Ray Charles by getting beyond the beat, the tempo. The result turns out as dry and stuffy as McGinn’s semicolons, replete with banalities such as “Shakespeare was clearly fascinated by the workings of the human mind” and “questions of right and wrong could hardly be more paramount in Shakespeare’s works.” As a certain playwright instructed us, “Unbidden guests are often welcomest when they are gone.”


Nuttall, having shaken off his mortal coil, might take pleasure that he made the case emblazoned in his title. If the notion persists that Shakespeare operated like the stage’s great sponge, absorbing life and emotion in all its wet, perspiring madness, then squeezing his “fluid antinomies” (in Nuttall’s phrase) onto page and stage, it’s because we misconceive what it means to be a thinker, and miss “the brilliantly centrifugal movement of Shakespeare’s mind.”


A thinker intuits, comprehends, shapes, articulates—he does not merely argue and declare. Shakespeare did not always nail truth in an immortal phrase or image. We don’t speak today of a “wilderness of monkeys” or a “man of my kidney.” Yet Nuttall’s proto-pragmatist Shakespeare is surely a “thinker” (even if Shakespeare by any other tag would be as neat), one of “immense, intelligent charity,” in the author’s apt nutshell, because he’s always trying for that immortal phrase.


Rejecting dogmatism in the face of realities that cascade over him, Shakespeare triumphs as the English language’s first great general of generalization, a marcher and maker of rules of thumb, embedded in aphorism and incident—“brevity is the soul of wit,” or “the quality of mercy is not strained”—whose contraries he’s happy to startle us with as soon as the next character appears.


Close up his eyes, then, and draw the curtain close. And let us all to meditation.

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