Sunday, 30 January 2011

Shakespeare's Philosophy, by Colin McGinn

More meaning behind the plays

Colin McGinn is a professor of philosophy. He has turned his hand to interpreting Shakespeare’s greatest plays, using his philosophical tools. The result is not deeply original, but I found it provided valuable insights into the world’s greatest writer. Shakespeare’s text are a mine of endless wealth. McGinn emerges into the sunlight clutching some new nuggets.

By reading this book, one can learn more about Shakespeare’s plays, and can enjoy gentle instruction in philosophy. For instance, it tightened up my understanding of words such as ‘Epistemology’ and ‘Teleology’, and quoted a good deal of Montaigne’s works. None of this is ‘hard’ philosophy, so do not be put off. Much can be described as existentialist philosophy, an angle which I personally found quite useful in writing some of my own essays of literary criticism at Oxford many years ago.

I always feel uncomfortable about books that tell us what Shakespeare thought. We can never know what Shakespeare thought, since all his written works are explicitly works of fiction. One cannot ever ascribe a particular phrase in a play to Shakespeare’s point of view. Everything is spoken by a character in a play, put in the mouth of an actor to portray that character. Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, and almost nothing certain is known of what he read, beyond the texts from which he derived his plots (such as Holinshed). I am not aware of any unequivocal evidence that Shakespeare read Montaigne’s works, even when some of the phrases have much in common. However, McGinn’s frequent parallels drawn between the two authors are striking. There is often a zeitgeist that affects various creative people who may never know each other’s works directly.

To give an example of how my understanding has been advanced by this book, I would cite his chapter on ‘Macbeth’. He demonstrates how this play is much more than an action-packed bloodthirsty thriller, spiced with the supernatural. He draws out the philosophical themes about 1) the relationship between character and action, 2) the power of imagination, 3) the ambiguity of appearance and reality, 4) the nature of time. I had not consciously noted how the play is packed with references to time, even from the very first line “WHEN shall we three meet again?”. The chapter moved me to quickly re-read ‘Macbeth’, and I was thrilled to gain new perspectives on this familiar work, thanks to McGinn.

He also gave me insights into other major plays. For instance, I had previously thought of ‘A Midsummer night’s dream’ as a charming but flimsy work. McGinn has helped me see more of how the play is about the difficulty of distinguishing dreaming from wakefulness, illusion from reality, what is merely imagined from what is veridically perceived. (‘Veridical’ means ‘coinciding with reality’; another little lesson from Professor McGinn.)

In the latter part of the book, he explores themes, such as Gender and Psychology. Sometimes he is knocking down theories that I don’t think anyone seriously believes in (at least anymore). For instance he ridicules the idea that Shakespeare is exploring notions such as Freud’s ‘Oedipus complex’ in the play Hamlet.

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