Martha C. Nussbaum,
The New Republic, May 7, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
Shakespeare the Thinker
By A.D. Nuttall
Yale University Press, 428
Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the
By Colin McGinn
Harper Perennial, 230 pages
Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama
By Tzachi Zamir
Princeton University Press, 234 pages
A philosopher's study of Shakespeare should really do philosophy, and not
just allude to familiar philosophical ideas and positions. It should also
illuminate the world of the plays and offer some account of why we need to
turn to Shakespeare.
To be fair, A.D. Nuttall was not a philosopher
but a literary critic. It is not surprising that his book contributes
nothing of original philosophical interest.
Colin McGinn's book is
the book of a real philosopher. Still, it is all at the level of Phil 101.
McGinn does not offer anything subtle or new. McGinn has no new or
convincing readings of the plays he tackles. McGinn already knows what to
think about the philosophical issues, and he is pleased to find confirmation
The most distinguished Anglo-American philosophical
writing on Shakespeare in recent years may be found in the work of Stanley
Cavell. However, his readings of Shakespeare tend to confirm the
philosophical notions for which he has already argued independently, in
readings of Wittgenstein, Descartes, and other philosophers.
Zamir's new book is head and shoulders above its rivals. A first book by a
young Israeli philosopher, Double Vision stands comparison with Cavell for
philosophical subtlety and insight. Zamir writes with an evocative grace
that shows a deep emotional response to literature and a sense of its
complexities and its mysteries.
Zamir says why it is important to
turn to literary works for philosophical guidance. Literary works offer
their readers a range of experiences that philosophical prose cannot
provide. Some of these experiences are varieties of emotional response. Some
are experiences of dislocation and a loss of meaning. Some are of losing a
sense of meaning and then finding it again. Some are of not being able to
figure out who or what a certain person is. And some just follow the
trajectory of a human relationship.
So literature portrays and
dissects a wide range of human experiences. With Shakespeare, we find again
and again that the shaping of plot and the resources of language are used to
construct and then to deepen a set of these experiences in ways that provide
resources for knowledge.
At the heart of Zamir's book are three
chapters on erotic love in Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and
Othello. He prefaces his readings by pointing to the great difficulties that
philosophy has had investigating love.
Romeo and Juliet conveys the
hyperbolic, extravagant character of young love, with its search for a
transcendence. This sort of love, Zamir shows, works by distancing reality.
Since it is determined to rise above the earth, it is also lacking in
particularity. Juliet is an abstract image, an angel, and neither Romeo nor
the audience knows a great deal about her earthly attributes.
and Cleopatra depicts mature love between people who have no project of
transcending human life, because they are taking too much pleasure in life
as it is. Antony knows how to make contact with Cleopatra through insults
and she knows how to turn a story about a fishhook into a running joke. All
this suggests a romance that structures itself through life and the daily
pleasures it affords.
Romeo and Juliet's love transfigured the world
by raising love into the heavens. Antony and Cleopatra transfigure the world
from within, making each daily experience more vivid, funny, and surprising.
Zamir argues that philosophical prose cannot convey the quirky and uneven
nature of this type of love.
In Othello, Zamir finds a love that is
tragic at its core, because of one party's determination to see and to
deeply love, and the other party's horror of being seen and being deeply
loved. Othello, Zamir argues, has become deeply invested in seeing himself
as identical with his heroic role. The vulnerable shapeless person within
has been concealed by that construction. Desdemona sees past the persona to
the self within.
Zamir's reading is strong in explaining Othello's
odd and disjointed language in the murder scene. He speaks in strange
third-person abstractions. Above all, Zamir makes sense of Othello's
obsession with extinguishing Desdemona's vision.
Double Vision is
quite a brilliant book.