Shakespeare 123

By Martha C. Nussbaum,
The New Republic, May 7, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Shakespeare the Thinker
By A.D. Nuttall
Yale University Press, 428 pages

Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays
By Colin McGinn
Harper Perennial, 230 pages

Double 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 in Shakespeare.

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.

Tzachi 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.

Antony 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.