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Shakespeare versus The Philosophers

Martha Nussbaum is one of my favorite philosophers; so is Colin McGinn. Both write brilliantly; both are often totally wrong; both are real people. Nussbaum runs marathons; McGinn body-surfs and plays video games. It goes without saying that I'm also a devout fan of Shakespeare. So when The New Republic recently offered a review ("Stages of Thought") by Nussbaum of three books on Shakespeare's philosophy, including one by McGinn ... well, who could resist?

But when I started reading I got stuck on the second paragraph, where another of my great addictions — lists — appears. Nussbaum, warming up her critical juices, raises three big hurdles:

To make any contribution worth caring about, a philosopher's study of Shakespeare should do three things. First and most centrally, it should really do philosophy, and not just allude to familiar philosophical ideas and positions. It should pursue tough questions and come up with something interesting and subtle — rather than just connecting Shakespeare to this or that idea from Philosophy 101. A philosopher reading Shakespeare should wonder, and ponder, in a genuinely philosophical way. Second, it should illuminate the world of the plays, attending closely enough to language and to texture that the interpretation changes the way we see the work, rather than just uses the work as grist for some argumentative mill. And finally, such a study should offer some account of why philosophical thinking needs to turn to Shakespeare's plays, or to works like them. Why must the philosopher care about these plays? Do they supply to thought something that a straightforward piece of philosophical prose cannot supply, and if so, what?

Alas, Nussbaum feels that McGinn falls short. Is she wrong? Append yet another book (Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays) to my far-too-long queue ...

(cf. Universal Flourishing (2001-12-25), Upheavals of Thought (2002-06-29), Upheavals of Thought Revisited (2002-12-13), Colin McGinn (2003-10-30), Man of Mystery (2004-08-12), Inner Philosopher (2006-11-17), ...) - ^z - 2008-05-08


(correlates: NoProblems, Periodic Tables, TaoistState, ...)