425. Patrick Gray on Shakespeare

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We're joined by Patrick Gray to discuss Shakespeare's knowledge of philosophy, his ethics, and his influence on such thinkers as Hegel.



Further Reading

• P. Gray and J.D. Cox (eds), Shakespeare and Renaissance Ethics (Cambridge: 2014).

• P. Gray, “The Compassionate Stoic: Brutus as Accidental Hero,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch 150 (2016), 30-44.

• P. Gray, “Shakespeare vs. Seneca: Competing Visions of Human Dignity,” in E. Dodson-Robinson (ed.), Companion to the Reception of Senecan tragedy: Scholarly, Theatrical, and Literary Receptions (Leiden: 2016), 203-32.

• P. Gray, “Shakespeare et la reconnaissance: l’Anerkennung comme interpellation intersubjective,” in P. Drouet and P. Grosos (eds), Shakespeare au risque de la philosophie (Paris: 2017), 159-82.

• P. Gray, “Choosing Between Shame and Guilt: Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, Lear,” in A.D. Cousins and D. Derrin (eds), Shakespeare and the soliloquy in early modern English drama (Cambridge: 2017).

• P. Gray, “Shakespeare, William,” in Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy (Dordrecht: 2018).

• P. Gray, “Seduced by Romanticism: Re-Imagining Shakespearean Catharsis,” in C. Bourne and E. Caddick Bourne (eds), The Routledge Companion to Shakespeare and Philosophy (London: 2019), 510-24.

• P. Gray, Shakespeare and the Fall of the Roman Republic: Selfhood, Stoicism and Civil War (Edinburgh: 2019).

• P. Gray, “Shakespeare versus Aristotle: Anagnorisis, Repentance, and Acknowledgement,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 49 (2019), 85-111.


Curt Hitchcock on 9 July 2023

Episode 424 - Hast Any Philosophy in Thee

I have listened to every podcast. This may be my new favorite. Keep up the good work. And, many thanks for all your efforts, Peter.

In reply to by Curt Hitchcock

Peter Adamson on 9 July 2023


Wow, thanks! Probably it came across how much I have enjoyed working on this particular topic (I actually always enjoy each topic, pretty much, but this one especially).

Thomas Mirus on 9 July 2023

Unity of virtues

I am really enjoying this interview! As I understand it, the Christian moral tradition retains the idea that one vice compromises or falsifies all the virtues (whether in itself or by tendency over time, I'm not sure), and that the idea of a predominant fault wouldn't be considered incompatible with the classical view (because it could be by this particular fault that all a man's virtues are overthrown).

In reply to by Thomas Mirus

Peter Adamson on 10 July 2023

Unity of virtues

Right, that's a good point - by the end of Othello or even in the middle of it our main character would no longer be in a position to, say, show courage because the jealousy would be all-consuming. But I think there is still something right in the observation that ancient ethics thinks about virtue and vice as more holistic phenomena whereas Christian tradition recognizes susceptibility to a restricted range of sins - maybe confessional literature would be a good body of evidence on this? Or think about Dante, where he literally assigns sinners to their fates in Inferno and Purgatorio in accordance with their distinctive sins.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thomas Mirus on 10 July 2023

Following up now that I've…

Following up now that I've finished listening - this is one of my favorite interviews you've ever done.

I deeply appreciate Gray's honest comments on the "politics" of staging and interpretation of Shakespeare. On a recent trip to England, I really wanted to see some Shakespeare, but because the Globe's current production of Midsummer was advertised as transgressive and subversive, I decided not to subject myself to it. IMO it's a tragedy in its own right to visit London and not be able to find a high-level staging of Shakespeare that isn't undercut by the insecurity of the professionals involved. 

In reply to by Thomas Mirus

Peter Adamson on 10 July 2023


I would tend to be more open to different approaches to Shakespeare, I guess - especially the famous plays might benefit from an unexpected approach, since they are pretty familiar to many audience members. On the other hand regardless of political slant I would prefer productions that don't distract from the language, which for me is the real pleasure of Shakespeare. Maybe part of the problem is that many companies don't trust audiences to be able to follow the dialogue anymore? Which might be a justified worry.

But I agree that this conversation was brilliant, I will pass on your praise to Prof Gray! 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thomas Mirus on 10 July 2023

To clarify, I am open to…

To clarify, I am open to different approaches, and even experimental approaches, but I too often see the red flags of ideologically motivated hack work.


Re: audience familiarity with the plays - if we want new generations to continue to be into Shakespeare, I don't think we can safely make that assumption. Sure, I have read Midsummer Night's Dream in high school, but I don't think of plays primarily as literature. And I also don't think of it as "oh, that's been done before" - I realize Midsummer and Beethoven's 5th and whatever else have been done a million times before, but that doesn't jade me who has only seen it done by teenagers. For me it would be a fresh, new experience to see it done in a high level.


And of course, theatre is essentially a live art that has to be mastered by fresh generations of artists, meaning that just because a certain approach to it was done well 50 years ago doesn't mean we can say we've got the most basic form of the play "in the can" and therefore it's redundant to keep doing robust, straight-ahead productions alongside more experimental fare (and that's assuming a given experimental staging is actually worth doing). I would hope the Globe in particular, as a sort of "heritage" theater, would want to keep that in mind. I wanted to be initiated into that grand tradition! 

In reply to by Thomas Mirus

Peter Adamson on 11 July 2023


I tend to agree: if I go to the Globe as a visitor to London, I want to see a period-style production, because I'm there in the Globe after all! But probably the people who run the Globe Theatre want to appeal to repeat customers and not just tourists, and do you really want to go see one period piece after another? Not sure I would as a regular customer.

Likewise, in general there is a tension between wanting to give Shakespeare to new audiences - which arguably means you should not mess around with it too much in terms of cuts, changes to the language, or adventurous staging - and on the other hand making it seem fresh to those who are more familiar. Since the people putting on the productions of course fall into the latter camp they may lean towards being adventurous. No doubt there is a place for both! But as philosophers this isn't really our problem I guess (for once, something that isn't our problem!). 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Matěj Cepl on 28 July 2023

Shakespeare’s language

I think preferring modern English is at least to some extent consideration for tourists, which I guess constitutes substantial part of the Globe audience these days.

Eggy Preuss on 10 July 2023


I've been a faithful listener from nearly the beginning of your admirable podcast, but I have to admit that I had some difficulty listening to your #424. While I value and appreciate the remarkable work attributed to Shakespeare, I had difficulty believing your guest's assertion, for example, that "Shakespeare" could have read Montaigne -- in French, no less!
Let me quickly add that I have no difficulty with an assertion that the author of Hamlet might very well have been acquainted with some of the Essais, and even read them in French, my issue is with ascribing such a skill to the actor by the name of Shakespeare.

Thanks again for your excellent work. I will continue to look forward to your weekly installments.

Eggy Preuss

In reply to by Eggy Preuss

Peter Adamson on 11 July 2023

Shakespeare reading French

Well I'm no expert but as Prof Gray mentioned Shakespeare lived with some French people and I guess that French was extremely common in Elizabethan England, right? At least one sees lots of French just tossed into English in passing (including in the plays, in fact). Plus reading is easier than speaking. So I don't find it that hard to believe, I guess.

It seems to me though that behind your question is whether the actor named Shakespeare in fact wrote the plays at all. Again I am no expert on this but (without wishing to open up a can of worms) I don't know that there is any serious reason to doubt this.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jennifer Britton on 15 October 2023

Shakespeare’s knowledge of Montaigne

For those interested in how Shakespeare could have read Montaigne in French, I recommend viewing Alexander Waugh’s series of YouTube videos on the authorship question. 

Jorge on 22 July 2023

"The great playwright of human freedom, of the human free will"

If Shakespeare is intellectually (if not artistically) committed to free will in the form of his plays, is this not in itself an argument against stoicism, not only in terms of its ethics, but on its determinist metaphysics as well? After all, the core of his dramas is in the decisions faced by his characters. Or is it more complicated than that? After all if "all the world's a stage" or at least the stage is a stage, even though free will is represented, it is played according to a script. So in a way, just as in a stoic worldview, in the play itself what one sees is the illusion of free will through predetermined events.

In reply to by Jorge

Peter Adamson on 22 July 2023

Free will in Shakespeare

Yes I think that's basically right and of course in this period it was standard to criticize the Stoics for their determinism - we saw this in Calvin for example, even though some people think Calvin is a determinist of a different sort! I see what you are saying about Shakespeare's plays seeming to drive toward foreordained conclusions, but Shakespeare doesn't just present things in that way (as happens in Greek tragedies) but portrays people struggling with their apparent fates, for example Macbeth and Hamlet. So it's at the very least more complicated than saying that the dramatic form leads inevitably (if you'll pardon the expression) to determinism.

Jorge on 22 July 2023

Between Faith and doubt

I was wondering more about what Patrick Gray said about the dialectic between faith and doubt, strongly considering and presenting opposing arguments and following them through and that you said was so characteristic of philosophy. Is perhaps the awareness one has of making or watching a play in itself an area for philosophical reflection, especially for one that would perform plays within plays, bringing attention to the relationship between the nature of stage performance and that of the metaphysics of reality, and for this to be perhaps something that doesn't happen in a manner that is straightforward, but rather a dialogue about the action of reading dialogue?

Isaac of York on 30 July 2023

If music be the food of love

I don't know about best, but this has certainly been the most contentious in our household! My girlfriend (an amateur Shakespearean scholar who impresses real ones) and I (an amateur arguer) had a lively debate about Prof. Grey's interpretations over dinner. A testament to any thinker that couples can still be fighting about them half a millennium later. 

One thing we did agree upon is that your pun was terrible, and that you could make it up to us by telling us what the music you're using in this series is! 

In reply to by Isaac of York

Peter Adamson on 31 July 2023

The food of love

That's brilliant, I'm glad you two found the conversation so stimulating! If you look at the "Links" page (there is a button if you scroll down to the bottom of any page on the site), that includes a list of all the music used in the podcast with further links to the entire tracks.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Isaac of York on 2 August 2023

The food of love

Thanks Peter. The thing is, unless I'm missing something, you haven't updated it for the British Isles sub-series, and we particularly like this track!

In reply to by Isaac of York

Peter Adamson on 2 August 2023

Link to British Reformation music

Oh true, I forgot to add this - thanks for the reminder! I have done that on the links page, but it is Michael Praetorius, Dances from Terpsichore "Musarum Aoniarum" which you can access here. The music selected starts at about minute 3:15.

Selima on 4 September 2023

Sin (and not Hamartia)

Thank you for this podcast! I have been a reader and a great fan of Prof. Gray's articles for a few years. His outlook on Shakespeare opened my eyes to my "Hamartia", namely in being dependent on Aristotle and his "amoral" perspective in my analysis/teaching of Shakespeare.

I will henceforth listen to all the available podcasts. 


Alfredo on 19 September 2023

Hi Peter, of all the…

Hi Peter, of all the interviews this has to be my favorite! If it had lasted two hours I'd still would have listened to it entirely. Learned a lot but also it was clearly you were having fun. Until the toupee joke, that is; I think Patrick had a nervous breakdown at that point.

I find some counterevidence against Patrick's idea that in the Greeks tragedies were more about some inevitable "reversal of fortune", as opposed to Shakespeare's "dominant sin" in Antigone, my favorite tragedy. In this play, King Creon gets warned sternly three times, if memory serves, against punishing Antigone for giving proper burial to her brother. Once by his son, once by the choir itself, representing the voice of the city, and once by Tiresias, the blind seer (I'm going from memory, it's been a while), and every time Creon rejects them out of stubborn pride, so that by the time all hell breaks loose he has no one to blame but himself. (E.g. in 530, "I must be no man at all, in fact, and she must be the man, if power like this can rest in her and go unpunished," and so forth).

Since this was the first tragedy I read, I tend to look for a similar theme in others. I'd be curious to know what Patrick thinks about this particular example.

In reply to by Alfredo

Peter Adamson on 21 September 2023


I actually have an early association with Antigone too, my high school put it on and I was in drama club (though I wasn't in the play). I will let Patrick know about your question! You are not the only one who has named this as a favorite episode by the way, maybe he should start his own podcast.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alfredo on 21 September 2023


Haha, another one? I started my own podcast after listening to yours (philosophyuniverse.blog), and it's a lot more work than it sounds; it's a mystery to me how you manage to post this regularly and still have time to read so much! Thanks for the inspiration, though; even if I manage with luck an episode a month, it's still worth it.

In reply to by Alfredo

Peter Adamson on 21 September 2023


Yes podcasting is a lot of work but very rewarding! I always give the advice to keep your posting of new podcasts very regular so that listeners know when to expect it - that's why HoPWaG goes up every Sunday like clockwork (almost always). So if you are aiming for once a month I'd suggest doing it, say, on the first of each month.

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