Note: unlike the other transcripts what follows is not automatically produced from the audio file but gives you Prof Gray's notes that he wrote up to prepare for the interview. Since he was not reading verbatim from them there won't be a perfect match between this and the podcast episode. Thanks to Prof Gray for making these notes available for putting up on the site!
Which philosophical sources Shakespeare was able to draw on, as far as we can tell from his writings?
The short answer is, more than people tend to think. One of the more charming and persistent but also misleading legends about Shakespeare is that he was relatively uneducated. This assumption is tenacious in part because it dates back to a memorable jab by an envious but illustrious contemporary of Shakespeare, the English playwright Ben Jonson, who poked fun at him for having (supposedly) “small Latin and less Greek.” About a half a century later, the English poet John Milton comes to the same conclusion. In his poem L’Allegro¸ he describes Shakespeare in contrast to Jonson, whom he rightly calls “learned,” as “Fancy’s child,” warbling his “native woodnotes wild.” But this picture of Shakespeare as a naïve folk artist needs to be understood in context. It’s a bit like later seventeenth-century Jansenists accusing Montaigne of being a libertine. Compared to them, OK, yes. But compared to them, who isn’t? When it comes to knowledge of the classics, compared to Milton and Ben Jonson, frankly, we’re all ignoramuses. Milton was writing epic poetry in Latin, good poetry, as a teenager. So, his assessment of Shakespeare’s supposed lack of learning needs to be taken with a significant grain of salt. Shakespeare could read Latin easily and access all manner of classical philosophy in that form. I think he could also read French. He was living in an age when works such as Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations and Plutarch’s Morals were being translated into English and received with great interest. For example, as you noted in the previous episode, in his play Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare paraphrases a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. A more subtle example of this kind of engagement with classical philosophy might be Brutus’s funeral oration. Unlike Mark Antony, Brutus makes no appeal to pathos, to the heartstrings of his audience; instead, his speech is a series of syllogisms, which the audience struggles and ultimately fails to understand. That is to say, Shakespeare gives Brutus the same distinctive style of speaking, a kind of staccato, highly abstract argumentation, that Cicero sees as characteristic of Stoic philosophers and denounces as rhetorically ineffective. More generally speaking, when it comes to Shakespeare’s knowledge of philosophy, the big question is the nature and timing of his reading of Montaigne. An English translation of Montaigne’s Essays was published in 1603, which is about half-way through Shakespeare’s career. For my own part, and here, some scholars may disagree, I think that Shakespeare almost certainly read Montaigne’s Essays earlier. Shakespeare shows some facility with French in Henry V, and he lived for many years in London with a family of French Huguenots. So, I suspect he read Montaigne’s essays in the original French and that the influence of Montaigne can be seen in earlier plays such as Hamlet. In fact, I think the character, Hamlet, is in part based on Montaigne’s persona as an author. But that would be a longer story! Briefly put, Montaigne, as your audience will know, was fabulously learned. His essays are a distillation and a remarkably comprehensive education, simply on their own, in the central questions and preoccupations of Hellenistic ethics. So, I don’t think it is an accident that Shakespeare is fascinated by the same philosophical problems that preoccupy Montaigne. Like Montaigne’s own chief sources, Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch, Shakespeare, like Montaigne, is fascinated by the ethical implications of Skepticism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism.
One source that people will especially think of here would be Aristotle’s Poetics. It’s commonly observed that Shakespeare did not follow the recommendations we find there, e.g., the so called “unities” of time, place, and action. Why was this, and what did Shakespeare do with other ideas we find in the Poetics?
A great question. In recent years, my friend Micha Lazarus has put together some ground-breaking research showing that Aristotle’s Poetics was much better known and more influential in sixteenth-century England than scholars had heretofore presupposed. Even if we knew for sure, though, that Shakespeare read the Poetics, many questions would still remain. For example, it’s possible to read something and to misunderstand it. Or to disagree. Some critics of Shakespeare such as Voltaire seem to assume that the only conceivable reason why Shakespeare did not adhere to the unities and to other rules of classical theater – the prohibition against depicting violence on stage, the prohibition against mingling comedy and tragedy -- is because he was ignorant. If he had known better, they think, surely he would have stuck to proper form. In reality, Shakespeare was well aware of the conventions of classical theater, not least from the tragedies of Seneca. The reason he does not abide by those conventions is because he is adhering instead to the conventions of vernacular English drama such as cycle plays, Passion plays, and morality plays that we tend to think of as medieval but that in fact Shakespeare was able to watch in person as a child and as a teenager, that is, up until the Puritans outlawed this kind of direct depiction of Christian history on stage. Critics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries failed to recognize this decision on Shakespeare’s part to side with Christian aesthetics as opposed to classical and instead misunderstand Shakespeare as naïve. Shakespeare becomes, for them, and for many people, still remains, a paradigmatic example of the supposedly untutored genius. For the Romantics, in particular, Shakespeare reveals the superiority of innate talent and authenticity as opposed to erudition and engagement with tradition. This mythology is difficult to shake off, mostly because most of us today, whether we realize it or not, default to Romanticism and to its inheritor, modernism, in our assumptions about aesthetics. Nonetheless, from the perspective of this podcast, that is, the history of philosophy, it is important to recognize that the Romantic legend of Shakespeare as a naïve or outsider artist is a misunderstanding. Shakespeare is deeply engaged with his intellectual context. With regards to the Poetics more specifically, as your audience will know, the records that we have of Aristotle’s thought, which may be lecture notes, are highly condensed and at times enigmatic. In his Poetics, Aristotle uses several key terms such as hamartia, anagnorisis, and catharsis whose meaning is still subject to lively debate. For example, my former supervisor at Oxford, Tony Nuttall, argues that the catharsis tragedy produces is a purging of excessive emotions analogous to that produced physically in the body by an emetic or a laxative. I tend to side, by contrast, with Martha Nussbaum, who interprets catharsis in the Poetics as a kind of cognitive cleansing, an improved understanding, of the events that tragedy depicts and, by extension, human nature. Further complicating the picture is the fact that interpretation of Aristotle’s Poetics has been strongly influenced over time, I would say, led astray, by the influence of Christianity and by the model of tragedy that emerges from Shakespeare’s plays. Many critics want to see Shakespeare as early modern and secular. But Shakespeare is also late medieval and Christian. In particular, tragedy for Shakespeare is the same thing -- essentially -- that it is for other vernacular English drama of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Tragedy is the failure of a sinner to repent. Tragedy for Aristotle, by contrast, is something alien to a Christian sensibility. Aristotle doesn’t care about moral character. What Aristotle means by hamartia is not “sin” but instead something more like “a mistake.” What he means by anagnorisis is not “repentance” but instead something more like “a discovery,” that is, a correction of a past misperception, a recognition of a previous error -- as regards matters of fact. That is to say, tragedy for Aristotle is amoral. It’s like the process of legal discovery that occurs in a court of law. Nonetheless, many critics continue to use Aristotle’s terms to describe Shakespeare’s plays, partly because they misunderstand those terms, and partly, more culpably, because it allows them to avoid using more accurate but more obviously Christian terms such as sin and repentance.
Another ancient source you’ve talked about is Stoicism. I talked about this in the previous episode, actually drawing on your work; but nonetheless can you say something about how Stoic ideas turn up in his works?
Thank you for mentioning my work! Yes, as I explain there, the most obvious place where Shakespeare tangles with Stoicism is in his Roman plays. Whatever Rome may have been in fact, for Shakespeare, Rome is the incarnation, the historical embodiment, of a mindset that produces, on the one hand, in victory, imperial aggression, seeking to control others, and on the other, in defeat, Stoicism, seeking to control the self. That is to say, for Shakespeare, Rome is the Rome of Seneca, including Seneca’s deeply pessimistic tragedies, as well as his more optimistic philosophical prose. And the historical failure of Rome, its degeneration from Republic to Empire, is evidence – again, for Shakespeare – of the fundamental limitations and inaccuracy of Seneca’s point of view. As you note in the previous episode, though, Shakespeare’s engagement with Stoicism extends beyond his plays about Rome. You mentioned Leonato in Much Ado about Nothing; another, maybe more subtle example is the depiction of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. In the opening scene, Gratiano mocks Antonio at some length for putting on a “willful stillness,” as if he were a statue “cut in alabaster,” in order to be “reputed wise.” That is to say, a bit like Cassius with Brutus, Gratiano accuses Antonio of putting on the appearance of a Stoic out of a kind of philosophical pride. People see the play, Merchant of Venice, as a dialectic between Christianity and Judaism, but in fact it is a tri- alectic (so to speak) between Christianity, Judaism, and Stoicism. In keeping with other similarities between Antonio and Shylock, the two eponymous “merchants of Venice,” just as Shylock shows what Shakespeare sees as the shortcomings, the pride and hardheartedness, of Jewish ethics, Antonio personifies the analogous shortcomings of Stoic ethics. Antonio is ostensibly, ethnically Christian. But his moral allegiance really is to Stoicism. We see a similar dynamic at play in another Venetian character, Othello. As in the case of The Merchant of Venice, Othello is a play where our modern preoccupation with ethnicity tends to overwhelm our awareness of anything and everything else that is happening in the play. So, I was glad to see you draw attention to Othello’s importance, setting aside his race, as a case study in the ethical implications of Skepticism. I would add that Othello is also a case study in the dangers of naïve Stoicism. At the beginning of the play, when the Senators ask him to take command in Cyprus, Othello scoffs at the idea that bringing his new wife with him to his new post might prove a distraction. “Young affects,” he says, that is, the emotions characteristic of a young person, “in me” are “defunct.” If love gets the better of me, he says, if the arrows of Cupid blind my eyes, “let housewives make a skillet of my helm,” and let me lose my great reputation as a commander. He speaks ironically here because, of course, that seemingly inconceivable possibility is exactly what happens. Once Othello starts to think that Desdemona might be cheating on him with Cassio, he completely loses his inner equilibrium. He even strikes her in public, much to the shock and horror of a visiting emissary from Venice, who marvels at his change in behavior. “Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate / Call all in all sufficient? Is the nature / Whom passion could not shake?” Like Brutus, as well as Benedick in Much Ado, Othello is an example of the overconfident Stoic: the man who thinks he has more control over his own human nature than he really does.
More generally, what do you think are the possibilities (and perhaps risks) of approaching Shakespeare within the framework of ethics or political philosophy?
Ethics and politics are contentious topics, which people tend to have very strong feelings about. Shakespeare is a beloved author and possesses a unique international cultural authority. As a result, when we try to discern and articulate Shakespeare’s perspective about ethics and politics, the overwhelming temptation is to try to find in Shakespeare a mirror of ourselves, rather than acknowledging points of departure. Shakespeare was writing more than four hundred years ago. Like most of the Englishmen of his day, he was a conservative patriotic Christian. Most of his critics today, by contrast, and even more so, the theater professionals who produce his plays, are progressive, cosmopolitan, and secular. Within the arts and higher education, the establishment today is actively hostile to Shakespeare’s moral and political vision. So, people who like Shakespeare, who are professionally committed to teaching or performing Shakespeare, try to find all sorts of workarounds. On stage, directors tend to cut, change, or undermine with irony any passages that might pose a challenge to a modern sensibility. I think that this tendency is a disservice both to Shakespeare and to ourselves. Theater should not be a kind of liturgy for progressive atheists but instead, at its best, the experience of encountering moral, political, and religious perspectives very different from our own. Theater, ideally, should compel us to take seriously the opposite of our own beliefs. Among critics, the most pervasive workaround, by contrast, is to cite Keats on Shakespeare’s “negative capability” and to maintain as a kind of axiom that Shakespeare has no fixed opinions about ethics or politics. Shakespeare always presents both sides of every question with equal weight. This claim is implausible. Everybody has opinions -- even Shakespeare. So, why is it attractive? The claim has the hold that it does because it makes Shakespeare a precedent and an authority for the delusion that the philosopher Carl Schmitt very accurately discerns at the heart of liberalism: the belief that it is possible for human beings and even institutions to be neutral, to escape tough decisions about ethics and politics altogether. For most critics, it is easier to tell themselves that Shakespeare believes nothing than to admit that he might disagree with what they themselves believe. Having said that, I would want to add an important clarification. Shakespeare does present both sides of important questions, in the sense that he presents what I call a dialectic of faith and doubt. He asks himself, what if the opposite of what I believe were true? What if the moral vision, for example, that Falstaff represents, or Cleopatra, or Coriolanus, is in fact the case? Then he follows that thought experiment through to its conclusion. Yes, it’s fun to be Falstaff, at least for a time, but it also has a human cost. It ends badly. Yes, it’s fun to be Cleopatra, but it’s also unsustainable. Shakespeare entertains misgivings about the claims of Christianity but not to the point of losing his faith. He gives force and weight to the nihilism and antinomianism that he encountered in the works of Machiavelli and Seneca, not to praise this rival, proto-modern point of view, but instead to more effectively exorcise its nagging hold upon his consciousness: to attain what I have described elsewhere as a kind of catharsis of doubt.
Speaking of ethics, there is also the whole question of the ethical status of theater itself. In 1642 the Long Parliament actually shut down the theaters during the English Civil War; that is about a quarter century after Shakespeare’s death, but there were also concerns about the morality of these entertainments in his lifetime, right?
Yes, theater in Shakespeare’s day was a disreputable endeavor. The Globe Theater, for example, had to be built outside the city limits due to the hostility of London officials. Theater happened in the same part of town as prostitution and bear-baiting. Puritans especially were leery of theater for all kinds of reasons, including not least men and boys dressing up as women. We see pamphlets such as Philip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses and more polished diatribes such as Joshua Rainolds’ treatise On the Overthrow of Stage Plays. Rainolds was a popular lecturer at Oxford and at the time the president of Corpus Christi college. So, an important figure. This suspicion of theater is in keeping with the more general iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation. Like that iconoclasm, though, antitheatrical discourse also reflects an increasing knowledge of, and affinity for, Plato as opposed to Aristotle. We can see the same dynamic at work, for example, in the poetry of Sidney and Spenser. Both poets are Protestant, and, like Plato, both poets are very anxious about the power of images. Images have a propensity to deceive that these poets recognize but that they are not sure how to escape. In the case of Joshua Rainolds, his fear that theatergoers might be contaminated by the passions and sins that they see represented on stage very much resembles Plato’s in his Republic. Given the implications for his profession, Shakespeare was almost certainly aware of the general shape and tenor of this debate. So, it is worth asking how he weighs in, if at all. One way, I think, is through characters who represent the imagination. And here, it may be worth recalling at least briefly what the imagination is. It is a faculty of the mind that Aristotle in effect invents, posits as a necessity, in order to explain what Christians call “sin” and what he calls akrasia, that is, being out of order with oneself. Plato reports that Socrates maintained that vice of this kind is a result of ignorance: inadequate knowledge. Aristotle disagrees: people know all the time what they ought to do and still don’t do it. How can that be? St. Augustine will posit the existence of the will to help explain this phenomenon, that is, the possibility of sin. Aristotle, by contrast, posits a faculty he calls phantasia, hence in English “fantasy” or “fancy,” as well as “imagination,” which mediates between the senses and the mind and which can be easily misled by madness, sleep, drunkenness, or especially, strong emotions. Imagination is the weak link in our capacity for moral reasoning. And as such, it is a cause of anxiety for earnest Christians. In his Faerie Queene, for example, Spenser represents the imagination as a duplicitous wizard, “Archimago,” who deceives the Redcrosse Knight repeatedly with false images. I think Shakespeare is also worried about the moral status of the imagination. He personifies the imagination in characters such as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ariel in The Tempest who are at best flighty and amoral. Shakespeare also represents the imagination, though, in more troubling characters such as the ghost in Hamlet, the witches and ghosts in Macbeth, and especially, Iago in Othello. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Iago’s name resembles the Latin word for imagination, imaginatio, as well as the name of Spenser’s wizard, Archimago. One way to understand Iago is as an external embodiment of Othello’s internal imagination, a bit like Tyler Durden in Fight Club. In Othello, as in Hamlet, Shakespeare is asking the same question that Spenser is asking in Book 1 of the Faerie Queene: how can I be sure that what I think is my conscience is not in fact nothing more than my own imagination, prey to the devil and leading me astray?
Do you think that he saw his plays as having a morally beneficial effect, like Philip Sidney would want? Or is he too impressed by human perversity and freedom to be confident about this?
I do think Shakespeare wants to believe that theater and more generally, fiction, can lead people to repentance, like a sermon or a parable or like the story that the prophet Nathan tells King David. David can see what is morally wrong about a hypothetical rich man stealing from a hypothetical poor man, and this exercise of his imagination, a temporary defamiliarization, allows him to better understand what is morally wrong about his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. We can see this hope on Shakespeare’s part most clearly in Hamlet. “I have heard,” he says, “That guilty creatures sitting at a play” have been “so struck to the soul” by the “cunning” of a scene that “they have proclaimed their malefactions.” And that is to some extent what happens. And that is to some extent what happens. Claudius is visibly shaken by the players’ representation of a man murdering his brother. But he does not ultimately repent. And here, I think, we see Shakespeare’s more fundamental commitment to the freedom of the human will. One of the problems with representing human choice on stage that Seneca reflects on in his tragedies as well as Tom Stoppard in his take on Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, is that plays are scripted; the performance is largely determined, even if the events that it represents are not. To give the appearance of choice, Shakespeare relies on two characteristic structural components. One is to include counterfactual foils. Characters such as Horatio, Laertes, and Fortinbras allow us to see that Hamlet could make different choices than he does. The most famous such technique, however, is his incorporation of soliloquies. We watch characters articulate opposing courses of action and choose between them. And they do not always make the right choice. Coming back to the question of theater, when they are shown their offenses, whether in person or on stage, people do not always choose to acknowledge their sins and change their ways. More often, they get angry. Rather than receiving the message and coming to a better awareness of themselves, they shoot the messenger. For example, and I agree, my friend Will Hamlin argues that Measure for Measure, a notorious problem play, can be understood as an elaborate variation on the so-called “Mousetrap” that Hamlet stages. The Duke repeatedly arranges events so that his deputy, Angelo, will be forced to see more clearly who he really is. Each time, however, Angelo refuses to rise to the occasion and instead doubles down on his pursuit of sin. Other such instances include Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night and Shylock at the end of The Merchant of Venice. These scenes make us uncomfortable because they are tragic, even though they are housed within what are ostensibly comedies. As I said before, for Shakespeare, the essence of tragedy is the failure of a sinner to repent.
Finally, could you say something about the reception of Shakespeare in later philosophers? For instance I know you are interested in the engagement of Hegel with Shakespeare.
Yes, certainly! You may remember I said earlier that Rome for Shakespeare is the Rome of Seneca. This connection is important not least because Seneca is the model and inspiration for a contemporary of Shakespeare, the Dutch political philosopher Justus Lipsius, who in turn exercises a considerable influence on Kant. Kant’s emphasis on individual autonomy as in effect the greatest good is a legacy of the influence of Seneca. And it is a touchstone for the present-day liberal consensus as regards morality as well as politics. To put the connection a different way, when I was working on Shakespeare’s Roman plays, I wanted to find a contemporary point of view that most closely resembles his. Is he conservative? Progressive? Marxist? Libertarian? What? And what I realized is that the closest analogue of Shakespeare’s thought about politics in our time is what has come to be known as “post-liberalism” or “common-good conservatism,” such as we find in the works of authors such as Alastair MacIntyre and Patrick Deneen. Moreover, that similarity makes sense. Both authors, Deneen and Shakespeare, argue that a society where each individual is trying to maximize his or her autonomy at the expense of everyone else is a society that is doomed to oscillate between brittle autocracy and merciless civil war. Shakespeare sees this dynamic in a pre-Christian society, Rome; Deneen sees it in a post-Christian society, our world today. This research on Shakespeare’s Rome also led me to discover Shakespeare’s importance to Hegel. For example, the earliest written work we have by Hegel is a partial translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Thinking in terms of genealogies of influence, Shakespeare shapes Hegel’s thought much more deeply than I think even scholars of Hegel tend to recognize. Hegel’s Rome, in particular, is very much Shakespeare’s Rome. For example, it is worth remembering that the so-called master-slave dialectic is not for Hegel an enduring feature of the human condition but instead characteristic of a particular stage in our historical development: the stage that coincides with ancient Rome. Shakespeare’s Romans prefigure what Hegel calls the “Unhappy Consciousness” of the modern individual and which he associates with “the Roman empire, the seat of Stoic strength of mind,” in which a man lives unto himself alone.” The would-be solipsist is unhappy because he finds himself torn between a Stoic sense of himself and himself alone as the source of meaning and experience and a refractory Skeptical countercurrent of awareness that he remains subject, nonetheless, despite himself, to forces and powers beyond his control. In Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare shows how Romans’ characteristic drive for dominance can turn inwards, especially in defeat. Characters such as Brutus, Antony, and Cleopatra take refuge in a kind of narcissistic solipsism. But this involution is ultimately unsustainable. As Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space, were I not troubled by bad dreams.” Ultimately, we are constrained by a world outside ourselves, including especially our relations with other people.