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Shakespeare and philosophy
May 5, 2008 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Martha Nussbaum reviews three recent books on Shakespeare and philosophy. The essay offers an excellent analysis of love in Antony and Cleopatra and Othello, and an excellent discussion of the interaction between philosophy and literature.

From the essay: "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?"

There is some discussion of the piece here.
posted by painquale (17 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
looking forward to checking this out more thoroughly, but my first question is:

what does nikidion think??
posted by CitizenD at 6:44 PM on May 5, 2008


There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Martha, than dreamed of in your philosophy.
posted by ornate insect at 6:47 PM on May 5, 2008


Shakespeare wrote to please, not explain.
His "philosophy", then, was mutable and manifold.
It is like trying to plumb the depths of Escoffier's loathing for his mother in a plate of oysters.
(Always fun to see old Nuttall, still warm in his grave, waterboarded by Nussbaum, however...)
posted by Dizzy at 7:23 PM on May 5, 2008


Thanks for the article; I just finished it. She's incredibly dismissive of two of the three books (Nuttall and McGinn) she ostensibly sets out to review, although she appreciates Nuttall's earlier work and appears to think the McGinn book is beneath him. She likes the Zamir book, but spends a great deal of time with Cavell's book on the bard (unsurprising, as Nussbaum is a great champion of Cavell).

One wonders if she's ever come across this book by a philosophically minded poet, although the strangeness of that book might not appeal to her more classical sensibilities. As usual for me with Nussbaum, while I appreciate her erudition, interests and attention, her writing is difficult for me to get excited about: there's a studied detachment to her observations that I find oddly underwhelming.
posted by ornate insect at 7:28 PM on May 5, 2008


I really like Nussbaum. I've only really known her as a philosopher worth attention for the past five years or so, but the more I read of hers, the more jealous I am of her capacities and breadth. Thanks for this.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:35 PM on May 5, 2008


I've always found Nussbaum's approach to literature to be too... legal. It pleases the objectivists who want to throw out the humanities, but doesn't really add anything that I'd think of as worthwhile.

But then, that's why literary studies *shouldn't* be thrown out: we can all have our tastes and the field remains productive
posted by tychoish at 7:56 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


For a general discussion of philosophy and literature, this particular program from the Stanford University Philosophy Department's regular radio show "Philosophy Talk," is not half bad.
posted by ornate insect at 8:35 PM on May 5, 2008


Here's a little story about Martha Nussbaum. This happened last week.

I was in my graduate seminar on Aristotle's De Anima, giving a presentation on one of Nussbaum's essays. A certain example kept creeping up, one that featured the color red. My professor interrupted me to say, "Martha Nussbaum's favorite color is red. It's in all her examples and last time I saw her at a conference, she wore a red dress." After I sat down, the student sitting next to me showed me the screen of her iphone: She had just sent a text to Martha Nussbaum that read, "Subject: simple non-philosophical question. Body: what's your favorite color?" Within twenty minutes, she interrupted class to show the professor Nussbaum's reply: "royal blue."

Say what you will about her philosophical writings. She replies to inane emails really, really quickly.
posted by PM at 9:48 PM on May 5, 2008 [4 favorites]


She replies to inane emails really, really quickly.

She must have lots of time on her hands ever since her break up with Cass Sunstein and his continuing dalliance with Samantha Powers. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.
posted by Falconetti at 6:51 AM on May 6, 2008


I love Nussbaum's writings on pretty much everything she's ever written about, so thanks for this!

My favorite part isn't the book reviews so much as her summaries and analysis concerning Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, and the different ways of loving that can be portrayed and learned.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:39 AM on May 6, 2008


She must have lots of time on her hands ever since her break up with Cass Sunstein and his continuing dalliance with Samantha Powers.

From the essay:

This formidable woman, powerful, unique, who has wit, achievement, success, and glamour, who rules a kingdom, who seems an utter stranger to banality--this woman suddenly sees that she is circumscribed by the world's most banal form of power. This fact seems to her so completely outrageous and absurd that she can react only by behaving in an absurd, even infantile, way.


That whole section on erotic jealousy is easily read in that light, but I think it's a mistake. As I said, I have a great deal of respect for Nussbaum, and I'm beginning to find the constant attempts to reduce her to a scorned woman sort of lame and even a little bit like envy turned to misogyny. On the one hand, you can interpret Nussbaum's account in terms of her own experiences, reduce her interest in Zamir and Cavell to an interest in Sunstein and Power, pretend to have an insight into her relationship to Sunstein such that he is Antony, Power is Octavia, and Nussbaum is every inch the Cleopatra who loves good conversation, shared work, shared meals, and shared jokes more than a shared bed:

Antony and Cleopatra transfigure the world from within, making each daily experience more vivid, funny, and surprising. Without each other, the world is sadly boring. "Shall I abide/In this dull world," she asks him as he dies, "which in thy absence is/No better than a sty?" What is piggish, in her view, is not the body, it is the absence of interesting conversation.

On the other hand, that seems to turn Nussbaum's excellent analysis against itself: where she writes that a philosopher reading Shakespeare ought to "wonder, and ponder, in a genuinely philosophical way," this reading would turn her ponderings into, what? An unrequited love letter in the pages of TNR? An essay on how to avoid murdering the unfaithful lover a la Othello? Please. I think there's a degree of arrogance in assuming that a woman can't write about love and sex without exposing her own love life to her readers. It goes back to the charge of hysteria, an illness to which every feminine act and every emotion attests equally.

If the essay is in any way a communication, I suspect it is an elaborate joke on those who would perform this sort of reading. Perhaps even a joke shared with Cass Sunstein, who must also find the attention to his private life a little too much evidence that rock star academics are increasingly being treated like real rock stars. I like this line for my evidence:

is all that dragging by the hair, that funny threat to put the messenger in brine and turn him into a pickle, itself one more outsize joke, a theatrical display of determination and indomitability? Cleopatra is certainly capable of games more elaborate by far. An actress might play the scene in many ways.


You can't read Nussbaum long without noting her dry sense of humor. She is extremely intelligent and dwells on very serious matters most of the time, but there's also an immense wit there, beneath the surface. That's her saving grace.

The most intelligent and commanding woman in all of Shakespeare, Cleopatra is also one of the silliest and most childlike--and it is this capacity for allowing silliness to be seen that is their personal salvation and, by its absence, Othello's doom.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:02 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't like this essay. I find sentimental dissertations about love fairly tedious and uninteresting, especially when they're pumped up with pseudo-philosophical moaning, and Nussbaum's review demonstrates nothing of Shakespeare's (or Zamir's) philosophical value.
posted by nasreddin at 9:21 AM on May 6, 2008


I find sentimental dissertations about love fairly tedious and uninteresting, especially when they're pumped up with pseudo-philosophical moaning, and Nussbaum's review demonstrates nothing of Shakespeare's (or Zamir's) philosophical value.

Principally, Nussbaum is arguing that 'dissertations about love' can actually rise above 'pseudo-philosophical moaning' when they are expressed in literature. What philosophy can add to that is to read and interpret literary texts so that the demonstrative nature of literature is made explicit. So it sounds like you've got the right picture, but the wrong attitude: sentiment doesn't work well in dissertation form, true, but that's precisely the philosophical value of Shakespeare. What makes Zamir useful and interesting is his capacity to take seriously the idea that Shakespeare has philosophical, rather than merely exemplary, value.

Literary works offer their readers a range of experiences that philosophical prose cannot provide, reshaping their perceptions in a variety of ways. Some of these experiences are varieties of emotional response; some are experiences of dislocation and a loss of meaning; some are experiences of losing a sense of meaning and then finding it again; some are experiences of not being able to figure out who or what a certain person is, or even what a person or self might be. And sometimes the experience is that of following the shifting trajectory of a human relationship.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:16 AM on May 6, 2008



Principally, Nussbaum is arguing that 'dissertations about love' can actually rise above 'pseudo-philosophical moaning' when they are expressed in literature. What philosophy can add to that is to read and interpret literary texts so that the demonstrative nature of literature is made explicit. So it sounds like you've got the right picture, but the wrong attitude: sentiment doesn't work well in dissertation form, true, but that's precisely the philosophical value of Shakespeare. What makes Zamir useful and interesting is his capacity to take seriously the idea that Shakespeare has philosophical, rather than merely exemplary, value.


I don't really disagree with you; I didn't need Nussbaum to tell me that the intersection of philosophy and literature can be worthwhile in this way. What I object to is the simpering banality of the subject matter she's discussing. I was expecting her to bring in Bakhtin, to talk about the unique power of the dialogic in shaping our relationship to the world and each other. (One strong reason to read literature as philosophy is that the kinds of dialogic encounters between incompatible positions that make for some of the most interesting philosophy haven't really been available to philosophers since the death of the (e.g. Humean) dialogue in the eighteenth century--and literature can handle them in a much subtler and more effective way).

Instead I'm treated to a Grandpa Joe Shares His Life Lessons moment with a superficial incrustation of references to the "ineffable self" and other such Continental detritus. Does Shakespeare really have nothing more to offer philosophers than this?
posted by nasreddin at 10:32 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


There are various shibboleths in literary theory: one is that selves are fragile and embattled and mysterious, another is that matters of public concern admit of plural and incommensurable preference. I'm not sure why your concern with the latter ought to overcome a scholar's interest in the former. To claim otherwise is to suggest that these are not both viable modes of philosophical inquiry, which your commitment to pluralism seems to render incoherent.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:01 AM on May 6, 2008


I'm not sure why your concern with the latter ought to overcome a scholar's interest in the former. To claim otherwise is to suggest that these are not both viable modes of philosophical inquiry, which your commitment to pluralism seems to render incoherent.

It's an aesthetic judgment, not a substantive one.
posted by nasreddin at 11:05 AM on May 6, 2008


She is an alumna of my high school, and gave what was possibly the most boring speech EVER at my daughter's commencement there in 2001; after this discussion, I may give her another chance.
posted by Peach at 7:03 PM on May 6, 2008


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