Shakespearean Metaphysics

September 17, 2009

Author: Michael Witmore

Edition: Second

Publisher: Continuum

Pages: 143

Price: £45.00 and £12.99

ISBN: 9780826490438 and 0445

Shakespeare’s plays, insists Michael Witmore, “take apart reality and put it back together again in some of the same ways that philosophers do”. His Shakespearean Metaphysics is a concise and pithy attempt to demonstrate the ways in which the philosophical principles of Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson and Baruch Spinoza can be used, respectively, to explicate three plays: Twelfth Night, King Lear and The Tempest. In spite of the variety of their philosophical positions as well as the generic diversity of the plays chosen, Witmore is keen to emphasise throughout what he calls “Shakespeare’s preference for a metaphysics of immanence over one of punctualism”, that is, being and agency and the reality that they constitute “emerge holistically from things themselves” rather than “being localized in certain metaphysically isolated pockets of the universe”.

Concommitantly, Witmore underlines the degree to which Shakespeare’s theatre evinces, even as it relies upon, a sense of communality or, as he calls it, “relationality”. In the case of Twelfth Night, for instance, the play’s easy-going acceptance of occasionality and its ostensible randomness – “What else may hap, to time I will commit” – makes it a creative illustration of what Whitehead theorised as “process metaphysics”, the prioritisation of events over substances (or identities). Thus the play’s resolution manifests a “form of novel togetherness that is the metaphysical ideal and emotional destination of Twelfth Night”. While Viola is prepared to submit herself to Fortune (and thus embodies, in her selflessness, the anima of the play itself), Lear’s attempt to bully events means that “any sense of beneficial spontaneity” disappears from the world of the play. Time becomes “uncoaxable, as it were” and the monarch’s “plan to outsmart fortune has gone badly wrong”.

Shakespeare’s holism is most powerfully illustrated by The Tempest and its reliance upon music as a manifestation of “the environmental personality of the island”. Witmore poetically describes the island’s sounds as a “frictionless species of touch” which is “both everywhere and nowhere”. Its function is to enable the binding together of character and circumstance in a complicated weave of interconnectedness.

As a textbook, the volume would be a good place to start for any graduate courses in literature and philosophy, critical theory or interdisciplinarity. It is vivacious and engaging, although (for a non-philosopher) occasionally abstruse. In spite of the insistence on the “shareable” quality of the critical discourse, there are moments of frustrating obscurity: King Lear focuses audience attention “by creating situations in which something like pure ‘duration’ can be apprehended in its qualitative multiplicity rather than its homogeneous order”. In the main, though, it would make a stimulating base camp whence to begin the search for Shakespeare’s metaphysics and to “suck the sweets of sweet philosophy”.

Who is it for? Final-year undergraduate and graduate classes in literature and philosophy; Shakespeare; critical theory.

Presentation Compact and engaging; occasionally challenging in terms of critical discourse.

Would you recommend it? Yes, it is a sound and interesting illustration of the degree to which Shakespeare can be discussed through the cognate discipline of philosophy.

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