Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book 49: Shakespeare's Philosophy

Shakespeare's Philosophy by Colin McGinn

I wanted to read a book on Shakespeare's plays but didn't feel like making a huge commitment, so I went with this option. A few of the others I looked at were over 800 pages long, and while I might get them later, I figured this would be a good starting point. I guess my problem is that I can't read a few books simultaneously; the other Shakespeare critical analysis books would probably be perfect for a chapter a day intermixed with other books, but once I'm into a book, I am not going to put it down until I'm done with it.

McGinn chooses six plays to discuss and analyze, devoting about 20 to 30 pages to each play, and then writes chapters discussing different topics, such as gender, psychology, ethics and tragedy. As he stated in the beginning, McGinn is a philosopher with an interest in Shakespeare, not a literary scholar with an interest in philosophy. While I'm generally not much on philosophy, and find it rather boring, I actually really liked this book. I'd read five of the six plays he discussed though I don't like King Lear or The Tempest very much. In these, McGinn focuses on the themes of self, knowledge and causation as seen in these plays and Shakespeare's worldview. I enjoyed the analysis of Othello the most and also thought his views and insights into Hamlet were rather interesting. Additionally, the concluding chapters were very thoughtful as well, especially his definition of a Shakespearean tragedy - he argues against the fatal flaw idea, saying that these flaws hadn't been an issue until these characters were placed in that exact situation and that they were more than just flaws but actually those people's defining character traits. Additionally, it wasn't as if most of Shakespeare's heroes were necessarily great men with only one flaw to begin with: "morally, these men men are at best mediocrities; so the sense of the tragedy we fell cannot stem from seeing men of exceptional moral quality brought low and destroyed" (193), referring to Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear.

It was definitely nice to read some critical analysis of literature again. I always enjoy seeing what other people think about things I've read, especially when they point out views I might not otherwise have even considered.

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