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Shakespeare’s Tragic Skepticism

Shakespeare’s Tragic Skepticism

Millicent Bell
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Shakespeare’s Tragic Skepticism
    Book Description:

    Readers of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies have long noted the absence of readily explainable motivations for some of Shakespeare's greatest characters: why does Hamlet delay his revenge for so long? Why does King Lear choose to renounce his power? Why is Othello so vulnerable to Iago's malice? But while many critics have chosen to overlook these omissions or explain them away, Millicent Bell demonstrates that they are essential elements of Shakespeare's philosophy of doubt. Examining the major tragedies, Millicent Bell reveals the persistent strain of philosophical skepticism. Like his contemporary, Montaigne, Shakespeare repeatedly calls attention to the essential unknowability of our world.In a period of social, political, and religious upheaval, uncertainty hovered over matters great and small-the succession of the crown, the death of loved ones from plague, the failure of a harvest. Tumultuous social conditions raised ultimate questions for Shakespeare, Bell argues, and ultimately provoked in him a skepticism which casts shadows of existential doubt over his greatest masterpieces.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12720-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)
    Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth

    Shakespeare is no more ready than Iago to wear his heart upon his sleeve for daws to peck at, and maybe, like Iago, he really has no heart. What he is “trying to say” in his plays is hardly distinguishable in the chorus of ideas that his poetry and dramatic structures make us hear. The Romantics thought he was “myriad-minded”—Coleridge’s term. His entertainment of contraries, his apparent self-contradiction, showed the “negative capability” Keats said was themark of literary genius. Inmodern times, T.S. Eliot felt that Shakespeare had no general ideas worth talking about. Nevertheless, Eliot offered his own egregious...

  5. 1 Hamlet, Revenge!
    (pp. 29-79)

    When, at the end of the second act, Hamlet bawls, “Bloody, bawdy villain!/Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!/O, vengeance” the audience laughed, I guess, the way modern audiences laugh when viewing Mel Brooks’sYoung Frankenstein. They recognized a horror-thriller style old-fashioned enough to be funny; this was the way the Revenger hero of Thomas Kyd’sSpanish Tragedyhad ranted on the stage fifteen years before. Shakespeare’s modern editors disagree about the “O, vengeance,” which appears only in the 1623 Folio. The editor of the ArdenHamlet, who commits himself to the earlier Second Quarto, where it is missing, thinks it must...

  6. 2 Othello’s Jealousy
    (pp. 80-137)

    Oh, yes, the chief subject ofOthellois sexual jealousy. Most dramatic representations seize upon and emphasize the way this condition, like a fatal disease, grows on the hero and destroys him until the recovery of sanity and dignity at the tragic end. The more directly we see and hear him the more we almost share the madness that mounts in his mind until it reaches a point in which he appears to hallucinate, seeing what is not there, writhing before the inner vision of his wife’s betrayal. In the 1995 Kenneth Branagh film this inner vision reaches the screen...

  7. 3 “Unaccommodated” Lear
    (pp. 138-190)

    In that dimly lit, unlocalized purgatory in which the characters inKing Learapproach and address one another, nothing is so difficult as recognition. Their challenges to one another multiply the “Who’s there?” with whichHamletopens. Beyond any ordinary requirement of stage identification, they ask, continually, “Who are you?” or “Who is he?” and even demand, “What am I?”—as though they were struggling to see or to be seen through the mist of some primal indefiniteness. Their uncertainty is felt also by the reader or playgoer who may find himself unable to retain a clear sense of anyone...

  8. 4 Macbeth’s Deeds
    (pp. 191-240)

    Like King Lear,Macbethhas its ultimate source in myth, and it retains the universality as well as the obliquity of myth; it tells the old story of a man misled by riddling prophecy. It shows, like many folk tales, the fatality of such confident anticipation of what will happen. The hero will know more than he should about the future— yet not enough. It does not matter who he is or when or where he lives. His particular personality and condition are unimportant. However he might resolve to let fate simply have its way without his stir, he will...

  9. Epilogue The Roman Frame
    (pp. 241-278)

    Framing the four great tragedies I have just discussed,Julius CaesarandAntony and Cleopatraseem to separateHamlet, Othello, King Lear,andMacbethfrom Shakespeare’s earlier and later works yet have a special relation to what they enclose, as well as to the plays they fence off. Most critics have found more difference than likeness between these two and the tragic four bounded by them. Like the series of English “history plays” that had just culminated inHenry Vwhen Shakespeare wroteJulius Caesar, these linked representations of the greatest crisis of Roman times are based closely on recorded...

  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 279-283)