«DIGESTING THE THIRD: RECONFIGURING BINARIES IN SHAKESPEARE AND EARLY MODERN THOUGHT by Rob Carson A thesis submitted in conformity with the ...»
DIGESTING THE THIRD:
EARLY MODERN THOUGHT
A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements
for the degree of doctor of Philosophy
Graduate Department of English
University of Toronto
© Copyright by Rob Carson 2009
Dissertation Abstract “Digesting the Third: Reconfiguring Binaries in Shakespeare and Early Modern Thought” Rob Carson (PhD 2009) Department of English University of Toronto My argument assesses and reconfigures binary structures in Shakespeare’s plays and in Shakespeare criticism. I contend that ideas in early modern literature often exhibit three aspects, but that critics, who mostly rely upon a binary philosophical vocabulary, tend to notice only two aspects at a time, thereby “digesting” the third. My opening chapter theorizes the superimposition of triadic structures upon dyads, arguing that this new polyrhythmic strategy helps recapture an early modern philosophical perspective by circumventing the entrenched binary categories we have inherited from the Enlightenment.
In Chapter Two, I examine the relationship of tyranny and conscience in Tudor politics, Reformed psychology, and Richard III. Early modern political theorists often employ a binary opposition of kingship and tyranny, and historians typically draw a binary distinction between absolutists and resisters. I argue that there were in fact three ideological positions on offer which these binaries misrepresent. As well, Reformed psychology emphasizes the relationship of the individual subject and an objective God, unmediated by community, and I propose that this opposition of subjectivity and objectivity digests the idea of intersubjectivity. In Richard III, Shakespeare interrogates the implausibility of Tudor political binaries and stages a nostalgia for intersubjective community and conscience.
In Chapter Three I read the debates on value in Troilus and Cressida alongside contemporary economic writings by Gerard de Malynes on currency reform and “merchandizing exchange.” Our current models of value – intrinsic and extrinsic, use and exchange, worth and price – are emphatically binary, but the mercantile practices that ii Malynes describes depend upon a triadic conception of value. My contention is that Troilus and Cressida becomes a less problematic problem play when value is conceived as triadic rather than dyadic.
In Chapter Four I explore early modern scepticism in connection with Coriolanus.
Reading Montaigne and Wittgenstein in parallel, I distinguish between various conceptions of truth that are regularly grouped together under the blanket term “scepticism.” Then I turn to read Coriolanus as an experiment in competing modes of early modern epistemology, arguing that the play ultimately endorses the same sort of polyphonous Pyrrhonian scepticism that we find in Montaigne and Wittgenstein.
For Beatrice, who helped to get me started;
for Desmond, who helped to get me finished;
and for Ingrid, who made everything in between such a joy.
♣ ♣ ♣
It is perhaps fitting that a dissertation so obsessive about the number three should begin with a trio of thanks: to my supervisor Jill Levenson, for her unswerving support, her unfailingly excellent advice, and her unparalleled attention to detail in the final stages of revision; to Elizabeth Harvey, for calling all of my bluffs, for divining what I meant to say at times when I couldn’t find the words myself, and for steering me clear of some potentially disastrous missteps; and to David Galbraith, for sharing his valuable commentary, his collegial friendship, and his excellent music collection. The Department of English at the University of Toronto is, of course, a powerhouse of early modern studies, and my argument has also benefited greatly from conversations with Sally-Beth MacLean, Lynne Magnusson, Scott Schofield, Paul Stevens, Holger Schott Syme, and especially Michael Ullyot. Special thanks go to Mary Nyquist and to my external reader, Lars Engle, both of whom offered fantastically useful constructive critiques of my argument at my defense – the next incarnation of this project will undoubtedly be considerably stronger as a result.
I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to workshop every section of the dissertation in a number of forums over the past few years, and of course my argument has benefited greatly from the comments of others. I presented an early version of Chapter One in Richard Strier’s seminar on King Lear at the SAA in April 2006 and received helpful feedback from Colleen Shea and Richard Strier, and another version as a Friday workshop for the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies in February 2007, where Katie Larson raised some very insightful questions. Chapter Two took shape in May-June 2007 during an excellent spring seminar at the Folger Institute on “Staging Political Thought” led by Conal Condren, and discussions with Conal Condren, Kristine Johanson, András Kiséry, Bernice W. Kliman, Peter Lake, Joseph Navitsky, and Shannon Stimson were instrumental in
and Distinctions” conference at Queen’s University, Belfast in January 2008 and also in Kathleen Lynch and Adam Smyth’s “Representing Selves” seminar at SAA in March 2008, and conversations that followed with Malachy Costello, Julie Crawford, David Currell, Majella Devlin, Elizabeth Hanson, John Joughin, Kathleen Lynch, Mary-Ellen Lynn, Gaywyn Moore, Steven Mullaney, Rebecca Munson, Alan Stewart, and Adrian Streete contributed to my argument in various ways. I used a portion of Chapter Three as a job talk in January 2007 and January 2008 at the University of Toronto, Southern Methodist University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and questions from Andrew DuBois, Dennis Foster, Frank Grady, Ezra Greenspan, Grant Holly, Jeremy Lopez, Lynne Magnusson, Mary Nyquist, and Tim Rosendale prompted me to revisit some aspects of my argument. Chapter Four began as a paper for Tom Bishop and Peter Holbrook’s SAA seminar on “Shakespeare and Montaigne” in April 2005, where it received extremely helpful feedback from Tom Bishop, John D. Cox, Lars Engle, William M.
Hamlin, Peter Holbrook, John Lee, Marcus Nordlund, David Schalkwyk, Anita Gilman Sherman, and William O. Scott. Special thanks go to Tom Bishop and Peter Holbrook for encouraging me to revise and publish a version of the paper, to the Shakespearean International Yearbook for permission to reprint, and to the anonymous reader at the Yearbook as well for further feedback.
Material support for my writing of this dissertation has come from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; the Ontario Graduate Scholarship program; the University of Toronto; the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies;
the Department of English at the University of Toronto; the Department of Philosophy at
English at Queen’s University, Belfast.
In closing, let me return to thank my wife, Ingrid, once again for all that she did to make this project not only possible, but so thoroughly delightful as well.
♣ ♣ ♣ Chapter 4 presents a revised version of my article “Hearing Voices in Coriolanus and Early Modern Scepticism,” and is reprinted by permission of the Publishers from Shakespearean International Yearbook 6, Special Guest Editor Peter Holbrook, General Editors Tom Bishop and Graham Bradshaw (Aldershot etc.: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 170-209.
Copyright © 2006.
3. Reassessing Value in Troilus and Cressida and Early Modern Economics 107
4. Hearing Voices in Montaigne, Wittgenstein, and Coriolanus 152
George Bernard Shaw spent his career making outrageous, self-serving, and often contradictory comments about Shakespeare, but the character assassination he offers in the Epistle Dedicatory to Man and Superman is perhaps his most outlandish. Here he presents
a defence for his claim that Shakespeare does not qualify as an “artist-philosopher”:
Pshaw, I say. Apparently, in order to count as an “artist-philosopher” in Shaw’s estimation, a writer must be a dogmatist advancing a narrowly focused position, a “leading thought,” and in this respect, I gladly concede that William Shakespeare is no George Bernard Shaw.
Most of us, I suspect, are instead inclined to follow Coleridge’s lead in accepting Shakespeare’s “myriad-mindedness” as a rare virtue rather than a common vice (2: 13).
Shakespearean drama, as I read it, seems above all to be a theatre of investigation: through his plays, he tests his culture’s institutions and received ideas; he experiments with both emergent and historical alternatives to the status quo; he juxtaposes competing theoretical accounts and competing practical strategies; he magnifies ambiguity at every turn; and he confronts insistent paradoxes without pretending to be able to resolve them. He may well be “concerned with the diversities of the world instead of with its unities,” as Shaw suggests, and he may even be “anarchical” if we take the term in its original sense, but this committed open-mindedness hardly makes him unphilosophical, let alone “bewildered.” His theatre, it seems to me, functioned in its time as a crucible for the testing of early modern ideas, a place where
theories were reified, put into action, and assessed under a range of different conditions. This form of public ideological experimentation clearly generated considerable popular interest in his day, since Shakespeare’s plays fared so well in the lucrative Elizabethan entertainment market; and furthermore, these experiments also seem to have carried some sway in the politics of public opinion, if we may judge by the records of governmental intervention in the businesses of the playhouses and the of printing houses.
The suggestion I begin with, then, is that in Shakespeare’s plays, philosophical ideas are experimentally tested under investigative pressure, not (as Shaw would have it) in order to advance a single-minded predetermined position, but for the sake of investigation itself.
♣ ♣ ♣ I think it is worth noting how often philosophers, or at least philosophers of a certain disposition, employ rhetorical strategies that verge upon the dramatic in their philosophical writings. Plato’s dialogues, for example, especially from his middle period, are often highly theatrical, since they explore philosophical subjects from competing points of view that are voiced by different characters. Furthermore, Plato takes some pains to flesh out the characters that he depicts in contention with one another, and he often sets the stage for these conversations with concrete details about the scenery surrounding them and the props that are ready to hand. 1 Some philosophical dialogues written in the modern era (such 1 By no means do I intend to suggest, however, that I expect to see a staged reading of the Hippias Minor playing to packed houses on Broadway at any time soon. Nevertheless, it should be noted that a number of
Plato’s dialogues have been adapted for the stage. The Symposium has been especially popular in this respect:
in 2007, Target Margin Theater mounted an adaptation called Dinner Party in New York that garnered favourable reviews (Isherwood), and the dialogue was also adapted as a musical, All About Love, by Murray Ross, Mark Arnest, and Lauren Arnest, in 1997. As well, in his 2007 play Socrates on Trial, Andrew D. Irvine adapts material from a number of Platonic dialogues. Furthermore, Agora Publications has released recordings of staged readings of Plato’s dialogues on the assumption that these works were originally intended for public performance (as their website explains, although not at all convincingly). On Plato’s reliance on dramatic techniques, see Rebecca Bensen Cain, The Socratic Method.
as Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous) go further still in this direction, using speech prefixes to help readers distinguish between the competing voices, and thus presenting philosophical arguments in a form that closely mirrors the appearance of playbooks. Even when we examine the monologic treatises that are, of course, the norm in philosophy, we can often discover subtle inclinations towards dramatic form. In Descartes’s Meditations, for example, the argument unfolds through something like an internal dialogue between the philosopher and an imagined interlocutor, as Descartes asks himself questions and then casts doubts on his own responses. It is a compelling read, of course, much more compelling than a work like Spinoza’s Ethics, and in large part this is because it inclines towards a dramatic soliloquy in its form rather than a Euclidean mathematical proof. For that matter, we might discern a number of structural elements in the narrative arc of
Descartes’s six nights of meditation that will surely feel familiar to the theatrically-minded:
the philosopher’s initial hubris and hamartia for having placed too much faith in his reason and his senses; the peripeteia that follows as he strips his beliefs of everything that can be doubted; the subsequent agon in which he scrutinizes his thoughts in a quest for clear and distinct ideas; the moment of anagnorisis when he recognizes that the cogito provides him with a foundation for knowledge that cannot be shaken; the ensuing catharsis as rationalist philosophy is reborn and purged of sceptical doubt; and ultimately the comic resolution, one that is made possible only when an implausible deus ex machina is lowered from the rafters (twice) in order to overcome the blocking figure of the malin génie so that the young lovers, mind and body, can be reassuringly married at last. I suggest that one of the reasons that the tragicomedy of the Meditations appeals to us as much as it does is that when we first encounter to it, we are already familiar with so many elements of its dramatic structure.