Shakespeare's Philosophy. The opening chapter provides a really good overview of some of the philosophical questions that appear to have interested Shakespeare.
As background to my series on Shakespeare's comedies, I thought I would provide a summary of McGinn's opening chapter. This material should be of interest to all, irrespective of their feelings about Shakespeare.
McGinn argues that there are three philosophical themes permeating Shakespeare's plays: (a) Knowledge and Scepticism; (b) the Self; and (c) Causality. Let's look at each of them in turn.
(a) Knowledge and Scepticism
The quest for knowledge is central to human existence. Aristotle argued that it was a natural desire we all share. That may be an over-generalisation, but it seems to ring true.
Knowledge is a normative concept. In this sense, it is useful to distinguish it from information, which is not normative. Information can be true or false, good or bad, useful or useless. Knowledge is true, good and useful. Information is ubiquitous; knowledge is rare.
So there is a problem: we have imperfect access to what is true, good and useful. Our senses often mislead us, as do other people. This has been a perennial philosophical concern, present in the sayings of Socrates and the writings of Plato. Socrates, in particular, was sceptical about those who claimed to be in the know.
The problem has seemed so acute to some that they have dismissed the quest for knowledge. The school of thought known as Pyrrhonism, for example, argues that it is irrational to believe in anything, given our knowledge-accessing problems.
Shakespeare was exposed to the writings of one arch-sceptic Michel Montaigne. Montaigne wrote brilliant essays that fused personal anecdote with serious intellectual concerns (he should be an inspiration to all bloggers!). In a famous essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond", Montaigne expertly articulated the sceptical position. McGinn argues that Montaigne had a profound influence on Shakespeare.
In addition to this, Shakespeare is himself an expert articulator of the problem of other minds. This concerns our difficulties in knowing what others are thinking, plotting, hoping and intending. The plays are replete with characters who misunderstand each other. Indeed, the comedies are usually premised on misunderstanding of some sort.
(b) The Self
Drama is all about selves. A play is usually an assemblage of characters or selves engaging in activities and events. These activities and events constitute the "plot". The question that arises is whether the self remains constant throughout the plot or whether it is changed by the plot.
McGinn argues that Shakespeare is sceptical of the notion that the self is a constant, definite, singular "thing" or "essence". Instead, McGinn suggests that for Shakespeare the self is interactive and theatrical.
It is interactive in that it never makes sense to talk about the self in isolation. The self only becomes apparent in social interactions. For example, if we describe someone as being generous, what we mean is that they behave in certain ways towards other people.
It is theatrical in that it is best understood in terms of the roles a person plays in life. This idea is manifest in the famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It. We treat life like a stage play in which we play different roles, each designed to make an impression on an audience of some kind. We are familiar with this: we all put on a different "act" depending on the people we are with.
The final philosophical concern of Shakespeare is with causality. Causality gives structure to the events and processes through which we live. The philosophical concern is with the search for some overarching causal principle that explains the structure and sequence of all events.
We can distinguish between two types of overarching causal principle. The first would be a teleological principle. This would explain events in terms of the whims, desires, preferences or intentions of some agent, usually God. This principle imbues events with great moral and ethical significance. For example, if a battle is won, it is because God favours us; if a person is injured, it is because God is angry.
The second type of principle would be naturalistic and amoral. It explains events in terms of mindless processes and mechanisms (see here for more details). What morality and purpose there is in the universe is projected onto it by us, it is not out there. This is an atheistic view, one that I personally share.
McGinn argues that Shakespeare is sceptical about teleological causation. In his comedies and tragedies he seems to reject the idea that there is rational purpose or order in the universe. The universe is unruly, morally blind and even sometimes unintelligible. McGinn thinks that this scepticism is what gives Shakespeare's plays their great worth: they challenge complacent views about causality.