An Insufficient Treatment of Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Literature / April 23, 2015 / No Comments /
An explanation of why Stanley Cavil’s treatment of Shakespeare’s works is incomplete and inconsequential.

`Stanley Cavell’s reading of Shakespeare indicates that the bulk of what constitutes Shakespearean tragedy anticipates the sort of philosophy known as `philosophical skepticism` that writers like Thoreau and Descartes would bring to fruition years later, within the clearly defined realm of philosophy. More specifically, Cavell claims that Shakespeare’s tragedies are essentially tragedies of ?acknowledgment,? when one character makes a conscious decision to disown something that he [sic] knows. While Cavell may have identified (indeed, accurately) and been able to categorize elements of Shakespeare which fit into his preconceived mold, to claim that this constitutes the bulk of Shakespeare’s tragic element completely eviscerates the more substantive components of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Cavell’s analytical methods are retroactive. Rather than reading Shakespeare and then formulating a conclusion, he has chosen instead to fit his reading of Shakespeare, sometimes bordering on absurd and nonsensical, to his already preconceived conclusion. To claim, then, that Shakespeare was consciously operating within the context of philosophical skepticism is irrational. Philosophical skepticism gives to the reader an analysis of Shakespeare that is excessively introspective, focusing on the motivations of individual characters while looking over the more significant and relevant parts of the tragedies, relationships between and among humans. While Cavell, centuries later, may have indeed identified elements of Shakespearean tragedy which fit within his mold of philosophical skepticism, this was certainly not the framework from which Shakespeare was operating. `


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