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Shakespeare may be the greatest unacknowledged philosopher of all-time. His art reflects nearly every major documented philosophical movement. Examine Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy and you can foresee the upcoming schism between the continental and the analytic philosophers.
Colin McGinn's new book, Shakespeare's Philosophy, examines the impact of just six plays on the study of thought. So says the Amazon review:
The book examines Shakespeare in relation to Hume, Wittgenstein and such major philosophical questions as nothingness, language, causation and the nature of knowledge. McGinn makes a credible case that the essays of Montaigne as well as skepticism and naturalism had a clear influence on Shakespeare's writings, bringing unexpected freshness to topics that are well-worn in high school curriculums. Most interesting is McGinn's earnest delight in rediscovering Shakespeare's characters, such as the tragic Cordelia and the indecisive Hamlet. McGinn's gift, aside from his clear and beautiful prose, is in recognizing Shakespeare's genius in creating true and recognizable people, who ring as true to modern audiences as they did to his contemporaries. "He told us how the world looks from the perspective of itself. And the world never looked the same again." This conclusion implies that just as Shakespeare the playwright still moves his audiences, so, too, can Shakespeare the philosopher.
Shakespeare has stood the test of time because he connects to so many other texts, to so many other disciplines, and, most importantly, to so many of our hearts and heads.
One profound way that Shakespeare impacts modern culture is that much of what we term as "drama" or "dramatic element" is embodied in his own writings. If we speak of conflict in love, we do not stray far from "Romeo and Juliet." If we speak of wisdom and understanding, we are very near to "King Lear." If we speak of the ends justifying the means, we move close to "Macbeth." If we speak of insecurity and doubt, we find ourselves on the outskirts of "Othello." These are but a few examples of how our modern conception of drama and culture might have roots in Shakespearean works. We, as a people, tend to think of such concepts in terms through the eyes of his work. At the same time, when we speak of how to convey love to another person, we might be speaking in the terms of Shakespearean Sonnet. In revisiting so many of his sonnets, one understands that they give us new and different metaphors to describe and redescribe love. This is yet another cultural impact of Shakespeare.
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