Shakespeare’s Philosophy of Self

This morning, while doing my atheist education homework, I read Luke’s “CommonSense Atheism” post on the infinite regress argument.  On that post, I read an excellent comment by a proud Irish fellow named “John D”, so I went to his site, “Philosophical Disquisitions” where I enjoyed his article  discussing Colin McGinn’s book “Shakespeare’s Philosophy”. I am not a huge literature person, but wish I were.  And I have not read Shakespeare, though I have seen many of his plays.  Yet this article got me excited about looking into Shakespeare again.  For it seems that Shakespeare agrees with my philosophy of self (“Many-Selves, No Self”). But, as to be expected, John D (through McGinn & Shakespeare) captures my view of self in far less words than me, and with rich imagery. For convenience, I will now quote part of John D’s post but please do go read the rest if you have a chance.

(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.

This View of Self is part of Shakespeare’s worldview and my worldview.  Luke started to build a Taxonomy of Worldviews and I feel such a taxonomy can be useful in facilitating conversations between those with philosophical or theological inclinations. Luke states that

A worldview consists of one’s beliefs about:

  • Ontology
  • Explanation
  • Values
  • Epistemology

For me, philosophy of mind or view of self is absolutely central to my worldview.  And apparently Shakespeare captured my views hundreds of years ago.  Perhaps my View of Self would fall under Epistemology in Luke’s schema, or does it inform my epistemology and thus epistemology should be subsumed under philosophy of mind?  I am not sure. I think most of us have no formal, systematized worldviews nonetheless many of us have deep preferences and ways of seeing the world that inform all our other views — systematized or not.  We are all casual philosophers.   Shakespeare’s View of Self is a great illustration of a major way I view my world.  The other major component of my worldview is “The Fool” — it is the fundamental insight into my own ignorance and limitations. I feel that Shakespeare understood this very well too!  I really have to read the chap.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

10 responses to “Shakespeare’s Philosophy of Self

  1. This is slightly peevish of me, but I feel compelled to point out that I am not British. I am Irish.

    The compulsion is odd given that national identity has never been important to my self-understanding. But there it is nonetheless, no doubt the product of years of highly selective Irish history lessons.

    Otherwise, thank you.

  2. Absolutely ! My bad. *bows deeply
    I have corrected it.
    Thank you !

  3. Rooted cosmopolitan is my ultimate goal.

  4. Getting into Shakespeare in really hard, particularly for an ESL person like me. But, it is so worth it.

    He will make you scream alleluia! He was as atheist as it got in his time. He was a humanist and a psychologist.

    If someone started a Shakespearean religion, I would probably join.

  5. [Comment Policy violationS – deleted]

  6. Really Sabio? Wow.

  7. Yeah, sorry T4T. They say the best thing for your blog stats is to not censor. But I’d rather set the tone of my blog than reach high for numbers.
    Your comment was a stereotypical ethnic joke and had nothing to do with the post. This violates:
    A2, C1, C2, C3
    Maybe I should add, “No Locker Room Talk”
    Peace Dude

  8. @ Lorena
    Shakespeare is ESL for me too ! I am glad to hear you recommend him. He goes higher on my do list !

  9. james

    Shakespeare reminds me also of Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky. All of them were great because they show through their writings the great complexity of humanity. That we are always both shaping and being shaped. That a multiplicity of voices help us navigate life.
    Aside: i think that wealthy folks have a harder time seeing that their “personality” or self is contingent on such things as economics, geography, family of origin etc. Hence the problem with “herd” mentality in current N.A. culture.
    These writers all had a tremendous grasp of human psychology and depth. This drive in all of them is towards personalism. See an interesting article regarding Dostoyevsky on this point here: This is an interview of Rowan Williams one of the brightest orthodox-pomo Christians today.

  10. I have had difficulty finding your ‘like’ buttons. I like your blog so well that we, my partner and me, Recommended it.

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