Shakespeare and the Language of Doubt

by Drew, John Michael

Abstract (Summary)
This study explores the premise that the dramatic tension of Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear is realized through their respective protagonists' struggle with conflicting philosophies. Though Shakespeare borrowed most of his plot structures, I will maintain that his creation and development of subsidiary characters within these plot constraints allows for an amplification of the main characters' struggle with philosophical dilemmas. Horatio, Iago, and the Fool will play their parts as foils and alter-egos to accentuate philosophical disquietudes, specifically the kind of Pyrrhonian skepticism manifest by Michel de Montaigne as contrasted with a Cartesian-like isolated essentialism. I will maintain that Montaigne's relativistic "decentring" is a harbinger of cultural materialism as distinct from Descartes' idealism, and that the adoption of, and interplay between, these respective philosophical attitudes reflects a struggle for a sense of self which significantly defines the dramatic shape of the tragedies. My analysis shall most distinctly foreground the connection between disguise, rhetoric, and dissembling and the skeptical ethos of Shakespeare's time. I shall argue that this skepticism entailed the cordoning off of theological matters with concurrent attention to worldly affairs moving toward pragmatism. When the heavenly cannot be known, it is the phenomenal that counts. I will argue that Hamlet will eschew his early isolation and hew to a Montaignian sense of self, developed from a prototype exemplified by his friend Horatio. This identification is partially predicated on his attitude toward Gertrude and Ophelia. I will suggest that though Othello's "friend" Iago is false, he is every bit as influential as Horatio is for Hamlet. Shakespeare's creation of Iago allowed him to test the limits of doubt by presenting a demi-devil in advance of Descartes' "evil genius," and Othello's attachment to Iago, with his concurrent estrangement from Desdemona, is solidified through his isolation from Venetian society, coupled with Iago's ingratiating imitation of a friend. Lastly I hope to show how Shakespeare's creation of the Fool in King Lear gives us an alternative way of seeing a character's interior. In the absence of soliloquies, Lear's struggle with himself and his choices is shown by the colloquy between Lear and his Fool. If the struggle with conflicting philosophies in Hamlet and Othello provides a more linear tangent toward the revelation of the self, I will argue that the shape of the tragedy in Lear is circuitous. I will suggest that Lear's initial attempts at the divestiture of materiality, exacerbated by Goneril and Regan's erosion of his psyche, prefigure Descartes' own attempt to find "the thing itself," but that Lear's subsequent flirtation with Montaignian relativism on the heath eventually leads him back to a more insular sense of self through his reconciliation with Cordelia.
Bibliographical Information:


School:Ohio University

School Location:USA - Ohio

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:shakespeare skepticism michel de montaigne rene descartes king lear hamlet othello


Date of Publication:01/01/2008

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