An Intellectual Magpie

If asked, most people would surely agree that Shakespeare was a thinker. Even the generally received picture of Shakespeare, featuring that prominent forehead, emphasizes his braininess. Still, the precise quality of the playwright’s thought remains elusive. As the late critic and Oxford professor A. D. Nuttall disarmingly admits in his new study, “We have no idea what Shakespeare thought, finally, about any major question.” Finally is, however, an important qualification for Nuttall in this book. Rather than offering to delineate Shakespeare’s thought as an achieved body of doctrine, Nutall’s method is to emphasize the process of Shakespeare’s thinking. In the end, we may not know what Shakespeare believed, but we can trace how he thought as he grappled with a range of issues.

According to Nuttall (who died last January), Shakespeare was an indefatigable, highly original, and mercurial thinker who never remained content with a particular position. In roughly chronological order, Shakespeare the Thinker examines the plays in an effort to trace the fiery track of their author’s mind in motion. This procedure has much to recommend it, as plays written in close chronological proximity often exhibit surprising similarities and repetitions. Twelfth Night, for example, takes up in a comic key the same questions of mourning and madness that feature prominently in the tragedy of Hamlet, written shortly before it.

Nuttall covers a wide range of topics, including causality, the referential aspect of language, personal identity, epistemology, and ethics. These are fairly abstract philosophical subjects, yet his treatment of them never becomes arid. The book follows a loose-limbed arrangement that Nuttall tells us he employs in order to track the vagaries of Shakespeare’s own unsystematic thought. He covers a lot of ground. Discussing the earlier plays, such as Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Nuttall’s most persistent concerns is about the relationship between brilliant rhetoric, described as “glittering, vacuous formalism,” and reality. A central chapter, “Stoics and Skeptics,” looks at three of Shakespeare’s most densely philosophical plays, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Troilus and Cressida, charting the ways in which they engage with ancient philosophy and wrestle with the problem of ethical subjectivism. A later chapter considers Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus as explorations of the various ways in which character is subject to manipulation.

Throughout, Nuttall proves an engaging and genial guide, happy to mix reminiscences of his own childhood with observations from his years of teaching, the opinions of various named and unnamed acquaintances, references to popular culture (The Godfather II, Star Trek, The Sopranos, and Hugh Grant all get mentioned), and Latin quotations—as well as allusions to an impressively wide range of classical, early modern, and contemporary philosophers. The reader receives what amounts to an Oxford tutorial: a relaxed display of erudition and insight interspersed with startlingly intimate anecdotes that are sometimes downright gossipy. The book is sprinkled with superlatives (Two Gentlemen of Verona is Shakespeare’s “weakest play,” while As You Like It is “the greatest pastoral in the English language”) and keen perceptions, such as the claim that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is “not escapist; it’s about escapism,” or the suggestion that Troilus and Cressida is “the play that Hamlet could have written.” Discussing Parolles’s scathing attack on virginity in All’s Well That Ends Well, Nuttall observes that “it is characteristic of Shakespeare to give some of his most challenging intuitions to such despised persons.” Elsewhere, he trenchantly remarks, “Shakespeare is the poet who continually recycles but never repeats himself.”

Nuttall’s claim for Shakespeare the thinker involves an attack on two targets, one new and one old. The new target is the currently dominant form of historicist criticism that insists on placing Shakespeare within the context of early modern culture. Nuttall feels this procedure has diminished Shakespeare by making him into an unthinking spokesperson for the Elizabethan era. The old target is a line of criticism running from Milton, who praised Shakespeare for warbling “native wood-notes wild,” to T. S. Eliot, who saw no evidence that “Shakespeare did any thinking on his own.” Nuttall views such criticism as the jealous reaction of university men determined to paint Shakespeare as an untutored genius, a kind of wildly accomplished rustic.

There is something to this charge. Yet it is important to recall that Eliot’s concern was to rescue Shakespeare from the distortions of critics who treated him as predominately a thinker rather than a poet. “The people who think that Shakespeare thought,” Eliot wittily remarked, “are always people who are engaged in thinking, and we all like to think that great men were like ourselves.” Eliot’s Shakespeare is an intellectual magpie, whose thinking is neither sustained nor systematic. Nuttall admits Shakespeare is unsystematic, but insists that he is “thinking hard.” He writes that his search for the “mind behind the plays” returned him to “the words on the page.” And despite its philosophical claims, Shakespeare the Thinker is, finally, an admirable exercise in close reading. With an impressive display of energy and learning, Nuttall takes on almost the entire canon of plays, quoting generously and supplying plot details for the forgetful or uninitiated reader. The results are frequently brilliant, as when he analyzes Gertrude’s beautifully elegiac description of Ophelia’s “muddy death.” But Nuttall’s overall argument will not allow him to linger too long over the pleasures of the text, for to do so would be to fall prey to the “glittering vacuous formalism” that troubles him. If, for Nuttall, historicism threatens to dissolve authorial autonomy and intelligence by too closely tying the text to its original conditions of production, formalism means wild and whirling words untethered from reality.

After quoting from Berowne’s description of love in Love’s Labour’s Lost (“Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible / Than are the tender horns of cockled snails”), Nuttall remarks that “you must—ever so gently—touch a snail’s boneless horn to know what he means.” While this observation reveals an ardent desire to affirm a concrete reality undergirding the plays, there is also something oddly limiting about it. Surely it is enough to know something of love (and something of snails) in order to understand how the image captures the sensitivity of love and its shrinking vulnerability. In the end it may be that Nuttall’s words about Hamlet serve as a self-description: “The difficulty of separating dream from reality haunts him.” Nuttall’s preoccupation with the way in which language hooks up to extralinguistic reality and with epistemology more generally is a distinctively modern obsession. These concerns are indeed canvassed in Shakespeare’s plays, but then so are a great many other things. As Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

 


Related: Jesse Lander reviews Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars
Clare Asquith reviews Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography

Published in the 2008-01-18 issue: 
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Jesse Lander is associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.

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