Shakespeare the Thinker
A. D. Nuttall
Yale University Press, $30, 448 pp.
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...