Shakespeare’s Philosophy – Symposium page



A one-day seminar hosted by the Department of English Royal Holloway, University of London

Event Date: Friday 28 May 2010

Organised by Margherita Pascucci with the support of the European Community Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship

The aim of the seminar is to provide a forum in which to debate the validity and value of treating Shakespeare as a philosopher or his plays as forms of philosophical thought, and of bringing philosophical perspectives, past or present, to bear on his plays and poetry.

Key questions for discussion might include:

  • Can an overt or implicit philosophy be discerned in, or inferred from, particular plays or the body of Shakespeare‟s work as a whole?
  • Which philosophers, or modes of philosophy, from Shakespeare’s day to our own, are best equipped to enhance our understanding of his drama and his poetry?
  • To what extent and by what means do Shakespeare’s works resist philosophical interpretation or attempts to conscript them in the service of philosophical arguments?
  • What does the capacity of his works either to resist or to accommodate comprehension in philosophical terms tell us about them and about Shakespeare as thinker?


Chair:  Professor Kiernan Ryan (Royal Holloway)

Opening remarks by Dr Margherita Pascucci .


  • Professor Kiernan Ryan (Royal Holloway) – Shakespeare’s Thoughtless Wisdom (AUDIO HERE)
  • Professor John Joughin (University of Central Lancashire) Shakespeare and Philosophy: or what is the “Thing” Shakespeare? (AUDIO HERE)
  • Dr Simon Palfrey (Brasenose College, Oxford) – Possible Worlds  (AUDIO HERE)
  • Responses: Dr Andy Mousley, Professor Martin Dzelzainis; Professor Robert Eaglestone .
  • General discussion 1 .


  • Professor Catherine Belsey (Swansea University)  – Philosophy or Theatre? (AUDIO HERE)
  • Professor Richard Wilson (Cardiff University)  – This Hideous Rashness: Shakespeare and the decision (AUDIO HERE)
  • Dr Ewan Fernie (Royal Holloway) “To Sin in Loving Virtue”: Theological Philosophy in Measure for Measure (AUDIO HERE)
  • Responses: Professor Andrew Bowie; Dr John Miles; Dr Margherita Pascucci .
  • General discussion & round-up .



Dr Roy Booth (Royal Holloway); Dr Christie Carson (Royal Holloway); Gabi Cooke (Royal Holloway); Dr Neil Gascoigne (Royal Holloway); Paul Hamilton (Royal Holloway); Professor Robert Hampson (Royal Holloway); Charlotte Keys (Royal Holloway); Dr William McKenzie (Royal Holloway); Susan Sachon (Royal Holloway); Mohamed Salim-Said (Royal Holloway); Helen True (Royal Holloway); Rebecca Warren-Heys (Royal Holloway).



Professor Kiernan Ryan – Shakespeare’s Thoughtless Wisdom

My paper will offer some introductory reflections on the key questions we were invited to consider. It will begin by looking at plays where Shakespeare‟s characters seem to be thinking philosophically, and where the work as a whole appears to imply a philosophical stance. It will conclude by considering the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays resist comprehension in philosophical terms, forging their more elusive visions ― what Chesterton called their ‘thoughtless wisdom’ ― in the crucible of form and phrasing.

Professor John Joughin – Shakespeare and Philosophy: or what is the “Thing” Shakespeare?

Dr Simon Palfrey – Possible Worlds

Possible Worlds’ explores Lear, and in particular Edgar, as a site of possibility, through the lens of Leibniz’s monadology and Agamben’s potentiality.

Professor Catherine Belsey – Philosophy or theatre?

The project of reducing Shakespeare to a philosopher seems to me to join the prevailing thematic ways of reading, all of which tend to bypass critical questions concerning Shakespeare’s theatre. A more adventurous criticism might set out to replace approaches derived from other disciplines with a serious attempt to analyse the pleasures of fiction.

Professor Richard Wilson – The Hideous Rashness: Shakespeare and the decision

Shakespeare’s plots turn on the tension between justice and positive law that became a focus for postmodern philosophy thanks to Derrida’s readings of Weimar thinkers Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. For in play after play he stages the same perception as Montaigne, that ‘Laws are now maintained not because they are just, but because they are laws. It is the mystical foundation of their authority’. This lecture will therefore reflect on Shakespeare’s representation of the question confronted by these theorists of the state of emergency: “How to distinguish between the force of law of a legitimate power and the originary violence that must have established this authority and that could not have authorized itself by any anterior legitimacy?‟ (Derrida, ‘The Force of Law’). The presentation will finally consider how this ‘ordeal of undecidability’ squares with the current impatience with deferral and with the ‘rashness’ of recent Shakespeare criticism.

Dr Ewan Fernie – “To Sin in Loving Virtue”: Theological Philosophy in Measure for Measure

I begin with Luther‟s preference for theology over philosophy because it „gets at the meat of the nut, the kernel of the corn, or the marrow of the bones‟ and go on to show how Measure for Measure unfolds a demonic theology of desire that indeed does get into the anguished and ecstatic embodiment of human being.


Catherine Belsey is Research Professor in English at Swansea University. Her books include Critical Practice (1980, 2002) and Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction (2002). She has also published Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden (1999), Why Shakespeare? (2007) and Shakespeare in Theory and Practice (2008).

Ewan Fernie is Reader in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Shame in Shakespeare (2002), editor of Spiritual Shakespeares (2005) and co- ordinating editor of Reconceiving the Renaissance (2005). He has recently completed a novel called Dunsinane with Simon Palfrey, with whom he is also General Editor of the ‘Shakespeare Now!’ series. He is currently writing a book on the demonic from Shakespeare to Thomas Mann, and is Principal Investigator of the AHRC/ESRC funded project, „The Faerie Queene Now: Remaking Religious Poetry for Today‟s World‟.

John Joughin is Acting Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research)at the University of Central Lancashire and is an Executive Board member of theBritish Shakespeare Association. He is the editor of Shakespeare and National Culture (1997), Philosophical Shakespeares (2000); and co-editor with Simon Malpas, of The New Aestheticism (2003).

Simon Palfrey is Official Fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford. Among his publications are Late Shakespeare: A New World of Worlds (1997), Doing Shakespeare (2004), ‘Macbeth and Kierkegaard’ (Shakespeare Survey, 2004), and Shakespeare in Parts, co-written with Tiffany Stern (2007). He is the editor, with Ewan Fernie, of the ‘Shakespeare Now!’ series.

Kiernan Ryan is Professor of English Language and Literature at Royal Holloway and a Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Shakespeare’s Comedies (2009), Shakespeare (3rd ed, 2002) and Ian McEwan (1994), and he wrote the Introduction to the new Penguin edition of King Lear (2005). He is also the editor of King Lear: Contemporary Critical Essays (1993), New Historicism and Cultural Materialism: A Reader (1996), Shakespeare: The Last Plays (1999) and Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts (2000).

Richard Wilson is Professor of English Literature in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University, and is the author of Shakespeare in French Theory (2007); Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theatre, Religion and Resistance (2004); and Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority (1993).


Andrew Bowie is Professor of Philosophy and German at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has published very widely on modern philosophy, music and literature and is a jazz saxophonist. His books include Aesthetics and Subjectivity: from Kant to Nietzsche (1990, 2003); Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An Introduction (1993); From Romanticism to Critical Theory: The Philosophy of German Literary Theory (1997); Introduction to German Philosophy from Kant to Habermas (2003); Music, Philosophy and Modernity (2007); and A Very Short Introduction to German Philosophy (2010).

Martin Dzelzainis is Professor of Early-Modern Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Professor of Renaissance Literature-elect at the University of Leicester. He is a general editor of The Works of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, and editor of Volume X: The Histories for The Complete Works of John Milton, and of Andrew Marvell for the Oxford 21st Century Authors series. Currently, he is completing a book on print and censorship in later Stuart England.

Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. He works on contemporary literature and literary theory, contemporary philosophy and on Holocaust and Genocide studies. He is the author of four books, including Ethical Criticism: Reading after Levinas (1997) and The Holocaust and the Postmodern (2004), and the editor or co- editor of four books, including Derrida’s Legacies (2008), and J. M. Coetzee in Theory and Practice (2009). He is the Series Editor of Routledge Critical Thinkers.

John Miles is a Visiting Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London. He was awarded Arts and Humanities Research Council MA and PhD scholarships and was Caroline Spurgeon Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Shakespeare Studies 2008-9. He is currently expanding and revising his PhD thesis, ‘Shakespeare’s Paratexts: Framing the First Folio‟, for publication.

Andy Mousley is Senior Lecturer in English at De Montfort University. He is the editor of Towards a New Literary Humanism (forthcoming). Other recent and forthcoming publications include: „The New Literary Humanism: Towards a Critical Vocabulary‟ (2010); „Limits, Limitlessness and the Politics of the (Post)human‟, postmedieval, 1:1 (2010); „Early Modern Autobiography, History and Human Testimony‟, Textual Practice, 23:2 (2009); „Shakespeare and the Meaning of Life‟, Shakespeare, 5:2 (2009); Re-Humanising Shakespeare: Literary Humanism, Wisdom and Modernity (2007). He is also the series co-editor of Edinburgh Critical Guides to Literature.

Margherita Pascucci (MA Columbia University, PhD New York University, Dr. Ph. Viadrina Universität) is Marie Curie Intra- European Fellow in the Department of English, Royal Holloway University of London. She has published three monographs, Il pensiero di Walter Benjamin, Un’introduzione (2002); La potenza della povertà. Marx legge Spinoza (2006); Causa sui. Saggio sul capitale e il virtuale (2010) and is currently working on a monograph on Shakespeare‟s philosophy.


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