Shakespeare's Existentialism

Charlotte Keys

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis undertakes a fundamental reappraisal of Shakespeare's existentialism. The drama of Shakespeare and existentialist philosophy, I contend, are equally fascinated by issues such as inwardness, authenticity, freedom, and self-becoming. In recent years, Shakespearean criticism has shied away from these fundamental existentialist concerns reflected in his drama, preferring to investigate the historical and cultural conditioning of human subjectivity. However, as this thesis argues, a failure to acknowledge and address the existential problems and intensities at the heart of Shakespeare’s plays prevents a full appreciation of both the philosophical and the theatrical dimensions of his drama. This thesis treats Shakespeare as existentialism’s prolific precursor, as a writer who experimented with existentialist ideas in his own distinctive theatrical and poetic terms long before they were fully developed in the philosophical and literary terms of the twentieth century.

The introductory chapter of this thesis provides a preliminary sketch of existentialist thought and surveys the influence of existentialism on readings of Shakespeare. This paves the way for the second chapter, which offers a historical account of the inception of existentialist thought in the early modern period. By identifying existentialist concerns and ideas in the work of writers such as Montaigne, Pico, Raleigh, Bacon, Donne and others, I argue that an embryonic form of existentialism was beginning to emerge in the literary, philosophical and religious discourses of the Renaissance. The third chapter suggests that Shakespeare and modern existentialist thinkers share a deep interest in the creative fusion of fiction and philosophy as the most faithful means of articulating the existentialist immediacy of experience and the philosophical quandaries that existence as a human being entails. The subsequent three chapters explore the existentialist predicaments and problems dramatised in three Shakespearean tragedies. My readings trace the broad trajectory of existentialist thought in these plays, firstly by looking at the ontological and subjective concerns of Hamlet, then by examining Shakespeare’s treatment of ethics in Coriolanus, and finally by considering the existential resonance of the politics in King Lear.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Ryan, Kiernan, Supervisor
Award date1 Nov 2012
Publication statusUnpublished - 2012

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