Shakespeare's Folly

Sam Hall

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
(KJV, Ecclesiastes, 1. 17)

This thesis argues that folly is central to Shakespeare’s philosophical vision. As I establish in the introductory chapter, Shakespeare’s fascination with folly runs throughout his career and is apparent in his comedies, histories and tragedies. Because of its paradoxical nature, the wisdom of folly exists in a state of irresolvable contradiction. But since this contradiction generates a productive tension that takes us to the core of Shakespeare’s philosophical vision, thinking about wise folly is far from a fool’s errand, a ‘vexation of spirit’. Wise folly, it transpires, is a crucial function of the negative potential of Shakespeare’s drama: its capacity to give the lie to an intolerable reality, without dogmatically asserting the veracity of its own claims.
In the second chapter, I contend that Shakespeare’s foolosophy finds its antecedents in three seminal early modern texts: Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, Thomas More’s Utopia and Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. As well as situating Shakespearean folly in a European humanist milieu saturated with Erasmian ideas, this chapter shows how Shakespeare’s philosophy of folly implicitly prefigures concepts more explicitly formulated in mid–late twentieth century by T. W. Adorno and Michel Foucault, whose theoretical concerns provide a lens through which to view more clearly Shakespeare’s prescient critique of bourgeois reason. Chapter 3 traces the afterlife of Alcibiades’ emblem of the wisdom of folly, the Silenus head, from the Symposium through to Erasmus, Montaigne and The Merchant of Venice. For Shakespeare, this image epitomises the impossibility of establishing hard and fast truths and is used to suggest that philosophical wonder can be experienced, paradoxically, only through reflection on aesthetic semblance.
Chapter 4 analyses Shakespeare’s critique of historiography in the Second Tetralogy, where the paradoxical wisdom of folly is employed to expose the misapprehensions and falsehoods that warp the accounts of history transmitted by his chronicle and dramatic sources. Chapter 5 examines Shakespeare’s techniques of ironic estrangement in As You Like It, Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale. Employing the kind of Socratic irony described by Friedrich Schlegel as ‘playful and serious, guilelessly open and deeply hidden’, these plays use the discourse of folly to dramatize a sceptical attitude to knowledge even more radical than Nicholas of Cusa’s docta ignorantia. The final chapter of this thesis is devoted to Hamlet and King Lear. In these tragedies, I argue, Shakespeare fashions an anti-aesthetics of disfigurement and derangement, an aesthetics that refuses to gloss over human suffering.
This thesis breaks new ground by arguing that the paradoxical wisdom of folly in Shakespeare is not the sole preserve of professional wise fools such as Touchstone. Wise folly is central to his philosophical—or rather anti-philosophical—vision; and the paradoxical wisdom of folly is apparent on a thematic, conceptual and formal level in virtually every play he wrote. To understand the wisdom of folly is to understand how Shakespeare’s plays comprehend their world. It is to understand how Shakespeare philosophises.

Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Ryan, Kiernan, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Apr 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 17 Mar 2015

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