Shakespeare's Ontology

Jessica Chiba

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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From Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’, Viola and Iago’s ‘I am not what I am’, Macbeth’s ‘Nothing is / But what is not’, to Richard II’s ‘I must nothing be’, Shakespeare’s plays display a pervasive preoccupation with being. This thesis contends that these moments demand a specifically philosophical analysis from the perspective of ontology, the study of being. The aim is to illuminate the significance of being in Shakespeare's works by examining the plays and poetry through the notions of being available to Shakespeare in his time, as well as in terms of the philosophical theories he prefigures in the more complex ontological moments in his plays.
The introductory chapter of this thesis provides an outline of the issue of being in Shakespeare’s plays, clarifying the need for a concerted study of this topic. The second chapter offers a synoptic overview of the developments in ontology after Shakespeare’s time, up to and including the present, in order to lay the foundations for concepts relevant to this study. Having established the philosophical complexities of ontology, the third chapter reviews previous literature in the field, summarising the ways in which other critics have engaged with wider philosophical concern, and with the concept of being or ontology, in their analysis of Shakespeare’s works. The historical fourth chapter investigates ontological ideas present in the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – particularly other poets and playwrights as well as theologians and philosophers – in order to identify the key respects in which his conceptions of ontological issues resonate with or diverge from theirs. The subsequent three chapters explore a range of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of three key ontological ideas: absolute being (King Lear, Richard II, Othello); the absolute self (King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Richard III, Macbeth, Othello); and the space of being (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Titus Andronicus).
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Ryan, Kiernan, Supervisor
  • Bowie, Andrew, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Apr 2017
Publication statusUnpublished - 2017


  • Shakespeare
  • Ontology
  • Philosophy
  • literary criticism

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