Review of Tzachi Zamir’s Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama

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The new issue of the The European Legacy (October 2009) contains a review of Tzachi Zamir’s Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama (Princeton University Press, 2007) which we thought might interest some of you. The review, entitled “Shakespeare, Moral Experience and Historical Criticism” was written by David Schalkwyk (English, University of Cape Town). To access the review, click here.

Here is how it begins:

There has been a sudden interest in the conjunction of Shakespeare and philosophy recently. Colin McGinn’s Shakespeare’s Philosophy and A. D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker seek, in different ways, to explore the degree to which Shakespeare may himself be said to have been a philosopher insofar as his work illuminates the traditional, chiefly epistemological, problems of scepticism, human identity, and the relationship between dream and reality.

Tzachi Zamir’s Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama follows neither McGinn’s anodyne attempts to reveal the philosophy “behind” the drama nor Nuttall’s more nuanced exploration of Shakespeare’s development as a thinker through dramatic interaction. Instead Zamir tackles the broader, “theoretical” question of the relation between philosophical criticism and literature in general. What can a philosophical approach to literature reveal about literary texts without reducing them to a mere branch of philosophy? His approach is only incidentally concerned with what Shakespeare might have though about issues now considered to be “philosophical,” but it does prompt a re-evaluation of the traditional separation of literature and philosophy and their relation to moral experience and history.

Shakespeareans will find Zamir’s opening chapter fairly hard going, since it couches the problem of literature’s relationship to philosophy in technical terms, but they will be rewarded for pressing on, since he is both genuinely illuminating on the broad issues and also challenging and insightful in his analyses of Richard III, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear.

Central to Zamir’s argument are (1) his desire to avoid the instrumentalizing of literature as the source of a reduced, propositional content in the service of a philosophical argument concerned only with a validly deductive truth; and (2) his view that literature engages with philosophy by offering a unique mode of moral understanding that cannot be reduced to the platitude that the former achieves “edifying elevation” (34). His emphasis on moral understanding allows Zamir to distinguish between literature’s peculiar mode of moral philosophy and moral education more generally, since the literary does not so much make those exposed to it better people, but rather invites reflection on the nature of moral value. Literature, in short, is a form of “non-valid yet rational reasoning”. The “structuralization” of knowledge in the form of literary revelation is crucial to Zamir’s conception of literature’s rhetorical relation to understanding and persuasion. This concept refers to the fact that what a philosophy concerned only with “valid” reasoning (and thus dismissive of rhetoric) would overlook—namely, that propositional content can be embedded in human experience in a variety of different ways—is actively offered to us for contemplation and entertainment in literary experience. Inviting us to contemplate and experience the ways in which knowledge is “structuralized” in this sense, literature is a form of rhetoric that opens us persuasively to a fresh understanding of moral values.

Zamir’s argument brings him into conflict, both tangentially and directly, with some of the most deeply held assumptions and methods in contemporary Shakespeare criticism and scholarship, namely, historicism and political criticism. It would take up too much space to rehearse the suspicions that “theory” has harboured against “philosophical criticism” (which amounts, in effect, to a suspicion of the apolitical nature of the analytical tradition). But one aspect of Zamir’s riposte demands attention: that philosophy is not merely innocent of reducing literature to a mere epistemological instrument; it positively preserves the uniqueness of literature as a form of moral understanding in the face of the reduction of the literary by “theory” to merely one form of unprivileged fodder for cultural studies.

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