Was Shakespeare REALLY a philosophical genius? I've read many impressive interpretations of his work from the various literary schools of theory but none of them seem to sort out Shakespeare's philosophical views in a straightforward and clear way. Have analytic philosophers deduced a coherent Shakesperean belief system from his works?

Probably the most recent attempt to engage Shakespeare by an analytic philosopher is Colin McGinn. I believe McGinn gives special attention to Shakespeare's wrestling with skepticism on different levels. I think McGinn is a fine philosopher, but his book has gotten some quite critical attention. Dale Jacquette has argued that McGinn does more to impose a philosophy on Shakespeare, rather than discover one.

I suspect it would be very difficult to make a compelling case for a single coherent belief-system or philosophy in Shaekespeare's work as a whole. I suggest his genius lies in his openness to many conflicting currents in philosophy and religion. I am an analytic philosopher who has published an account of redemption in some of Shakespeare's work (this can be found in popular form in a book of "creative non-fiction" called Love. Love. Love, Cowley Press, 2005), but I would only claim to find a view of redemption in SOME of Shakespeare's work, rather than to make such a claim for all his work or to claim that a philosophy of redemption was upper most in Shakespeare's mind. Perhaps it was because Shakespeare himself was not narrowly or overtly committed to a single philosophy of good and evil, God and the world, justice and mercy, and so on, that he was able to be such a genius in terms of the variety and richness of what he gives us.

Although I agree with most, if not all, of Professor Taliaferro's response to your fascinating question, I want to add a few remarks that may take the discussion in a slightly different direction.

You asked whether Shakespeare was a philosophical genius, and whether philosophers have "deduced a coherent Shakespearean belief system from his works." I think that the two questions should be distinguished. It's not at all clear to me that an author may be a philosophical genius only if a philosophical system can be deduced from his works. Indeed, Wittgenstein, for example, who to my mind at least was certainly a philosophical genius, resisted--at least in his 'later' writings--systematization altogether, so it would be somewhat misguided even to try to deduce a philosophical system from his writings. One might of course respond that Wittgenstein was systematically anti-systematic, and that that in itself constitutes a kind of systematicity. But that seems to me to be a Pickwickian sense of 'systematic'. I propose, therefore, that systematicity not be taken as a criterion of philosophical genius, or even of philosophy. I now turn to the question of whether Shakespeare was a philosophical genius.

One could similarly ask whether Dostoyevsky or Philip K. Dick, was a philosophical genius. Both writers, in certain of their works of fiction--to my knowledge, neither wrote works of philosophy--raise philosophical questions of various sorts, just as Shakespeare certainly does. But does treating an issue of philosophical interest make the treatment of that issue philosophical? I don't believe that it does; I believe that what's distinctive of philosophy is that it makes arguments, and it's not clear to me that works of fiction--or at least the works of fiction by the Dick or Dostoyevsky, or at least their works that I know--themselves make arguments. (Characters in works of fiction make arguments, to be sure, but I would be very wary of identifying the author of a work of fiction with any one of his or her characters; moreover, it's not clear to me that that the point of a work of fiction is to make an argument--although that is not, of course, to say that I know what the point(s) of a work of fiction are, and in fact I would think that that is a matter of interpretation that would need to be settled on a case-by-case basis.) Similarly, despite the recent vogue of treating films as 'doing philosophy', I'm quite suspicious of such an approach to film, although whether some film could be seen as 'doing philosophy'--even if it is granted that what's distinctive of philosophy is advancing arguments--is a question that can only be determined by considering the film in question. (Of course, it might be argued that what I have highlighted as the distinctive feature of philosophy is too restrictive, and perhaps a more catholic conception of philosophy would more readily admit of treating works of literature and films and other art forms, too, for that matter, as philosophical. But could dance, say, be treated as philosophy? Now there's an interesting question, that might reveal something about the nature of the kinds of art that we think could be philosophy...)

What, however, about authors such as Diderot, or Tolstoy, or Camus, or Borges, who wrote both works of fiction and philosophy? Might their works of fiction be philosophy? This, I think, is a subtler and somewhat different matter, but I'm inclined to think that even the fictional works of such authors, although they may be seen as illustrating or exploring certain ideas with which they engaged philosophically, are not themselves instances of philosophy. (War and Peace might be a tricky case for such a view. But I stand by it, at least for the nonce.) But there are of course other authors who wrote both works of fiction and works of philosophy, and here too, I think that in order to adjudicate the issue, one would need to consider each case.

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