The Bard was a naturalistic philosopher—and a psychologist, a gender-bender, an ethicist and moralist and, of course, a genius.
McGinn (Philosophy/Rutgers Univ.) has previously turned his philosopher’s eye on the arts (The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, 2005), and here he takes on the plays of the Sweet Swan of Avon, though admitting he is no literary scholar, no authority on Shakespeare. Still, he has given a number of the plays a close and serious and convincing reading, and he brings to Shakespeare studies a philosophical perspective often either absent or amateurishly handled. McGinn takes up a number of philosophical issues and shows how they appear in key texts—knowledge and skepticism, the nature of the self, causality. He looks closely at A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest. He alludes elsewhere to a few other plays. Following these close readings, he examines some broader concerns—gender, psychology, ethics—and ends with a brief consideration of Shakespearean tragedy (he thinks Aristotle’s definition of tragedy was wrong) and a quick consideration of the nature of Shakespeare’s genius. McGinn assumes that readers know little about the plays under discussion (the lists of characters and plot summaries seem somehow superfluous for anyone interested in such a title as this), and there are a few surprising omissions—in the gender chapter, for example, he does not mention The Taming of the Shrew. The author, justifiably, makes much of the Bard’s reading of Montaigne and of his almost preternatural understanding of human nature.
A slender but substantial offering, with some gaps, for those interested in the ideas of Shakespeare.