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  • The Worst Case of Knowing the Other?Stanley Cavell and Troilus and Cressida

Stanley Cavell's luminous and influential writings about Shakespeare's works include extended essays on seven of the plays, and, scattered throughout his writings, more casual passages on many of the others. He takes these works to be significantly engaged in the conditions of skepticism as he apprehends it. These plays, according to Cavell, wrestle profoundly with questions about the origins of, and the possibilities of living with, skeptical ways of thinking.

Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare's most self-consciously philosophical play, and the place in the Shakespearean corpus where the relations between philosophy and literature are most openly and directly addressed. It is often referred to as a "skeptical satire," and considered to be a kind of prelude to the great tragedies of the first decade of the seventeenth century. As I intend to show, in practically all of its salient features the play exhibits precise and—to my mind—unmistakable versions of many of the most significant features of skepticism as illuminated by the work of Cavell.

Heinrich Heine, rather astonishingly, declared that Troilus and Cressida was "Shakespeare's most characteristic creation"; "for a detailed judgement," he added, "we should need the help of that new aesthetics which has not yet been written."1 I suggest that Cavell's aesthetics might go some way to remedying the absence Heine identifies. To my knowledge, though, there is not a single reference to the play—and certainly no extended discussion—throughout the writings of Cavell, and this strikes me as something of a mystery; for Troilus and Cressida appears to present opportunities to exemplify with particular clarity the lineaments of skepticism Cavell finds elsewhere writ large in the [End Page 74] Shakespearean corpus. And I think the play also offers possibilities for extending these investigations in unexplored directions, perhaps towards the origins of Shakespeare's engrossment with skeptical problems, perhaps towards the delicate question of the borderline between skepticism and cynicism, or the relation between, say, Montaignean skepticism (which Cavell describes as asking "how to conduct oneself best in an uncertain world") and Cartesian skepticism ("how to live at all in a groundless world")2—questions I intend to open rather than trying to answer here. In a word, if one is going to write about the claims of reason in Shakespeare, overlooking the play where the word "reason" appears significantly more often than in any other play (21 times according to the Harvard Shakespeare Concordance) seems like a peculiar thing to do. It is of course possible that the play has simply, as it were, not found an opportunity to impress itself upon the attention of Cavell, more or less by happenstance; if so, one aim of this paper is, quite simply, to remedy that oversight. More impertinently, but also more interestingly—and, perhaps, in a more Cavellian manner—I will be prompted to contemplate towards the end of this paper the possibility that there may perhaps be some knowledge being disowned in the occlusion of this play from Cavell's writing.

I begin, by way of prologue, with a short rumination about my title, which has had a tendency to oscillate in my mind between "the worst case of the other" and "the worst case of knowing the other"; this uncertainty has something to do with, precisely, the question of the relation between cynicism and the attempt to deny skepticism—that is, between assuming the worst about another, and assuming one knows anything at all about the other—as if to say, if that's (epistemologically) the worst I can do, well, at least I know something, however unsavory or reductive it may be; perhaps the play's best-known phrase, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin" (3.3.175), reveals just how disturbing its vision is.3 For the phrase has often been taken out of context and made to mean something rather idealizing, as if it refers to the natural affinity or humanity of us all; its actual meaning, made clear by the following line ("That all with one consent praise new-born gauds"), is far...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 74-86
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-24
Open Access
No
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