Shakespeare’s Individualism by Peter Holbrook (review)
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Shakespeare’s Individualism. By Peter Holbrook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. x + 246. $104.00 cloth.

“‘To thine own self be true,’” Polonius tells Laertes (69). I have always imagined that Shakespeare, like Hamlet himself, saw Polonius as a pompous fool, one who substitutes moralistic truisms for wisdom when advising his son. A certain amount of eye rolling does not seem an inappropriate response to Polonius’s long-winded counsel. In Shakespeare’s Individualism, however, Peter Holbrook takes Polonius’s advice to be “probably as close as most people get to a ‘Shakespearean philosophy’” (69). In a chapter that quotes Polonius’s counsel in its title, Holbrook suggests that the line, “taken in isolation,” has been seen as an expression of the values of “authenticity and self-expression” that the West has taken “as an obligation” “since the Romantic Age” (86). Holbrook is not unaware that such an uncomplicated appeal of fidelity to “self ” will appear “naïve” to “theoretically astute” “readers from the cultural Left,” but he counters with an unabashed sincerity redolent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Given the tremendous bureaucratic and managerial forces today ranged against autonomy we now need to draw on whatever cultural resources are available to affirm the value of individuality” (69).

Weaving condensed analyses of scenes from virtually every play Shakespeare wrote, including the sonnets and poems, with leitmotif-style references to Montaigne, Nietzsche, Isaiah Berlin, Emerson, and a dizzying array of critics and philosophers, Holbrook argues that “Shakespeare is committed to fundamentally modern values: freedom, individuality, self-realization, authenticity” (23). This commitment is crucial to both Shakespeare’s modernity and our own, “for good or ill” (41).1

The “individualism” invoked by Holbrook—freedom, self-realization, and authenticity—cobbles together various versions of a self-assured “I,” which launches herself into the world in search of her own self-fulfillment. Because Holbrook refers, among others, to Hegel as a key writer on “‘the right of subjective freedom’” (68), I invoke Hegel’s tripartite portrait gallery of modern individuality as a helpful synthesis of Holbrook’s expansive “individualism.” As Jean Hyppolite wrote, “The desire for immediate enjoyment, the heart’s protest against the established order, virtue in revolt against the course of the world.”2 In the first portrait, [End Page 107] the individual resembles a pure desire that projects itself into a world of other individuals, seeking especially the happiness of sexual love (Holbrook gives us the examples of Hermia’s pursuit of Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jessica’s flight in The Merchant of Venice, among others). In the second, the individual resembles one who follows without hesitation the promptings of his heart, seeing them as inherently “good” and “right,” if he has not been corrupted by society. As in Rousseau, if each one follows his own inclinations, then all should flourish; Holbrook reads Romeo and Juliet as providing this kind of Rousseau-inflected uplift. Of course, in following my heart, I quickly learn that the urgings of other hearts oppose me, and so find conflict and division where I thought I would find acceptance. As Holbrook says, “Cordelia insists upon speaking in her own voice rather than another’s” (15). So, in the third portrait, the virtuous self bumps up against the panoply of self-interested practices in modern society, which Hegel calls the “way of the world.”3 At which point, of course, the way of the world “wins,” and we are left with a kind of libertarian world view, to which Holbrook subscribes and to which he thinks Shakespeare is committed; that is, a Reagan-like belief in naked impulses to self-realization and individual liberty, which for Holbrook accounts for Shakespeare’s “immoralism” (172), as observed by A. C. Bradley in his interpretation of Macbeth and other tragedies.

In short, Holbrook’s analyses invariably lead to the classic impasse of liberalism: either individuals doing their own thing is compatible with construction of a livable society, or it is not—in which case, we must accept that “Shakespeare’s individualism limits his ethical commitments” (35). “Freedom, individuality and authenticity may be vulnerable to critique from the view-point of...