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Rethinking Shakespeare’s Skepticism

The Aesthetics of Doubt in the Sonnets and Plays

by Suzanne M. Tartamella

Publication Year: 2013

In this original and compelling new study, Suzanne M. Tartamella casts new light on seemingly quite familiar material — Shakespeare’s Sonnets and a number of his plays, including Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Antony and Cleopatra. By placing the Sonnets within the context of the literary history of praise poetry, and exploring the underlying influence of early modern skepticism on Shakespeare’s writing, this book truly enhances our understanding of the subtleties and complexities in all of Shakespeare’s work. In our own contemporary culture of doubt and anxiety, investigating the classical skepticism present in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays deepens our sense of his relevance, suggesting that he could just as easily have traded ideas with Friedrich Nietzsche as with Ben Jonson or John Donne. To truly consider this Renaissance philosophy of doubt, Tartamella traces Shakespeare’s relations with his poetic precursors, including Petrarch, Dante, and Sidney. During the Reformation, then, an age of radical experimentation and reform, Shakespeare revised conventional methods of praise by doing more than simply mocking or challenging these literary precursors; rather, he transformed a poetics of praise into a poetics of appraisal. Tartamella’s approach here encompasses both new historicism and a wide-ranging history of ideas. As a result, perhaps the most intriguing demonstration of this poetics and its manifestations are Tartamella’s cross-genre examinations of the Sonnets and some of Shakepeare’s best-known dramatic characters, drawing unique and original correlations. The sonnets to the young man, with their melancholy tenor, are linked to the ghost in Hamlet, while the more physical and combative sonnets to the dark lady are related to Katerina in The Taming of the Shrew. These complex relationships, further considered in her final discussion of Antony and Cleopatra and the ways in which it harmonizes the characteristic problems of both sonnet sequences, are truly at the heart of Shakespearean tragedy and comedy. Students of both literature and philosophy will find this book important, as it offers a nuanced analysis of the intersections between literature and intellectual history, a comprehensive examination of Shakespeare’s poetry and plays, the history of epideictic poetry, and an exploration of the impact of skepticism on the whole of Renaissance literature.

Published by: Duquesne University Press

Series: Medieval & Renaissance Literary Studies

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

The story of this project reflects the kind of organic processes I have identified in the works of Shakespeare. My first foray into the canker and the rose was in a 2005 seminar on Shakespeare’s sonnets, taught by Theodore Leinwand at the University of Maryland. With his continued support, and under the extraordinary direction...

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Introduction: Rethinking Shakespeare’s Skepticism

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pp. 1-12

Continuing in the tradition of Stanley Cavell’s Disowning Knowledge and Graham Bradshaw’s Shakespeare’s Scepticism (both published in 1987) are many compelling studies on the intersections between Shakespeare’s plays and early modern epistemology.1 Scholars have been especially drawn to the tragedies, finding that...

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1. The Roots of Shakespeare’s Epideictic Skepticism

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pp. 13-64

The long-standing debate over the mysterious dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, “Mr. W.H.,” the “ONLIE.BEGETTER,” inevitably leads to questions about the man to whom the first 126 poems are addressed and about the exuberant, worldly-wise lady who seems his polar opposite.1 But scholars remain to this day uncertain about...

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2. Tragic Discovery in the Young-Man Sonnets

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pp. 65-108

All of the features of Shakespeare’s epideictic skepticism—his struggles with innovation, his isolating doubt, and his impulse to inquire—meet in the dual figures of the rose and the canker. The rose has long been a symbol of eternal beauty, praise, and divine perfection and, appearing in the first poem of...

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3. The Wonder-Wounded Hearers in Hamlet

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pp. 109-162

Hamlet has long been identified as a vital window into early modern doubt and a defining moment in intellectual and literary history. With its vigorous interrogation of some of the most contested religious, political, and social issues of the Renaissance era, the play has stimulated a tremendous amount of critical attention to...

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4. Comic Re-Creation in the Dark-Lady Sonnets and The Taming of the Shrew

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pp. 163-212

The poet’s examination of praise, his skepticism about the male friend, his suffering and self-doubt, and finally, his acknowledgment of the canker within himself, all point to the tragic dimension of Shakespeare’s young-man sequence. Although he does not endure physical death like Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear, the poet...

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Afterword: Cleopatra’s Epideictic Imagination

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pp. 213-220

If The Taming of the Shrew compensates for the limitations in the dark-lady sonnets by imagining an alternative relationship between the male artist and his female creation, Antony and Cleopatra reflects on the central issues of both sequences and so provides a fitting conclusion to my study of Shakespeare’s epideictic...


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pp. 221-280


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pp. 281-293

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780820705958
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704678
Print-ISBN-10: 0820704679

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Medieval & Renaissance Literary Studies