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Shakespeare’s Hermeneutic Legacy:
Response to Kristin Gjesdal

The aim of the “Shakespeare and Philosophy ” seminar held at the 2012 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in Boston was to think not just about philosophy’s role in Shakespeare studies but also about Shakespeare’s significance for modern philosophy. In addition to making use of philosophical concepts or categories to interpret Shakespeare, we also wanted to consider how the reception of Shakespeare’s work, especially in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany, determined the sorts of questions that philosophers pose and helped blaze the path that modern philosophy has taken. We were particularly concerned with how this course impacted modern literary scholarship.

Herder’s reading of Shakespeare is exemplary of this impact—and deserves more attention from Shakespeare scholars and students of literature. As Kristin Gjesdal’s essay reminds us, Herder’s own essay “Shakespeare” reflects an “anthropological turn” (67) in philosophy and hence helped shape what we now know as hermeneutics, or even as historicist scholarship. By the “anthropological turn,” Herder meant not only the expanded study of distant cultures, but above all the critical exposure of our own prejudices with respect to such far-off horizons: a self-reflexive historicism. Rather than ask, with many contemporary historicist scholars, how Shakespeare’s plays and poems are to be studied in light of Shakespeare’s age, Herder urges us to see the study of Shakespeare as pressing a different question: “How do we look by the lights of Shakespeare’s work?” Herder’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare thus not only expressed a deep sense of the historicity of Shakespeare’s work, and of artistic practices generally, but also sought to highlight in Shakespeare’s works an occasion for us to become more historically self-aware. Indeed, Herder devoted much of his career to making academic pursuits in the human sciences or “humanities” more critically self-conscious in this regard. If, in this same spirit, historicist approaches to Shakespeare are now asked to make room for philosophically informed readings, then philosophically inclined readers would do well to bear in mind Herder’s critical riposte to the (philosophical, Aristotelian) neoclassicists of his day. [End Page 70]

Paul A. Kottman  

Paul A. Kottman is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of Tragic Conditions in Shakespeare (2009) and A Politics of the Scene (2008) and the editor of Philosophers on Shakespeare (2009). He is also the editor of a forthcoming book series at Stanford University Press, entitled Square One: First Order Questions in the Humanities.

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Subject Headings

  • Shakespeare, William, -- 1564-1616 -- Criticism and interpretation -- History -- 18th century.
  • English drama -- 17th century -- History and criticism
  • Historicism in literature.
  • Gjesdal, Kristin. -- Shakespeare’s hermeneutic legacy: Herder on modern drama and the challenge of cultural prejudice.
  • Gjesdal, Kristin. -- Shakespeare’s hermeneutic legacy: Herder on modern drama and the challenge of cultural prejudice.
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