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Wittgenstein, Shakespeare, and Metaphysical Wit

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 36, Number 1, April 2012
pp. 238-248 | 10.1353/phl.2012.0013

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In 2005, Peter Lewis wrote a wonderful essay in this journal titled “Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare.”1 It remains important today, not least because it is probably still the only paper to discuss Wittgenstein’s own comments on Shakespeare in any systematic detail.2 Given the stature of Wittgenstein and Shakespeare in philosophy and literature, that may come as something of a surprise. Of course, many others have related Wittgenstein’s work to Shakespeare’s plays. Stanley Cavell, when developing his own influential philosophy, most obviously comes to mind.3 But unlike Lewis’s, such studies rarely directly address the comments that Wittgenstein himself made on Shakespeare.

While I find Lewis’s paper to be informative, he overlooks in his review a theme that, from my own reading of Wittgenstein’s comments on Shakespeare, seems to be central to the way in which the great philosopher thought about the poet. The theme I want to explore is how Wittgenstein took an interest in that peculiarly creative way of writing that Shakespeare exemplified; namely, metaphysical wit.4 So much so, that Wittgenstein preferred to think of Shakespeare as a “creator of language rather than a poet” (CV, p. 95).

Metaphysical wit is a style of writing that emerged in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gaining prominence through Shakespeare as well as Donne, Webster, Tasso, Middleton, Quevedo, and Tourneur, among others. As Albert Smith points out in the most comprehensive review to date, the metaphysical poets were distinguished, not by a political project or idea, but, above all, by their creative employment of metaphor.5 Wittgenstein, as a philosopher of language, was therefore naturally drawn to Shakespeare’s “new natural forms of language” (CV, p. 96). Metaphysical wit is characterized by extreme and extended juxtapositions of unnaturally coupled similes. Reflecting an interest in this, Wittgenstein writes that the “whole corpus” (p. 89) of Shakespeare’s plays is dominated by “similes [that] are, in the ordinary sense, bad” (p. 56). Here is one example from Leontes, in The Winter’s Tale:6

Thou want’st a rough pash and the shoots that I have,
To be full like me: yet they say we are
Almost as like as eggs; women say so,
That will say anything but were they false
As o’er-dyed blacks, as wind, as waters, false
As dice are to be wish’d by one that fixes
To say this boy were like me. Come, sir page,
Look on me with your welkin eye: sweet villain!

Smith draws attention to how we “judge conceits by the extremeness of terms, the number of points of correlation made in one stroke between contrary and distant things, the difficulty of coupling, the extent to which the effect surpasses previous uses and the reader’s expectation. Conceits contrived by a seemingly impossible coupling are best of all” (MW, p. 52). Many have commented upon the agility of such figures of speech. T. S. Eliot, for example, points to the rapid associations of unlike objects. Others commenting upon Shakespeare’s wit include Ralph Waldo Emerson, who writes that Shakespeare tosses words around like baubles, “from hand to hand.”7 Smith says that no other style of writing “confronts us more audaciously with its own mental life, or has a greater power to compel our witness to an ever shifting play of wits” (MW, p. 107). Perhaps the most well-known commentary on metaphysical wit, by Samuel Johnson, draws attention to how Shakespeare “no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself.”8 Johnson criticizes the way in which an excited and disturbed wordplay draws our senses in opposite, and sometimes tangled, directions. A particularly audacious example of this can be found in Elegy 20, by that other great exemplar of metaphysical wit, John Donne (quoted in MW, p. 107).

To mew me in a ship, is to enthral
Me in a prison, that were like to fall;
Or in a cloister, save that there men dwell
In a calm heaven, here in a swaggering hell.
Long voyages are long consumptions,
And ships are carts for executions.
Yea they are deaths; is’t not all one to fly
Into another world...

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