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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespearean Metaphysics
  • Andrew Cutrofello (bio)
Shakespearean Metaphysics. By Michael Whitmore. London and New York: Continuum, 2008. Pp. xii + 143. $90.00 cloth, $16.95 paper.

Was Shakespeare a kind of Neoplatonist, as many critics have assumed? Did he believe in the reality of transcendent spirits with the power to intervene in nature? Against this standard interpretation of Shakespearean metaphysics, Michael Witmore argues that Shakespeare believed in “immanence” rather than “transcendence,” “holism” rather than “punctualism” (1). With the new interpretation, the world according to Shakespeare is a self-contained, dynamic whole whose events and relations are more fundamental than the individuals they constitute. Shakespeare conveys this world view less in what his characters say (e.g., “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on”) than in his dramaturgy (for example, the nonlocalized sway of music over character and action in The Tempest).1 In [End Page 499] support of this thesis, Witmore summons three successive Virgilian guides: Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, and Benedict Spinoza. Each of these modern philosophers espoused some version of an immanent, holistic metaphysics, one that Witmore finds paralleled, respectively, in a comedy (Twelfth Night), a tragedy (King Lear), and a late romance (The Tempest).

In Twelfth Night, Witmore detects an underlying metaphysics of occasion. For Whitehead, occasions are not mere opportunities for the doings of material substances. On the contrary, what we think of as persisting, causally efficacious substances are themselves nothing but series of occasions or events. Witmore finds a similar notion operative in the Renaissance sense of “occasion” as “a felicitous conjunction of circumstances or conditions” (16). On the “fluid” Shakespearean stage—in contrast to Jonson’s “punctual” theater—occasions “produce” individuals (16, 19). Viola appears as Viola only when she and Sebastian are brought forth together—not simply brought together—at the end of the play. Even then, her coming forth remains still to come; Viola will be Viola when “place, time, fortune do cohere and jump” (33) to show that she is she. Maintaining that “fortune” and “occasion” are Twelfth Night’s only genuine “causal” powers (35), Witmore concludes that Shakespeare took punctual agency to be an illusion, one to which Malvolio succumbs. This is an attractive reading, insofar as it accounts for the manner in which Malvolio isolates himself from the company of others, making his solitary confinement a fitting punishment. By chalking everything up to occasion, however, Witmore appears to underestimate the punctual agency of Maria, suggesting that she is simply part of a “situation” that “itself conspires” to gull Malvolio (54). “Conspires” in this context implies neither scheming, nor providential arranging, but mere fortuitous “gathering” (34). “To combine as factors in (a product)” seems to be the nearest sense given by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).2 Significantly, however, Shakespeare himself uses “conspire” only to refer to the deliberate contriving or conniving of intentional agents (including “heaven”), although Cardinal Pandolf’s “the times conspire with you” (King John, 3.4.146) arguably comes close to the sense that Witmore is reaching for.

In support of his Whiteheadian interpretation, Witmore leans heavily on the sense of “event” in Maria’s “‘dream on the event’” as “the outcome of a process that cannot be directly handled, but which comes about through the cooperation of circumstance” (53). But Maria is quite confident that she can handle the event she is dreaming up entirely on her own, and so a more pertinent construal of “event” would seem to be the only one for which the OED cites a passage from Shakespeare: “anything that happens, or is contemplated as happening.”3 It is not the situation but Maria who successfully gulls Malvolio. Perhaps she is aided by Sir Toby and the others, but the only nonintentional contributing factor is the utterly passive medium of a convenient location. It is possible that I am simply [End Page 500] underscoring Witmore’s own point when he argues that the immanent philosophy of Gilles Deleuze goes too far in the direction of denying personal integrity (13). Viola may be constituted by the power of occasion, but Malvolio is deceived by a calculating agent whose power to manipulate events anticipates that of Iago (as “dream...


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