- Tragic Conditions in Shakespeare: Disinheriting the Globe
The cover illustration of Paul A. Kottman's provocative study Tragic Conditions in Shakespeare: Disinheriting the Globe comes from Geffrey Whitney's 1586 book of emblems. It depicts Hercules laboring under the burden of a globe, perhaps a version of the Globe Theatre's own logo. But Kottman's globe is not primarily Shakespeare's Bankside theater. Rather his focus is expansive and philosophical: the disinherited globe is something like the social world, that world of communal ties and interconnectedness that our modern world has lost, as his opening lines make clear: "The world, such as it is left to us, seems more unwieldy, troublesome, and broken than the world left to our forebearers" (1). Two big epistemes, ethics and Shakespeare, are thus brought into collision. Whitney's (here suppressed) original motto for the cover emblem is "Nemo potest duobus dominis servire" (no man can serve two masters), but if at times the dual ambition of Kottman's book does indeed seem too burdensome, it brings real insight along the way.
Some space for this double focus is made by leaving out many of the discussions Shakespeareans might expect. There is no mention of textual variants, even though the ending of King Lear is the subject of particular scrutiny; there is no history and no historicism. Hobbes is Shakespeare's nearest contemporary; there are no other comparable literary writers since the Greek tragedians. There is very little engagement with critics, and Kottman reads his unfashionable favorites Harold Bloom and A. C. Bradley graciously, without academic point-scoring. Aristotle and Hegel are the theorists being rethought here: Hannah Arendt, rather than, say, Levinas or Nussbaum, is the primary ethicist. Perhaps more surprisingly, there is very little theater, although productions in general are sometimes cited, and on one occasion Kottman indicates how he would direct a particular scene (Kent's departure at the end of King Lear in "his street jacket" walking through the theater to the exit, since he "sees no reason to invest one single second more in a realm he had up until then staked his life defending" (112). Here, though, the stage corroborates, rather than challenges with its own representational economy, the interpretation arrived at in the study.
So the book is a generic oddity for the literary critic, less a work of literary criticism than one of calm, methodical, yet urgent humanist philosophy. In analyzing As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest (an unexplained selection), Kottman inter-implicates Shakespeare's characters and "us," leaning heavily on the second-person plural to suggest their ethical relevance to "our" lives. Duke Senior is "stateless" in Arden, and this unsought condition of topicality, via Arendt, sets the terms for the following analysis. Having lost his social [End Page 237] position, his ties to a community, and his capacity to inherit and bequeath, Duke Senior's position is exemplary in Kottman's compelling narrative of the fragility of social assurances. His chapter examines the play's peculiar impulse toward stasis as the dramatization of its own disinvestment: "Shakespeare's dramatic challenge is to find something for us to do—something that might matter for us—in the wake of the disappearance of any persuasive difference between the conditions of exile and those that furnish the inheritable conditions of a livable life" (37). Here that "us" is both the exiled band in Arden and we who read of them. In Hamlet, Kottman discusses rites of burial—of old Hamlet, of Polonius, and of Ophelia—as foundational gestures of culture itself, and sees the play's stress on the disinherited prince as a symbol of social collapse. In Lear, it is love, in The Tempest suffering, that pace out the limitations of previously authoritative social bonds, but while Lear dramatizes the terrible disinvestment of communal plenitude, Prospero's act of forgiveness and its disturbing proximity to his exercise of torture show us the paradoxical conditions for the "recovery of a socially inheritable world" (160). Naming Prospero...