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  • From Solitude to MaternityLevinas and Shakespeare
  • Steven Shankman (bio)

“It sometimes seems to me,” writes Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), “that the whole of philosophy is only a meditation on Shakespeare” (TO 47). The present essay tries to place Shakespeare’s three greatest tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear) in the context of Levinas’s own developing ideas as a philosopher, as well as to suggest how, if we read these plays with Levinas’s thought in mind, we can see in them as yet unrevealed ethical depths. Shakespeare figures in Levinas’s philosophical development from the time of Existence and Existents and Time and the Other, both published just after World War II, through Humanism of the Other and Otherwise than Being in the early 1970s. Among Shakespeare’s works, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear were three plays that Levinas particularly admired.1 In the course of my essay I will refer to the work of Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), who also alludes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and whose work had such a powerfully formative influence on Levinas’s thought.

Levinas sees articulated in Macbeth and Hamlet the notion of what he describes as the horrifying impersonality and “irremissibility” [End Page 67] (i.e., the no-exit quality) of Being, the “there is” (il y a). Levinas’s reflection on the “there is,” he notes in a conversation with Philippe Nemo, “starts with childhood memories. One sleeps alone, the adults continue life; the child feels the silence of his bedroom as ‘rumbling’ [bruissant]” (EI 48). Levinas says that his friend Maurice Blanchot comes close to articulating what Levinas himself means by the chilling anonymity of the “there is” when Blanchot, in his fiction, speaks of “A night in a hotel room where, behind the partition, ‘it does not stop stirring’ [‘ça n’arrête pas de remuer’]; ‘one does not know what they are doing next door’ ” (50).

Neither Heideggerian anxiety about death nor Sartrean “nausea” account for the “horror” generated by the il y a, a horror in which “the subject is stripped of his subjectivity, of his power to have private existence. The subject is depersonalized. . . . Horror turns the subjectivity of the subject, his particularity qua entity, inside out [à l’envers]. It is participation in the there is, in the there is which returns in the heart of every negation, in the there is that has ‘no exits’ [sans issue]” (EE 56). One can try to exit the “there is” through what Levinas calls “hypostasis”—through knowing or positing oneself as a knowing subject. But Levinas, who was no irrationalist, associated knowing with an assertive grasping of the true, and hence, even with violence. Knowing is burdened with a likely forgetting—not, as in Heidegger, of Being—of one’s prior and infinite obligation to the other, an obligation which precedes knowing and its light.

Knowing is thus a solitude. We can exit the il y a and the essential solitude of the knowing subject only through the ethical relation, through a responding to and a taking responsibility for the other. Time, for Levinas, is the time of the other, not Hegelian time, in which the imperial subject violently assimilates everything alien in its path. Macbeth is, therefore, not a true self, a self straightaway for the other. Macbeth starts out the play as an ethical self, to be sure. This is what so troubles Lady Macbeth, who worries that Macbeth’s “nature” is “too full o’th’milk of human kindness” [End Page 68] (1.5.17)2 to go through with the plan to murder Duncan. In her ruthless pursuit of power, Lady Macbeth rejects the very maternity that, as I shall argue, Lear ultimately embraces. As Lady Macbeth tells her husband, whose resolve to go through with the planned murder is wavering:

    I have given suck, and know How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn As you have done to this.


Macbeth, in the murderous course of the play, becomes...


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