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  • Evolving Hamlet: Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy and the Ethics of Natural Selection by Angus Fletcher
  • Howard Marchitello (bio)
Evolving Hamlet: Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy and the Ethics of Natural Selection. By Angus Fletcher. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. xvi + 192. $95.00 cloth.

As heirs of Darwin, we are required to confront a monumental challenge brought to us as a consequence of the theory of natural selection and its destruction of (philosophical) idealism: deciding how to live our lives as intentional beings in a world that Darwin and, more broadly, scientific inquiry since have declared to be nonintentional. This “grim riddle of Darwinism” (xii) stands as the point of departure for Angus Fletcher’s Evolving Hamlet. “Informing us that we are intentional beings in a nonintentional world,” Fletcher writes of Darwinism, “it asks us to accept that our nature is alien to the nature that conceived us” (xii).

For Fletcher, the way forward—and the way out of the crisis that follows upon natural selection’s (apparent) disqualification of ethics and its own (apparent) unsuitability as an ethics of its own—lies in the domain of “tragedy” that, particularly in its seventeenth-century English form, can offer a “practical remedy to a biological problem” (xiv). Fletcher’s project is authorized by a growing body of biological approaches to literature (he cites Jonathan Gottschall and Bruce McConachie, among others) and, more significantly, his understanding of science as a pragmatics: the search for practical solutions to the problems of human life in general. For Fletcher, science is not a metaphysics, but rather something of a “handbook of jimmy-rigged responses to physical concerns” (xiv–xv). Thus, art—that is to say, literature—itself is a biological implement that has arisen in natural response to the problems of human life. As such, its primary value “lies not in the enrichment of knowledge, but in the practice of ethics” (xv). Building productively on current early modern literature and science studies, Fletcher reverses the analytical roles of literature and science and proposes to “look to literature to resolve the problems raised by science” (xvi).

Fletcher’s project traces the emergence of an evolutionary ethics out of the legacy of Darwinism that repudiates the disastrous turn toward eugenics and social Darwinism that were initial reactions to natural selection. This history begins in earnest with the development of pragmatism, originating with the protocognitive scientific efforts of William James (especially in The Principles of Psychology [1890]) and culminating in the pragmatism of John Dewey for whom art could function as the key to forging a practice-based ethics. Fletcher provides a clear articulation of Dewey’s promotion of art—a discussion that includes consideration of pluralism, the organization of the human body as a model for fashioning a new human society [End Page 224] based on the idea of problem-solving, the rejection of idealism, and the determination of the proper role of science. In this sense, Dewey’s pragmatism is aimed at describing—and, even more, engendering—the progressive society that is made possible through art’s practical negotiation of life’s problems. And for Fletcher, seventeenth-century English tragedy, epitomized in Hamlet, offers a powerful mechanism by which the audiences (in the theater or in the study) can themselves be embroiled in crisis and conflict that require a pragmatic solution.

After a careful introduction that explains the parameters for his innovative inquiry, Fletcher sets out to demonstrate how seventeenth-century English drama can be said to fulfill the principal claims Dewey made for art: that art is well suited to communicating ethical problems, that art’s communication of ethical problems promotes the practices of pluralism, and that “this plural practice has a progressive purpose in an everchanging physical world” (12). To help establish these claims, Fletcher offers powerful and frequently compelling readings of a range of plays, beginning with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Macbeth; continuing on to Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Othello (including the Restoration versions of Othello); and extending into a series of Restoration tragedies (particularly plays by John Dryden) including The Indian Emperour, All for Love, and The Conquest of Granada. Along the way, Fletcher offers...


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