Tag Archives: shakespeare

Myths, Shakespeare, and Circular “logic”

I’m reading a book on Shakespeare called 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare by Oxford scholars Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith. There are a lot of things I could talk about here, and I was going to write a post for my Shakespeare blog, but this one ended up crossing over. The book is an attempt to dispel popular rumors about Shakespeare; for instance, that Shakespeare hated his wife (we actually have no idea) or that he was the most popular dramatist of his day (he was among them, but there were others at the time thought of just as highly).

“Myth” 20 is “The Tempest was Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage.” This is a popular idea among Bardolatrists; that as The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play and that as he was writing himself as Prospero. When Prospero gives up magic and breaks his staff, this is Shakespeare symbolically giving up stagecraft. The only problem is, The Tempest wasn’t Shakespeare’s last play (Henry VIII, and perhaps The Winter’s Tale were later) and it’s always dangerous to equate Shakespeare with his characters (there are several myths exposed here).

Great, but why is this post on the logic blog? Because in Myth 20, Great Myths gives us a syllogism. It quotes Edward Dowden, who wrote:

It is rather because the temper of Prospero, the grave harmony of his character, his self-mastery, his calm validity of will, his sensitiveness to wrong, his unfaltering justice, and, with these, a certain abandonment, a remoteness from the common joys and sorrows of the world, are characteristic of Shakespeare as discovered to us in his latest plays.

Despite the logical fallacy of Dowden’s argument… (30 Great Myths about Shakespeare, Laurie E. Maguire and Emma Smith, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

In response to this, we get:

Dowden’s argument is beautifully circular, even syllogistic. Prospero reminds us of Shakespeare because his character constructs our idea of what Shakespeare must have been like: 1. Prospero is a good guy. 2. Shakespeare is a good guy. 3. Therefore Prospero is Shakespeare. (Or perhaps it is 1, 3, 2; or even 3, 2, 1).

So let’s look at this. First off, I have to quibble: are we equating circular arguments with syllogisms? I don’t think so, but the book is not clear. Let’s assume they are not (I might have written “beautifully syllogistic although circular”). So then let’s look at our syllogism. Is it true? No, just because Shakespeare is a good guy and Prospero is a good guy, that does not necessary make them the same person. That’s ridiculous. So the syllogism is false. Let’s write it out in the Tibetan logical format:

Consider Prospero,
He is Shakespeare,
Because they are both good guys.

True or false? Run the tests… it will fail tests #2 and #3. Just because Prospero is good doesn’t mean he and Shakespeare are the same. An example would be Gandhi; he is good, but he is not Prospero nor Shakespeare.

So let’s look at the circular part, which is more interesting. As a Shakespeare scholar, this is what we have to be on guard against. We assume Shakespeare was a good person; how could he write all that beautiful poetry otherwise? But of course literature gives us many examples of people who wrote important, great works who were not nice people. Supply your own example.

The idea that Prospero is “good” has also been called into question (if you want to say our syllogism fails test #1); he manipulates everyone and is very controlling of his young, vulnerable daughter. Scholars have also pointed out how he treats Caliban is in many ways indicative of colonialism (take up the white man’s burden); post-feminism and post-colonial, how should we interpret him? In modern productions he is often portrayed as a despot.

But assuming Shakespeare was good and Prospero can be interpreted as good, we still have the circular problem. We expect Shakespeare to be good, so we look for a “good” character to equate him to. If Shakespeare is Prospero, is he also Hamlet? Freud might say yes, but then what other characters is he also? And is he not his “bad” characters, even though he wrote them as well?

But the beauty of this circular argument is attractive; we want Shakespeare to be good, so we assume he is good, and then equate him with good characters in his plays. Essentially the syllogism is:

Consider Shakespeare,
I want him to be good,
So he must be representing himself in his good characters.

True or false? Which test would you say this syllogism fails?