Shakespeare and The Absurd

Authored by: Raymond Angelo Belliotti

The Routledge Companion to Shakespeare and Philosophy

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138936126
eBook ISBN: 9781315677019
Adobe ISBN:


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In this essay, I explain and analyze two well-known arguments that conclude human life is inherently absurd: Albert Camus’ version of relational absurdity and Thomas Nagel’s depiction of internal absurdity. The ‘absurd’ is an interpretive concept that lacks a fixed, common understanding. Thus, those unveiling their preferred definition of ‘absurdity’ are advocating for a particular use of the term. After considering a cinematic example of absurdity in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail, I offer an alternate understanding of ‘absurdity,’ and discuss it in the context of several hypothetical examples of absurd behavior in everyday life offered by Nagel and Richard Taylor. Shakespeare anticipated contemporary understandings of relational and internal absurdity in Macbeth and King Lear. After discussing the relationship between a meaningful life and an absurd life, I argue that my understanding of ‘absurdity’ is both conceptually and practically preferable to the depictions offered by Nagel and Camus. I then demonstrate that on my account of ‘absurdity,’ the lives of Macbeth and Lear, even during their direst moments, were neither absurd nor meaningless. Finally, I argue that even if Nagel and Camus are correct, and human life is inevitably relational or internally absurd or both, we can still lead robustly meaningful lives in spite or even because of such absurdity.

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