Shakespeare’s embodied Stoicism

Authored by: Donovan Sherman

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 Shakespeare’s day, two popular understandings of Stoicism coexisted uneasily. The first was personified by the stock Stoic character who appeared in drama: a misanthropic, comically unfeeling foil. The second was nearly the opposite: a more subtle figure who in fact opened themselves up to the universe. This latter conception emerged in the translations of classical Stoic texts and Neo-Stoic syntheses with Christian ethos. This essay examines the tension between these models. I turn to Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, alongside passages from Renaissance translations of Stoic philosophers such as Seneca and Epictetus as well as the Neo-Stoic work De Constantia by Justus Lipsius. My contention is that the form of embodiment sponsored by Stoicism was non-mimetic and thus caused a crisis when viewed onstage alongside more traditionally representative forms of theatre. Shakespeare’s plays—specifically, Hamlet’s anxieties over acting and Hero’s radical openness—give us a powerful model of parsing out different modes of embodiment: the more subtle, radically open practice of Stoicism, on the one hand, and the codes of acting that necessitate staged drama, on the other.

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