Fall 2016 English Graduate Courses

350:537 - Shakespeare and the Philosophy of Friendship

Course No:  350:537
Index: 18025
Distribution Requirement:  A2
Thursday - 4:30 p.m. 
MU 207

Shakespeare and the Philosophy of Friendship 

Ronald Levao

We will examine Shakespeare’s share in what used to be called the “Renaissance cult of friendship,” a nearly obsessive appropriation and transformation of classical and medieval speculation about friendship by early-modern writers. After an introduction to some thematic problems by a reading of selected Sonnets, we will read the three major classical discussions of friendship by Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, together with shorter selections by Seneca and Plutarch. We will then turn to some key medieval and Renaissance texts, including works by Montaigne, Thomas Elyot, Francis Bacon, and selections from Books III and IV of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Our focus will be not only on the categories and doctrines they propose, but also on the gaps and contradictions troubling their accounts, conceptual and emotional ambiguities that proved no less vital as expressive resources for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Among the questions we will consider are: What impels the search for and contemplation of an alter ego? How is friendship (philia) to be distinguished from erotic love, and how permeable is the boundary? What kinds of friendship are possible between men? between women? How is friendship theory deployed in formulating the ideal of a “companionate marriage”? Is friendship a foundation for political order or a threat to public life? Is friendship a form of self-knowledge? Is friendship altruistic or an egoistic impulse masquerading as altruism? What is the relation between friendship writing and early-modern subjectivity, solitude, and anxiety? Several modern theorists, historians of philosophy, and literary critics (Derrida, Girard, Greenblatt, Langer, Weller, Annas, Cavell, Sedgwick, et al.) will also be used to help us in our discussions, but the primary emphasis will be on Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Works will probably include the Sonnets, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Hamlet, Othello, Timon of Athens, The Winter’s Tale, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and “The Phoenix and Turtle.”

Members of the seminar will be asked to attend regularly, listen actively, and converse vigorously. They will also be asked to write two papers of approximately ten pages each. Topics may be of the students’ own choice or provided by me and reshaped to their interests. Classroom reports on secondary materials or relevant primary texts (e.g., Sidney, Marlowe, Donne, Milton, et al.) will likewise take into account the interests of the participants. Previous work in early modern literature will be helpful but not necessary.