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Shakespeare the Thinker


A. D. Nuttall (View Bio)
Hardcover: Yale University Press, 2007.

Shakespeare the Thinker

A. D. Nuttall's study of Shakespeare's intellectual preoccupations is a literary tour de force and comes to crown the distinguished career of a Shakespeare scholar. Certain questions engross Shakespeare from his early plays to the late romances: the nature of motive, cause, personal identity and relation, the proper status of imagination, ethics and subjectivity, language and its capacity to occlude and to communicate. Yet Shakespeare's thought, Nuttall demonstrates, is anything but static. The plays keep returning to, modifying, and complicating his creative preoccupations. Nuttall allows us to hear and appreciate the progress of play speaking to play as well as the distinctive essence of each.

"Comprehensive, insightful, lucid, and utterly fascinating.... More than a critical tour de force, this title is an indispensable guide to reading and comprehending Shakespeare's artistry, one that will benefit beginners as much as tenured professors.... Essential." — Choice

"Probably the best single-volume introduction to Shakespeare's mind at work, covering the full range of his plays: fine close readings combined with philosophical and psychological insight." — Jonathan Bate, 100 of the Best Books on Shakespeare

"Probably the best single book on Shakespeare." — Gabriel Josipovici, Times Literary Supplement

"Nuttall, who died earlier this year, and who trained in both philosophy and literature, here traces ideas about motivation, identity, speech, and symbol in Shakespeare’s plays. His study is rich in unexpected juxtapositions: Hippolyta, of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ finds herself in casual conversation with David Hume, and Titus Andronicus is seen in the context of ‘Goodfellas.’ The analysis never pulls too far away from the action onstage; indeed, Nuttall painstakingly shows Shakespeare’s skill at negotiating abstract ideas through suspense, conflict, and character. For example, he observes, Shakespeare often uses minor characters who form ‘islands’ in the drama to think through philosophical ideas. The Shakespeare who emerges here is a ‘systematically elusive’ intelligence, whose brilliance lay in his ability to join ‘verisimilitude to wonder.’" — The New Yorker

"My book of the year has to be A. D. Nuttall's Shakespeare the Thinker.... To read him is an enriching experience." — Brian Vickers, Times Literary Supplement

"The most challenging Shakespeare book of the year is A. D. Nuttall's Shakespeare the Thinker, a close reading of the plays that tries to map the creases and folds in Shakespeare’s mysterious, elusive brain. Mr. Nuttall, a professor of English at Oxford University who died suddenly in January at 69, is an idiosyncratic critic with an anti-academic bent. In his introduction, he describes leaving a conference of Shakespeare scholars in Stratford-on-Avon in the 1960s and walking to Anne Hathaway’s cottage, wondering all the while what it was like to be Shakespeare. In his final book, he takes another stab at it, this time walking through the plays. Shakespeare the Thinker is wayward and intermittently brilliant, with pithy barroom observations sharing space with arguments so fine-spun they threaten to disappear on the page. Mr. Nuttall casually drops references to ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘The Godfather’ and the novels of Ian McEwan as he explicates and explores, stretching interpretation in every direction. ‘Marlowe is a great reductionist, forever asking “What does it all come down to?”, he writes in a pointed aside. “Shakespeare, conversely, loves to ask, “What else could be going on?”’ Those other, unexplored alternatives are Mr. Nuttall’s meat and drink. This engaged, unpredictable mind can be caught in full flight in two books reissued by Yale University Press, Two Concepts of Allegory, a study of ‘The Tempest,’ and A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality." — William Grimes, The New York Times

"The foremost Shakespeare scholar of his Oxford generation … Nuttall accompanies Shakespeare as a common reader on 'the fiery track of his thinking,' finding not a 'systematic philosopher' but a pragmatic one.... Accessibly and entertainingly, this erudite classicist cites Martin Scorsese, Tony Blair or Star Trek as casually as he mentions Apollonius of Tyre or Quintilian…. Nuttall, who began his lifelong wedding of literature to philosophy by doing his graduate thesis under Iris Murdoch, shows how Shakespeare revisits themes from play to play, saying something about almost all of them, while analyzing with particular brilliance how literary preciousness can block engagement with reality in ‘Love's Labour's Lost,’ and how the fantastic can deliver harsh truths in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.’ Nuttall, trained in classics and literature as well as philosophy, radiates Shakespeare's own humanism." — Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"An attentive, intelligent, common-sense reader of the plays. He has a good ear and a subtle mind, and delights in words and the placement of words. He was a trained philosopher, and his knowledge of philosophy informs his readings, but his intention is to follow Shakespeare's thinking processes from play to play. " — A. S. Byatt, The Guardian

"A summa of the author's lifetime teaching and scholarship on Shakespeare. But it is also more.... a learned, urbane, wonderfully illuminating appreciation of intellectual power radiating from Shakespeare's drama." — William J. Kennedy, The Renaissance Quarterly

"Shakespeare the Thinker stands as a fitting tribute to his learning, his humane values, and his pedagogical talents.... Nuttall sets out to help readers find their way into the plays and to account for their distinctive intellectual power after four centuries. To this task he brings exceptional learning.... Judicious source study, poetic sensitivity, historical context, linguistic scholarship, acquaintance with, among other philosophers, Locke, Wittgenstein, Hegel, and Popkin—all these tools are employed to illuminate the competing ideas that animate play after play." — The Wilson Quarterly

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