Wisdom and Law: Political Thought in Shakespeare's Comedies

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In this study of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure I argue that the surface plots of these comedies point us to a philosophic understanding seldom discussed in either contemporary public discourse or in Shakespearean scholarship. The comedies usually involve questions arising from the conflict between the enforcement of law (whether just or not) and the private longings (whether noble or base) of citizens whose yearnings for happiness tend to be sub- or even supra-political. No regime, it appears, is able to respond to the whole variety of circumstances that it may be called ... continued below

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Major, Rafael M. December 2002.

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  • Major, Rafael M.

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In this study of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure I argue that the surface plots of these comedies point us to a philosophic understanding seldom discussed in either contemporary public discourse or in Shakespearean scholarship. The comedies usually involve questions arising from the conflict between the enforcement of law (whether just or not) and the private longings (whether noble or base) of citizens whose yearnings for happiness tend to be sub- or even supra-political. No regime, it appears, is able to respond to the whole variety of circumstances that it may be called upon to judge. Even the best written laws meet with occasional exceptions and these ulterior instances must be judged by something other than a legal code. When these extra-legal instances do arise, political communities become aware of their reliance on a kind of political judgment that is usually unnoticed in the day-to-day affairs of public life. Further, it is evident that the characters who are able to exercise this political judgment, are the very characters whose presence averts a potentially tragic situation and makes a comedy possible. By presenting examples of how moral and political problems are dealt with by the prudent use of wisdom, Shakespeare is pointing the reader to a standard of judgment that transcends any particular (or actual) political arrangement. Once we see the importance of the prudent use of such a standard, we are in a position to judge what this philosophic wisdom consists of and where it is to be acquired. It is just such an education with which Shakespeare intends to aid his readers.

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  • December 2002

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  • Sept. 26, 2007, 3:20 a.m.

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  • Jan. 16, 2014, 4:44 p.m.

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Major, Rafael M. Wisdom and Law: Political Thought in Shakespeare's Comedies, dissertation, December 2002; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc3277/: accessed October 21, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .