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Circumstantial Shakespeare

Research output: Book/ReportBook


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Shakespeare’s characters are thought to be his greatest achievement – imaginatively autonomous, possessed of depth and individuality. This view has survived the deconstruction of ‘Shakespeare as Author’ and has been revitalized by the recent emphasis on the collaborative nature of early modern theatre. But belief in the autonomous imaginative life of Shakespeare’s characters depends on another unexamined myth: the myth that Shakespeare rejected neoclassicism, playing freely with theatrical time and place. Circumstantial Shakespeare explodes these critical commonplaces. Drawing on classical and sixteenth-century rhetorical pedagogy, it reveals the importance of topics of circumstance (Time, Place and Motive, etc.) in the conjuring of compelling narratives and vivid mental images (enargeia). ‘Circumstances’ – which we now think of as incalculable contingencies – were originally topics of forensic inquiry into human intention or passion. Shakespeare used these topics to imply offstage actions, times and places in terms of the motives and desires we attribute to the characters. The book discusses Romeo and Juliet, Lucrece, Lear, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Macbeth as well as Gorboduc, The Maid’s Tragedy and plays by Lyly and Jonson. It reveals the importance of circumstantial proof to various dramatists and highlights Shakespeare’s distinctive use of circumstances to create vivid and coherent dramatic worlds and a sense of the unconscious feelings of characters inhabiting them. Circumstantial Shakespeare engages with eighteenth century and contemporary Shakespeare criticism, semiotics of theatre, forensic rhetoric, humanist pedagogy, the prehistory of probability, psychoanalytic criticism and sixteenth-century constitutional thought.


Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages202
ISBN (Electronic)9780191808692
ISBN (Print)9780199657100
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2015

Publication series

NameOxford Wells Shakespeare lectures

    Research areas

  • Shakespeare, circumstances, character, time, place, motive, rhetoric, offstage, enargeia.

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ID: 74226617