To Not Understand, but Not Misunderstand: Wittgenstein on Shakespeare

In Sascha Bru, Wolfgang Huemer & Daniel Steuer (eds.), Wittgenstein Reading. Berlin: pp. 39-53 (2013)
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Wittgenstein's lack of sympathy for Shakespeare's works has been well noted by George Steiner and Harold Bloom among others. Wittgenstein writes in 1950, for instance: "It seems to me as though his pieces are, as it were, enormous sketches, not paintings; as though they were dashed off by someone who could permit himself anything, so to speak. And I understand how someone may admire this & call it supreme art, but I don't like it." Of course, the animosity of one great mind for another has its own interest. But the interest here is increased by two factors: (1) Wittgenstein's brief but specific critique of Shakespeare's similes, of interest particularly since he identifies his own philosophical strength half-deprecatingly but still seriously as one of crafting beautiful similes; and (2) Wittgenstein's and Shakespeare's shared concern, as revealed in Stanley Cavell's writings, with the human impulse to skepticism. The present paper considers the importance of these two factors in weighing Wittgenstein's judgment. It suggests that Wittgenstein's frequent charge that Shakespeare is "completely unrealistic" is not a misunderstanding of the Bard (Wittgenstein distinguishes his "failure to understand" from others' willingness to misunderstand Shakespeare) but rather an expression of Wittgenstein's anxiety over Shakespeare's wholly original use of language to represent the sound of the raw motives to skepticism.
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