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Book Review

Mabogo Percy More, Sartre on Contingency: Antiblack Racism and Embodiment

Thomas Meagher

Mabogo Percy More, Sartre on Contingency: Antiblack Racism and Embodiment (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), 303 pp., $44 (paperback), ISBN: 9781538157046

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Graham Holderness

Shakespeare's interest in ancient Rome spans the whole of his dramatic career, from Titus Andronicus to Cymbeline, while Roman history and Latin culture permeate the whole of his work, well beyond the explicitly ‘Roman’ plays and poems. Critical interest has to some extent shifted from the historicist Roman plays based on Plutarch, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, and the pseudo-historical Coriolanus, to the outlying Roman plays that evidence greater generic diversity and stylistic innovation, the early Senecan tragedy Titus Andronicus and the late ‘British’ romance Cymbeline. In these latter plays, the complex interactions between past and present, that are the main subject of the formal histories, are presented with even more aesthetic flexibility and creative improvisation than the ‘Roman plays’ proper.

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Constance L. Mui and T Storm Heter

Readers will recall that we devoted a special issue to anti-Black racism in 2021, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement which gained momentum following the 2020 murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police officers in Louisville and Minneapolis. The present issue continues to address the problem of racism from a Sartrean perspective, with an interview of the pioneering Black Existentialist thinker Lewis R. Gordon, followed by articles that take up related themes in freedom and oppression.

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Existential Philosophy and Antiracism

An Interview with Lewis R. Gordon

T Storm Heter

Lewis R. Gordon is Professor of Philosophy (and Head of the Department of Philosophy) at the University of Connecticut. His two most recent books are Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization (New York: Routledge, 2020) and Fear of Black Consciousness (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022). Since his first monograph, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (1995), Gordon's many writings have challenged Sartre scholars to move beyond narrowly Euro-centric ideas of reason, humanity, and existence. The existential philosophy pioneered in Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (a revision of Gordon's 1993 Ph. D. dissertation), placed the issue of antiracism at the heart of the study of existence. A prolific and highly visible philosopher, Gordon's writings have inspired an explosion of interest in Africana Existentialism, an open-ended, creolizing philosophy. In the interview below, Gordon outlines the existential situations that face us today. How is human liberation possible given the soul-killing forces of white supremacy, capitalism, and ongoing colonization? Gordon insists on the importance of antiracist institution building, including the transformation of white spaces, especially in academic journals, at conferences, and in university philosophy departments. Importantly, Gordon reminds us that Sartre was one of the few European writers to offer “a genuine engagement with Black intellectuals.” Like Sartre's famous assertion that “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Gordon's message is that Black Existentialism is a Humanism. Challenging the Euro-centric notion that human existence is an abstract, color-less category, Gordon teaches us a new way of thinking and listening. Misguided by parochial notions of human reason, many white (and/or non-Black) philosophers have closed their minds and ears to the calls of Black liberation, thinking they have nothing at stake, or that they must remain mere “allies.” Gordon's work shows us a different path: Black liberation is a universal ethical injunction. Existential philosophy dissolves the supposed contradiction between action and theory, between universal and concrete, between ally and freedom fighter. Done properly, existential philosophy is, in Gordon's words, “a form of epistemological decolonial practice.”

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A Kingdom for a Mirth

Shakespeare's ‘Fatal Cleopatra’ and the Worm's Turn

Roger Stritmatter and Shelly Maycock

Abstract

This article offers a reading of the famously problematic scene 5.2 of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra prepares to meet her death by the bite of the ‘worm’ (5.2.233–290). In this scene, and this scene alone, the Egyptian asp is called by the Anglo-Saxon term ‘worm’ nine times. Repetition, suggests Frankie Rubinstein, may in Shakespeare be a sign of a pun. Samuel Johnson characterised the homophonic resonance of punning as ‘Shakespeare's Fatal Cleopatra’, but Rubinstein insists that for Shakespeare ‘“reason, propriety, and truth” were not sacrificed by the Shakespearean “quibble” but emerge from it’. In Antony and Cleopatra, punning is one key linguistic expression of the play's entwinement with the principles of alchemical transmutation and preference for ‘becoming’ in the ancient dichotomy between being and becoming. As Richard Whalen first proposed in 1991, the ninefold iteration of ‘worm’ in the scene may be a pun on an Aristocratic French name, since the word ‘worm’ in French is Ver.

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Ian Ward

Abstract

This article revisits one of Shakespeare's later, often rather neglected, plays. Shakespeare is thought to have written Cymbeline in 1609 or 1610, at much the same moment, it is commonly surmised, as other so-called ‘problem’ plays such as Pericles and The Winter's Tale. Critics have rarely enthused over Cymbeline, lacking an obvious lead character, the action moving unsettlingly between Roman Britain and Renaissance Italy. Cymbeline has, though, something important to say about the constitutional politics of Jacobean England. King James I liked to style himself as the ‘new Augustus’. He also liked the absolutist idea of kingship which he discovered in his reading of the ‘old’ Augustus. In writing Cymbeline, Shakespeare sought a delicate balance, paying homage to the affinity, whilst also cautioning against uncritical reliance on Roman conceptions of magistracy.

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The Look as a Call to Freedom

On the Possibility of Sartrean Grace

Sarah Horton

Abstract

While the traditional understanding of the look views it in terms of shame and oppression, I read Sartre's Notebooks for an Ethics with Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity to argue that the look always gives me the world and inaugurates my freedom. Even the oppressor's look reveals that I am free and that my existence is conditioned by the existence of other free beings. Because the look gives me the world as the arena within which I act freely, it is a means of grace, and receiving it only in shame is bad faith. Although my existence remains unjustifiable and this grace cannot promise salvation, the look calls me out of shame to the pursuit of my and others’ freedom, and this call is a gift.

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Aspasia Velissariou

Abstract

This article explores the chaotic violence in Nathaniel Lee's tragedies, which, while clearly originating in the sovereign, by its sheer excess and blindness, is hypostasised as a motor of history. In Lee, violence is a reflection of the political anxieties surrounding the Exclusion Crisis but it is also intrinsic to the way he understands the nature of political life; in reality, it is constitutive of the very exercise of power. Drawing on Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer I argue that sovereign violence is inscribed in a most savage form as the very foundation of the civil community, and, therefore, its autonomisation, as in Lee's early plays, is only apparent. In Lucius Junius Brutus: Father of His Country (1680) the extreme sovereign assault on human life fully discloses its politically defined character because it is emblematically performed in the name of the institution of a new body politic, the Republic.

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Daniel Gallimore

Abstract

The Japanese director Ninagawa Yukio, who directed all four of the Roman plays between 2004 and 2014, noted the challenge he faced in making Shakespeare's Roman settings accessible for native audiences, his typical strategy being Japanisation. Ninagawa's Brechtian strategy works two ways in offering audiences a helpful perspective on cultural difference while harnessing Shakespeare's humanism to the anti-rational energies of his theatre that modernity had earlier suppressed. This article explores the mythopoeic aspect of Ninagawa's project first in the context of comparative religion and then with an analysis of his Antony and Cleopatra (2011), which was innovative in casting a Japanese-Korean actress from the western Kansai region as Cleopatra against an established Tokyo actor. The polytheism that native Shinto has in common with ancient Roman religion is a significant subtext.

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‘Our Troy, our Rome’

Classical Intertextuality in Titus Andronicus

Graham Holderness

Abstract

In Titus Andronicus, the many classical literary sources of the play function as templates for its events, as if the tragedy had already been anachronistically pre-written by poets of the Augustan era. The literature of the past, like history, serves, in Titus's own words, as ‘a pattern, precedent and lively warrant’ (5.3.57) for present action and behaviour. When literature and drama appear to become the basis and precedent for human experience, then there is a two-way process of consolidation and de-realisation. Dramatic and poetic literature can start to look more like history; but at the same time real events can take on the complexion of a mere fantasy repetition, in Hamlet's words ‘a fiction, a dream of passion’ (3.2.179). Pieced together, this continual evocation of literary, dramatic and poetic precedent constitutes a vision of Rome which is explicitly identified as an aesthetically crafted fantasy for oral narration and dramatisation on the early modern stage.