A Buddhist's Shakespeare: Affirming Self-deconstructions

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Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1994 - Literary Criticism - 273 pages
In this volume, James Howe analyzes nine Shakespearean dramatic texts, as well as several examples of Western visual art drawn from the sixth to the seventeenth centuries, from a Buddhist perspective. He explains in the process how this perspective parallels Jacques Derrida's ideas about "differance" and how a Buddhist approach to literature can make visible those affirmations which remain invisibly "absent" in Derrida. Assuming the relations between literature and society described by Michel Foucault and the new historicists, Howe studies affirmative possibilities in Shakespeare and disputes the pessimism implicit in much new historicist scholarship. Further, his analysis of visual art demonstrates that certain Buddhist-like positions have always been implicit in the Western tradition. The self-deconstructive nature of Shakespeare's plays brings these affirmative positions forcefully to the surface.
In this argument, Howe applies his Buddhist perspective to some key ideas of neo-Marxists, Michel Foucault, and new historicists concerning the relations between literature and society. This perspective provides new challenges to the Marxist view that society necessarily determines our consciousness, Foucault's position that everyone in society is necessarily enclosed within a power field of competing and therefore oppositional interests, and the new historicist position that a society's established authority maintains itself in part by legitimating dissent in order to contain it. Howe proposes instead the possibility of a non-oppositional, nonideological posture in which one can stand apart from the class oppositions of Marx, the power field of Foucault, and the containment of dissent alleged by many new historicists, yet in a way which actually reduces the misery caused by social injustice.
Engaging contemporary theoretical debate, Howe draws a parallel between Jacques Derrida's ideas about "differance" - in which "presence" occurs only in "absence" - and the Buddhist idea of shunyata, the fullness of emptiness. He also shows the similarities between Derrida's and Buddhism's critiques of reason and language.
The essential Buddhist perspective, Howe argues, is that "reality" lacks the solidity which we habitually assume it has, and that therefore the appropriate attitude toward life is to play it as we would a game - with unusual seriousness, for itself rather than for any ulterior motive, even that of investing it with meaning. Howe also demonstrates that the "real" subject of representational art is always just itself. The significance of such art depends upon the concession that it has no significance. In the same way, it is precisely the self-deconstructive nature of Shakespeare's plays which makes their Buddhist-like affirmative positions visible.

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In this groundbreaking study, Howe analyzes nine Shakespeare plays and several examples of Western visual art from a Buddhist perspective. This is a less startling approach than it might at first ... Read full review


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The Merchant of Venice as Sword of Prajna
The Cause of Suffering and the Birth of Compassion in Julius Caesar
The Emptiness of Differenceand the Six Samsaric Realms in Antony and Cleopatra
Prince Hals Deferral as the Ground of Free Play
Further Glimpses of Free Play in Hamlet and King Lear
The Tempest
The Sword of Prajna in the Visual Arts of the Continent
Shakespeares Access to Renaissance Practices in the Visual Arts
Glossary of Buddhist and BuddhistRelated Terms
List of Works Cited

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Page 29 - I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, — past the wit of man to say what dream it was : man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.

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