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Philosophy & Literature

Shakespeare: Folly, Humanism & Critical Theory

Sam Gilchrist Hall surveys folly and wisdom in Shakespeare’s world and beyond.

When Roman emperors rode in triumphal processions, they would have a fool in the chariot with them, continually whispering to them something along the lines of “You are only human. You too will die – just like beggars and slaves do.” Shakespeare returns to the idea of mortality obsessively in Hamlet (c.1600); for instance, when the antic Prince rhymes: “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.” Indeed, one of the most striking images of late medieval Europe is the Dance Macabre or Totentanz, in which all classes join hands with death. In Rome, as in medieval Europe, the spectre of death served a levelling function. No matter who you are, sooner or later God is going to cut you down. This insight also reminds us that institutions and discourses that seem immutable are not set in stone, but embodied in that most perishable of things, human flesh.


With the publication of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (Moriae encomium) in 1509, the old order of folly was swept away. Whereas the author of the Ship of Fools (Narrenschiff, 1494), Sebastian Brandt, had inveighed against the moral corruption of mankind, in Erasmus’s hands folly becomes a way not only of exposing the hypocrisy and despotism of those in power, but also of understanding ourselves and our place in the world, not least because it provides a tool to fathom the limits of reason.

Fools and poets are kindred spirits, since neither asserts an unequivocal truth. As Shakespeare’s contemporary Philip Sidney observed in his Apology for Poetry (1587), “The poet never lies, for he never affirms.” In other words, poets are not dishonest because, by virtue of the fact they write fiction, they do not attempt to be honest. Likewise, fools make no claim to authority because their insights, however profound or subversive, come from the mouth of a fool. Perhaps this is why the phenomenon of folly was not so much theorised by the philosophers of the period as embodied in the fictional works of its writers, such as Erasmus, Rabelais, Cervantes, and, of course, Shakespeare.

As we shall see, folly made certain forms of writing and thinking possible, and its remit goes far beyond the garrulous backchat of Shakespeare’s clowns and the ironic insights of his jesters, such as Feste and Touchstone. This article will illustrate some of the philosophical aspects of folly for Shakespeare, and ask, why were some of the most brilliant minds of the Renaissance captivated by this concept? To do this, I will illustrate the centrality of folly in the philosophical tradition from which Shakespeare sprang, Renaissance humanism, before briefly highlighting some aspects of its importance in a philosophical tradition that was partly inspired by Shakespeare, namely the Critical Theory of the twentieth-century.


Humanism is a school of thought that places humans at its centre (rather than, for instance, trying to fathom theological mysteries). While this might sound harmless enough, over the last forty years or so, ‘humanism’ has become something of a dirty word in the study of the humanities, which, nonetheless share its etymological root: both words hail from the Latin concept of the Liberal Arts or studia humanitatis. Humanism has become unpopular because a philosophy that places humans at its centre can lead to the essentialist belief that there is an unchanging thing called ‘human nature’, and also to anthropocentrism. These are both deeply problematic positions since they can lead, on the one hand, to the persecution of groups whose traditions and beliefs differ from those of the essentialist humanist, and, on the other hand, to a philosophical stance that justifies the destruction of nature for human ends. I contend, however, that, at least at its inception, humanism was neither essentialising nor arrogantly anthropocentric, and it avoids these pitfalls because of its grasp of folly.

In the first third of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, the narrator, called Stultitia (Folly), estranges everyday existence, suggesting that from birth to death we are simply actors in various scenes in a ‘great play of folly’ – an insight that Shakespeare’s melancholic Jaques would later echo in his famous monologue in As You Like It (1599), “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely Players” (III.i).

Although this realisation may now seem something of a cliché, its underlying idea is significant: the institutions, discourses, and ideas that appear to be solid are as flimsy as a theatrical set – and one way the philosophers and writers of this period sought to challenge conventional understanding was by exposing the fragility and provisionality of the way things are. In particular, they challenged age-old ways of understanding the world by preferring to start to understand things through experience rather than ancient authority. As the seventeenth-century English poet and clergyman John Donne writes, “Young men mend not their sight by wearing old men’s spectacles; and yet we look upon the world but with Aristotle’s, and the body of man but with Galen’s.” But both in his satirical Praise and in his more serious theological writings, Erasmus inveighs against dogma in general and especially against the ways in which custom blinds us to facts: “Nothing is too villainous or cruel to win approval, if custom recommends it”, Erasmus sardonically writes in one of his textbooks for Latin.

Shakespeare’s favourite philosopher, the seminal Renaissance humanist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), was also acutely aware of the ways in which custom is not only a hindrance to clear and critical thinking, but is also culturally contingent. In his essay ‘Of Cannibals’ he writes: “I find… that there is nothing in that nation [America] that is either barbarous or savage, unless men call that barbarism which is not common to them. As indeed we have no other aim of truth or reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country we live in” (Essays, trans John Florio, 1613). Here Montaigne comes to the dispassionate conclusion that even taboos as seemingly natural as not eating other people are actually a result of cultural conditioning, not essential human nature; that what we consider to be ‘uncivilised’ is actually merely that which is unfamiliar; and that our conceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘reason’, upon which we might ground the fiction of a ‘human nature’ are not universal, but culturally contingent. Nonetheless, he admits that on the “great stage of fools” (King Lear, V.i) of the everyday world, custom is a force of enormous strength; as Hamlet puts it, “That monster Custom, who all sense doth eat” (III.iv).

Whereas Montaigne’s disinclination to generalise is built into his idiosyncratic methodology (“Others fashion man”, he writes; “I… represent a particular one”), Shakespeare’s critique of the all-too-human tendency to employ false categories ratified by custom is embodied on stage. In Othello and Romeo and Juliet, for instance, the revolutionary potential inherent in love to transcend distinctions of race and faction is thwarted precisely because powerful characters remain enthralled by customary stereotypes, and assumptions.

Clearly, the humanism of this period cannot be accused of making solely essentialist arguments, nor is it straightforwardly anthropocentric. Rather, one of its recurrent insights is that human thought is embodied, and, therefore, perishable. At a time in which the idea of the divine right of kings was prominent – the idea that kings were “The deputy elected by the Lord” (Richard II, III.ii) – this insight of embodiment was radically egalitarian. As Montaigne bluntly observes, “On the highest throne in the world, we are sat on our arse.”

This realisation of our embodied nature is shared by Lear, who, soaked and shivering in the storm, becomes aware that his flatterers imbued him with strengths he simply does not possess: “They told me I was everything; ‘tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (King Lear, IV. vi). Kings, lunatics and fools feel the cold the same. But our embodiment is most memorably formulated in The Merchant of Venice (1597), in Shylock’s great paean for racial equality (III.i):

“Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?”

Although this speech is used in a justification of why Shylock should get his pound of flesh, these reflections resonate beyond their immediate dramatic context, offering a powerful commonsense argument for religious and racial tolerance. No matter what creed, caste, or colour, we share a certain physical vulnerability, not to mention, ridiculousness. And Lear’s revelation when he encounters the naked beggar in the storm that “unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art” (III.ii) suggests not only that we share vulnerability, but also that rank is a fiction, and kingly robes are mere costumes, or, as Lear calls them, ‘lendings’, referring to the contemporary practice of theatrical companies borrowing their costumes from rich patrons.

It transpires, then, that a striking feature of Renaissance humanism is not a claim to human mastery over all things. Rather, it highlights the absurdity and fragility of human beings, subject to disease, poison, rain, and, of course, folly in the pejorative sense. Humanist philosophy and literature embedded in this tradition does not so much enthrone humans as masters, as critically reflect upon the limitations of the body, and, as I shall now show, the mind.

Shakespeare by Clint Inman

Critical Theory

Not unlike ‘humanism’, the term ‘Critical Theory’ means different things to different people. For the sake of this article, however, it is perhaps best understood as a turn that continental philosophy took in the mid to late twentieth-century which was heavily influenced by Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, and which sought to fathom the problematic nature of reason’s realisation. This is in contrast to attempting to apply logic to clarify the nature of everyday terms and experience, in the manner of English-speaking analytic philosophers of the same period.

For Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), a leading figure in the Frankfurt School from whence Critical Theory originates, the basic problem with reason is the way in which it makes sense of things. As he writes in his magnum opus Negative Dialektik (1969):

“The concept is always less than what is subsumed under it. When a B is defined as an A, it is always different from and more than the A, the concept under which it is subsumed… However, in a sense every concept is at the same time more than the characteristics that are subsumed under it. If… I speak of ‘freedom’, this concept is not simply the unity of the characteristics of all the individuals who can be regarded as free on the basis of a formal freedom within a given constitution. The concept of freedom contains a pointer to something that goes well beyond those specific freedoms, without our necessarily realising what this additional element amounts to.”

In other words, every identity (by which he means every concept, rather than the social or ethnic group we now associate with this word in the sense of ‘identity politics’) is shadowed by that which it is not (its ‘non-identity’) in a threefold way. First, the simple fact that two things are never quite the same is overlooked by the judgement which seeks to classify the particulars as examples of a given category rather than enquire into the particularities. Second, the concept of a thing is extraneous to the thing itself. For instance, the periodic table is not the chemical elements themselves. Third, in grand, abstract concepts, the concept far exceeds any possible experience of it. Thus, freedom does not simply mean legislative freedom for most people, any more than the concept of love signifies a specific romantic relationship between two people. For these reasons, Adorno argues, concepts are always ‘less than’ and ‘more than’ what’s ‘subsumed under them’.

While this ‘critique of identity’ may sound pretty abstract (abstruse, even), bear in mind that Adorno considered the horrors of the twentieth century and the catastrophes of history to be a result of ‘identity-thinking’ – a type of thought that denies difference. Racial intolerance, after all, relies upon the perception of another person as simply an example of a category – a Muslim, a Jew, or an African – rather than as a particular person.

Strikingly, Montaigne makes a comparable argument about how the nature of cognition is to hinder itself: “The privilege whereof our soul vaunts, to bring to her condition whatsoever I conceive, and to despoil it of what mortal and corporal qualities that belong to it… to disrobe and deprive their corruptible conditions, and make them leave as superfluous and base garments: thickness, length, depth, weight, colour, smell, roughness, smoothness, hardness, softness and all sensible accidents else, to fit and appropriate them to her immortal and spiritual condition” (Essays). It is in the nature of subjectivity, Montaigne suggests, to assimilate or ‘bring to her condition’ whatever it apprehends, creating fictions imposed on the object that prevent an understanding of the thing (or person) itself. The mind renders each object an exemplum of a preconceived category, and the object’s specific features are displaced by presupposed attributes, which, unlike ‘mortal and corporal qualities’ are not contingent: bodies rot, but ‘qualities’ do not. Elsewhere Montaigne anticipates the third part of Adorno’s identity critique, the argument that abstract concepts reach beyond any possible specific experience of them: “We easily pronounce puissance, truth, and justice; they be words importing some great matter, but that thing we neither see nor conceive,” Paradoxically, then, we can create concepts that exceed our ability to understand them.

Shakespeare illustrates the identity-thinking perils Adorno warns against. Although he does so by showing many states and individuals blinded by racial prejudice or misogyny, the problem is perhaps most clearly apparent in a short exchange in Measure for Measure, V.i. (I owe this insight to David Paxton):

Duke Vincentio: What, are you married?

Mariana: No, my lord.

Duke Vincentio: Are you a maid?

Mariana: No, my lord.

Duke Vincentio: A widow, then?

Mariana: Neither, my lord.

Duke Vincentio: Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?

Despite the fact that Mariana is right in front of him, because he cannot categorise her, the Duke concludes that she is ‘nothing’.

However, in the graveyard scene in Hamlet (V.i), the drive to identify moves in the opposite direction, from nothing to something. Hamlet’s attempts at individuating the skulls – “This might be the pate of a politician / This might be my Lord Such-a-One” – are more than a dramatisation of the idea behind the Dance of Death. As the use of the mock-title ‘Lord Such-a-One’ implies, Hamlet’s experience among the skulls involves a reductio ad absurdum of the mind’s compulsion to create categories – it shows he thinks it can’t always be done. Even when he’s faced with something literally faceless – a skull conspicuously bereft of any distinguishing features – he assigns an identity, even a profession, to it. (It is more than a little ironic that despite Shakespeare’s playful critique of categorisation here, critics of this play have spilt an incredible amount of ink trying to pluck out the mystery of both the play and its implacable hero by categorising it and defining his motives.)

The Dance of Death
The Dance of Death, 1490, National Gallery of Slovenia

Another branch of Critical Theory was developed by Michel Foucault (1926-84). Foucault focused upon the relationship between power and knowledge, and, particularly, how power is dispersed through social institutions, such as schools and asylums. In his 1961 book, History of Madness, Foucault attempts to trace the changing experience of madness from the early modern age to the nineteenth century, arguing that ‘’there can be no reason without madness.” Whereas Erasmus, Montaigne, and Shakespeare are at pains to point out that there is nothing more foolish than considering oneself wise, Foucault goes so far as to argue that asserting one’s sanity always reveals a trace of insanity. He concerns himself with “that ‘other trick’ through which men, in a gesture of sovereign reason… lock up their neighbour [and] communicate and recognize each other in the merciless language of non-madness.” But like any act of categorisation, identifying someone as ‘insane’ is, in some senses, irrational. Not only does doing so place an absolute faith in the powers of good sense to gain mastery over that which, by definition, it cannot understand (because insanity is by definition beyond reason), it also fails to recognise that, as Montaigne reflects in the opening pages of his Essays, “man is a wonderful, vain, divers, and wavering subject: it is very hard to ground any directly-constant and uniform judgement upon him.” Positing absolute standards is ultimately at odds with the essential intermittency of being.

It transpires that Foucault’s insight is a decidedly Shakespearean one. In Shakespeare’s late romance, Cymbeline (V.v.), Posthumus finds Jupiter’s riddling prophecy, and refers to it as:

“…still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen
Tongue, and brain not; either both, or nothing,
Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such
As sense cannot untie.”

Here sense and nonsense, reason and madness, are locked in a mutually defining relationship. Although ‘senseless’ utterance cannot be neatly incorporated into reason’s domain, it could not be acknowledged without reason’s classification of it as something peculiar, beyond its remit, a “speaking such as sense cannot untie.”

Folly and wisdom, I would suggest, are likewise caught in such a mutually defining relationship. While folly enables us to laugh at our pretensions to mastery, it could not exist without what Montaigne calls that “fine human reason [which] butts in everywhere, domineering and commanding, muddling and confusing the face of things in accordance with its vanity.”

What use is it to understand the limitations of the human mind and body? Well, aside from causing us to view the humanism of this period as anti-essentialist and non-anthropocentric, if one understands the process of enlightenment to consist of “the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (as Immanuel Kant defined the Enlightenment in his 1784 essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’), then it might be said that Shakespeare enlightens his audience through the discourse of folly, since it is primarily through this discourse that he frees his audience from their enthralment to conventional ideas and established modes of thought. Yet the paradoxical wisdom of folly lies, first and foremost, in its sceptical refusal to trust itself – to assert either that its implications are straightforwardly true or that its ways of perceiving the world are straightforwardly correct. Folly, therefore, does not teach one to trust one’s own understanding. It does something far more important. The paradoxical wisdom of folly teaches us to distrust our own wisdom.

© Dr Sam Gilchrist Hall 2024

Sam Gilchrist Hall is a OSUN-EHCN Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Gender Studies, Central European University. His PhD has been published as Shakespeare’s Folly: Philosophy, Humanism, Critical Theory (Routledge, 2017).

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