chapter  5
20 Pages

Measure for Measure and Modernity: the Problem of the Sceptic’s Authority

ByLars Engle

If intellectual modernity begins with the movements toward scientific and philosophical method inaugurated by Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes, then Shakespeare is pre-modern. But if modernity also has a more general historical beginning in disenchantment with the older meaning-giving myths and structures, structures that science and rational philosophy seek to displace, then Shakespeare may be modern or incipiently modern when he gives undermining or satirical descriptions of the meaning-bearing traditions of his time. Of course where one interpreter sees an undermining representation of a foundational discourse, another may see an admiring recital of a fundamental truth. Shakespeare embeds general ideas in their particular enactments with such complexity that his taste for embeddedness itself might be seen as an implicit critique of methodical philosophy and pure science, a critique that arises just before those discourses get started. This view offers a way of taking seriously Shakespeare and other sixteenth-century thinkers, notably Montaigne, as prior correctives to modernity. As such, these thinkers may have special relevance for postmoderns who are disenchanted with the universality claims of philosophy and science, now seen as myths of modernity. This way of valuing sixteenth-century thought as akin to late-twentieth-century thought has been advanced by Stephen Toulmin (1990: 42-4). Toulmin has in turn been invoked by several books which attempt to situate Shakespeare as a modern thinker through discussing ways in which he handles relations between foundationalist, absolutist, idealist, or

metaphysical thinking on one hand, and anti-foundationalist, contingent, materialist, or historically located thinking on the other (see Engle 1993: 8-10; Grady 1996: 15-20). Modern literary criticism and theory makes a great deal of this general opposition, which seems quite an obvious way of mapping intellectual terrain to us; it is I think an interesting question how, and indeed whether, this opposition would have appeared to Shakespeare.