The Semiotic Subject: Shakespeare and the Early Modern Philosophy of Language
Royal Holloway, University of London
Year of enrolment: 2014 -
This study analyses the complex relationship between subjectivity and language in Renaissance literary and non-literary texts, situating the work of Shakespeare in its contemporary philosophical, rhetorical, and theological contexts. It reconsiders how early modern writers perceive the role language plays in the constitution of an articulate “semiotic subject.” I shall examine the ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries – radically prefiguring poststructuralist accounts – understand the relationship between language and identity, in order to recuperate a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rhetoric of subjectivity. Put simply, this study seeks to find the early modern answer to Juliet’s question, ‘what’s in a name?’
Linguistic theories of the period both celebrate and deny the power of language to express meaning adequately, and thus its ability to articulate selfhood. My study will consequently entail a philosophically-informed enquiry into both the unreliability and the efficacy of language and its vital role in the constitution of the self. This enquiry will focus on the religious and theological discourse of the period, since the God-word provided a relationship with language in which the meaning and truth are fixed; on the secular philosophers best suited to help define the Renaissance rhetoric of self-expression; and medical conceptions of the body, to study the ways in which subjective meaning resides within early modern anatomical thinking. Throughout the thesis I will be particularly concerned to establish whether the gap between subject and name that vexes Juliet might in fact be the very space in which subjectivity emerges, rather than simply a sign of the alienated self’s dislocation from its world.
The compulsion to locate the subjective self in language itself is prevalent throughout Shakespeare’s works, as a glance at any of the Sonnets or the soliloquies of the great tragic protagonists makes immediately clear. Keeping close textual analysis at the heart of its method, this thesis seeks to make a major contribution to the key critical debates concerning the rhetoric of subjectivity and the linguistic constitution of the subject in Shakespeare’s poetry and plays.