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Alterity, the divine and ethics in King Lear Lawrence, Sean Kevin

Abstract

This dissertation challenges the dominant new historicist reading of Shakespeare's plays, characterized by unspoken ethical commitments and a certainty regarding about the ubiquity of political conflict. The ethical thought of Emmanuel Levinas is deployed in order to construct an opposing reading. The dissertation also draws on the ideas of Stanley Cavell, whose work on King Lear emphasizes the need to not merely know, but 'acknowledge' others. The characters in King Lear make strong efforts to avoid ethical relations with one another. Such efforts are inspired by existential anxieties in the face of Being, and take the form of attempting to turn Others, if only intellectually, into objects of control. In the play as in Levinas's work, the ethical demands of the Other and conversely the means of appropriating him or her, are symbolized by the voice and the gaze, with the voice serving as a synecdoche for the Other as external, while the gaze is the means of appropriating the Other. The tendency of characters to understand human relations in terms of economics follows from a pervasive dehumanizing gesture. The Fool's awareness of the fictive world's economic substructure leads him only to a nihilism which corrodes his ethical motivation. Similarly, characters who attempt to escape the world by claiming independence find themselves frustrated in their attempts at suicide. The question of suicide raises questions regarding the gods whom the characters worship. I argue that these gods are in fact little more than projections of the characters' own feelings of self-worth unto the heavens. While the play, set in pagan times, does not directly incorporate a Christian revelation, it can at least stage the rejection of idols. Despite the characters' efforts to avoid each other as Other, the play does contain moments of acknowledgement. While they do not offer what one might call 'a practical ethics', or a clear guide for moral action, moments of acknowledgement do provide the grounds for an ethically engaged politics. Unlike new historicism, such a politics would be able to make a good-faith admission of its own ethical commitments.

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