Shakespearean Recognitions

“You do not yet recognize as you are recognized; you do not yet see as you are seen.”

This statement could have been written by Hobbes, Hegel, or Levinas to describe the struggle for recognition that is at the heart of modern moral philosophy. In fact, it comes from the medieval mystic, Hugh of St. Victor, and yet it expresses a similar struggle to those that appear in modern philosophical writing. Namely, it formulates the impossibility of entering into a moral transaction with God. Late medieval Christian devotion became increasingly committed to solving this problem, and a culture of performative responses emerged as expressions of it. These performances included the Quem Queritis,scripted enactments of the events that followed Christ’s resurrection and conducted liturgically during Holy Week; the proliferation of vernacular “Elevation prayers” composed and recited in response to the Elevation of the Host at the center of the Mass; and town mystery and cycle plays illustrating Christ’s appearances to Doubting Thomas and the pilgrims on the Emmaus road.

Early modern theatricality, as playwrights in Shakespeare’s time inherited it, was animated in no small part by the dramatic struggle to reckon with God and by the urgency of seeing and believing in the invisible. The “medieval theater of recognition,” as I describe it, provided early modern playwrights with more than a collection of dramaturgical practices; it also delivered a new cultural and spiritual imaginary in which to renovate the classical poetic device of anagnorisis, defined by Aristotle as a character’s change in knowledge and subsequent discovery of identity. Consequently, scenes of reunion and discovery acquired new spiritual as well as social potential. The recognition scene itself became a primal site of the struggle for recognition that would come to define moral and political philosophy from the seventeenth century onward.

In Shakespearean Recognitions: Philosophies of the Post-Tragic, I argue that Shakespeare’s plays direct audiences to the same aporia of mutual recognition that serves as the fundamental motive for moral reckoning in classical poetics, medieval Christian devotion, and modern philosophy. In recent decades, Shakespeare scholars have assumed a correlation between recognition as a poetic device and as a moral and political condition, but little has been done to substantiate this important connection. In particular, scholars have turned to the writings of philosophers, including Wittgenstein, Sartre, Levinas, Cavell, and Arendt, among others, to energize readings of interpersonal betrayal and reconciliation in Shakespeare’s plays. One reason for this is the attention given to Shakespeare’s interest in moral freedom, where the classical recognition scene strives to become much more than merely nominal. Moreover, it is almost commonplace to say that Shakespeare’s tragic plots are propelled by an original breakdown in mutual “acknowledgment” between two characters. Such statements focus on the failure of recognition in tragedy, but the correlation to a modern “politics of recognition” is more difficult to locate in the many scenes of successful reunion and reconciliation that conclude Shakespeare’s Romances. Still, tragedy notwithstanding, what does the recognition scene (anagnorisis) have to do with the struggles for recognition through which theorists describe post-apartheid states and acts of social justice? That is, why look for Anerkennung (mutual recognition) in a fictional play? Why does such a seemingly disparate connection between classical poetics and modern moral thought matter at all?

This book fills in the missing pieces to the picture of recognition as Shakespeare attended to it. Indeed, the poetic and moral sides of recognition have much to do with one another. They come together in the narrative and tropological conditions of the very primal scenes around which moral philosophy is often organized. I suggest that Shakespeare presents anagnorisisas a primal site of moral achievement as well as of failure. Characters reunite and face one another in betrayal, distrust, risk, and blindness, while the other reappears as both the obstacle and the path to the restoration of identity and healing. Shakespearean Recognitions addresses the need for a poetic and moral account of recognition by showing, first, that Shakespeare transforms the classical device of anagnorisis(the recognition scene) into a debilitating space of guilt and obligation and, second, that he then presents the resulting moral void of recognition as a surprising revelation of its own, integral to his post-tragic vision.