Lauding and Loathing in the Works of Shakespeare: Epideictic Skepticism and the Ethics of Praise

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My dissertation argues that Shakespeare transforms Aristotelian epideixis (the rhetorical mode comprising praise and blame) into a skeptical mode by laying bare its embedded ethical and epistemological problems. Shakespeare, that is, uses the evaluative procedures inherent within epideictic poetry to scrutinize its own principles of representation, transforming a poetics of praise into a poetics of appraisal. His innovations in the Petrarchan sonnet form stand at the center of my project, but I also illuminate how Shakespeare's epideictic skepticism underlies his experimentation with tragedy and comedy. In a broader perspective, my project shows how an intimacy between philosophical skepticism and the practice of praise had its roots in the cultural and religious upheavals of the sixteenth century.

   The cornerstone of my project is Shakespeare's young-man sonnets, which provide a unique angle from which to understand the dark-lady poems and some key Shakespearean plays.  I show that while the first sequence (1-126) investigates the epistemology of praise, the second (127-52) describes the dramatic interactions between lovers who have advanced beyond epideictic poetry and its accompanying skepticism.

      Chapter 1, primarily an introduction to my study, considers the religious and cultural background for Shakespeare's epideictic skepticism, reviews classical and Renaissance theories of praise, and closely reads poems by Shakespeare and Petrarch.  Chapter 2 explores the canker as the central symbol of Shakespeare's epideictic skepticism and as a threat to the rose of beauty and praise.  Tracing the poet's struggle with this persistent figure of satire and blame, I contend that the canker is inherent in the practice of praise.  My third chapter maps my interpretation of the canker and the rose onto a new reading of <italic>Hamlet</italic>.  I argue that the young-man sonnets provide a paradigm for understanding Hamlet's relationship with his two fathers, his misogyny and verbal abuse, and the tragic path to which he finally commits himself.  Chapter 4 offers a comic resolution to the rhetorical problems emphasized in the previous three chapters.  Here, finally, I turn to the sonnets devoted to the notoriously rebellious dark mistress, exploring their relationship to Shakespearean comedy generally and to <italic>The Taming of the Shrew</italic> particularly.