Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy Course: Introduction to the Philosophy of Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s plays still speak directly to us because of the depth of his human understanding and his insights into the human condition. In this course we will take the themes of Love; Power; Revenge; Ambition; Evil; Nobility; Truth; and Tragedy, through an analysis of his major characters and themes. We will also look at Shakespeare in the context of his time. Shakespeare’s plays reflect the ferment of post Reformation philosophy and politics. He was familiar with the philosophy of Michel De Montaigne on skepticism and Machiavelli’s political pragmatism. His plays reflect the changing ideas on human nature and the rise of science which are played out in the complex psychology of his characters and their social and political situations. We will range across the comedies, tragedies and history plays; from the high drama of Macbeth, Coriolanus and Lear to the wise playfulness of As You Like it and Much Ado about Nothing.


This philosophy course will consist of the following topics:

Introduction to Shakespeare’s Philosophy.

We will begin with an overview of philosophical ideas in a selection of his plays.

Philosophy in the Elizabethan Era.

We will look at the influence of Renaissance Humanism on Shakespeare’s ideas. We will pay particularly attention to the philosophy of Michel De Montaigne. Montaigne was perhaps the most widely read of the philosophers of the period. He recovered the Greek philosophies of Skepticism, Epicureanism and Stoicism and attempts to make them relevant for his own period. Montaigne makes a unique contribution to the philosophy of ‘Nature’ and the role of both reason and emotion in the human animal. We will consider some extracts from his Essays.

Humanism & the Nobility of the Human Spirit.

None of Shakespeare’s characters are ‘romantically’ noble in the simplistic sense of the hero tradition, but many of his even most flawed characters, such as Falstaff have their noble moments. We might say for example that Lear is about a man who must become ‘humanistically’ noble, by divesting himself of his false kingly nobility.

Shakespeare & Machiavelli.

The idea of the evil Italianate Machiavelli appears in a number of Shakespeare’s plays; however political pragmatism has a much more extensive influence then these explicit references. We will look at Machiavelli’s political pragmatism and its role in Shakespeare’s ideas.

Shakespeare on Power and Revenge.

There is no lack of ‘Machiavellian’ characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth and Richard 111 are two of Shakespeare’s most complex characters. But what do we think of their actions: are we seduced or repelled by them, or perhaps both at the same time. What is Shakespeare’s philosophy of power in these plays?

Shakespeare on Truth.

A theme throughout Shakespeare’s plays is the problem of truth: How do we know what we know. Of particularly interest here is the skepticism which Shakespeare presents in such lines as: 'What’s aught, but as 'tis valew’d'. We will range across the comedies and the tragedies on this issue.

Shakespeare on Love and Lust.

Love and lust are two of our favorite subjects and Shakespeare’s plays make a feast of them. But can we bring out a consistent set of ideas and values from his many treatments of these topics. We will ask: What do Shakespeare’s plays tell us about the role of love and sex in our lives, and how different are the ideas of his age to our own. The Taming of the Shrew has become somewhat problematic where as Romeo and Juliet still seems to work for us.

Shakespeare and the Idea of Nature.

The word ‘Nature’ is one of the most used words in Shakespeare’s plays. But what does he mean by ‘nature’, and how does it relate to the ideas of the times. What for example lies behind Hamlet’s rejection of ‘nature’ in the play Hamlet?

Shakespeare and Consciousness:

The idea that humans are defined by their individual consciousness is important to both the humanist philosophy of the age and is also central to Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. We will consider the ‘psychological’ plays in some detail.

Shakespeare and Religion.

“To be or not to be” is a question which Hamlet asks himself mindful that Christianity forbids suicide. He concludes that ‘conscience does make cowards of us all’. What does this tell us about Hamlet’s attitude towards religion? And what are we to make of his many references to the supernatural in plays such as Macbeth and The Tempest.

Intended Audience

This philosophy course is suitable for personal interest learners: school, university students, adult and active retirees. Although not essential, this course is suitable for those who have completed Introduction to Philosophy Course I.

Delivery Style

This philosophy course will be delivered as an interactive workshop where active participant participation is encouraged.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Small class sizes
  • Free, expert advice
  • Student materials – yours to keep
  • Statement of completion

What others say.

  • This presenter has a special way of involving all students in the class, those who are knowledgeable and those with little education. Students leave at the end of each term with a richer appreciation of all that education and life has to offer.