Carnegie Mellon University

Cartesian Theaters, Shakespearean Minds: Interpreting the Literature of Being and Seeming

Author: David Nathan Pensky

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary & Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2021

René Descartes and William Shakespeare are two of the most important thinkers of the early modern period, yet scholars have tended to draw sharp distinctions between their theories of subjectivity. Descartes, it is said, argues for autonomous mind, cut off from the material world while Shakespeare stages the inward lives of his characters as emergent from the material cultures of early modern London. Cartesian Theaters, Shakespearean Minds challenges this commonplace dichotomy. I argue that both Descartes and Shakespeare, as well as several of the latter's contemporaries, draw from overlapping philosophical histories, and that early modern drama’s mind-body problem anticipates the Cartesian tradition, and continues beyond into current-day philosophical discussions. The dissertation uses philosophy of mind as a lens to apply close reading to early modern drama, concluding that subjectivity of the period should not be understood apart from the philosophical tradition that prepares the way for Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy.