Counterfactual Thinking and Shakespearean Tragedy: Imagining Alternatives in the Plays

Title: Counterfactual Thinking and Shakespearean Tragedy: Imagining Alternatives in the Plays
Authors: Khan, Amir
Date: 2013
Abstract: This dissertation is the application of counterfactual criticism to Shakespearean tragedy—supposing we are to ask, for example, “what if” Hamlet had done the deed, or, “what if” we could somehow disinherit our knowledge of Lear’s madness before reading King Lear. Such readings, mirroring critical practices in history, will loosely be called “counterfactual” readings. The key question to ask is not why tragedies are no longer being written (by writers), but why tragedies are no longer being felt (by readers). Tragedy entails a certain urgency in wanting to imagine an outcome different from the one we are given. Since we cannot change events as they stand, we feel a critical helplessness in dealing with feelings of tragic loss; the critical imperative that follows usually accounts for how the tragedy unfolded. Fleshing out a cause is one way to deal with the trauma of tragedy. But such explanation, in a sense, merely explains tragedy away. The fact that everything turns out so poorly in tragedy suggests that the tragic protagonist was somehow doomed, that he (in the case of Shakespearean tragedy) was the victim of some “tragic flaw,” as though tragedy and necessity go hand in hand. Only by allowing ourselves to imagine other possibilities can we regain the tragic effect, which is to remind ourselves that other outcomes are indeed possible. Tragedy, then, is more readily understood, or felt, as the playing out of contingency. It takes some effort to convince others, even ourselves, that the tragic effect resonates best when accompanied by an understanding that the characters on the page are free individuals. No amount of foreknowledge, on our part or theirs, can save us (or them) from tragedy’s horror.
CollectionThèses, 2011 - // Theses, 2011 -
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