Hermione's Sophism: Ordinariness and Theatricality in The Winter's Tale

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This essay probes a Wittgensteinian understanding of human conversation within a close reading of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Relating Stanley Cavell’s well-known interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays as engagements with skepticism to Rush Rhees’s work on the possibility of discourse, I argue that Cavellian acknowledgement and Rheesian ‘unity’ (of discourse with life) may fruitfully be read together as two complimentary conditions for genuine conversation, and therefore genuine human understanding. Reiterating Cavell’s reading of Leontes as repudiating the first of these criteria, I then argue that Hermione, far from being merely a passive victim of his madness, is an active contributor to the disintegration of their relationship by repudiating the second criterion in favor of a ‘sophistic’ use of language as mere play. With this interpretive framework in place, I analyze how The Winter’s Tale not merely illuminates but also complicates Cavell’s and Rhees’s criteria through a constant engagement with its own theatricality. Rather than merely exposing the threat of ‘theatricalization’ or sophism (as Cavell or Rhees might wish), the play also insists that all relationships have theatrical aspects that must be worked through rather than repudiated.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)A83-A105
JournalPhilosophy and Literature
Issue number1A
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2015


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