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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: January 2010

8 - “Disowning Knowledge”: Cavell on Shakespeare


The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

By the time Stanley Cavell arrives at his discussion of Othello near the end of The Claim of Reason, the reader is more than amply prepared for an encounter with the exorbitance of Shakespeare's text. And yet nothing that Cavell writes prior to the conclusion of that book suggests in any particular way that an analysis of Shakespeare is in the offing. The Claim of Reason is hardly systematic enough for its itinerary to be predicted; but even more important, it seems to prove that one need not read Shakespeare in order to drive language to its limits: one need only possess an unstinting attention to, and ear for, the weight of what we say. The disclosure of our commitments in what we say, together with an account of what it means to honor or to skirt them, is as important as anything in Cavell's work. It is this project of disclosure and of accounting that led him, in the early essays that comprise the volume Must We Mean What We Say?, to take the language of sight in King Lear as the basis for a breathtakingly broad discussion of the problem of acknowledgment and the avoidance of love in that play. The issues of skepticism, knowledge, and the efforts of human beings to avoid acknowledgment are among the most prominent themes in his Shakespearean essays.

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