Title page for ETD etd-11092004-115656

Document Type Master's Dissertation
Author Van Niekerk, Marthinus Christoffel
URN etd-11092004-115656
Document Title Shakespearian play : deconstructive readings of The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Measure for Measure and Hamlet
Degree MA (English)
Department Languages
Advisor Name Title
Prof J A Wessels
  • Measure for Measure
  • Hamlet
  • The Tempest
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • Shakespeare
  • Derrida
  • deconstruction
  • literary theory
  • postructuralism
Date 2003-10-09
Availability unrestricted
Poststructuralism may be broadly characterized as a move away from traditional Western foundationalist thinking. Such thinking is exemplified by post-enlightenment transcendentalism, humanism and subject-centredness. This study aims to contribute to the poststructuralist decentering of the subject by means of the application of the critical practice of deconstruction – a type of analysis named and popularized by Jacques Derrida, who is himself frequently classified as a poststructuralist, in which the ruling logic of the text is undermined and the meaning of the text is therefore shown not to be fully present within it – to four texts by a writer who is arguably among the most prominent within the English literary canon: William Shakespeare.

The first deconstructive reading centres around the court scene at the climax of the bond story in The Merchant of Venice. Here the apparent contrast between the restrictive law – which views Shylock’s claim of a pound of Antonio’s flesh as valid – and justice and mercy – which regard adherence to this bond as contrary to the spirit of the law – is collapsed, and justice is shown to be capable of being as restrictive as the law, while mercy becomes embroiled in all the trading that occurs in The Merchant of Venice, and demonstrates the capacity to be mercenary.

The Tempest is examined next: the starting point is the apparent Nature/Culture distinction within the play. The reading is influenced by Derrida’s use of the notion of supplementarity in his examination in “… That Dangerous Supplement …” of the Nature/Culture distinction in Rousseau. Particular attention is given first to the wedding masque, where the central figure of Ceres, who is goddess of agriculture and marriage, and also the source of seasonal changes, is shown to problematize any absolute distinctions between Nature and Culture. Such distinctions are further collapsed with reference to Prospero and Miranda’s teaching of language to Caliban, as the latter, who supposedly is representative of natural man, is shown to have had his thought supplemented by language before Prospero’s arrival on the island.

Hamlet is approached with a reading that again draws from Derrida – this time his exploration of Mallarmé’s “Mimique” in “The Double Session”. Plato’s theory of forms also becomes involved as this chapter plays with the distinction between Being and imitation, destabilizing this distinction within Hamlet and problematizing Hamlet’s question: “To be, or not to be”.

And finally, the chapter on Measure for Measure is concerned with the ideas of restraint and freedom, inspecting Lucio’s suggestion that his restraint arises from “too much liberty”, as well as many other instances in the play where restraint, as well as freedom – which seems at times to function in the same way as restraint – seems significant. The reading draws attention to its own impulse to restrain the reader with the truisms it presents by being written in the form of thirty-four aphorisms, and thus alludes to Derrida’s “Aphorism Countertime”.

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