Shakespeare's refusers: humanism at the limit

Richard Chamberlain, Andy Mousley (Editor)

Research output: Contribution to Book/ReportChapterpeer-review


Shakespeare’s central position in the canon depends upon the idea that he is, above all, a sharer. ‘Traditional’ humanist and ‘radical’ anti-humanist critics ultimately agree, for very different reasons, in reading the plays as celebrations of unavoidable social participation. In doing so, they fail to register their persistent interest in refusal – the negation of coercive social expectations by an isolated insider. This interest goes beyond the practical considerations of dramatic tension or the need for a comic victim. As the cases of Hamlet, Cordelia, Malvolio, Apemantus, Jaques and others suggest, refusal is an indestructible (because purely negative) residue of resistance: authority – which depends on an ideology of ‘joining in’ – is unnerved by the fact that absolute refusal cannot be cajoled, bribed, threatened or educated out of existence. This essay argues that reading for refusal sharply illuminates the situation of humanism in the present day. Whilst it is, in part, a critical return to ‘character’, it discovers the individual at an agonising limit. Shakespeare’s refusers reject what passes for selfhood in a culture of enforced sociability, whilst knowing that existing society offers no alternative ground upon which to flourish, or even to exist, as a human being
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTowards a New Literary Humanism
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Number of pages244
ISBN (Print)9780230238152
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011


  • Hamlet
  • Measure for Measure


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