Spring 2020 catalog cover

The Penn Press list for spring 2020 includes hardcover releases, first-time paperbacks, and ebook editions intended for scholars, students, and serious general readers worldwide. Click here to explore our forthcoming books, grouped by subject area.

Poetic Will
Shakespeare and the Play of Language

David Willbern

264 pages | 6 x 9
Ebook 2016 | ISBN 9781512809374 | Buy from De Gruyter $79.95 | €69.95 | £70.50
This book is available under special arrangement from our European publishing partner De Gruyter.
An Anniversary Collection volume

"Poetic Will brings together Willbern's wonderful sensitivity to poetic language, his supple and extensive grasp of psychoanalytic thought, and his deep knowledge of Shakespearean texts. The result is a terrific book that tells one a lot about the plays, a lot about poetic language, and a lot about the possibilities of psychoanalytically informed literary criticism."—Richard P. Wheeler, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"David Willbern is one of our finest psychoanalytic critics of Shakespeare. His rewarding studies are rich in awareness of the play of sexual language and in ideas about the centrality of identity and representation."—David Bevington, University of Chicago

The essence of Shakespeare, observes David Willbern, is in the details. What matters most in our appreciation of Hamlet is not the staged play but the play of language we find in the words of the Bard.

This book explores the expressions of Shakespeare's poetic will—his sexual desire, conscious and unconscious volition, and posthumous legacy—within the linguistic matrix that enfolds his characters and readers. Using a combination of psychoanalytic approaches, Willbern rescues Shakespeare from the limitations and distortions of dramatic performance by showing that his language, scenes, and characters are propelled by the genius of this will and need to be understood primarily as written narrative.

In these provocative essays, Willbern examines the deep analogy between poetic creativity and sexual procreation as he explores the parallels between Shakespearean and Freudian representations of fantasy, thus offering readers a heightened awareness of the sexual and bodily substrate of Shakespeare's language. Engaging current debars between psychological and social approaches, he develops new strategies of reading in a search for the limits of Shakespeare's language and our responses to it. He then applies these strategies to all of Shakespeare's genres via detailed analysis of a comedy (Twelfth Night) a history (Henry IV, Part One) a tragedy (MacBeth) and a poem (Lucrece). Additional essays provide an overview of Shakespeare both as a creative agent and as a body of work. Questions of identity, authenticity, and representation­-especially as posed in Hamlet—are a recurrent concern throughout the book.

Poetic Will frees the play of language in Shakespeare from its illusory anchors in characters and resituates the experience of reading his work within individual response and reconstruction. Offering practical criticism with a bold, American slant, it emphasizes the rich potential of Shakespeare's poetic language while exploring the interpretive and rhetorical limits of psychoanalytic literary criticism.

David Willbern is Emeritus Professor of English at SUNY Buffalo.

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