Research Stream


Peter Holbrook
The University of Queensland

A Literary History of Self-Government

The project explores how the ideal of self-control, or self-government, has been represented in a range of literary texts, from ancient to modern times, but with a particular focus on the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  In these texts, self-control is not just a personal, moral ideal but also a political one—so that, for example, John Milton imagines a godly, republican polity to be one in which “rational liberty” depends upon the control of the passions by reason.     

“A Literary History of Self-Government”

Paulo de Matteis, Hercules at the Crossroads (1712). Wikimedia Commons.

Rational self-government – the control and disciplining of the passions by reason – has been a pervasive ideal of the literary tradition since antiquity, and has political and ethical as well as psychological dimensions.  This project explores the extent to which literary discourse—including tragic drama, epic and lyric poetry, and the novel—is at odds with certain moral, religious, and political understandings of the value of self-control. A key assumption of the project is that, for many writers of the classical and early modern periods, loss of self-control is experienced as a moral blemish—but also, potentially, as an artistic gain.  Some genres (for instance tragedy) seem almost by nature skeptical about the very feasibility of what John Milton called “rational liberty”—that is, the governance of the passions by reason: tragedy so often shows how human beings are simply unable to control their most basic drives.  But, tellingly, in many of these texts it is not simply that a tragic understanding of human life seems to militate against the idea of rational autonomous subjects; rather tragedy (and perhaps other genres, such as lyric poetry) tends to locate experiential value exactly in the loss of self-control.  The project, then, explores the extent to which literary texts of this period both promote and call into question notions of self-government.


“Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Classical Reason”. In Shakespeare and Ethics, ed. John Cox and Patrick Gray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Forthcoming 2014.


“Nietzsche’s Shakespeare”, in Shakespeare and Continental Philosophy. Ed. Jennifer Bates and Richard Wilson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press). Forthcoming 2015.

A book on ideas of freedom in the tragic drama of the English Renaissance. Anticipated publication: 2015.

A chapter on Shakespeare and philosophy for a collection of essays on Shakespeare around the world. Anticipated publication: 2015.