Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Ken Jackson


Early modern literature abounds in references to beauty. However, in the past few decades, discussions of beauty have been sidelined in part due to the influence of approaches such as cultural materialism and new historicism; as a result, beauty often gets viewed as some kind of ideological mist that distracts us from ethical issues. By taking beauty as seriously as early modern thinkers did, my research underscores the importance of beauty in early modern literary criticism and reassesses the critical relationship between beauty and ethics. My study posits Shakespeare as philosopher of beauty and reinterprets several literary works, thereby challenging traditionally accepted criticism on these works.

This dissertation begins by addressing the centrality of the topic of beauty in humanist discourses and literary works of the early modern period and argues that beauty was a critical way through which early modern culture defined itself. Beauty instigates an inquiry into the nature of being human and the self and its relationship with the other--that, as I have shown, is the matter of ethics. Chapter 2 examines the nature of the experience of beauty and concludes and explains how an encounter with beauty is necessarily ethical and places a call on us to respond. Here, I also introduce the Levinasian-Derridean concept of ethics and Otherness, and discuss beauty in relation to notions selfhood. Chapter 3 explores the dynamics of a response to beauty in various literary works and studies the correlation between Neoplatonism, Protestant grace, and the Levinasian "ethical". I elucidate the potential for ethical violence inherent in responses to beauty and show that these responses to beauty are fraught with difficulties and necessarily involve a consideration of the self's relation to the other. The final chapter continues this examination of the nature of beauty and its connection to selfhood by taking a look at the other or the ostensible opposite of beauty. My analysis of Othello and Omkara returns to the opening chapter in its assertion that for early modern thinkers, beauty is being. I explore the interchangeable nature of beauty and its other, the fluidness of selfhood, and the pursuit of the elusive otherness that beauty instigates. My examination of a contemporary Hindi cinematic adaptation of a Shakespearean play not only illuminates traditional critical concerns of the play anew but also shows how issues relevant to the early modern European world of the play are relevant and pressing in a postcolonial, contemporary world. The subject of beauty and ethics traverses time and space: it is critical and indispensible to a better understanding of our selfhood, our relationships, and the limitations and potential of our knowledge.