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  You are in: Home > Literary Criticism > On Reading the Will  

On Reading the Will
Law and Desire in Literature and Music

Jeremy Tambling

Jeremy Tambling is Professor of Literature at the University of Manchester. His most recent books are Allegory (Routledge 2009) and On Anachronism (Manchester University Press 2010).


On Reading the Will studies the will, will-power and wilfulness, the will to death or the will to power, as well as lack of will. It surveys many texts – from Augustine, Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence – in order to analyse the history of its different meanings: whether these imply rational or irrational drives, or the sexual appetite, or the testamentary will. This last is a particularly interesting form of the will, in that it asserts the desire to control, and to have an identity beyond death.

Drawing on philosophies of the will in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the book studies music as the embodied will in Wagner and Verdi. Considering the law and its prohibitions as a form of the will, it sees how these produce a perverse will. Drawing on Freud and Lacan it studies interrelationships between the law which prohibits and the desire which wills, how desire creates the law, and the law desire. What stands out is that the authors studied are fascinated by the will as unknowable and irresistible, as rational and countermanding rationality, as divided and imperious. Chapters include how wills motivate plots in Shakespeare and the Victorian novel. Discussion of opera and Nietzsche focuses on the will as an unconscious force.

With sustained discussion of texts, and supporting arguments through a range of key thinkers in cultural theory, this book is indispensable for readers of literature, law, music and philosophy.

Preface and Acknowledgements

Introduction: Reading the will
I Definitions
II Schopenhauer
III St Paul with Lacan
IV On reading the will

Part 1: The Will and Identity
Chapter 1 The Will: Three Instances
I Augustine
II ‘Fiat Voluntas dei’: Piers Plowman
III Troilus and Cressida

Chapter 2 ‘I’ll be Revenged on the Whole Pack of You’: Shakespeare and Marston
I The Daughter’s Discontent
II ‘What you will’
II Malvolio/ Malevole
IV ‘Motiveless Malignity’

Chapter 3 Law and Will in Measure for Measure

Chapter 4 The ‘Craft of Will’ in Shakespeare’s Poetry
I Masculine wills
II ‘A Lover’s Complaint’
III The Woman’s will

Part 2: The Posthumous Life of the Will
Chapter 5 Dickens and Trollope
I Trollope and the lawyers
II Dickens: the failure of will
III Little Dorrit
IV Responsibility

Chapter 6 George Eliot and the ‘Murderous Will’
I The Mill on the Floss
II To Felix Holt
III Middlemarch
IV Daniel Deronda

Part 3: The Will to Truth

Chapter 7 Schopenhauer, Music and Freud
I Tristan und Isolde
II The Force of Destiny

Chapter 8 Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’
I Prelude
II The Will to Power
III On Punishment
IV Revenge
V Heidegger
VI Eternal Return
VII Mahler

Chapter 9: Conclusion: Foucault and vouloir-savoir


“Jeremy Tambling’s punning title refers to the will both as affect and as testament (a combination possible only in English since most other languages make a sharp distinction between voluntas and testimonium (e.g. German ‘Wille’ and ‘Testament’)). Following initial definitions of these terms, the introduction surveys an assortment of philosophical positions, beginning with Schopenhauer, who in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung ‘made the will determinative of being and consciousness’ (p. 6), and then leaping back to St Paul, who by liberating Christians from the Law of Moses bound them to the much knottier judgement of conscience and will. Lacan’s commentary on St Paul leads forward to that thinker’s comparison of ‘the emptiness of Kant’s formal law’ (p. 20) and De Sade’s identification of law with desire. Accepting Lacan’s view that ‘no unitary value can be ascribed to “the will”’ (p. 27), Tambling announces his intention to treat the will as ‘a perverse desire’, to be illuminated through various textual examples.” Modern Language Review


Publication Details

Hardback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
292 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
March 2012
  Illustrated:   No
Hardback Price:
£50.00 / $69.95

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