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Studies in Shakespeare

On Scholarship and Literary Interpretation: An Introductory Note

[The following text, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), is designed for students in English 366: Studies in Shakespeare. This document is in the public domain, and may be used, in whole or in part, without charge and without permission (re-released in May 2000).  The text was last revised very slightly on August 12, 2001. For other lectures in this series, please click here.]


In any study of literature, but especially in the study of Shakespeare's work (for reasons which will become apparent), we need carefully to distinguish between two different approaches to the text, literary scholarship and literary interpretation. While these activities may often overlap, they have different methods and purposes, and a student who forgets about these distinctions may easily get confused about what we are doing.

The following pages have been prepared in order to acquaint students with the basic approach to Shakespeare which we will take in English 366. However, students should be aware (if they are not already) that most of these questions are very disputed among literary interpreters and scholars. There is by no means a firm agreement on the appropriate balance between the various activities associated with coming to grips with works from the past. Hence, the following remarks (which inevitably simplify many complex issues) need to be treated with some caution. They are not meant to present the last word on the subject but to clarify some working assumptions of this course.

Literary Scholarship

The central driving purpose of literary scholarship is to establish as comprehensively as possible the facts surrounding the production and reception and influence of the text. This task requires the empirical study of a complex and wide-ranging series of questions involving the author, the historical period in which the work was produced, the variations in the text, the literary tradition which the author inherited, the verifiable responses to the work, and so on. The literary scholar's major task is, in some sense, to reconstruct the historical milieu out of which the work emerged and to follow the history of the text once it has been produced.

Literary scholarship is a highly specialized and difficult task, for which, in almost all cases, extensive research training is required, since it involves detailed investigation of often erratic and fragmentary historical records, imaginative reconstruction of particular events, painstaking attention to often very mundane details (like legal records or textual variants), and so on. Normally, literary scholarship requires the investigator to select a very specific area of concern and to focus exclusively upon that (e.g., the biography of William Shakespeare, the conditions of the stage in Elizabethan England, the particular state of the English language in Shakespeare's day, Elizabethan family law, and so on). The activity is, in many ways, rather like an archeological excavation project: painstaking, arduous, fragmentary, often frustrating, never complete, and always empirical (i.e., overwhelmingly concerned with the verifiable facts revealed in the historical record).

The major responsibility of literary scholarship (at least in the case of Shakespeare) is to provide as accurate a text of the works as is humanly possible, together with some tools for understanding the language of that text. Where a firm consensus on these matters is not possible (and there is much dispute about them with many of Shakespeare's works), then literary scholarship helps to sift the evidence and to establish a range of possibilities (e.g., textual variants, different ranges of meanings for particular words, possible clarification of certain obscurities, and so on).

What literary scholarship is not primarily concerned with is the value or meaning or interpretation of the text which its labours produce. This is a key point. In literary scholarship, as in an archeological excavation, every verifiable fact is, in a sense, equally important as a piece of the historical puzzle, a contribution toward a reconstruction project. Whether each piece is worth preserving (as something beautiful or insightful) or whether the site of the dig is itself beautiful is beside the point. If it's a part of the historical record, it matters. Some artifacts are, of course, more important than others, but the importance tends to derive from the historical weight they carry (i.e., how much they contribute to the historical reconstruction of the facts).

Literary Interpretation

Literary interpretation, by contrast, concerns itself with meaning and value, rather than with historical origins. Working directly with the text created by the best scholarship, the literary interpreter explores patterns of meaning, interpretative possibilities, so as to offer some insight into what the literary work might communicate to a modern audience. This exploration might very well involve (in fact, frequently does involve) making value judgments about the text, comparing it with and ranking it against other similar works. Comparisons of this sort are among the most important tools of the interpreter of literature.

The purpose of literary interpretation is fundamentally different from the purpose of literary scholarship. The aim of literary interpretation is to explore (that metaphor is essential) possible ways of reading (and evaluating) the text. Since literary fictions are inherently ambiguous, there is no final closure on any particular text, no single determinate meaning towards which literary interpretation is moving. There are, however, interpretations which are more or less persuasive than others, and an important part of literary interpretation is to weigh one interpretative possibility against another. Sophisticated literary interpretation often requires the ability to entertain simultaneously a range of different interpretative possibilities (this is particularly the case in dealing with Shakespearean drama).

The key quality required for literary interpretation is the ability to read intelligently and to communicate one's responses well. These capabilities are often independent of any special training (although they do seem to require some practice), and thus excellent literary criticism can come from almost any quarter. It is certainly not the case that an instructor with a rigorously specialized education as a literary scholar will necessarily be a better interpreter than a student who comes to the text for the first time. In fact, in some instances, it may be the case that someone without any formal training in graduate English courses is a far better interpreter of a particular literary text than the most qualified scholar (whose scholarship may get in the way of useful interpretation). In that sense, literary interpretation, unlike literary scholarship, is a radically egalitarian activity. What makes one person better at it than another often has much more to do with sensitivity to language and practice than with any specialized training in English scholarship.  One of the clearest pieces of evidence for this point is the fact that teachers of Shakespeare so often learn interesting and useful things about the plays from their students; whereas, few, if any, undergraduates will ever offer some new historical information about the plays.

Does this mean that the literary interpreter need pay no attention to literary scholarship? The answer to that is both negative and affirmative. Scholarship gives the interpreter the text itself, and any worthwhile literary interpretation must respect that text, the words on the page. In that sense, literary interpretation starts where a major effort of scholarship ends. Also, literary scholarship provides the interpreter's most indispensable tool, the one absolutely essential aid which no literary interpreter can do without, the Oxford English Dictionary. Since this lexicon defines words historically, it is a necessary guide to the meanings of words, especially with texts written in a language significantly different from our own (in most editions of Shakespeare the work of this lexicon is carried out by explanatory footnotes).

On the other hand, the special historical insights which literary scholarship provides into the context of the work and the life of the author carry no special privilege, and the literary interpreter has no particular need to defer to them. It may well be that such historical connections between the language of the text and the events in the life of the author or his culture are interesting and relevant; it may be equally the case that they are not or that there are more plausible interpretative possibilities. Even if it were possible (which it is not) totally to reconstruct all the historical facts and biographical details, we have no justification for seeing a text as merely the product of this or that collection of circumstances. In any case, our interest in Shakespeare derives from the fact, not that he is a great Elizabethan dramatic poet (although he is), but that his work transcends the age in which it was written and has something to say to us in twentieth-first century Nanaimo.

That means that literary interpretation needs to respect the best results of scholarship (the text and the lexicon) but has freedom to make imaginative explorations for a modern audience. The interpretation should not violate historical facts which bear directly on the language of the text, but it need not be confined to the verifiable historical facts. If the literary scholar is, in a sense, trying to take us back into Shakespeare's age and give us the work in its historical context, the literary interpreter is trying to bring the work from its Elizabethan context into the present age.

This sense of a tug of war between the historical scholar trying to take us back to the past context of the work and the literary interpreter trying to bring the work into our age is an important image, central to understanding many of debates which go on between rival camps of academic scholars and interpreters. In English 366, we shall place our energies at the literary interpreter's end of the rope.

Here is a common example. Modern interpretations of The Tempest have frequently seen in that play an exploration of certain issues arising out of the oppression of the third world by colonial powers. Many of these interpretations pay no attention whatsoever to the historical question of how Shakespeare might have been at all acquainted with such issues. The interpretation of the play, in other words, simply ignores the context in which they were written. Such an approach seriously irritates some scholars, who point out that Shakespeare could not possibly have known about such things as banana republics under the oppressive heel of the United Fruit Company.

Such objections are, for our purposes, illegitimate, so long as the interpretative freedom employed by such approaches does not violate the language of the text (for instance, by making Miranda a man or reassigning speeches or inserting new scenes). Certainly, it's true that Shakespeare knew nothing of the specific details of twentieth-century politics in, say, Colombia, but his play is capable of expressing artistically certain human experiences, insights, tensions, and conflicts common to his age and modern times. If the plays were not able to make contact with such issues, there would be very little reason to read them other than as an exercise in antiquarianism.

Obviously there is a tension here between the limits of historical fact and the freedom of the modern interpretative imagination. And we have no clear rule to apply a priori to every case (especially when we are dealing with works which are most fully realized in production). My view is that such tension can be a very creative one, fostering an ongoing argument between the limits set by historical scholarship and the desire to expand those limits as expressed in modern interpretations. The best test is surely a pragmatic one: does the interpretative approach respect the text and, at the same time, enrich our understanding of it? If so, then it is worth placing on the table, rather than being arbitrarily dismissed because it may appear to violate someone's sense of Shakespeare's life and times.

This point commonly manifests itself in the continuing arguments over the various ways in which Shakespeare's plays are given all sorts of production styles: sometimes in Elizabethan costumes, sometimes in modern dress, sometimes in a particular historical period (suiting the historical period of the action or not), sometimes in an ahistorical mixture of styles. It is surely rather silly to try to establish a rule about such things, other than the common-sense principle that the style is appropriate and justified if it enriches our understanding of the production and the text. There is thus no "correct" style of producing Shakespeare, and the fact that in Shakespeare's days, the productions used Elizabethan fashions in the clothing has no special privilege.   We justify a particular style, experimental or traditional, by its effects. Thus, while people tend to have preferences in these matters, it is surely wrong to dismiss a particular production simply because it does not adhere to a particular style which someone has determined is "correct."

The Genetic Fallacy

What has all this to do with English 366? Well, the first important point is that these distinctions call attention to the danger of confusing literary scholarship (the factual inquiry into historical origins) with literary interpretation (the evaluative inquiry into meaning). By way of clarifying this point, one can refer to what has been named the Genetic Fallacy. This is the process by which someone attempts to interpret a text exclusively by linking it to the facts of its production, whether these facts lie in the biography of the author or in the historical details of his age. In other words, the Genetic Fallacy arises when we try to insist that the value or the meaning of a work can only be understood with direct and repeated reference to historical or biographical facts of its production, to the processes which produced it.

For example, someone may try to persuade you that the meaning of Hamlet can be approached only through a knowledge of Shakespeare's life or through a historical knowledge of Elizabethan theatre or through a knowledge of Renaissance ideas or through some other factual maze. Hence, if we have not thoroughly prepared ourselves for interpreting Hamlet by acquiring a comprehensive command of such factual details we are ill equipped to offer a literary judgment about the meaning, interpretation, or quality of Hamlet, and we must defer our interpretative judgment to those who do have such expert knowledge.

This argument is fallacious because it confuses the origin of something with its nature and value. Describing the facts of how something came to be produced tells us nothing definite about what the work means or about its value. Such description may provide some interesting possibilities for us to consider (and therefore we do not rule it out automatically), but these are not especially privileged just because they are facts at the time. Here is a common example, familiar to most students. Imagine a student who has worked very hard on an essay, reading a lot of books and rewriting the argument many times. When she receives it back from the instructor, she is dismayed to find that it has received a very poor mark. A friend of hers, by contrast, dashed his essay off at the last minute and received an A. She complains to the instructor: "I worked really hard on that essay, and Joe Blow, who got an A, just dashed his off. That is not fair. I deserve a higher mark." The argument is understandable but invalid, for there is no necessary connection between how that student set about writing the essay and its quality. It may be the case that spending more time generally produces better quality, but there is no necessary connection between them. The quality of the essay arises from what is actually on the page, not from how it got there.

A second reason why explicating texts by discussions of their historical origins is very questionable (if not spurious) is that we can never know enough about the factual context of a work to be sure of the easy connections we might want to make. It may sound plausible to argue that Shakespeare's attitude to, say, women (even if we can agree on what that attitude is) is the product of his family background, work, or some other cultural-historical milieu which we can document. But there might be all sorts of other reasons at work, too, things about which we know nothing at all. If we accept the fact that Shakespeare was an extraordinary creative genius, it seems rather odd to measure his work by the commonplace ideas of his time. Besides, the link is irrelevant if we already have enough in the text itself to convey a sense of the author's attitude to women. By the same token, it may be true that Shakespeare's sonnet sequence is based upon real biographical experience, but the situation might have just as easily been made up. And pointing out possible biographical links (however fascinating that puzzle may be) does not tell us anything more we need to know in order to discuss and evaluate the poems. And this point would be true even if someone produced irrefutable documentary evidence for a firm biographical basis for some of the sonnets (say, by revealing the identity of the Dark Lady and her relationship with Shakespeare).  Such activities, intriguing though they often are, are generally irrelevant to literary criticism (although, as mentioned above, they may produce some useful interpretative possibilities).

The Genetic Fallacy is an important principle to remember, so as to avoid the common temptation of trying to explain something merely with reference to some historical detail. Our interpretation of a text and our evaluation of it should always be based upon what is contained in the text itself; whatever potential interpretative meaning we wish to present must arise out of what is in the work, not out of some constant reference to factual details outside the work. And we should be very wary of critics who try to persuade us that we cannot understand something unless we know a great deal of historical or biographical background (this assertion often sounds like the defense of the university academic trying to claim that understanding the work is only for the privileged few who have been through the same scholarly training as he has). Such historical explanations may often help us evade interpretative difficulties. We can, for example, deal with the witches in Macbeth with appeals to Elizabethan beliefs or the interest of James I in the subject. But if that is all we do by way of dealing with the witches, it is an evasion of our responsibilities, which are to make sense of those witches for a modern imagination.

Let me restate an important point. Discussions of the historical facts may provide important interpretative suggestions. For example, the knowledge that Shakespeare's father and son died in the years immediately before the composition of Hamlet may alert us more to the importance of some of the family dynamics in the play. But those facts are not prescriptive; they take their place along with all other interpretative suggestions for us to evaluate against the only facts which matter in literary criticism: the words on the page. It is also the case that many literary historians and biographers are also good literary critics: they have interesting and fertile suggestions to make about the work. But the value of such suggestions is not necessarily linked to their command of historical facts; it just may happen that they also have rich perceptions.

At any rate, we need to bear the Genetic Fallacy in mind if we are tempted to engage in a lot of secondary reading by way of preparing for a discussion of literary criticism, especially in an essay, for we may be easily seduced into thinking something really important about the interpretation of a work is being said when all we are reading is a survey of some historical facts. No work of literature worth reading (least of all Shakespeare's work) can be reduced to or explained away in terms of the facts of its production. So if we find ourselves reading something which is shifting our attention away from what is going on in the text onto something outside, something in the context of the age in which the work was written, then we need to beware. We are being led down the primrose path away from what really matters to what is another activity entirely.

Students should bear these points in mind in writing essays. Those assignments require literary criticism, not historical summaries. So do not attempt to explicate things with reference to historical or biographical facts (e.g., with statements like, for example, "Hamlet's difficulties stem from the complex world of Renaissance politics with which Shakespeare was quite familiar," or "This part of King Lear clearly refers to the political debates surrounding seventeenth century Protestantism," or "The witches in Macbeth are obviously designed to appeal to the keen interest of the Jacobean audience in the supernatural," and so on). Such statements may be historically accurate enough (perhaps), but they do not address the central purpose of the assignment: a literary interpretation of the work in question which addresses the needs of the modern reader, which appropriates the text for us now.  Students should particularly avoid any interpretative suggestions which involve thin, sweeping generalizations about Shakespeare's audience--such explanations are usually (almost invariably) empty (i.e., without any interpretative value) and rest on very dubious assumptions (e.g., "Shakespeare's audience all believed in ghosts and would have no trouble seeing King Hamlet as a noble injured victim").

The issues in this section should also alert us to what we have to do if we find literary criticism difficult (as many students do). The only way to improve our skills as literary critics is to engage in the activity of measuring our interpretative and evaluative skills against those of others in a conversation (or a conversational reading). No amount of research into historical matters will provide an adequate substitute for that, just as learning a great deal about the history of tennis and the statistics of various players will be no substitute for practice on the court, if our desire is to learn to play the game better. We cannot take refuge in literary scholarship simply because we find it difficult to engage in conversations about literary criticism.

Various Ideological Fallacies

For the same reason, some writers may try to persuade us that the literary fiction cannot be understood except in terms of some ideological framework. So, for example, the essence of King Lear is a debate between Hooker and Hobbes (Danby), Hamlet is a clear exposition of the Oedipus Complex (Jones), The Tempest is an allegory of colonialism (various modernists), and so on. Here again, it is important to remember the principle that a commentary which directs us away from the work into some other work or works is instantly suspect. Works of literature worth reading are unique; they are not simply examples of intellectual debates or illustrations of intellectual positions better articulated elsewhere. It may well be the case (in fact, often is the case) that a writer will usefully draw upon an intellectual or ideological framework: but the job of the work of literature is to make that intellectual framework come alive in a uniquely moving manner (and often to subvert it), and the task of the literary critic is to explore with others how that comes about within the context of the work itself.

Ideological critics can, of course, like anyone else, provide important and fertile suggestions, to the extent that they have good literary perceptions. So, for example, the first part of Jones' book on Hamlet is excellent interpretation--it looks closely and exclusively at the text and calls attention to many things going on there which one might too easily overlook. But when he then turns to argue that this "proves" that Shakespeare is theoretically consistent with Freud's Oedipus Complex, he is taking us away from the text, and we end up learning a great deal more about Freudian psychology than about Hamlet.

All these remarks are especially true in the face of all those who would try to argue that theories of criticism are a first prerequisite of literary criticism, that we need to argue (endlessly) first about various forms of literary criticisms and literary theories. If we apply the test I have been suggesting, that is, to set aside works which do not direct us back into the text in which we are interested but lead us further and further away from them, then we will treat all such arguments about literary and critical theory, interesting as they may be for various reasons, as they deserve. We will leave them behind when we move into our activity as literary critics and interpreters.

In many cases, where an interpreter is bringing to bear an ideological framework, like, say, a particular version of feminism, the issue is one of emphasis. Where the ideological framework serves to enrich our understanding of the work it may well have very useful things to reveal to us; where such an approach tends to make the work merely an illustration of the theory, it may be ironing out important discrepancies in the text or significantly reducing the work's complexity or simply dressing up the obvious with a rich (and often bewildering) detour into more or less relevant scholarly references.

The Intentional Fallacy

Then, there is the major scholarly fallacy of the author's intentions. The argument is often made that what the author has to say about his own work, especially about his artistic intentions, is a uniquely privileged insight into it and should thus be binding upon us in some way. That must be our primary entry into a literary work and a curb upon all interpretative departures in certain directions. This is a major fallacy for a number of reasons.

In the first place, for many writers we have no knowledge of what their intentions were. Biographical details may be entirely absent (as in, say, Homer), scanty (e.g., Chaucer), or factually detailed but artistically uninformative (e.g., Shakespeare). If authorial intention is the key to literary criticism, then there are a lot of works where we simply could not get started.

But the much more important point is that, even where we do have very clear statements from authors about what their intentions were in creating a certain work and about how we should read it, we need to remember that authors are often very bad critics of their own work. They reveal all too clearly that they have created something which they do not understand themselves particularly well (or, what is perhaps more likely, they have an understanding which they cannot communicate) and even have created something different from, perhaps even quite contrary to, what they had originally intended.

A particularly famous example of this issue is Milton's Paradise Lost. What Milton consciously intended to do seems clear from the opening of the poem and other places where the narrator explicitly addresses the reader. But there is a fierce argument over whether what Milton intended is the same as what he produced. There is even a school of interpretation which claims, on the basis of the text itself, that the final result is directly opposite to what Milton consciously intended. Another famous example is Richardson's novel Clarissa, where the imagination of the writer seems to have produced something quite at odds with his conscious intentions (as he reveals in footnotes he added to later editions of the novel, comments designed to tell the reader how to interpret particular scenes).

We need to remember that writers, like everyone else, have both will and imagination. A writer may start off by willing a certain work of literature with a very conscious intention (taking, for example, a few characters and putting them in a particular place, and setting up a story with a clear moral lesson in mind), and he or she will almost certainly will that the work is successful. But the creative process also involves the imagination, and when that takes over the construction of a fiction, it may lead in directions the author had never consciously intended. The real mark of the greatest artists is that they intuitively respond to a powerful imagination and understand the quality of what they have created (so that they leave it alone), even if it that turns out to present something not consciously willed or even wanted. We will be exploring this possibility in some detail when we look at Richard III.

A writer who has only his will to offer, who writes always with a conscious intentionality guiding the words, is a rhetorician, a conscious manipulator of language. Such a writer may well produce interesting, amusing, sophisticated work, but it is unlikely that he or she will produce works of the highest artistic quality, works which are truly imaginatively moving, which require some form of inspiration or imaginative excitement. As Yeats remarked, rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination. And when a writer is commenting on his own work, he may be indicating what he wants the work to do, but he may not have a very good understanding of his own imaginative creation. As an artist he may surpass us all; as a literary critic of his own work, he stands as an equal (but not an especially privileged) member of the conversation. That may be the reason why so many important artists resolutely refuse to comment in any detail on their own work (e.g., T. S. Eliot).

Hence, we should treat the writer's comments about his own work in the same way we treat the information from the literary biographer or historian, as a possible source of useful suggestions, but with no special privileges. We test their suggestions and proposals as we do those of anyone else, against our conversational sense of the work as that manifests itself by what appears on the page.

There is, however, one common and useful way to talk of an author's intentions, and that is when we wish to refer to the sense we get of the overall thrust of the text (or a part of it), as that sense emerges from the text. If, for example, we say something like "Shakespeare clearly intends us to see that Richard's rise to power depends upon the weaknesses of others," this statement means that this is the sense we derive from reading the play. It is not the case that we are appealing to some document outside the play which makes such intentions clear.

The Affective Fallacy

Finally, there is the common claim that matters of literary judgment and interpretation are entirely relative, that people are entitled to make their own interpretations and judgments based on their own feelings, all of which are equally valid, provided only that they are sincerely felt. Hence, the claim that some interpretations are better than others or that some works are more valuable than others is spurious. It's all just a matter of personal taste.

For reasons which will be evident later, the claim that all interpretations are equally valid is nonsense. Obviously, there is room of a good deal of variety, and it is true that there is no such thing as a final authority which rules precisely on these matters. But to claim that what anyone wants to say about a work of literature is just as valid as anything else is a foolish product of shallow modern relativism.

Beyond that, it is clear that some works are better than others, better in the sense that they are more intelligent explorations, more honest to the ambiguities of life, more universal in their human appeal, more fertile in what they reveal about important matters, and so on. Again, we cannot register such a judgment with mathematical precision, and we can certainly disagree about some of the details. But any claim that, say, one is not entitled to an evaluative claim that the Terminator movies have less artistic merit than the best Shakespearean tragedies or that there is no rational way to ground a judgment that the latter are superior to the former is stupid.

The final test of the quality of a work is, once again, practical. Do future generations find it useful, inspiring, worth preserving? Does the work promote the literary conversations of future generations, long after the age in which it was produced has passed? What have other cultures made of the work? When the literary interpreter is faced with evaluating something produced in her own age and culture, such questions are impossible to answer, and the best effort can offer only an educated guess. But when we are faced with something which has clearly transcended the limits of its own time and culture, we can be reasonably sure that it contains something which speaks eloquently to some important element in human life. That does not mean that we should automatically worship the literature our ancestors hand down, for its transmission might have more to do with certain cultural values enshrined in the work than with its literary merit. But, by the same token, we should not reject something just because it is old. Works which have lasted have a special call on our attention, but they still require our imaginative evaluation.

Literary Interpretation: Some Conversational Principles

What then is literary criticism exactly? Is there some precise method we need to observe? As mentioned above, literary criticism is best thought of as by and large an anarchic, egalitarian, conversational activity, and those who would seek to persuade us that we need to know a great deal of extraneous information other than the specific text of the work are wrong. We judge the value of literary criticism by its practical results, rather than by its adherence to some carefully worked out theoretical principles. And that practical purpose has to do with enriching our imaginative understanding of the text in question (as readers experience such enrichment). What serves that purpose is effective literary interpretation; what does not so enrich our relationship with the text or what leads us away from the text into other quarters is not serving that practical purpose.

These general claims do not mean, however, that we do not have recommended ways of proceeding. These are less rules of criticism than principles to guide the conversation.

First, the discussion must start and stay with the specific details of the text. Literary interpretation of any value emerges from the interrelationship between the perceiving imaginations of the interpreters and the hard (although always ambiguous) facts of the text. To explore one's reaction to a work or to ground an interpretation of what something in it might mean in a way that has some practical value, one must offer inductive evidence from the work itself. Hence, subjective digressions into one's own memories, experiences, and so on, into territory beyond the text where no one else can follow, are not very helpful. Obvious misreadings of the text (i.e., factual errors) disqualify an interpretation (e.g., the claim, say, that Ophelia is really a man in disguise or that Polonius is not really her father or that Lear is really a young man). By the same token, speculations about things which the text does not tell us are suspect if they are asked to bear a major interpretative weight (e.g., Hamlet's childhood).

Second, literary interpretation is a rational social activity in which opinions and interpretations are shared. The literary interpreter is offering an insight into the work, seeking to persuade her listeners that this view has some value for an understanding of what is going on. As a form of argument, interpretation requires attention to some basic rules of reason (e.g., the relationship between evidence and conclusions, the importance of the consistent use of particular terms, and so on). Writing, say, a poem or a piece of music as a means of communicating a response to a play of Shakespeare is not an act of literary interpretation in this sense, although it might provide some important assistance to someone seeking to understand the play. Similarly, a production of a dramatic work of Shakespeare is, in a sense, not a work of literary interpretation (although the director must have interpreted the work for herself in order to produce the text intelligently), but it can stimulate us, in our interpretation of the production, to recognize some important possibilities in the text. Such artistic responses to the text (as opposed to rational interpretations) might be called meta-interpretations.

Third, in conducting literary criticism we need to remember that works of literature do not have a single determinate meaning. It is far better to think of them as a group of interpretative possibilities. And these interpretative possibilities will depend, in part, on the historical and cultural context of the readers. Thus, as mentioned earlier, part of being a sophisticated literary critic is the ability to hold simultaneous possibilities (even contradictory possibilities) in one's imagination, together with an awareness of how one's own particular historical context may shape one's preferences. This does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid or that anything goes (see below). This point is particularly the case when we are dealing with Shakespearean drama.

Fourth, interpretations should be presented as suggestions, as possibilities. They are not "proofs," in the sense that a Euclidean proposition is a proof. The literary critic is saying, in effect, "Here's a pattern I find interesting in this work. It strikes me that this might be bringing out . . ., and this leads me to see in this work a sense of . . . ." Ham-fisted reductive language in criticism (especially a language which stresses verbs like proves, demonstrates, clearly indicates, and so on) generally indicates a critic with a certain tunnel vision or an ideological framework into which the work is forcibly pushed, without regard to its full ambiguity. In a very real sense, a great deal of the best criticism starts out as an exploration: let's see how this way of interpreting this detail might lead to a fuller understanding of something, and its value emerges from what that line of inquiry has to reveal about the work.

Fifth, all interpretative suggestions initially have an equal status. We deal with them by putting them to a series of basic questions: What is the evidence for this possibility? Is the evidence significant? Is it contradicted by anything in the text? Is this interpretative possibility coherent and consistent (i.e., does it hold throughout the work) and fertile (does it help us to understand many things in the work)? Does this view of things illuminate the work (i.e., make us see it in a useful, fruitful, pleasing way)? The answer to these questions is determined by consensus, that is, by the informed agreement of the group. Such a consensus will rarely, if ever, settle on a single "correct" interpretation, but it will almost certainly rule out a great many unsatisfactory ones and may well rank some of the others (i.e., as more or less plausible). Other useful tests of interpretation are the following questions: Does this literary interpretation enable me to see more in the work that I did before? Does it drive me back to the text with fresh insight? Does it enrich my understanding of the text? If the answer to these questions is in the affirmative, then the interpreter is doing good work; if the effect of the interpretation is to encourage the reader to read other books as necessary preliminaries (e.g., historical accounts of the context of the play), then the interpreter is doing something other than effective interpretation of the text in question.

Sixth, literary criticism as a rational activity is usually guided by two common principles of reasonable arguments. Simpler explanations are generally to be preferred to more complex ones which do not account for any more of the text (this is the principle of Occam's razor, a common rule of reasoning together in all subjects). And secondly, interpretations which account for most or all of the work are to be preferred over others which account very well for a much smaller part but which are not helpful anywhere else or which are contradicted by other parts of the text (the Principle of Inclusiveness).

A Note on the Issue of Literary Merit

I have mentioned a number of times the concept of evaluation as a central concern of literary interpretation. What does this mean precisely, and how do we set about the task? By evaluation, most simply, I mean that, as interpreters of literature, we do more than simply interpret; we also seek to provide some measure of the worth of the work. Does it succeed well or partially or not at all in providing a significant insight into something about human feeling? Do we emerge from it with the sense that we have experienced a privileged and memorable glimpse which we have not had before? Or, by contrast, does the work close us off from experience? Does liking it require that we stop thinking about life or accept unintelligent, reductive, or sentimental pictures in place of imaginative vision? Are parts of the work much more effective than others?

Let me start with an extreme example. Most of us acknowledge that there are some fictions which we reject as pornographic. We reject them, I presume, because we find the vision of life contained in them objectionable. And what is the source of the objection? Simply put, we object not because there is generally a lot of sex, even very kinky sex, but rather because the human interactions depicted (sexual and otherwise) are stupid, unintelligent, and corrupting. The pornographic work depicts people (especially women) as objects to be manipulated for pleasure and thus pictures life crudely, unambiguously, and reductively. The real objection to pornography (first articulated by Plato) is not that it depicts sexual activity, nor even that it encourages aggressive sexual activity (although it may), but rather that it corrupts the understanding (the intellectual and the emotional understanding) of sexuality. Literary fictions of this sort we have little trouble in recognizing as inferior, if not on some absolute scale, well then at least by comparison with something which we find imaginatively inspiring.

But literature does not have to be pornographic to be corrupting. Anything that closes off our minds to the complexity of the emotional and intellectual life is potentially offering a false picture of experience; a work that does so is in some fundamental way dishonest. It is seeking to satisfy the wish fulfillment of the reader--often the fulfillment of the feelings or ideas which appeal most strongly to the reader's desire not to confront life honestly--at the expense of a richer and more intelligent possibility.

Consider, for example, the issue of sentimentality. Very simply put, sentimentality is, as the modern American poet Wallace Stevens observed, a failure of feeling. It is the desire to substitute a false emotional understanding of life, to betray the complexity of the experience the work of fiction is exploring. The sentimental writer (e.g., of the Harlequin romance) invokes a potentially complex experience (e.g., love) but offers, in effect, a cartoon picture and resolution of the human experience. Sentimentality is dishonest in the sense that it simplifies, distorts, and closes off experience in order to offer a false (and generally reassuring) picture. In fact, sentimental fictions, like sentimental song lyrics, require us to attend to them with half a mind; if we start raising some serious questions about what the works are actually saying or about the internal logic of the action, the work collapses in on itself.

Sentimentality is, however, extremely popular. And the source of the appeal is easy enough to sort out. It answers to what we would like to believe about ourselves and about the world. Hence, the vast majority of the most popular fictions are intensely sentimental, and those who make the biggest profits out of marketing fictions are incurably sentimental (e.g., Walt Disney, a great deal of pop and country music, the majority of television entertainment). To call all this corrupting is perhaps to be over severe, since many of these works make no attempt to disguise what they are. And there is no danger, I suppose, in engaging in our liking for sentimentality if that is what we know we are doing. The corrupting effects emerge from sentimental art posing as serious, presenting itself (and being accepted as) a serious engagement with the full complexity of life. One of the major tasks facing the literary critic is the unmasking of such sentimentality in popular fiction.

Both pornographic and sentimental fictions rely upon what we might call stereotypical presentations of life. Intelligent literature attacks and undermines stereotypes, which depend upon our desire to generalize easily about the world, to lump large groups of people or large numbers of experiences or important and complex ideas into single, simple, and therefore manageable categories. Inferior art powerfully reinforces stereotypes; in fact, mediocre popular art is probably the single most powerful agent in creating and perpetuating the stereotypes which appeal to our desires not to be emotionally or intellectually challenged into rethinking our vision of life. As such, it is a major agent for emotional and intellectual corruption or, if that is too pejorative a label, for emotional and intellectual oversimplification. The moral justification for literary interpretation rests, more than anything else, on the challenge and the importance of resisting this tendency.

Consider, for example, the issue of jokes. There are two basic kinds: the first appeals to our stereotypes; it reinforces them. Whether we call this racist or sexist humour, when we laugh we are endorsing a closing off of our minds against new experience. Jokes of this kind are a very powerful way of keeping new experience away from our consciousness, of keeping the outsiders or the intruders on our awareness at bay, at a distance, so that we do not have to think about them as anything more than simplistic targets (as dehumanized objects). Humour which relies on jokes of this sort is immensely popular, and there are comedians who make their living by providing an apparently endless stream of such locker-room wit. For obvious reasons, such humour is particularly popular among male adolescents, at a time in life when they are very insecure about many things (especially about mature sexuality)..

The more intelligent forms of humour force us to laugh at ourselves, to recognize the limitations of our own ways of thinking, and thus encourage us to transform our understanding of others and ourselves (rather than laughing at someone different from us, we end up laughing at ourselves). This sort of humour changes the situation, leaving us with a more complex understanding of our own reactions (or more commonly, of the language in which we express these reactions, or both). Both forms of humour are examples of literary art: I have no trouble, however, in seeing the second as a more worthwhile activity than the former.

One of the most immediately obvious qualities of Shakespeare's mature style in his plays, as we shall see, is the way in which his presentation of characters in action is constantly subverting our sense of stereotypes, reminding us always that easy generalizations about others or about life itself or about ourselves, of the sort we make all the time, are limiting and potentially corrupting, not only to us but to those around us. His art, in other words, constantly challenges many of our most complacent assumptions.

Some Criteria for Making Literary Evaluations

Given what has been said above, let me conclude by listing a few criteria by which we might begin to think about evaluating (that is, passing a judgment on the quality of) a particular literary work.

If we begin with the notion of a literary fiction as an exploration into the emotional complexities of a human experience, we can certainly reflect upon how intelligently, seriously, and honestly the writer addresses that experience, as opposed to any sense that he or she is taking refuge in sentimentality, reductive simplicity, dishonesty, cheap thrills, pornography, and so on. This is a personal judgment we make, as readers, and, as with all questions of interpretation, there is room for disagreement. Nevertheless, we can, with some confidence, assert that these criteria will enable us to consider some works as better than others.

The task of evaluating literary fictions is often best carried out as a comparative conversational exercise. That is, our sense of how good a work of fiction is we will derive from our sense of what we have read that is better or worse than other things we have read and from the reaction we share with others about that point. Just as we are better able to recognize dishonesty by having an experienced sense of what honesty is, so with fiction: a familiarity with the best enables us to recognize what fails to live up to the highest demands of literary fiction. One of the major reasons for reading fictions (too little acknowledged) is the important pleasure and insight we derive, not just from reading the work, but from engaging in conversations with others about our responses.

One of the great values of reading Shakespeare's works chronologically (even a small selection of them) is that such evaluation inevitably emerges as we move from the very early work into the mature plays. The latter are, in some respects, very much better than the earliest plays, and an inquiry into why this should be the case can teach us all some important things about the criteria we use to make such evaluative judgments, not just about Shakespeare's work, but about other literature and, beyond that, about elements of life itself..

In evaluating fiction, we need to be careful not to condemn something for not being what it does not set out to be. Literary fiction comes in many forms, and we all have our preferences (e.g., for, say, lyric poetry over satire, for dramatic comedy over tragedy, and so on). Before rendering judgment, we need to consider what the work is set up to achieve and to measure its success against the standard that it sets for itself. A pastoral romance (like, say, The Winter's Tale), for example, will hardly rank very high with those who demand always naturalistic seriousness from fiction. But if the work lives up to the standards of the form which it has set, we can hardly complain justly that it is not something else, just as we can hardly condemn, say, a polka for not being a waltz or a fugue (but we can certainly condemn a polka for being a boring, repetitive, unimaginative polka). The experience of studying Shakespeare's literary fictions can make us more experienced in dealing with different forms and styles, so that we become better at avoiding errors of this sort.

One key metaphor we might want to bear in mind is this: some works obscure or bore, some works illustrate, and some works illuminate. The first group are inferior because they make no emotional contact with us, and reading them is a chore and a bore (a criticism many have leveled at, say, Henry VI, Part I or Titus Andronicus). The second may be pleasing enough, but they do not give us anything we did not have before, and they have not taken us to any place with which we are not quite familiar. They may, in fact, reinforce the limitations of our emotional understanding of life. But the final group gives us a new insight, an exciting new sense of something we have not come across (or we have met it before but forgotten about it). The illumination is energizing and memorable.

How do we recognize such illumination? There are a couple of reliable criteria. First, reading such works tends to be increasingly rewarding; we discover something different each time, rather than simply going through the same emotional response as we did before (or a reduced version of it). And, secondly, these works (or the most memorable parts of them) tend to stick in our minds. The images and stories and characters remain for reasons we may not fully understand.

Such illumination may happen very rarely, but when it does, we have possession of something that is going to contribute to setting a standard by which we measure other fictions. And one of the main reasons for studying the works in English 366 is to increase our stock of such illuminations, because when Shakespeare is writing at the top of his genius the illuminating power of his work is beyond comparison.

The great English literary critic Matthew Arnold suggested that those interested in literary interpretation should use such moments of illumination as touchstones. That is, as we read, we should make a special note of poems or passages of literary fictions which we find particularly illuminating, moving, and (for reasons which we may not fully understand) excellent in some way. These passages we should become familiar with, so that they enter deeply into our awareness of the very best achievements of literary creativeness and thus become the standard against which we measure everything we read. This is a very useful principle for the student of literary criticism. And anyone who is planning on a career as a teacher of literature or a literary interpreter should begin immediately to keep a record of such touchstones, carrying them about with her, and reviewing them constantly. They are the finest and most useful critical tools, an inescapable part of the interpreter's most important resources.

That point is (or should be) particularly important to anyone in English 366 who is setting out to concentrate professionally in some way or another as a specialist in English literature. For Shakespeare sets the standard by which we measure literary achievement in English, not simply in Renaissance drama or poetry, but in the whole range of interpretation of fiction. To profess oneself a teacher of or specialist in English literature without a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare, an ingrained familiarity with his highest achievements, is, in some fundamental way, to misrepresent oneself.

A Postscript

The above paragraphs have attempted to clarify the approach to interpretation we shall be taking in this course. Such clarification is necessary because there is at the moment a frequently bewildering series of approaches to texts (as undergraduate students quickly discover when they move from one instructor to the next). Hence, the above remarks are intended to alert the students to the interpretative methodology we will be using.

One can sum up this view of literary criticism by saying that it stresses, above all, close readings of the text with conversational interpretation which is not filtered through the requirements of any historical or ideological context (although, of course, it has its own latent ideology). The approach outlined generally corresponds loosely to what has come to be called New Criticism, a form of literary interpretation which developed in the 1930's in England and America and which is still practiced in many universities, especially in undergraduate instruction.

Many of the most important literary critics in English (particularly in the interpretation of Shakespeare) are associated with this approach (e.g., T. S. Eliot, L. C. Knights, G. Wilson Knight, F. R. L. Leavis, D. A. Traversi). One important centre of New Criticism has been and still is the University of Cambridge.

New Criticism has been strongly contested for many years (particularly by academics writing in journals), for a number of reasons, the most important of which have to do with its relative neglect of historical context (of both the work and the reader) and its apparent aversion to ideology. Many of these objections are significant, but for our purposes in English 366, an initial New Critical approach has the important advantage of encouraging everyone to address the text directly, without worrying about a necessary preparation in history or psychological, political, feminist, or linguistic theory. The conversational style of the class should encourage us often to move beyond the principles outlined above into wider fields, as the group determines.


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