"Could Shakespeare Have Thought That?"

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George Watson has a simple point to his article "Are Poems Historical Acts."  The quote "But Shakespeare can't have thought that" (33) brings to light a very obvious, although missed part of literary criticism.  Historical writings were not written in the present to talk about a time in the past.  They were written in the past and criticized in the present.  As readers we can not read anymore into a word or a sentence than could have been read into it when it was written.  For example, take for instance the word "gay".  In the days of Shakespeare, "gay" meant happy.  So, if someone describes Romeo and Juliet as being "a gay couple", it obviously has to mean the Romeo and Juliet were happy, not homosexual, since they are a male and female.  A man and woman being married when they were 14 in a Shakespearean time period was the normal thing to do.  We can not criticize it today using our standards of living.  Watson makes this point numerous times in his article dealing with not only language, but also age.    

2 Comments

Greta Carroll said:

Jodi, you make a good point. There are certainly historical contexts which we absolutely must consider when examining a work of literature. The example you give about the connotations of the word “gay” is a really good example. I think the hard part though is determining where the line is. The understanding of words in Shakespeare’s time is certainly important, but what about something a little but more questionable? For example, Chaucer might have actually gone on a pilgrimage to Canterbury himself. But does the fact that he could have went on a pilgrimage mean that he based The Canterbury Tales on this experience? Does this make the reason he wrote the work that he thinks everyone should on a pilgrimage to Canterbury? Probably not. But could the fact that he might have went on this pilgrimage have affected his perspective and intent? Certainly. But how relevant is this really and how much do we assume? When one starts drawing on history, where to stop and what is truly important can get pretty shaky and I think that’s important to keep in mind.

Erica Gearhart said:

You both make great points. I thought about this idea as I was reading the criticism for Shakespeare's The Tempest and the word colonization. Today, this word has a very different conotation than it did during the 1600s. For England in the 1500s and 1600s, colonization allowed the country to thrive as one of the world's super powers. Now, however, this word is associated with the conquest of a country and its people, governmentally, physically, mentally, and culturally. We have to really understand that looking at the historical context also means looking at what was thought of the events and movements as they were occuring.

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