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The aims and pitfalls of "historical interpretation".

WHAT EXACTLY DO WE MEAN when we invoke the concept of "historical interpretation"? In nuts-and-bolts terms, what does it "do for us and how does it differ from other varieties of criticism? The phrase is frequently used dismissively, often in very abstract contexts. Associational confusions make establishing an exact meaning difficult. "Old Historicism" (an ill-defined entity) is almost universally derided as positivist and obsolete. "New Historicism" turns out to be a misnomer--largely nonhistorical and deriving principally from the critic's ideology. Neo-Marxists claim to be "historical," but their concerns are more with the political convictions of the interpreter than with history per se. I want, therefore, to explain as precisely as possible what I am trying to talk about. "Historicism" in the sense I use the term implies attempting to reconstruct past point of view as opposed to "presentism," in which past events or texts are interpreted in light of current beliefs. (1)

Addressing the problem of how to interpret the past and its documents, we need to start by making a key distinction between historical scholarship and historical interpretation. The former involves gathering facts about the contexts in which texts were written and in which they were disseminated and read. The latter is devoted to recovering the meaning apparently designed by the author or understood by readers in an earlier period. The one is scholarly and contextual; the other, though conducted with scholarly reference to the originary context, is more critical and text oriented. (2) They are closely connected, but their objectives are different. The reader should be aware that my primary concern here is with the interpretation of literary works, though many of the methodological issues have application in historical, political, and other sorts of writing from the past.

In the last quarter-century scholars have vigorously debated the virtues of "formalist" versus "historical" interpretation. This argument goes back to the 1940s (when New Critics were rebelling against the Old Historicism); it pits the claims of text against those of context. This is a false dichotomy, and few critics now attempt to avoid some degree of syncretism. A purely historical interpretation is usually of interest only to an antiquarian; contrariwise, forms and aesthetics are decidedly local in time and space, which makes formalist criticism subject to historical scrutiny. I wholeheartedly agree with James Breslin's call for "an historically informed formalist criticism." (3) We need also to consider a third viewpoint, that of ideological activists who believe that art and criticism should carry out transformative sociopolitical work. Operating from different premises, politically committed critics roundly condemn both formalist and historical interpretation. From such a premise derives much of the criticism published in the last four decades, whether neo-Marxist, Foucauldian, feminist, new historicist, or whatever.

My objectives here are threefold. First, to illustrate the sorts of things "historical interpretation" can do for us when applied to a variety of texts from different periods. Second, to demonstrate some misapplications and failures in this kind of interpretation, trying to see what has gone wrong. Third, by way of conclusion, to enunciate some truths and methodological principles that seem to me fundamental to good practice in historical criticism. (4)


Historical criticism is criticism that tries to read past works of literature in the way in which they were read when they were new.--J. R. de J. Jackson (5)

The argument in favor of exploring the possibilities of historical interpretation is very simple. All works have contexts: one can privilege them or try to minimize consideration of them, but pretending that they do not exist is unrealistic. Our readerly assumptions and strategies are significantly affected, even governed, by contextual expectations. Back in 1929, I. A. Richards demonstrated the startling degree to which readers impose assumptions about meaning and value derived from knowledge of date and authorship. (6) If we hope to make interpretation other than purely subjective, then appeal to historical reading is unavoidable. The question is exactly what constitutes historical reading, and how it can be carried out.

The pithy definition in the epigraph to this section requires some elucidation and investigation. Readers have been known to disagree; not all of them hold in common the same knowledge and values. In 1740 many people adored Richardson's Pamela (a huge best seller), but Fielding promptly savaged it in Shamela, and he was by no means alone in failing to respond as the author had intended. Because Richardson found that many people were (in his view) misreading his novel, he hastily issued a series of major revisions. (7) The meaning many readers derived from the original text was not what the author wished to communicate. So if our object is to determine the "historical meaning" of a text, what exactly are we setting out to discover?

Three possibilities must be considered. First, meaning as apparently designed by the author. (8) I say "apparently" because we cannot be certain that the author has expressed him- or herself clearly, or that our decoding of the text has produced right-reading of what the author has attempted to communicate. Second, meaning as presumptively or demonstrably understood by original-era readers. Or as E. D. Hirsch, Jr., says, we try to determine "what the author's contemporaries would ideally have construed ... [or] what the norms of language permit the text to mean." (9) We cannot, of course, presume that every reader had the skills or knowledge necessary to comprehend a complex or allusive text. Jackson observes that "bit by bit a past work of literature will come to refer to one environment while its readers refer to another. This phenomenon may be called the displacement of environment and it is the most serious obstacle to understanding what past works of literature meant." (10) In general, this is true: the greater the cultural and chronological distance between author and reader, the likelier they will have different values and assumptions, differences that often create interpretive problems. Even the original audience may find itself stymied by "hard" works. Most early readers of Swift's A Tale of a Tub (1704) must have been thoroughly mystified, supposing that they kept reading at all.

Third, meaning as it was interpreted by various sorts of later readers. In all three cases obtaining evidence presents a practical difficulty. After 1800, we often have a lot of reviews, responses, and other commentary from which we can determine what at least some of the original readers made of a book. Earlier than that, we frequently lack any direct evidence whatever about the reception and interpretation of a particular text. Even where we possess substantial documentation of authorial or audience understanding we can have at best varying degrees of certitude about the accuracy and adequacy of our historical interpretations.

For the purposes of this discussion, I shall assume that the primary (but not the only) "meaning" a historical interpreter attempts to recover is "what the author wanted to convey," as deduced from reading the text with the sorts of topical knowledge that some members of the original audience could be expected to possess. I have worked from the premise that an author attempts to communicate something (that is, to be understood by readers), but that he or she may fail to do so successfully. We may think we have confidence in our ability to deduce the author's thrust from the text--or not. Subsequent editions may introduce radical alterations. Early readers or reviewers may perceive a meaning very different from what we take to be the authorial one. So attempting to reconstruct authorial meaning is a primary objective, but by no means the only aim. A serious practitioner of historical interpretation will attempt to recover authorial design and signification, but may also be concerned with either meaning as perceived by various kinds of original readers or alternatively the significance of the text for original and later readers. (11)

A brief digression may help clarify some key terms--in particular, "meaning" and "interpretation." As of 2010 few literary critics believe that meaning inheres in the text and should be controlled by it. Hirsch's obsessive concern with authorial intention in Validity in Interpretation now seems quaint, but it remains a valuable reminder that acceptance of unlimited subjectivity renders interpretation pointless. The question is how we balance authorially designed meaning against the claims of reader-response. One answer is supplied by P. D. Juhl, who maintains that "a literary work has one and only one correct interpretation," thereby taking Hirsch to a new extreme. (12) I disagree, but the position is not preposterous if one realizes that Juhl admits that "a work may express or convey a number of different things," and that "literary works are typically construed in a variety of logically incompatible ways." In essence he is trying to enforce a radical separation between "interpretation" (taken as an attempt to reconstruct authorial meaning) and "criticism" (textual analysis based on the application of external criteria). This position has been elaborated by William Irwin, who argues that "urinterpretation" (i.e., ur-interpretation) seeks "meaning" as Hirsch and Juhl conceive it, while "non-urinterpretation" (i.e., criticism) seeks "significance" in Hirsch's sense of the term. (13) I doubt that at this late date we can impose this distinction between "interpretation" and "criticism," but the difference between attempting to construe apparent authorial meaning and writing critical analysis is genuine. I would not, however, wish to restrict "historical interpretation" as I conceive it to authorial meaning alone. Readers are not passive recipients of a message conveyed by an author with ineluctable precision through a text. They are, whether traditionalists like it or not, active participants in the construction of textual meaning.

A multitude of critical practices fall under the heading of historical interpretation, and the rest of this section will be devoted to offering illustrations of which such practices can do for us. The recovery of historical meaning involves at least five kinds of analysis: genetic; circumstantial; generic; historical reader-response; and applicative reading. These are not absolutely distinct categories, but they represent different enterprises, depending in large part on the nature of the contexts appealed to for interpretation. (14) I want briefly to survey each of the five kinds here, leaving "circumstantial"--a collective term for several related approaches--until last.

(1) By genetic interpretation I mean explanation with regard to the author's character or to his or her situation at the time of writing. That Dickens was working out personal issues in David Copperfield seems to me a fact. To try to read "Easter, 1916" or "The Circus Animals' Desertion" without acknowledging that Yeats wrote the poem and explaining in what situation he wrote it would produce ludicrous results. A genetic meaning can be purely private, but in many instances it can be central to the point of the work.

(2) Generic interpretation gives us comparisons that help us recognize the formal choices and devices employed in a particular work. One can read a single sonnet by Shakespeare in isolation, but one will tend to understand it differently in the context of all 154 sonnets, and differently still in light of the Italian-English sonnet tradition of the sixteenth century. Someone may encounter Austen's Northanger Abbey (pub. 1818) in total ignorance of the Gothic fiction boom of 1764-1820, but such a reader will miss particular touches and much of the overall point.

(3) Historical reader-response interpretation aims to establish the reactions of the original audience(s), which might differ drastically from ours. "Historical reader-response" criticism may be either contextual hypothesis or "reception study" founded on extensive documentation where such evidence exists. Sometimes we have extensive and conflicting testimony, as with Sterne's Tristram Shandy, whose readers of the 1760s were amused, offended, or completely baffled. Where we have no direct evidence, we must rely (with trepidation) on general contextual information. What did Shakespeare's audience make of the ghost in Hamlet? We have plenty of comments about ghosts from circa 1600, but none on this particular ghost, and the texts we can cite are wildly contradictory.

(4) Applicative interpretation is the longstanding habit of reading older texts (particularly the Bible) in search of commentary and advice in relation to current circumstances. (15) For an explanation of this reader-generated meaning, one might go to Plutarch's essay, "How a yoong man ought to heare poets, and how he may take profit by reading poemes." (16) For illustration of the practice, see Francis Bacon's use of mythography. (17) A historical interpreter needs to try to understand how readers actually read texts in their time, a problem twentieth-century scholars were slow to address. In two now famous articles published a generation ago, John M. Wallace mounts a powerful case to the effect that seventeenth-century readers expected to make "applications" from earlier texts to the present. (18) If Wallace is right, then a historicist interpretation needs to allow for freedom on the part of a reader to create a current "meaning" (Hirsch would say "significance") never imagined by the author. (19) This was resisted by virtually every school of interpretation until the boom in "reader-response" thirty years ago. By most recent critical estimates, reader-response critics of the 1980s were dangerously subjective. If, however, "application" was regarded as normal and appropriate in the seventeenth century, then a historical interpretation has to allow for the possibility that applicative meaning might be a part of the actual experience of reading (as opposed to the literal sense of the words set down by the author).

(5) Circumstantial interpretation is essentially genetic, but concerned with contextual rather than authorial issues. Middleton's A Game at Chess (1624) can be read without reference to the then current European political situation, but the play was obviously constructed to allude to the political context. One cannot understand why the text is as it is without knowing about its extra-textual applications. Blake's poetry demands an entirely different kind of circumstantial interpretation. For many decades his few readers universally assumed that his major prophecies were personal mythic fantasies, wholly removed from the world in which he lived. This reading was demolished in 1954 by David Erdman, who forcefully demonstrated that Blake was in fact highly political, and almost everything he wrote is jam-packed with responses to topical sociopolitical issues and events. (20) Blake does not make them textually explicit, but they are hugely important to understanding the thrust of the prophecies.

One kind of circumstantial interpretation might better be called "referential"--illumining the use of recent or historical events explicitly shown or alluded to in the text at issue. We need, in other words, to appreciate a fuzzy but significant distinction between works that include pointers to extra-textual circumstances and works that require readerly application from context to text. Works which overtly import contextual subject matter require slightly different handling than those which do not, leaving the reader to draw the connection. One can get a pretty clear notion of Dickens's view of the French Revolution from the text of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), for example, but Fielding's use of the Jacobite invasion of Britain in 1745 in Tom Jones (1749) is going to require explanation for anyone other than a specialist.

Sometimes this distinction is smudgy. Melville's Billy Budd (composed between 1886 and 1891 but not published until 1924) offers a good illustration of unspecific external allusion. Whether Captain Vere is right or wrong in hanging Billy has long been hotly debated. Not until very recently did a critic point out that at the time Melville wrote the tale, New York (where he was living) was in a huge public uproar over capital punishment and how it was to be carried out. (21) The first execution by electrocution was conducted in 1890. The public press was full of the issue, and Thomas Alva Edison was campaigning furiously against AC (as opposed to DC) electricity on the grounds of safety. Had the story been published when it was written, readers could hardly have helped see its issues in the light of fierce current debate (as it were). Bruce Franklin shows (convincingly, in my opinion) that Melville systematically includes pointers to that debate while avoiding all direct mention of the subject. Billy Budd is certainly in part "about" capital punishment--it is obviously not about the horrors of electrocution--but Melville was evidently aware of how the angry arguments of 1890 would affect readings of his historical tale.

A related but slightly different form of referential historical reading involves clarifying a second frame of reference. Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953) uses a historical setting--the Salem witch trials of the 1690s--to make a point about the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Indirection and camouflage are common techniques when an author is trying to avoid prosecution or to short-circuit automatic hostility on the part of a lot of readers. In many such cases the author probably does not want the second frame to be espied by every reader, or to be "provable" from the text. Consider the case of Samuel Butler's popular three-part Hudibras (pub. 1662, 1663, 1678), a burlesque verse satire ridiculing the Puritan nonconformists who had ruled England in the 1650s after the execution of Charles I. The work has almost always been taken as a simpleminded piece of retrospective triumphalism, rubbishing the vanquished Puritans, a poem of "revenge," and so a very safe proceeding. Did the impecunious Butler keep his name off the poem because he thought that the gentlemanly thing to do? Alternatively, we may ask whether the point of the poem was really its story-action, set in the 1650s. Ashley Marshall has recently published a startlingly different reading, maintaining that the poem is immediately topical and concerned with 1662, 1663, and 1677. (22) Butler's aim, Marshall maintains, is to expose the dangers that religious dissent pose for a weak king and a wobbly government that has failed to crack down on the radicals who beheaded Charles I--and by 1677 are pushing the country to the edge of another civil war. Regarded in the contexts of composition of the poem's three parts, the implications of the story connect closely with topical, not retrospective, issues. If Butler was reproving the king for incompetence, one can see why he prudently kept his name off the title page. How many readers got the topical point we have no way to determine.

Underlying issues and cultural values can remain obstinately opaque unless the historical critic can expound a crucial subtext for the benefit of readers whose circumstances blind them to what is at issue--and this represents another kind of circumstantial interpretation. Such clarification can be revelatory if specific. My undergraduates are mystified by Edmund in King Lear. "What's wrong with being a bastard?" they ask (after I have explained what a bastard is). We now take the condition for granted: as of 2007 some 40 percent of births in the USA were out of wedlock, (23) and the figure is evidently now 50 percent in Britain and still higher in Scandinavia. Edmund makes no sense unless one understands the odium and legal disabilities attaching to bastardy in Shakespeare's England (and long after). Pride and Prejudice offers a broader example of the difficulties historical texts can pose for the present-day reader. Mr. Bennet has saved no money and his wife and daughters will be beggared if he dies. Critics duly explain entail but are almost unanimously silent on the value of his 2000 [pounds sterling] per annum income. (24) Readers now assume that nothing could be saved out of so modest an income, but a conservative calculation of present-day buying power yields a value of $400,000 or more. Mr. Bennet could have saved money to protect his family. His failure to do so over a period of nearly twenty-five years significantly changes our evaluation of a key character--and indeed of the novel itself. (25) How far back does a text have to be to require a "historical interpretation" of the sort I am describing? Not very, as I discovered when teaching part 1 of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (performed 1990) in the autumn of 2009. For my undergraduates, a play set from October 1985 to January 1986 and featuring the AIDS-epidemic panic presented a world about as remote from them as Defoe's London of 1665 in A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). The medical situation has changed; attitudes towards the gay community have evolved; interracial sex is much less upsetting to most people; and the Cold War and the world of Ronald Reagan are long gone. The horrific Roy M. Cohn (Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief aide in the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s) is not even a name to students born about 1990. Does Kushner need a historical interpretation? Indeed he does, as much so as for the referential interpretation necessary to make sense of Miller's Crucible. I should add that literary critics do not always welcome historians who point out nonliterary circumstantial connections of what we have always treated as literary enterprises. For example, Blair Worden's political reading of Sidney's Old Arcadia--a reading I find highly plausible, and one which fully acknowledges other kinds and levels of meanings--met skepticism and hostility from literary folk. (26)

All five of the varieties of historical interpretation that I have illustrated here can produce conclusions that seem to me (a) productive and convincing, and (b) validatable both in their own terms and when tested against other kinds of readings. Unfortunately, this is by no means always true of what is announced as historical interpretation. We need now to turn to consideration of bad practice.


It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory--if we look for confirmations.... The criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.--Karl R. Popper (27)

What Popper says about the need to test a scientific theory or hypothesis seems directly applicable to the employment of any method of textual interpretation. We must ask whether the method works and whether its results stand up under challenge from other methods of reading. The ugly truth is that an alarmingly high proportion of what has passed for "historical interpretation" is shoddy and unprovable speculation. Blind devotion is never a good idea. What follows is a catalogue of fatuities and fiascos--but this recital of failures need not be negative or pessimistic. I would argue, on the contrary, that the best way of making historical interpretation work is to learn how it can go wrong.

A good place to start a survey of bad historical interpretation is the late Richard Levin's icily skeptical take on "Historical Readings" of English Renaissance plays. (28) Levin grants the "immeasurable debt" we owe to the "historical scholars" without whose labors "we could scarcely be said to understand [the plays] at all." This contextual background is, however, "really preinterpretative, since it underlies any informed reading of a play, but does not in itself define the nature of that reading." Historical readings, he says, are "all based upon the contention that the real meaning of the plays is wholly or largely determined by some component of the extradramatic background and can only be apprehended in relation to it." (29) Levin's critique is organized "in terms of the increasing particularity of the historical component they employ."

He offers four categories. (1) "The 'zeitgeist approach,' wherein the play is treated as an embodiment of a very generalized intellectual or emotional atmosphere said to permeate every facet of life in the period." (2) "Ideas of the time"--for example, the Elizabethans believed that vengeance is evil, and hence Shakespeare expects us to condemn Hamlet. (30) (3) "The 'topical' approach ... which sees in [the play] a commentary upon contemporary individuals or events." (31) (4) "Occasionalism," in which "the play is viewed as a kind of private communication directed at a special audience." (32) One might reply that virtually all literary texts reflect the era in which they were written; that they almost invariably contain particular ideas and values of their time; that some works explicitly comment on contemporary individuals or events; and that love poems can be addressed to real women and some dramatic performances were given in private venues to a special audience (Milton's Comus at Ludlow Castle in 1634, for example). I must grant, however, that Levin's account of more than fifty books and articles presenting what their authors claim as historical readings is a gruesomely effective demonstration of ill-founded methodology. My survey of malpractice is organized not according to degree of particularity but rather on the basis of what the critic characterizes--the period, the relevant genre, the author, or the nature of the text--in order to establish a contextual meaning that is then imposed on the text.


Perhaps the single most conspicuous account of historical interpretation was published sixty years ago as a justification of a method practiced by a group of American medievalists. (33) The short-form characterization is "Robertsonian," after D. W. Robertson, Jr. Other noted practitioners were B. F. Huppe and R. E. Kaske. (34) Robertson and his followers were controversial in their day and are now mostly forgotten or laughed at. Some readers of my drafts have objected to beating dead horses, using phrases like "statute of limitations." I would reply that however misguided, these were smart, erudite men; that the method was once taken seriously, at least in American academic circles, and that R. S. Crane's attack on the approach continues to be worth our attention.

Robertson maintained that "historical criticism" is "that kind of literary analysis which seeks to reconstruct the intellectual attitudes and the cultural ideals of a period in order to reach a fuller understanding of its literature." The method presumes, as Crane says, the distillation of the "intellectual background" of the Middle Ages "as a whole" into a single outlook, which is then to be applied to medieval texts by way of patristic exegesis with particular reference to the Patrologia Latina. (35) As Crane demonstrates, Robertson and Co. create a "kind of unified formulation of the thought" of a whole period, which they then proceed to read onto any number of particular texts. The relevance of the "postulated background" is assumed, as is a fundamentally allegorical mode of interpretation. A modern critic can produce a reading of any work on the basis of his or her suppositions about the "cultural milieu" in which it was written. Some original readers may have read the work as the critic imagines, but in the absence of surviving testimony this is at best plausible supposition, and we have every reason to believe that neither in the Middle Ages nor at any other period did everyone think and read identically.

Characterizations of Zeitgeist have a certain amount of truth in them: large numbers of people do share views in many realms in any period, however defined. As a method of determining the meaning of any particular text, however, or of discovering the interpretation arrived at by all readers, Zeitgeist thinking is nonsensical. As Jackson observes, one of the commonest forms of such thinking derives from "dividing literature into periods" and then "attributing distinctive characters to them." (36) Obviously critics of nineteenth-century British literature know that not all "Victorians" thought alike (Darwin, for example, generated some controversy), but when we invoke the term we conjure up a sense of an orthodoxy that definitely tends to color the way we read the literature of the time. (37) The eighteenth century has been termed the "Neoclassical Age," the "Age of Reason," the "Enlightenment," and the "Augustan Age," each of which projects a characterization that distorts what we privilege and how we read it. (38) Totalized distillation is not a method employed only by antediluvian, positivist old historicists of evil memory. Levin points out, rather acidly, that whatever new historicists may preach about counter-hegemonic forces, they "make the same kind of error that ... [they] rightly condemned in the ideas-of-the-time approach: they homogenize Renaissance thought." (39) For the purposes of intellectual historical study, homogenized thought is only moderately worse than dichotomized thought: in reality, the ideas and values of any time are going to be inconsistent and contradictory.

The appeal to "the outlook of the time" has long been common among "historical" scholars. It tends to involve generalized assertions, and one can get into very bad trouble in a big hurry this way. This takes us into the territory of Basil Willey's The Eighteenth Century Background (1940) or Balachandra Rajan's Paradise Lost and the Seventeenth-Century Reader (1947). (40) Seventeenth-century readers were no more homogeneous than twenty-first-century readers. The reading public included Puritans of Miltons sort, but also a lot of Church of England loyalists (to whom Milton would have been profoundly obnoxious as a supporter of regicide), Presbyterians, many sorts of opinionated dissenters, and a sprinkling of Catholics. They would have disagreed fiercely about all sorts of things--just as Americans do today about incumbent Presidents, the war in Afghanistan, abortion, and stem-cell research, inter alia.

Three Shakespeare examples on a much smaller scale illustrate the violence that can be done to a particular text by the imposition of "ideas of the time." Numerous critics have claimed that King Lear's abdication violated the Renaissance world picture and concept of hierarchy. Levin observes, however, that "Lear's abdication is witnessed and commented upon by a great many characters, but not one of them expresses the least bit of horror at it. Indeed, Kent and Gloucester have apparently been consulted about his decision in advance and have accepted it." And he demonstrates that the abdication of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1555/6 was admired, not execrated. (41) Whatever divine-right kingship theory might have said, the play does not seem to invite outrage and condemnation. Similarly, Desdemona's marriage without her father's consent has often been regarded as a terrible violation of the patriarchal authority universally upheld in conduct books of the time. But as Levin points out, the marriage "is not condemned in the play itself." (42) Indeed, the Duke of Venice says he thinks his own daughter would have done the same thing. On the subject of revenge, Levin makes a telling point: "very different judgments of revenge are called for in Hamlet, Antonio's Revenge, Hoffman, and The Atheist's Tragedy (which were all written in a space of twelve years), and ... no monolithic 'Elizabethan attitude' toward revenge ... could be applied to these plays without distorting some of them beyond recognition." (43) Where our notion of the ideas of the time seem to contradict the values to be found in the texts we are trying to interpret, we will do well to refrain from imposing latter-day distillations and characterizations in the name of "historical interpretation."


One of the most active areas for historical interpretation has long been English Renaissance drama. The Chicago School inspired by Edith Rickert was prolific in generating particularist readings, but dozens of scholars have contributed such interpretations over the span of most of a century. Queen Elizabeth was inclined to see (or imagine) criticism in plays, and this has encouraged modern scholars to search for personal satire in an astonishing number of them. The classic investigation of political meaning in this drama was published by David Bevington more than forty years ago, and it remains a salutary warning against what he calls "bizarre ingenuity." (44) Bevington is sympathetic to analyzing ideological values in plays, while remaining mercifully resistant to the derivation of hidden meanings to be discovered by interpretation of "the lock-picking type." As Bevington sees Renaissance drama, it is heavily political, but not very allegorical. (45) His assessment is borne out by Richard Dutton's careful analysis of the censorship of drama carried out by the Master of the Revels. (46) A surprising degree of latitude was permitted in matters of social, political, and religious commentary. Bevington has refined his concept and methodology of historical interpretation over the last four decades, and the apparatus in the most recent version of his edition of Shakespeare vividly exemplifies his sense of how both context and language can be made vivid and meaningful for present-day readers. (47)

A particularly disturbing instance of the imposition of generic presumptions upon specific texts is the so-called "Jacobean City Comedy," a genre conceived retrospectively in the twentieth century. (48) The concept derives from L. C. Knights's Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937). Knights claims that Jonson (and essentially all other Jacobean and Caroline dramatists) wrote to express an "anti-acquisitive attitude" that produced harsh satire on the ambitions of pushy citizens who were trying to use commercial profits to rise above their proper social position. Brian Gibbons's hugely influential Jacobean City Comedy (1968) surveyed plays by Jonson, Middleton, Massinger, and others and found in them fiercely negative presentation of money-grubbing cits. Is this an accurate characterization of the plays? I would say, on the contrary, that it is grossly distortive and misleading.

One obvious issue is that some of the plays are exceedingly lightweight. Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters (1604-7) seems to me less a satire on acquisitiveness than a trickster romp, and the solemn pomposity with which some critics have treated a thoroughly implausible entertainment is hard to understand. Another problem is that readers have divided so completely on many of the plays that confident interpretation seems ill-founded. Is Chapman, Jonson, and Marston's Eastward Ho! (1605) a roaring farce or a moral exemplum (either straight or ironic)? Is Golding a moral example or a comic butt? We are not in a position to poll the original audience, and competent historical critics have been, as a recent commentator observes, "unable to come to a consensus on how to read the ambivalence of the play's class ideology." (49) Bartholomew Fair continues to confound its explicators, whose interpretations remain frustratingly divergent. Middleton's Michaelmas Term (1604-6) is often read as a stinging satire, full of ugly economics and class warfare, but the light tone and implausible happy ending undercut the potency of the satire--if there is any. (50)

My point here is that where we have little or no evidence of actual historical reception, we can have little or no faith in the accuracy of our allegedly historical interpretations. This is true of many well-known, much-analyzed plays. Dorimant in Etherege's The Man of Mode (1676) has been taken by critics as everything from a devil-figure to a much-to-be-admired libertine rake hero. So has Wycherley's Horner in The Country-Wife (1675). Depending on casting and direction, either play can be staged with drastically varying degrees of sympathy or satire. Given male-female and immoralist-moralist differences of opinion, one must suspect that members of the original audiences differed widely in their responses, regardless of the production concept. Another issue is the degree to which an audience member or reader was inclined to relate a play to real life. The cheery "divorce" and restoration of Mrs. Sullen's fortune at the end of Farquhar's The Beaux Stratagem (1707) was illegal, and indeed impossible, but there is no evidence that it disturbed the audience. If the play is viewed as for all purposes taking place in Cloud Cuckooland, then moral outrage on the part of the spectators seems both pointless and unlikely. Of course some present-day pietists and feminists are appalled by Ravenscroft's The London Cuckolds (1681)--or by Feydeau--but a lot of people are not.


In some instances, we have good reason to believe that the personal values and circumstances of the author are vital to comprehending particular texts. Keats's failing health and his anguished doubt of the certitude of the "truth" revealed in poetry are obviously relevant to the two incomplete Hyperion poems of 1818-19. Without the personal issues they are merely exercises in classical mythography, and their painful emotional intensity makes no sense. Then again, we must beware of succumbing to assumptions that yield results we happen to find appealing. Is Eliot's Waste Land (1922) (a) a homosexual lamentation occasioned by the death of his friend Jean Verdenal in World War I, or (b) a magisterial expression of despair at the nature of the postwar world? The homosexual reading was first published by John Peter in 1952, and Eliot got a court order for the destruction of all available copies of the journal issue. (51) Was Eliot justifiably infuriated, or trying to cover up what he thought a discreditable truth? Even if the latter, the personal significance was clearly not meant to be understood by the reader. The existential despair reading has had wide appeal, but we should remember, first, that the upbeat elements introduced by water at the end of the poem do not fit very well; second, that according to Theodore Spencer, Eliot himself mocked the "criticism of the contemporary world" reading; and third, that the poem as we now study it was heavily edited (and retitled) by Ezra Pound. I doubt that many readers would arrive at either the gay or the existential despair reading on the basis of He do the Police in Different Voices, the poem as Eliot wrote it. (52)

Let me add two points about historical-interpretive appeal to the author. The first is a blunt adjuration by Levin: "the author's practice cannot be treated as a single, constant context." (53) No author is totally consistent in beliefs or practice, and some are bewilderingly inconsistent. Dryden the Protestant court poet to Charles II is not Dryden the Catholic opposition poet under William III. The Alexander Pope of the Essay on Man ("Whatever IS, IS RIGHT") is not the apocalyptic poet of Book IV of the 1743 Dunciad ("Universal Darkness buries All"). T. S. Eliot pre- and post-conversion are not the same man or poet. The second point is that we far too easily assume that we can mind-read the writers we study. This is difficult even where we have extensive diaries, correspondence, and personal testimony from friends; it is profoundly unwise when we do not. As an example, consider Jonson and Spenser. They are different in all sorts, of ways, and one might plausibly hypothesize that Jonson would disdain an effete and ornamental writer. But not so: his heavily annotated copy of the 1617 Spenser folio demonstrates that he admired Spenser as a poet. He had praise for many parts of The Faerie Queene, which, according to Riddell and Stewart, "he not only read carefully ... but may have explicated for his friend, Sir Walter Ralegh, allegory and all." (54) Insisting that we know or can somehow deduce the values or responses at issue without a solid evidentiary basis is not "historical interpretation"; it is fatuous presumption.


Some works are deeply resistant to confident interpretation, and others are ambiguous. A good example of a "resistant" text is Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). The book has often been described as violent and misanthropic; contrariwise it has been read as an expression of fundamental tolerance. (55) Both readings impose an interpretation that cannot be conclusively verified from within the text. We can explain various references to politics, science, and learning, but whether the Houyhnhnms represent an impossible rationalist ideal or a ludicrously wrongheaded one remains an insoluble question. The four parts that constitute the Travels do not cohere well; Swift is evidently not attempting to communicate a clear-cut position. Brilliant and fascinating as the four voyages are, the book as a whole does not function as we expect a satire to work, and it confronts us with issues that are "textually and contextually irresolvable." (56) Plays like Bartholomew Fair and The Man of Mode similarly lack an "adequate set of values" by which to judge the characters and action. (57) They leave us with a text that cannot be confidently interpreted on the basis of its content.

Surveying new historicists and practitioners of cultural studies, Mark David Rasmussen complains that they suffer from the "tendency of contemporary academics to find their own post-modern alienation mirrored in the anxieties of works produced at the inception of modernity." (58) Or as Kenneth Muir phrased the point a generation ago, "the temptation to enroll Shakespeare in one's own party is almost irresistible." (59) The unhappy truth is that practitioners of "historical interpretation" also suffer from this tendency to read their own values and preferences into (and then out of) the texts they claim to interpret. E. M. W. Tillyard and Jonathan Dollimore read the same texts of Shakespeare, but from them they derived entirely contradictory conclusions as to Shakespeare's sociopolitical values. Tillyard found in Shakespeare a sturdy supporter of the Tudor monarchical verities, a believer in authority, hierarchy, and submission. Dollimore finds Shakespeare (and much of Renaissance drama) vastly "more radical" than anyone had previously supposed--full of "subversive preoccupations," "a critique of ideology," "the demystification of political and power relations." (60) Both claim to be constructing a historical interpretation of Renaissance texts as their authors designed them to be understood by the original audiences. The implications for a would-be historical interpreter devoted to the ideal of accurate reconstruction of original contextual meanings can only be called disturbing.

I am a passionate believer in the value of contextual reconstruction and historical interpretation, but if one hopes to practice a method in serious and productive ways, one cannot afford to be blind to its limitations, failures, and potential misapplications. My aim here is to contribute to an improved methodology for accomplishing the recovery of historical meaning where that is possible. Much has gone wrong and will continue to do so until we are prepared to submit our efforts to cold and skeptical scrutiny, discard flawed results, and try again. We have benefited from some profoundly salutary historical and interpretive theory. I have cited here methodological theory by Crane, Levin, and Skinner, whose work I strongly commend to the reader's attention. Splendid historical scholarship and interpretation by such critics as David Bevington, J. A. Downie, David Erdman, Phillip Harth, and Peter Lake is cited here. To this list I might add such names as Anthony Grafton, J. G. A. Pocock, Adrian Johns, David Hackett Fisher, Harold Love, and Howard D. Weinbrot. (61) Splendid exemplars of historical interpretation are not hard to find. Most of the disasters and messes surveyed in this section stem from simplistic, uniformitarian assumptions about periods, genres, or readers. Others occur when critics project their own values onto texts. These failures result, however, from wrongheaded operational procedure, not from fundamental conceptual flaws in historical interpretation as a method.


The primary object of historical interpretation as I conceive it is to reconstruct "original" meaning as apparently designed by the author (as best one can judge from the text and original contexts) and (perhaps) perceived by readers. Secondarily, the historical interpreter attempts to hypothesize (and if possible document) comprehension and reader-response on the part of original or later audiences. How confidently we can do this depends on whether evidence of genesis and reception is extensive, skimpy, or nonexistent. My question at this juncture is simple: what truths and operating principles conduce to responsible historical interpretative practice?

(1) Context does not control meaning. Properly substantiated, context can help us see probabilities, but the meaning of any particular text is not governed by general sociohistorical likelihood. (62) Crane makes this point forcefully, objecting to the idea that writers, movements, and styles are somehow "produced" by their "age." Such claims, like the idea that social norms dictate specific meanings at any date, "depend upon the illicit assumption that we can deduce particularized actuality from general possibility." (63) Most Englishmen were apparently pretty patriotic in 19 17 ("conchies" notwithstanding), despite the horrendous death toll in France, but this does not mean that Shaw could not write Heartbreak House from a radically contrarian viewpoint. Writers do sometimes hold exceedingly eccentric views, and some readers are totally out of sympathy with majority sentiments. As a very different World War I example, consider A. E. Housmaffs "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries" published in the Times in 1917 on the anniversary of the first battle of Ypres. As Laurence Lerner has observed, it is a sourly ironic comment on the professional soldiers who saved the day "for pay" not the celebration of heroism the editor evidently took it for. (64)

(2) Respect the text. Appeal to context can tell us all sorts of useful things about values, judgments, and allusions in the books we read, but as Levin insists, "such research cannot substitute for the inductive interpretation of each play in its own terms." (65) He goes so far as to argue that "the ideas and attitudes necessary to guide our response are established in the plays themselves" and asks whether there is "any major English Renaissance drama where we would go seriously wrong in our interpretation without a special knowledge of some idea of the time?" I would qualify this claim: we need to remember Umberto Eco's distinction between "closed" texts (which are designed to elicit a particular response from a particular group of readers) and "open" texts (which do not attempt to control meaning rigidly and tend to be addressed to a much broader audience). (66) I agree with Levin that texts like Othello and Lear contain pointers that help us to a sound interpretation of the work. Other texts can be wide open to completely diverse readings (The Man of Mode) or provocatively ambiguous (Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees). Granting that historical values and allusions may puzzle us (and hence that historical interpretation can clarify meaning), historicist readings should not be imposed in ways that contradict the inherent thrust of the work's structure and content.

(3) We must know what text and how it got that way. The works we study did not spring forth full grown in final form like Athena from the head of Zeus. Neither were they immaculately conceived. A piece is usually planned but often changes in the process of composition. Works go through stages; writers are interrupted; passages are added or excised; much backtracking and polishing may occur; publishers and censors can demand changes. We may possess early drafts or just a first printed edition. The author may revise radically in subsequent editions. All this needs to be taken into account by the interpreter. (67) That the critic understands the textual history of the work at issue is crucial; he or she needs to be clear on alternative sources, revisions, and the editorial policy imposed in a modern edition. (68) More evidence tends to survive about compositional history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but even there a great deal of ill-founded criticism has been published by modern critics ignorant of the background or transmissional history of the texts they have attempted to analyze. Such works as Herman Melville's Billy Budd and Pierre, Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, Hart Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, William Faulkner's Sanctuary, and Norman Mailer's An American Dream present dire textual difficulties of various sorts, and only very recently have strenuous objections been raised to criticism that ignores these problems. (69)

(4) All works have multiple contexts. As Levin observes, "the real problem in interpretation is not whether a literary work requires a context to be understood, since it obviously does, but rather which contexts, or which kinds of contexts, should be chosen in order to understand this particular work." We must, therefore, "consciously choose and consciously apply [a context or contexts] to the work we are interpreting." (70) Or as Lerner says in "Against Historicism," "the title of this essay was of course a rhetorical gesture. Its aim has been to show not the falsity but the limitations of historicism; or (to put the point another way) to distinguish between a historical approach which explores the relation of a literary work to its various contexts (including the immediate political context), and a historicist approach which asserts that the meaning of the work is limited to one context." (71) The relevant contexts might be genetic, generic, circumstantial, referential, intellectual, moral, disseminative--there are many possibilities. Any of them may have a significant bearing on why the work was written and why it is what it is. To operate on the assumption that one context (common religion of author and audience, let us say) is determinative of "the" meaning is to ignore the host of factors that influence literary production and reception.

(5) Authors are not consistent. They evolve. They get (or shed) religion or spouses. They develop (or abandon) political loyalties. They read books. They respond to current events. They fall sick and gloomy. They write hasty potboilers (as Burgess says he did in Clockwork Orange), or submit to bowdlerization (see Dreiser). I learned just how inconsistent an author can be when I was a schoolboy. In a German course we read several of E. T. A. Hoffmann's wilder fantasies. On the final exam we were given an anonymous passage heatedly denouncing fantasy and departure from realism-and asked to explain what Hoffman would think of this position. An easy question, and we were not downgraded for giving the obvious answer (that he would ridicule it), but when returning our scripts the teacher informed us (with some glee) that the anonymous critic was Hoffman himself, writing in a bad mood. The historical interpreter is certainly entitled to appeal to an author's other works and critical writing, but extrinsic matter should not in itself be used to override textual meaning in any particular piece.

(6) Appeal to homogeneous distillations of "the thought of the time" will not do. There is no period in which the beliefs and values of authors and audiences are other than diverse and contradictory. To say "In the Renaissance, people thought ..." is a bad business. A good example of the "What did people think?" problem is regularly voiced by my undergraduates, who want to know how Shakespeare and his contemporaries viewed black people. Othello is now often condemned as a racist text, appropriately read in the negative context of later racial and colonial stereotypes. In a recent article, Meredith Anne Skura attempts "to understand what Othello might have meant to Shakespeare and his first audiences," pointing out that there "was an extensive discourse about black people and Moors available to Shakespeare, much of it racist or proto-racist by today's standards." (72) Close investigation, however, demonstrates that Shakespeare seems to ignore many of those sources, "parodies others, omits racist sections of texts he used, and turns instead to a surprising number of other texts seldom or never mentioned in... [present-day] debates about race" Contemporary commentaries on race are varied and confusingly irreconcilable. Shakespeare "de-emphasized racial difference" as found in Cinthio. He does not, ultimately, ascribe Othello's crime to his blackness. On the contrary, Othello emerges as a great man who is too innocent to evade the machinations of a villain. As Skura shows, the hostile readings of recent critics ignore both Shakespeare's use of sixteenth-century commentary on race and the clear perspective of the text of the play. In this case, historical interpretation confirms the verdict of both textual reading and performance history in later centuries.

(7) Reception history should not be ignored. We may admittedly be able to read some works and writers better than the original audience, especially where a book is startlingly innovative and difficult--for example, Joyce's Ulysses (1922). But we cannot afford to ignore or overturn well-documented patterns of response. Consider Henry Fielding, who for the last halfcentury has been widely regarded as a Christian moralist profoundly and directly indebted to the sermons of Isaac Barrow (1630-77), determined to convey ponderous didactic lessons in Torn Jones and many other works. These readings derive from the work of Martin Battestin and are now deeply embedded in the introductions and annotation to the standard "Wesleyan" edition. I would not deny the didacticism in many of Fielding's works, but such a characterization seems to me drastically to misrepresent the balance of humor, wit, jokiness, and exuberant energy to be found in his plays and novels. If we investigate the reception history, we find that Fielding was viciously reviled in his lifetime as a crude, obscene, and immoral writer whose work was not fit for decent people, especially women, to read. And he did not exactly reply, "Good heavens, but my novels are just Isaac Barrow fictionalized!" (73) Arguing that early readers were unfair or misguided is one thing; ignoring the nature of the majority response is quite another.

(8) Diversity of reader response must be allowed for. The diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, the salacious (and anonymous) author of Sodom (ca. 1672?), the high-thinking Earl of Orrery, and the bitter social critic Thomas Otway were all Carolean males who attended the theater, but only a certifiable lunatic could imagine that they responded identically to (say) Wycherley's The Country-Wife, let alone to a poem like Rochester's "The Imperfect Enjoyment" (on the subject of premature ejaculation). We further broaden the spectrum of possible responses if we acknowledge the presence of women, whose reactions often differ on account of gender. (74) Throwing Evelyn's sober and virtuous wife into the equation along with Aphra Behn does not add to reader or audience unanimity. We have men, women, Whigs, Tories, merchants, clergymen, sprigs of the nobility, and heaven knows how many other sorts of readers to account for. We have also to take into account what I have elsewhere called "multeity"--by which I mean those characteristics of the text that give it intrinsic author-designed multiple meanings. (75) Allegories may be multiple-level; they can be transparent or opaque, obvious to almost any reader or only to a few. Texts can be crafted to look very different to different groups. Daniel Defoe's The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters (1702) has recently been read not as a bungled exercise in irony (the long-standard interpretation) but as a fab rication of an extremist pamphlet, designed to terrify religious dissenters while seeming like the real thing to Anglican bigots--a clever scheme that failed only when the anonymous author was identified. (76) A "historical interpretation" that ignores potentially wide variation in reader-response can only be stupidly procrustean.

(9) The value of a work of literature ultimately lies more in its significance than in its meaning. I am employing these terms here as Hirsch defined them. If the authorially conceived meaning seems irrelevant or unimportant to later readers, then they may comprehend it perfectly but take no interest in it. As Irwin rightly observes, "A world of only urinterpretation [limiting ourselves to attempted reconstruction of original authorial meaning] would be a dull and sterile one indeed." (77) We might continue to read the work for its artistic and rhetorical brilliance (see Absalom and Achitophel), though much would be lost. (78) Alternatively, we may in some fashion find applications entirely unforeseen by the author that give the work interest and potency for later audiences. I am skeptical about claims for "universal meaning" in literature, but a surprising number of works "apply" in effective and provocative ways entirely outside the original frame of reference. Otway's Venice Preserv'd (1682) was written during the Exclusion Crisis as a Tory tract against rebellion; was regarded for most of the eighteenth century as a libertarian proclamation; and during the Napoleonic era was promptly reinterpreted as a conservative warning against chaos. (79) I saw an English National Opera production of Wagner's Rienzi in 1983, reset in a contrived German-Russian-Italian dictatorship milieu circa 1935 that was astoundingly effective in making Wagner's creaky old historical drama frighteningly vivid and relevant to the present-day world.

(10) Super-subtle present-day readings should not be foisted on earlier texts in the guise of "historical reading." In his recent account of Swift and the rise of a "literary public sphere" in Ireland, Sean D. Moore argues that A Modest Proposal (1729) is not only "an indictment of colonial landlordism in Ireland" (the standard interpretation)--but is also "a commentary on the kinds of texts that were shaping Ireland's public sphere." In Moore's telling, part of Swift's object is "to encourage Irish readers to reject British books and adopt Irish ones," and his "dialogue with the British book trade is of central importance when reading A Modest Proposal's discourse on public finance:' The premise behind this discussion is that Swift's satire must be read both literally and allegorically: "The 'children' to be consumed ... stood not only literally for the native Irish young ... but also figuratively for texts in search of publishers." (80) Moore's study is deeply learned, and many of his conclusions compelling--but that Swift had any such complicated and covert agenda seems highly unlikely. Another example of what seems to me imposition of present-day theoretical concepts on eighteenth-century material is Erin Mackie's entertaining and ingenious attempt at "Historicizing Masculinity" in an account of rakes, highwaymen, and pirates and their influence on the construction of the "gentleman." (81) What we learn here is that highly sophisticated twenty-first-century scholars can discover implications and parallels in these texts to which an eighteenth-century reader would have been largely or entirely oblivious. With all respect for these particular critics' erudition, this sort of thing gives "historical interpretation" a bad name.

(11) Any historical interpretation should be treated as a hypothesis that must be subjected to rigorously skeptical testing. Popper makes this point in the chapter from which the epigraph above is extracted, and Levin develops the claim with application to literary study in a late and little-noticed article. (82) Levin observes first that "we cannot hope to prove any proposition unless we look for negative evidence that might contradict it" and second "that many of us ignore the first point, because of the tendency of our minds ... to look only for positive evidence that confirms a proposition we want to prove." This is all too often true in textual interpretation. One can say, "the central theme of [pick any play] is [whatever]" and supply bits of textual illustration, but this presupposes that the play has a central theme--and if it does then such a theme ought to be obvious to any competent reader. If critics disagree (and they certainly do), then something is very wrong here. (83) The problem is even greater in historical interpretation, where we do not have a single, tidy text to appeal to, but can point to bits of any of thousands of books and make general assertions. Here is an example from a manuscript I just read: "Once we understand death as the early moderns did ..." Really? This is to say that all "early moderns" (a vague period designation if ever there was one) thought alike about death? Rubbish. Before promulgating a historical interpretation we need to ask (a) what is the evidence? (b) what contrary evidence can we discover? and (c) would a profoundly skeptical colleague accept our reading as proven within the limits of manifestly pertinent evidence?

Why has historical interpretation been so inadequately theorized? Any answer must be speculative, but I would venture the suggestion that critics' failure to construct a rigorous methodology for historical interpretation derives from its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century origins. Herder's notion that literature is the product of an entire people striving to express itself; Hegel's concept of Geist as the collective energies of mind and feeling that produce the "spirit of an age" (Zeitgeist); and Schlegel's belief that literature expresses the "national recollections" of a "whole people" all led towards the deterministic explanations of literature that are featured in Hippolyte Taine's History of English Literature (1863-64). (84) The totalizing tendencies of this historicist school were strongly and rightly resisted by modernists, Russian Formalists, New Critics, and their successors, with the result that historical interpretation of a stringently particularist variety was never systematically proposed, theorized, and tested.

I want to conclude this investigation of the uses and failures of "historical interpretation" by emphasizing two crucial distinctions. First, as I remarked at the outset, "contextual annotation" and "historical interpretation" are not the same enterprise. The former supplies the reader with helpful background facts; the latter attempts to establish a contextually probable meaning. "Meaning" for whom? This question brings us to the second distinction, which is that meaning for the author is by no means necessarily the same as meaning comprehended by a reader (let alone several very different readers). A single historical interpretation is unlikely to apply equally well to both author and original-audience readers, never mind later ones. The complexities mount when we start to address the issue of readers, which catapults us into the smudgy territory in which a perfectly clear authorial meaning may draw totally contradictory responses from different groups of readers. Authors usually have meanings (whether clearly expressed or not), but they have no way to compel readers to decode them accurately--and they have even less power to control readers' responses, even if they are hell-bent on doing so. (85)

The principal aim of historical interpretation is to attempt to establish the meaning that the original deviser(s) of a text attempted to build into it--which can sometimes be done with considerable confidence, and sometimes with no assurance at all. Let me reiterate and emphasize a crucial point: context does not control meaning for either authors or readers. What was common in the thought-of-the-time is not necessarily believed by any individual, whether writer or reader. Historical interpretation tries to produce plausible readings by appealing to material procured from outside the text. Such readings cannot in their nature be definitive, and however convincing a reading may be, we should resist the temptation to claim that it must be "true." At its best, historical interpretation can help us towards "seeing things their way" as Skinner expresses the goal of the Cambridge school of intellectual history. (86) From such a contextual reconstruction we may with varying degrees of certitude obtain a sense of original meaning and reception against which to contrast a present-day evaluation of "significance" for a modern reader. The potential downsides, however, are numerous. We must not presume that there was only one original meaning. Neither should we impose period characterizations (Age of Sensibility) or sequential constructions (Neoclassicism gives way to Romanticism) on particular texts.

To do so produces dangerous balderdash, not solidly grounded, "proven" readings. "Historical interpretation" can be a wonderfully powerful tool, but it is a very bad dogma.

Pennsylvania State University


An oral version of this essay was delivered as a plenary lecture at the Aesthetics and History Symposium, Stockholm University, on 26 February 2010. For advice, assistance, and inspiration of various sorts, I am indebted to Professor Willmar Sauter (Head of the Aesthetics Institute), Eve Tavor Bannet, Julian Fung, Patricia Gael, Kathryn Hume, Paulina Kewes, Judith Milhous, Leah Orr, David Wallace Spielman, and most particularly Ashley Marshall.

(1) The OED dates "presentism" to 1916, defining it as "a bias towards the present or presentday attitudes, especially in the interpretation of history."

(2) The latter depends heavily on the former. "Historical scholarship is the source of facts which are then employed in the service of determining possible intended meaning." See Wendell V. Harris, Literary Meaning: Reclaiming the Study of Literature (Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1996), 170. For an attempt to theorize the enterprise, see Robert D. Hume, "The Aims and Limits of Historical Scholarship," RES n.s. 53 (2002): 399-422.

(3) James E. B. Breslin, From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965 (U. of Chicago Press, 1984), xiv.

(4) Surprisingly few attempts have been made to theorize or critique historical interpretation as a method. For three very different, usefully provocative, and aggravatingly abstract exemplars, see Morse Peckham, "On the Historical Interpretation of Literature," The Triumph of Romanticism (U. of South Carolina Press, 1970), chap. 23; Hayden White, "The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation," The Politics of Interpretation, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (U. of Chicago Press, 1983), 119-43; and E. D. Hirsch, Jr., "The Politics of Theories of Interpretation," in Mitchell, Politics of Interpretation, 321-33.

(5) J.R. de J. Jackson, Historical Criticism and the Meaning of Texts (London: Routledge, 1989), 3.

(6) I.A. Richards, Practical Criticism (1929; rpr. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956).

(7) See Philip Gaskell, From Writer to Reader: Studies in Editorial Method (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 63-79.

(8) Or as R. S. Crane expresses this idea, we are trying to figure out "what the writer wanted to convey," See "On Hypotheses in 'Historical Criticism;" in The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical, 2 vols. (U. of Chicago Press, 1967), 2: 246-47.

(9) E.D. Hirsch, Jr., "Objective Interpretation," PMLA 75 (1960): 466.

(10) Jackson, Historical Criticism, 39.

(11) For the meaning/significance dichotomy, see E. D. Hirsch, Jr., "Objective Interpretation"; The Aims of Interpretation (U. of Chicago Press, 1976), chap. 1; "Past Intentions and Present Meanings" Essays in Criticism 33 (1983): 79-98; and "Meaning and Significance Reinterpreted," Critical Inquiry 11 (1984): 202-25. Hirsch remained notoriously resistant to the claims of reader response, but its importance is now widely acknowledged.

(12) P. D. Juhl, Interpretation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literary Criticism (Princeton U. Press, 1980), 237. The book was reviewed, critically but respectfully, by Frank Kermode in the New York Review of Books in May 1981. Kermode prints the review, with a reply by Juhl and a further exchange between the two of them in his The Art of Telling: Essays on Fiction (Harvard U. Press, 1983), Appendix.

(13) William Irwin, Intentionalist Interpretation: A Philosophical Explanation and Defense (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), chap. 5 at 113.

(14) On assembling the relevant contexts and recognizing their limits, see Robert D. Hume, Reconstructing Contexts: The Aims and Principles of Archaeo-Historicism (Oxford U. Press, 1999).

(15) The classic account of such reading practices is Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism and Allegorical Interpretation in the Renaissance (Johns Hopkins Press, 1970).

(16) Plutarch's Philosophie, trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1603), 17.

(17) On which see Rhodri Lewis, "Francis Bacon, Allegory and the Uses of Myth" RES n.s. 61 (2010): 360-89.

(18) John M. Wallace, "Dryden and History: A Problem in Allegorical Reading" ELH 36 (1969): 265-90; "'Examples Are Best Precepts': Readers and Meanings in Seventeenth-Century Poetry" Critical Inquiry 1 (1974): 273-90.

(19) Later scholars have pointed to other instances. See, for example, A. H. Tricomi, "Philip, Earl of Pembroke, and the Analogical Way of Reading Political Tragedy" JEGP 85 (1986): 332-45; and Richard Dutton, "Volpone and Beast Fable: Early Modern Analogic Reading" HLQ 67 (2004): 347-70.

(20) David V. Erdman, Blake, Prophet against Empire: A Poet's Interpretation of the History of His Own Times (1954; 3rd ed. Princeton U. Press, 1977).

(21) H. Bruce Franklin, "Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries," American Literature 69 (1997): 337-59.

(22) See Ashley Marshall, "The Aims of Butler's Satire in Hudibras," MP 105 (2008): 637-65.

(23) Gardiner Harris, "Out-of-Wedlock Births Are Soaring, U.S. Reports," New York Times, 13 May 2009.

(24) This is true, for example, of Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition, ed. Patricia Meyer Spacks (Harvard U. Press, 2010), 61.

(25) For a cogent discussion of class and money in Austen, see J. A. Downie, "Who Says She's a Bourgeois Writer? Reconsidering the Social and Political Contexts of Jane Austen's Novels" Eighteenth-Century Studies 40 (2006): 69-84.

(26) See Blair Worden, The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics (Yale U. Press, 1996).

(27) Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1962; New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 36-37. I suspect that Popper might be more incredulous than pleased by my application of his notion of "verification" to literary interpretation. I do not regard either criticism or history as "scientific" enterprises, but if there is no standard of proof and no claim to truth, then anything goes--and why bother? For a scathing and sobering challenge to criticism that evades "the burdens of documentation, verification, and proof" see Mark Bauerlein, Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), quotation at xiii.

(28) Richard Levin, New Readings vs. Old Plays: Recent Trends in the Reinterpretation of English Renaissance Drama (U. of Chicago Press, 1979), chap. 4. Levin is one of the acutest analysts of interpretive method I have ever read. Unjustly but unsurprisingly, he has also been one of the most reviled. See, for example, the attack in "Forum," PMLA 104 (1989): 77-79. Levin's later essays are conveniently collected in Looking for an Argument: Critical Encounters with the New Approaches to the Criticism of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson U. Press, 2003).

(29) Levin, New Readings, 146-47. I strongly disagree with the "all" in this sentence, but Levin's overgeneralization does not undercut his demolition of particular instances of false methodology.

(30) So says Eleanor Prosser in Hamlet and Revenge (1967; 2nd ed. Stanford U. Press, 1971).

(31) Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost is a good example of a text with no definite allusion to historical individuals whose character names have generated wildly contradictory and quite unprovable speculations.

(32) Levin, New Readings, 147. He analyzes at length the claim that Shakespeare's Measure for Measure "was specifically designed for the performance which we believe took place before the King at Whitehall on 26 December 1604" (171).

(33) See D. W. Robertson, Jr., "Historical Criticism" English Institute Essays 1950, ed. Alan S. Downer (Columbia U. Press, 1951), 3-31; following quotation from Robertson at 3.

(34) See particularly D. W. Robertson, Jr., and Bernard F. Huppe, Piers Plowman and Scriptural Tradition (Princeton U. Press, 1951), Preface and Chapter 1: "The Method," and R. E. Kaske, "Patristic Exegesis in the Criticism of Medieval Literature: The Defense," Critical Approaches to Medieval Literature: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1958-1959, ed. Dorothy Bethurum (Columbia U. Press, 1960), 27-60.

(35) R.S. Crane, "On Hypotheses in 'Historicism Criticism': Apropos of Certain Contemporary Medievalists," in Idea of the Humanities, 2:249. Following quotation from 2:251.

(36) Jackson, Historical Criticism, 120.

(37) For long-influential totalizing accounts, quite good ones of their kind, see Jerome Hamikon Buckley, The Victorian Temper: A Study in Literary Culture (Harvard U. Press, 1951), and Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870 (Yale U. Press, 1957).

(38) For a devastating demolition of the concept of a "neoclassical" period, see B. H. Bronson, "When Was Neoclassicism?" Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1660-1800: Essays in Honor of Samuel Holt Monk, ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea (U. of Minnesota Press, 1967), 13-35.

(39) Richard Levin, "Unthinkable Thoughts in the New Historicizing of English Renaissance Drama" New Literary History 21 (1990): 437.

(40) Present-day examples of oversimplified generalizations about historical reading are all too easy to find. One might point to Kate Loveman's investigation of the pre-history of the novel, a wide-ranging study that yields many useful insights. However, I find her confidence that she can characterize the interpretive practice of early modern readers from very limited evidence highly problematic. She admits the theoretical difficulty of trying to characterize the habits of fiction readers, but maintains that "the attitudes and approaches to reading discussed here were widely understood." See Reading Fictions, 1660-1740: Deception in English Literary and Political Culture (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2008), 13.

(41) Levin, New Readings, 150-51.

(42) Levin, New Readings, 152.

(43) Levin, New Readings, 162.

(44) David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Harvard U. Press, 1968), 2. Following quotation from 16.

(45) Bevington's warning is worth quoting: "I am skeptical of topical identification of historical personages and particular events.... I offer few if any new historical equations of this sort, and tolerate few of those already proposed.... My study hopes to prove that politics is germane to a remarkable percentage of Tudor plays, but in terms of ideas and platforms rather than personalities. Even the allusions to kings or queens, although obviously referring in many cases to the reigning monarch, pertain to the office instead of the man" (Tudor Drama, 25).

(46) Richard Dutton, Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama (Iowa City: U. of Iowa Press, 1991).

(47) See The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 6th ed. (London: Longman, 2009).

(48) The following discussion draws on Robert D. Hume, "The Socio-Politics of London Comedy from Jonson to Steele" HLQ (forthcoming).

(49) James D. Mardock, Our Scene Is London: Ben Jonson's City and the Space of the Author (New York: Routledge, 2008), 59-60. For a reading that attempts to confront the play's ambiguities, complexities, and contradictions, see Peter Lake with Michel Questier, The Antichrist's Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England (Yale U. Press, 2002), 394-407.

(50) A good example of ill-founded historical assumptions about a particular genre is English opera of the later seventeenth century. For many decades, critics analyzed the librettos of some forty operas, working from the premise that they contained covert political allegory, Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur (1691) being a prime example. On the basis of a sober examination of texts and contexts, I have concluded that these works are frequently celebratory and often present royalist propaganda. Positive transparent allegory is common, but there is no demonstrable instance of covert/subversive allegory in any of these operas. See Robert D. Hume, "The Politics of Opera in Late Seventeenth-Century London," Cambridge Opera Journal 10 (1998): 15-43.

(51) John Peter, "A New Interpretation of The Waste Land," Essays in Criticism 2 (1952): 242-66. The editor reprinted the piece after Eliot's death with an eleven-page "Postscript (1969)" by Peter recounting the legal action brought by Eliot against editor and publisher and adding some further interpretive details: Essays in Criticism 19 (1969): 165-75. For a fuller biographical investigation, see James E. Miller, Jr., T. S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons (Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1977).

(52) For a facsimile of Pound's editing of Eliot's original, see The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, ed. Valerie Eliot (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1971).

(53) Richard L. Levin, "The Problem of 'Context' in Interpretation," Shakespeare and Dramatic Tradition: Essays in Honor of S. F. Johnson, ed. W R. Elton and William B. Long (U. of Delaware Press, 1989), 96.

(54) James A. Riddell and Stanley Stewart, Jonson's Spenser: Evidence and Historical Criticism (Pittsburgh: Duquesne U. Press, 1995), 136.

(55) For the latter reading, see Kathleen Williams, Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise (Lawrence: U. of Kansas Press, 1958).

(56) See Ashley Marshall, "Gulliver, Gulliveriana, and the Problem of Swiftian Satire," PQ 84 (2005): 232.

(57) Dale Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners (Yale U. Press, 1957), 92.

(58) Mark David Rasmussen, ed., Renaissance Literature and Its Formal Engagements (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 2.

(59) Kenneth Muir, The Singularity of Shakespeare (Liverpool U. Press, 1977), 57.

(60) E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto and Windus, 1943); Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (U. of Chicago Press, 1984), 3-4. For some current instances of projecting present-day preferences into a historical setting, see Shakespeare and Early Modern Political Thought, ed. David Armitage, Conal Condren, and Andrew Fitzmaurice (Cambridge U. Press, 2009). David Bevington arrives at a much more defensible position when he concludes that "we cannot be sure, from the pronouncements of his dramatic characters, what Shakespeare himself may have thought ... his tactic ... is to put ideas in debate." See Shakespeare's Ideas (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 213. A similar position is enunciated by Quentin Skinner in "Shakespeare and Humanist Culture." Shakespeare and Early Modern Political Thought, 271-81.

(61) For Howard Weinbrot, on what I would characterize more generally as historicist scholarship and criticism, see his "Historical Criticism, Hypotheses, and Eighteenth-Century Studies: The Case for Induction and Neutral Knowledge," Theory and Tradition in Eighteenth-Century Studies, ed. Richard B. Schwartz (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1990), 66-92.

(62) I have addressed this point in Reconstructing Contexts, 76-77.

(63) Crane, "Critical and Historical Principles of Literary History," Idea of the Humanities, 2:97.

(64) Laurence Lerner, "What Can We Do with a Poem?" English Studies in Africa 42 (1999): 8-9.

(65) Levin, New Readings, 166.

(66) Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1979), 8-10.

(67) For an invigorating demand that interpreters address such issues, see Hershel Parker, "The 'New Scholarship': Textual Evidence and Its Implications for Criticism, Literary Theory, and Aesthetics," Studies in American Fiction 9 (1981): 181-97.

(68) On such problems see Robert D. Hume, "The Aims and Uses of 'Textual Studies,'" Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 99 (2005): 197-230.

(69) For a highly readable account of this longstanding mess, see Hershel Parker, Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons: Literary Authority in American Fiction (Northwestern U. Press, 1984).

(70) Levin, "Context' in Interpretation," 89.

(71) Lerner, "Against Historicism," New Literary History 24 (1993): 290.

(72) Meredith Anne Skura, "Reading Othello's Skin: Contexts and Pretexts" PQ 87 (2008): 299-334.

(73) For an analysis of radically contradictory takes on Fielding, see Robert D. Hume, "Fielding at 300: Elusive, Confusing, Misappropriated, or (perhaps) Obvious?" MP 108 (2010): 224-62.

(74) See Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988).

(75) Hume, "Politics of Opera," 32-35.

(76) See Ashley Marshall, "The Generic Context of Defoe's The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters and the Problem of Irony," RES n.s. 61 (2010): 234-58.

(77) Irwin, Intentionalist Interpretation, 64.

(78) For a massively contextualized and extremely helpful account of the poem in its setting, see Phillip Harth, Pen for a Party: Dryden's Tory Propaganda in Its Contexts (Princeton U. Press, 1993).

(79) See Aline Mackenzie Taylor, Next to Shakespeare: Otway's "Venice Preserv'd" and "The Orphan" and Their History on the London Stage (Duke U. Press, 1950).

(80) Sean D. Moore, Swift, the Book, and the Irish Financial Revolution: Satire and Sovereignty in Colonial Ireland (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2010), 168-72.

(81) Erin Mackie, Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of the Modern Gentleman in the Eighteenth Century (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2009).

(82) Richard Levin, "Negative Evidence," SP 92 (1995): 383-410.

(83) See Richard Levin's famous demolition, "Some Second Thoughts on Central Themes," MLR 67 (1972): 1-10 (material incorporated in New Readings).

(84) For convenient summaries of these thinkers' positions, see John Paul Russo, "Historical Theory and Criticism," The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1994), 382-88.

(85) As Eco drily observes, "In the process of communication, a text is frequently interpreted against the background of codes different from those intended by the author" (Role of the Reader, 8). This is true for the original audience, and even truer for later ones.

(86) See Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics, vol. 1: Regarding Method (Cambridge U. Press, 2002), chapter 1. I admire Skinner's work, though I find him insufficiently concerned with reader response issues and not attentive enough to reception history where substantial evidence survives.
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Author:Hume, Robert D.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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