There are several important ways in which both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary analysis as for example looking for the subversive in women’s literature – i.e. that which is not explicitly stated (for any number of good reasons) but nonetheless is still present.images

Most certainly if Austen felt so constrained to so as not to publish her novels under her own name, she felt constrained to express some of her real concerns. If we wish to potentially identify some of these concerns, we might turn to Jungian Literary Criticism which usually begins with the question – ‘what psychological factors (whether an image or complex of concerns) might have been responsible for that text. If for example we wish to identify any feminist concerns that Austen might have held, we would look for clues suggestive of recurring feminist themes. In this regard it is prudent to look to ideas of feminism in play during the period in which Austen was writing (rather than to modern constructions of feminism); one such idea would have been application of the same moral code to both sexes.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine morally flawed (the citizens of Highbury are not impressed with the way that she treats them). When Emma undertakes to morally improve herself she does not do so on her own but instead seeks instruction from Mr Knightly. This in turn leads to his estimation of her to rise so much that he wants to marry her. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is also a heroine flawed and although in many respects she is portrayed in feminist terms – i.e. as speaking her own mind and refusing to marry as her guardian would like, when she seeks to improve herself. Like Emma, Fanny turns to her love interest, Edmund – who not surprisingly like Emma’s Mr Knightly decides that now Fanny, reformed in his own mould, is the girl for him. Arguably Catherine Morland in Northanger Abby is cut from a different mould – for the most part she is left on her own to develop her own ‘understanding’ of what is morally wrong and right – unfettered either by fathers, lovers, or husbands.

Jungian theory might suggest that we make the most of ‘meaningful coincidence’ in respect to these seemingly recurrent themes in Austen’s work. Even if she were not consciously replicating this theme of moral code in line with love interest = marriage, she was most likely unconsciously doing so for the Jungians would be quick to demonstrate that statistically these same motifs regarding equality amongst the sexes (especially in a society when there was almost certainly none) should not have occurred otherwise.

Jungian literary criticism has also highlighted archetypally inspired literary themes that recur across a broad cross-cultural spectrum – for example as with the process of ‘individuation’ whereby a protagonist struggles to experience the ‘triumph of consciousness over the unconscious’ and hence make his or her psyche whole. Individuation is depicted as the ‘Hero’s Journey’ and hence is often associated with the Bildungsroman or classic coming of age novel which has in turn been associated with classic accounts of stifled individuation such as with Dickens’ hero, David Copperfield. Most certainly his nasty stepfather, Mr Murdstone, tries very hard to mould David into his own (rotten) image and when he fails to do so sends him off to work his London-based wine-bottling business. Luckily David escapes this situation and hence commences on his process of individuation allowing him to fulfil himself in his own right – by not only getting the girl of his dreams, Agnes, but also with being a commercial success through expression of his own talents.

Freudian literary criticism also pays close attention an author’s unconscious motives and/or feelings in order to tease out ‘covert’ themes. The assumption is that these ‘covert’ themes are just as important if not more so than the ‘overt’ themes (i.e. those consciously expressed by the author) and also that they demonstrate classic psychoanalytic symptoms of blockage in the emotional /sexual development in the author and/or his/her characters.

Freudian literary criticism asserts that all art and literature fulfils some repressed infantile desire of its creator which it turn almost always relates to the Oedipal complex whereby the son wishes to murder his father because he sees him as a rival for sexual congress with his mother. There are obvious parallels in great literature with, for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where when the character by the same name is called upon to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle who in turn married Hamlet’s mother, Hamlet spends all day musing about ‘to be or not to be’ instead of committing what ought to be the fairly straight forward act of revenge-driven murder. Using Freudian theory, some critics have seized upon a possible explanation for such ‘irrational’ behaviour in the sense that Hamlet can not kill his uncle for doing that which he himself wanted to do.

Perhaps a less straightforward application of Freudian literary criticism may be found in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. With a women, the Oedipal complex takes a different form suggesting that once bound to her mother by homo-sexual desires, a young girl like Rossetti would then need to turn her desire toward father and the wish to have his baby. I would suggest that her signature poem – Winter: My Secret may reflect such an urge – and that naturally repressed because she was so religiously inclined – her Oedipal instincts remained her jealously guarded secret, preventing her from developing (1) other poetic themes (she predominately favours religion and the fallen women) in her work and (2) her life – in a society where women were expected to marry, she mystifyingly turned down three suitable marriage offers.

In summary, Jungian-based psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary theory by rooting out subversive feminist themes in women’s literature, as for example, moral equality as demonstrated in the works of Jane Austen. Likewise Jungian-based literary theory seeks to identify underlying archetypal themes such as the process of individuation – or the Hero’s Journey – that recurs across a cross-cultural spectrum. The Bildungsroman is perfect for this. Freudian-based psychoanalysis also can serve as a model for literary theory likewise rooting out unconscious literary themes relating to sexually repressed desires that prevent either the author or his/her characters from moving forward with their personality development.

‘Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight’ (Dr Faustus).

Are the endings of Renaissance plays implicit in their beginnings? Often this is the case, at least in those Renaissance tragedies where the classical Greek chorus was in whole or part adopted. However the audience may have to work rather harder than might be expected in order to unravel these implications as the above quote taken from the ending chorus in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus suggests.

In that play the chorus performs one of the most important roles of the Greek chorus by preparing the audience for key moments in the storyline. The chorus in Dr Faustus tells us that this play is neither about love nor war nor ‘audacious deeds’. Instead it is about a man born of parents, ‘base of stock’ – and hence signals something akin to the so-called ‘everyman’ plays wherein the protagonist will receive instruction on how as a Christian, he should lead his life and hence save his soul.Greek Chorus

But at the same time this chorus also references the classical myth of Icarus, whose waxen wings melted when he foolishly flew to close to the sun. In classical terms the fate or ‘fortunes’ (as the referenced by the chorus) of one such as Icarus depended more on ‘ignorance’ rather than on the ‘wickedness’ with which the Christian audience would be faced. There would appear little suggestion that the character Faustus is ignorant of his situation; although in the first scene he importantly neglects to finish his quotation from the First Letter of John regarding the effect of confessing one’s sins and hence receiving God’s forgiveness, we have the sense that such omission is more strategic (to justify his chosen position) than ill-informed. Hence quite how the reference to Icarus and his ‘melting heavens’ that ‘conspired his overthrow’ are meant infer how Faustus’ ‘wickedness’ contributed to his sad end is something that audience were perhaps meant to ponder a bit.

Further, this quote taken from conclusion of Dr Faustus seems to suggest that Faustus actually had a choice as whether his ‘branch might have grown full straight’. This raises the importance of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination; those in the audience who adhered to this view would have wondered at such a suggestion for in their view Faustus is clearly damned from the beginning and hence there was nothing he could ever have done – no choice he could ever have taken – for his branch to have ‘grown full straight’.

In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, clearly influenced by the Roman dramatist Seneca, the ‘chorus’ in the form of the interchange between the ghost of Andrea and Revenge, works slightly differently. Although it does imply the ending in the general sense that justice will be done – i.e. Balthazar, the Portuguese prince who killed Andrea, will get his just-deserts at the hands of Andrea’s old girlfriend, Bel-Imperia – it does not prepare the audience for key moments in the story line. Instead it rather long-windedly sets the scene of the pagan underworld in which none of the play actually takes place. Naturally the audience is meant to hang on the final words of Revenge in that opening chorus – ‘here we sit down to see the mystery’ but they remain none the wiser as to nature of that ‘mystery’ – indeed they do not even yet know who will be the tragic protagonist. At least they can take heart in that unlike with the chorus in Dr Faustus, they are not being deliberately misled except perhaps to the extent they might expect the play to unfold in that so carefully described underworld.

The ‘Argument’ and ‘Prologue’ in Jonson’s Renaissance comedy, Volpone, likewise works similarly to the Greek chorus – the ‘Argument’ preparing the audience for key moments to come by summarising the plot and, as did the ghostly chorus in Kyd, implying that justice will be done when at the end ‘all are sold’. The Prologue adds to this by suggesting that ‘our play’ will be a ‘hit’ as the result of the dramatists’ salty ink – with which he intends to ‘rub your cheeks’ till ‘red with laughter’. This is a clear signal that the play is not tragedy but comedy and satire.

In those Renaissance plays without a chorus or prologue, the ending is sometimes suggested with the opening lines – as for example, in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling. Here Alsemero hints at the play will be a tragedy with words like ‘omen’ and ‘fate’. But at the same time he suggests that it may be a comedy with words of love and matrimony. Clearly the audience will need to work to unravel that. However with Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, there is neither chorus nor prologue nor argument and rather like a 21st century novel, the opening lines jump straight into the action as the (soon-to-be) husband of the Duchess chats amiably with his friend, Delio, implying very little of what is to follow except perhaps that it is meant to ‘instruct princes what they ought to do’.

In summary, in those Renaissance plays that adopt a Greek-style chorus, the ending is more or less implicit in the beginning in the sense that the audience is being prepared for key moments in the storyline. Often however the audience will need to work hard to unravel the various clues given because often enough they are (deliberately or not) misleading. Renaissance plays with prologues and arguments work in a similar fashion often summarising the plot as with Volpone and making clear whether what is to come is meant to be tragedy or comedy. However in those plays with neither a chorus nor prologue nor argument, the opening lines may still give a hint what is to come although not nearly in so much detail.

‘Marriage is a merri-age, and this world’s Paradise’ (Rachel Speght).

Catherine Richards notes in her essay, ‘Tragedy, family and household’(Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy), there were two rulers to every household – the husband and wife – and although they were not equal (women always subservient to men) both parties were expected not only to work together for the benefit of the household but also to show mutual respect for each other.

As Richards also points out, the household was seen as the microcosm of the nation-state – the assumption being that to the extent individual households succeed, the nation-state does too. However the closeness of human relationships constrained by the physical shape of the household – a private yet familiar space – can and did lead to rather bizarre results especially when household loyalties break down.

Understanding the institution of marriage in this way, it becomes readily apparent that the romantic love that we in the 21st century so favour in relationships was not a key factor in the Renaissance equation. Hence it would appear that Ms Speght’s definition of marriage as ‘merri-age’ and ‘this world’s Paradise’ requires a wider interpretation than simply romance as no doubt she, herself a product of the Renaissance, would have understood.

At least in regards to tragedies of the period, romantic ‘love’ seems to have been a drawback. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the marriage of Bel-Imperia is very much a political game. When she decides to love Horatio, the son of the tragic protagonist, Hieronimo, rather than Balthazar, the choice of her brother, Lorenzo, and presumably also her father, the King of Spain, everrenaissance marriageything goes wrong; the result is that all the lovers must die. Likewise in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess, a young widow is second-guessed by her jealous (and likely incestuous) twin brother, the choleric Ferdinand, on her choice of her household steward, Antonio, as a husband; again all lovers must die.

In The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley, there is some compromise in regards to romantic love. When Beatrice’s fiancée, Alonzo, chosen by her father, dies (murdered by Beatrice and her servant, Deflores), her choice of Alsemero (who took every opportunity to butter up Beatrice’s father) is accepted. Yet in this play ‘romance’ is still not straightforward, at least in the eyes of the tragic protagonist, Beatrice. Although she would say with her rational brain that she loves Alsemero, with her irrational unconscious she choses to become both emotionally and sexually entwined with her accomplice in murder, Deflores.

Yet because both women and slaves are considered exempt from (or incapable of) rational behaviour, the apparent requirement that both Beatrice and her lover must die here, remains to me, a bit of a mystery. I can only conclude that the breakdown of a household such as this was seen as such a political threat that it required death to bring such threat to an end.

In Renaissance comedy, the treatment of marriage is quite different. Usually one of the key ingredients of a comedy is that the play ends either in marriage (as does Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream) or the promise of marriage. Unlike with tragedy, romance in our 21st century sense is more in evidence in comedy and it usually is rewarded as with Midsummer’s Night Dream where all the warring couples are at the end, happily united in matrimony. However unlike with the tragedies, the comedies do not usually probe the personal dynamics of a marriage as deeply as do the tragedies.

For example, in Jonson’s Volpone, the character Corvino is shown to be as unjustifiably jealous of his pretty wife, Celia, as is Leontes over his wife, Hermione, in Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy, The Winter’s Tale. Indeed the jealous husband is often a motif in Renaissance drama – perhaps reminding us again that all is not right when in a marriage, there is no mutual respect. The outcome of these comedies differ dramatically however with how the jealous husband reacts. With Corvino the slightest provocation (Celia only tossed her handkerchief out her window – she was hardly caught in bed with another man) sets him to berate his wife most unbecomingly – taking his sword he threatens to ‘strike this steel into thee’ and then promises to ‘lock’ her up and ‘keep thee backwards’ which has rather seedy implications of its own.

Whilst Corvino later appears to try to patch things up with his wife, it is only to lure her to Volpone’s house – where (unbeknownst to her) he has arranged lease her out as a whore. With this, Corvino has now gone much too far and we are not surprised when later the four magistrates punish him by taking away his wife and sending her home to her father. Like Corvino, Leontes also loses his wife – at least for a time – but he does finally see the error of his ways (in a way that we can imagine Corvino never could) and when he has suffered enough for his bad behaviour, his wife is (more or less magically) restored to him.

In summary, during the English Renaissance, the institution of marriage was viewed as a partnership whereby both husband and wife had responsibilities to the household as a whole. Because the household was seen as a microcosm for the nation-state, the success/failure of the individual household had important political implications and hence romance, as we might understand it in the 21st century, was not usually a key ingredient. In the tragedies, romance was usually an impediment and always gave way to more important political goals. However in the comedies, romance was not necessarily seen as a problem and indeed many comedies end with a happy marriage, as with Midsummer’s Night Dream. However this was not always the case and in some comedies such as Volpone or tragi-comedies such as The Winter’s Tale, a marriage partnership that had become sufficiently unbalanced was either terminated or (painfully) repaired.

The New Critics established that ‘literature requires and deserves responsible reading and readable response’, but the New Criticism was eventually rejected as being ‘intellectually naïve and methodologically fruitless’ (John Willingham).

new criticismNew Criticism emphasizes close reading of a text – treating it is a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object – ‘art for ‘art’s sake’ – rather than a work fitting into some larger cultural or other context.

Such an approach is somewhat useful for at the end of the day all that we do have is the text and the larger context into which it may fit remains at best interpretation or conjecture. In this regard, New Criticism can never be ‘methodologically fruitless’; words do speak for themselves and if we are to understand what it being said it helps to focus on what is (as opposed to what is not) on the page.

However there is also significant room to argue as does Willingham, that New Criticism is intellectually naïve in the sense that for although we can never know for certain how the greater context in which it was written influences the text, we can be certain that it has indeed influenced it and if we ignore that influence then we have lost a great deal from our aesthetic experience.

For example in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a close reading of the text in 2.5 where Ferdinand expounds ‘Rhubarb, O for rhubarb (t)o purge this choler’ may well leave us none the wiser. Certainly a 21st century reader realises that Ferdinand is angry (for ‘choler’ has retained that link) but the connection between ‘rhubarb’ (the New Critics were keen to focus on ambiguity and indeed tried to show the unity beneath the text’s apparent disunity) and ‘purging’ that ‘choler’ is lost. Without context, it is almost impossible to fit rhubarb together with anger (unless one suggests they are both related to the colour red). Indeed we may even be tempted to see this ambiguity or disunity as a flaw in the work; many 21st century readers tend to judge a work harshly when we are forced stop reading and think.

However if we know that in the early 17th century rhubarb was considered to medicinally ‘purge’ or cure ‘choler’, then a meaningful connection is made. But unless we understand that Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ is not a fleeting state of mind, but his temperament, we cannot realise the full import of this connection. We can rectify this however if, for example, we examine this text as might a proponent of New Historicism – in conjunction with a text contemporary of the period. For example in John Harrington’s 1607 Poems on Temperament, we discover that a choleric like Ferdinand is not only angry, but he is ‘oft malicious’ and ‘all violent and fierce’. Not only that but ‘on little cause to anger’ a choleric like Ferdinand is ‘great inclin’d’. This understanding of the nature of his temperament presents a different picture that if we were to believe him simply angry on a certain day.

Further, if we accept that a text is an ‘aesthetic object’ (however TS Eliot and others might have us define that) then if we are to take anything valuable away from our ‘aesthetic experience’ , we need to focus on what it tells us about ourselves. For example, if we were to examine this text as might a proponent of feminist literary criticism, we might focus more on the suggestion that Ferdinand intends to ‘purge’ his temper on his sister (whom in a few lines earlier was pronounced ‘a notorious strumpet’) because she has married not to his liking even whilst he appears to have no problem that his brother, the Cardinal, keeps as his mistress, another man’s wife. Where is the equality in this asks the feminist? How can the Duchess express herself (as she clearly is attempting to do by marrying of her own choice) if politically she has not the power to do so? Now the focus is no longer just on a choleric brother having a 17th century rant but on the sexual politics of the period and how they might still inform our own sexual politics in the 21st century.

If we were to examine this text as might a proponent of psychological literary criticism then we would focus not on Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ and its manifestations but instead on its potential causes – perhaps the problem is sexual libido gone wrong – this is not an unreasonable suggestion what with all the knives and their phallic symbolism (in 3.2 Ferdinand sneaks into his sister’s boudoir and surprises her with a knife) and Ferdinand’s protestations in 4.1 about the effect on him of her body (‘Damn her, That body of hers’). Thus instead of Rhubarb to ‘purge’ Ferdinand’s ‘choler’, a 21st century psychotherapist might prescribe psychoanalysis or even a modern day substitute for ‘rhubarb’ like prosaic. What might this tell us about how much scientific advancements have changed 21st century society as opposed to that of 17th century?

In summary, if we wish to come to grips with a text then as suggested by the New Critics we should focus on the text. To do otherwise make it all to easy miss not only what has been written but also to add things that have not. In this sense the approach of the New Critics cannot be methodologically fruitless. It can however be intellectually naïve to believe that one can fully appreciate a text (or indeed any piece of art) if one does not understand it in the context in which it was created. It is likewise intellectually naïve not to attempt to draw conclusions about what that text or piece of art might tell us about ourselves – for example how society has or has not changed over time.

‘This dynamic…is the original dramatic phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s eyes and now to act as if one really had entered another body, another character’ (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy).

It is my understanding that with this quote Nietzsche was referring to classical Greek drama wherein dramatists seize upon a metaphor or image that when presented to the audience through mimesis or imitation, conveys a ‘seminal truth’ rather than a ‘cultural lie’. In other words, if a tragedy is to achieve ‘transformation’ in the sense to which Nietzsche was referring, then it must provide audiences with something more deeply meaningful than mere entertainment or political party line. For Nietzsche, transformation was not simply a matter suspending audience disbelief, but instead allowing the audience to actually enter the world of the Greek god Dionysus, in whose realm lies all primordial truths and with it, the tragic suffering inherent in comprehending these truths.images

If by action we are referring to stage performance (rather than theme or underlying plot), then to the extent audiences were encouraged to see such performance as mere entertainment, I would suggest that Renaissance tragedy more often than not misses Nietzsche’s mark. Bottom line, most Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were by necessity as interested (if not more) in making money than they were in imparting seminal truths. According to Mike Pincombe in his article ‘English Renaissance Tragedy: Theories and Antecedents’ in the Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, Elizabethan audiences were in tune with the idea that ‘tragedy’ required ‘the fall of a great man and a lot of shouting to go with it’. To the extent Renaissance dramatists played to that idea, then if most of the audience focus was more on the ‘shouting’ than the gathering of primordial truths, it would seem ‘transformation’ would not likely have often occurred.

For example in her introduction to the New Mermaids edition of the A-Text of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Ros King notes that the popularity of the play was due in large part to the audience’s interest in the special effects (the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope must have been a feat). Even the side story of Rafe and Robin having ‘stolen one of Doctor Faustus’ conjuring books’ and playing at their own conjuring in order to obtain ‘the kitchen maid’ for ‘thy own use’ would seem for the most part although entertaining also distractive – not contributing in any meaningful way to the main plot of Faustus’ struggle regarding Christian redemption and most certainly not reflective of a primordial truth.

Rather than conveying a ‘seminal truth’, the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope would seem to be more easily justified as an attempt to further a ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that although first printed in 1604, the play was most definitely written when the staunchly protestant Elizabeth I was still on the throne. The connection between Renaissance tragedy and the politics of the moment is also addressed by other Renaissance writers such as Sir Phillip Sidney in his The Defense of Posey, where he suggested tragedy ought to teach kings to avoid tyranny. In his article Tragedy and the nation state (Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy) remarks that the relationship between English tragedy and the nation-state was ‘there from the start’.

This does not mean that because a tragedy conveys a ‘cultural lie’ such as political party line and is also entertaining (lots of ‘shouting’ going on) that it cannot also deliver that (Dionysian) ‘seminal truth’. Indeed in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, there was not only the fall and tragic suffering of Hieronomo, (albeit not really a ‘great man’) but also the seminal truth that justice is not able to be achieved even when the king is not a tyrant (this of course also likely another ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that if it had been otherwise the censors of the time would likely have refused for the play to be presented – or worse).

In summary, if Nietzsche’s conception of ‘transformation’ required tragedy to deliver seminal truths rather than cultural lies to the audience, then I would have to conclude that for the most part Renaissance tragedy likely most often failed to achieve it. Renaissance dramatists were for the most part economically dependent on having their plays well-received and if audiences had the notion that tragedy should include the fall of a (more or less) great man with a good deal of shouting going on then it only made sense that is what the dramatists delivered; focused on the ‘shouting’, it would have been hard to focus also on seminal truths. That is not to suggest that in many cases seminal truths were not available, as with Dr Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy. However I would suggest that such well-entertained Renaissance audiences most likely had to work harder to find them than classic Greek audiences might have done. Finally, as the connection between tragedy and nation-state was always present, it is unlikely that any seminal truths would have been conveyed undiluted by some very necessary ‘cultural lies’.

StructuralismStructuralism holds that a culture can be understood by means of the structure upon which its language, or structural linguistics, is modelled. This is because according to Saussure, the meanings assigned to words as well as the relationship between words (i.e. sentence structure) are maintained solely by convention. I have found this ‘new perspective’ of structuralism valuable in my study of literature because it provides enriched understanding about various cultural values and beliefs underlying the texts. It does however have its drawbacks which should be acknowledged if such value is not to be severely diminished.

For example, in 1.2 of Shakespeare’s play I Henry IV, when Hal proposes that when he becomes king, Falstaff should serve as his hangman, Falstaff responds that this ‘jumps with my humour’. Without placing the word ‘humour’ in its correct cultural context, I might be tempted to interpret this as an expression of Falstaff’s present mood. This would make it much more difficult to make meaningful connections with the lines that follow whereby Falstaff suggests he is as ‘melancholy’ as a ‘gib cat’ or ‘lugg’d bear’. However when I consider such comparisons to be signs of early modern cultural convention, values, and beliefs, I find myself addressing the complexities of Galenic humoralism which incorporates ideas about inborn temperaments relating to scarcity or excesses of bodily fluids – in the case of melancholy that of black bile. Hence Falstaff is not just feeling melancholy– he is melancholic. This has implications for his future because by nature of his humours, regardless of what he might wish to be otherwise, he is non-energetic, serious, solitary, suspicious, and mistrustful. Now the associations with animals (all mammals with blood were considered to be effect by the humours) start to make sense; the ‘gib cat’ or gelded (castrated) cat signals Falstaff is always ineffectual and the ‘lugg’d bear’ suggests that he realises he is being baited by Hal but is unable to do anything about it.

As a feminist looking at texts through structuralist eyes, I am also able to hone in on sex-inflected signifiers pointing to specific patriarchal cultural values I am keen to eliminate. For example in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet prematurely presumes his mother behind the death of his father – ‘frailty, thy name is woman’ – taking this as a signal of key cultural attitudes I am able to identify it as insidiously dangerous for women as is Virginia Woolf’s ‘Milton’s bogey’ (the depiction of Eve as inferior, alone responsible for mans’ eviction from the Garden or Eden in Paradise Lost). According to Gilbert and Gubar, such attitudes inherent in some of the most important works comprising the literary ‘canon’, cuts women from the ‘spaciousness of possibility’. Once such ‘signs’ of cultural attitudes as this are identified, they can be openly discussed and hopefully dispersed. But whilst they remain buried in the unconscious minds of readers, they continue to give weight to damaging cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Not only that but the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss expanded the tenets of structuralism to the interpretation of myths and stories and the identification of various motifs and themes repeating through cultures and history. Armed with such understanding, I come to Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, ready to rely on, for example, the myths and legends surrounding the wounded Fisher King of Arthurian fame regarding the unfavourable consequences of a society’s sterility to help me understand the consequences of section about the bored typist and her equally disempowered clerk as they have sex without consequence or pleasure in The Fire Sermon of that poem.

However valuable structuralism are in focusing on valuable insight on other cultural believes, it has its drawbacks: for example it is impossible for me to neutralise the effect of my own cultural values and beliefs when I read about Falstaff and his melancholy. Although I can intellectually understand the significance of his humours for his future in terms of early modern ideals, I still cannot stop thinking if only he could get some psychological help (such as we are accustomed to request today), things would have turned out differently for him and such thoughts distract me from the realities of the story that Shakespeare wrote. Not only that, but in reaching so far into the cultural underpinnings of a text, I take my eyes further and further away from the text in its own right.

Also, it is through structuralism that Roland Barthes developed his position regarding the relationship between author, text, and meaning. While I agree in some respects that the reader is at least a co-author of a text in the sense that he or she will necessarily interpret text in line with his or her own cultural beliefs (as I did with Falstaff and his melancholy), I cannot agree with Barthes that the ‘birth of the reader’ spells the ‘death of the author’. Although we can never be certain what Shakespeare was trying to achieve by having Hamlet make such an affront to women in his speech regarding frailty, we do know that he meant them there for some purpose and (given the 16th century culture of which he was a product) that such purpose is more than likely at odds at least in some respects with any meaning that I coming from a 21st century mind-set might make of them. Just realising this makes us aware of the implications of any meaning that we might chose to assign.

In summary, whilst considering a text through the framework of structuralism (in the sense that I acknowledge that each word or sentence on the page is a signal pointing toward some deeper underlying cultural perspectives), my reading and understanding of literature is expanded and enriched. Further, I am able to articulate certain words and phrases that signal cultural perspectives with which I wish to take issue – for example as a feminist I am interested in covert patriarchal textual jibes at women. However the structrualist approach does have drawbacks, not the least in respect to at least as a co-author of textual meaning, I am unable to neutralise the effect of my own cultural perspectives on a text and whilst trying to undercover all that underlies any text, I take my focus further away from that text.

New HistoricismUnlike with other historicist approaches to literature, for a New Historicist history is not (or not just) a backdrop against which, for example, a play like Shakespeare’s King Lear was written; the connections between such a text and the historical (facts/events) conditions in which it was written are always more complex. This is because New Historicism refuses to prioritize a literary text. Instead it focuses on parallel readings of other literary and non-literary texts in order to frame the text in a politically-charged and fully-embodied ‘historical’ experience.

In his essay Shakespeare and the Exorcists, Stephen Greenblatt makes clear that whilst we acknowledge that Shakespeare used historical background material for King Lear (like a contemporary account of exorcisms written by one Samuel Harsnett that provided the names of the fiends like Flibbertigibbet that hounded Edgar, the disguised Poor Tom), we cannot assume that the borrowing of information was a one way street. Perhaps others borrowed as much from Shakespeare as he did from them? If so, then what might this mean for the ‘larger cultural text’?

The New Historicist reminds us that history itself is ‘written’ in the same way as is a literary text. More importantly, the history that we are most likely to read was written by the ‘winning’ side – i.e. those who successfully held and retained power. Rather like Michel Foucault, the New Historicist believes that words are power and that it is through words that we are ‘communicated’ into being. Those who would ‘normalise’ and ‘socialise’ us to their purposes will ‘write’ history to suit their purposes.

Hence Greenblatt examines the ‘institutional strategies’ in which both Lear and Harnsett’s account of exorcisms are embedded. He concludes that both are part of an ‘intense’ and sustained struggle’ to redefine societal values during the late 16th and early 17th centuries in regards to sacred institutions upon which of course the king’s ‘divine right’ to rule rested. It was all part of a politically inspired strategy to ‘reinscribe evil’ on the ‘professed enemies of evil’ – and if by his text Harnsett was trying to expose this ruse for what it was – performance/theatre (and apparently he was somewhat successful in this goal), then perhaps the message that Shakespeare meant to send along with his character Poor Tom (whether intentionally or not) was along the same lines?

We will never know for certain but by regularly asking questions such as this, New Historicists problematise the understanding of the relationship between literature and history. There are many who are happy reading the significance of Poor Tom and related references to Bedlam as a symbol of the madness into which the play is descending or as reflective of the way in which ‘mad’ people were treated during the period. After all Bedlam was a bricks and mortar place with a reputation and history which is well documented and to make too much more of Poor Tom and Bedlam than that, is not without it dangers.

While it is true that all texts, both literary and non-literary, carry history with them, it would seem all too easy (in hindsight) for the New Historicists to discover links and influences that simply were not present at the time; or if they were present then it is equally easy to under or estimate their effect; looking back in time, one is hardly likely to get the mix exactly right for not only are they dealing with contemporary 16th and 17th century interpretations of what was going on at the time but we are throwing in own 21st century gloss as well. Indeed this is part of the goal of Cultural Materialism – using present day materials (like a program from a recent production of King Lear) to examine cultural consistencies between then and now.

This brings up a whole new set of potential problems through trying to identify issues that are timeless – in the sense that they were topical both in the 16th/17th centuries and in the 21st century. Whilst in some regards history does repeat, it is again all too easy to look back in time and overlay contemporary concerns onto historical situations in a way that is at best inappropriate and at worst, rewriting history to suit New Historicist viewpoints in the same way that along with Foucault, they often accuse others. This is especially true as they move further and further away from the actual text in front of them as they conjecture how it is that language really works.