Introduction: Shakespeare, Romantics,
and Reader-Response Critics
THIS BOOK IS AN ACCOUNT OF HOW BRITISH ROMANTIC CRITICS such as Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt put their idea of reading a play into practice in their criticism of Shakespeare, and how their concept of reading is related to the reader-oriented theory of the twentieth century proposed by Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, and Hans Robert Jauss. It is not a survey of the history of reader-response theory from the late eighteenth century to the present. Nor does it seek to show that the Shakespearean criticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century has exerted particular influences on the development of a reader-oriented perspective in the twentieth century. It attempts to show that these three Romantics’ readings of Shakespeare are neither eccentric nor outmoded, by pointing out that they share many critical perspectives with the reader-response theorists of today. But its concern is also to prove the authenticity of the three Romantics’ reader-oriented theory by indicating that they approach Shakespeare’s texts with their own methods, differently from those of their precursors. The Romantic notion of reading was necessitated by the needs of a specific historical circumstance. Therefore the purpose of this study is to provide a rightful assessment of the validity and modernity of British Romanticism, by looking into a set of shared assumptions and procedures which exist between Romantic and contemporary theories of the relation of the text to the reader.
The definition of the term “Romanticism” that I use throughout this book is confined to the critical ideas which the three Romantics—Lamb, Coleridge, and Hazlitt—applied to their interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays; my use of the term “the Romantics” is, in most cases, restricted to these three critics. The concepts of the