The Uses of the Canon: Elizabethan Literature and Contemporary Theory

The Uses of the Canon: Elizabethan Literature and Contemporary Theory

The Uses of the Canon: Elizabethan Literature and Contemporary Theory

The Uses of the Canon: Elizabethan Literature and Contemporary Theory

Synopsis

An important contribution to the current rethinking of "English," and to the reconsideration of Shakespeare's role within it, this book focuses on the emergence of the New Historicism, clarifying a number of key positions in the criticism of the past fifteen years. The essays subject many of New Historicism's most challenging claims to rigorous analysis, distinguish sharply between its American and British versions, and assess the causes and consequences of its politicization of literary studies. The theoretical and political issues at stake in current debates are clearly examined, and the uses served by the canonical texts at their center are re-examined within a broad cultural and historical perspective. Offering fresh readings of a number of classic texts--including Hamlet, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Shakespeare's sonnets, More's Utopia, Donne's poetry, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness--this overview of contemporary critical theory and practice provides a deepened understanding of the complex and changing functions of the canon itself.

Excerpt

This volume brings together essays of mine, written for a variety of occasions, on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Several have not previously been published, and others have appeared only in Australia. Dating from the mid-1970s, they coincide with the explosive emergence of literary-critical theory known at the time as the 'crisis in English'. Its shock waves are registered even in the earliest of them and even from the distance of the antipodes. More recent essays attempt to discriminate and measure its subsequent repercussions on the reading of Renaissance texts. Gathering them together here may concentrate their impact back upon continuing theoretical practice in the field in such a way as to alter its course and enlarge its horizons. It might also sharpen their challenge to a more reactionary or nostalgic criticism still stuck at a pre- theoretical stage.

The characteristic procedure of these essays is to bring to bear--and sometimes to book--the claims of contemporary theory in the aggressive demystification of Elizabethan literature now under way. This involves a certain attention to the theoretical regimes that dominate academic criticism today, as well as the more direct engagement with canonical texts that has endowed them with their defining aura of commentary. The critical theory most often brought to bear in the pages that follow--let the reader be warned straightaway--is a kind of deconstruction. The theory most often brought to book is one or another version of the 'new historicism', also known in America as 'cultural poetics' and in Britain as 'cultural materialism'. Such a burst of terminology--the continuing fallout of the theoretical explosion of the 1970s--requires some preliminary clarification.

Though an American coinage sometimes refused by its British practitioners, the 'new historicism' still strikes me as a useful umbrella-term to cover the collective endeavour on both sides of the Atlantic to re-situate 'literature' generally and . . .

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