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The Merchant: Notes (1)

Problems of historicism

Are the plays universal?

Great works of art have an autonomous existence, independent of the intention and personality of their creators and independent also of the circumstances of the time of their creation, that is the mark of their greatness. The tragedies of Aeschylus, the paintings of El Greco, the poems of John Donne have a significance to twentieth century man of which the contemporaries of their creation could not have had the remotest notion. In the light of psychoanalysis, of the experiments of the expressionists, of the poetry of Rilke or Pound, the Oresteia, The Burial of Count Orgaz, and The Anniversaries assume new and deeper meanings. The writing of history and, above all, literary criticism can, and must, always be understood as an attempt to find in the past aspects of human experience that can shed light on the meaning of our own times. (Martin Esslin, in the introduction to Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, xi)

Or limited by their (and our) culture?

"There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture," Geertz writes, meaning by culture no primary "complexes of concrete behavior patterns--customs, usages, traditions, habit clusters"--but rather "a set of control mechanisms--plans, recipes, rules, instructions . . .--for the governing of behavior." (Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning 3, quoting Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 51.)
. . . to reject the view that literature and criticism meet on some transhistorical plateau of value and meaning, leads inevitably to a discussion of the differences between incompatible critical perspectives; in this instance we are probably concerned with the most incompatible of all, namely the materialist as opposed to the idealist. But since what follows may seem far removed from the literary criticism familiar in English studies generally and of the Renaissance in particular, perhaps I should acknowledge that in a sense it is, and that its relevance lies in just this fact: the materialist conception of subjectivity (like historical materialism generally) aims not only to challenge all those forms of literary criticism premised on the residual categories of essentialist humanism and idealist culture but, even more importantly, invites a positive and explicit engagement with the historical, social and political realities of which both literature and criticism are inextricably a part. (Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 249-50.)

Political history

Social history

Research into legal documents from the period has shown that despite the law exiling Jews, there was a small group of Portuguese Jews in London; they were, however, obliged to practice their religion in secret, officially attending Christian churches. That there were still some Jews in England is also suggested by the continuing upkeep of the Domus Conversorum, a "house for the converted" outside London. Evidence is sketchy, but it is likely that some Jews persecuted in the Inquisition--especially Spanish and Portuguese--may have lived for a time in England. The notorious Dr. Lopez was Portuguese.

Literary History


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This page last updated on 8 October 2002. © Michael Best, 2002.