|English 366C, Section F01: Shakespeare's Comedies and Romances > The Merchant of Venice > Historicism|
A number of political actions taken in the years before The Merchant of Venice illuminate official attitudes of the time towards such things as the status of Jews and the legality of lending money at interest. Here are some examples:
In a posting on an Internet discussion group devoted to Shakespeare, Robert Appelbaum made some useful general comments about recent kinds of historicism (the posting is reprinted with his permission, and retains email formatting):
From: Robert Appelbaum Date: Thursday, 20 Jul 1995 Subject: Cultural constructions To say that plays, poems, etc. are cultural constructs isn't an "explanation" of them and, so far as I know, has never been used to serve as an explanation. It is rather the beginning of a strategy of explanation. The force of that strategy immediately appears as soon as one compares it with other traditional strategies, e.g., that which follows from the idea that plays, poems, etc., are "expressions" of the author's psychology or feelings or genius. Obviously the different strategies are looking at the same things from different angles, and perhaps not exactly at the *same* things, even though the strategies need not be mutually exclusive. But do any consequences necessarily follow from adoption of the "cultural construct" position? I don't think so. If you look at culturalist criticism you will NOT find a whole lot of consensus, though you might find a lot of fellow feeling. For that reason alone I think it is hard to conclude that the culturalist perspective is reductive. And is the "cultural construct" position blind to its own assumptions, its exponents failing to see that they too are speaking from within the confines of constructs? Actually, it is just this point, it is just their self-reflexivity with regard to their own interpretative assumptions and strategies, that has marked out culturalist criticism from earlier forms of criticism. T.S. Eliot thought that he could sit at the banquet with Dante. Culturalists know they cannot. The hard Marxist position, still maintained by people like Terry Eagleton, not to mention certain members of this list, is based on the idea that materialist criticism is itself the product of historical forces, that one could not be a cultural materialist of a certain kind until a certain moment in time, and that one of the chief virtues of cultural materialist criticism is that it *knows* this. Culturalist criticism is *supposed* to be a form of *self-consciousness*; and if it reflects on an historical artifact it always also reflects on its own historicity with respect to both itself and its artifact. A softer position -- usually thought of as new historicism -- isn't so confident of its own transparency to itself, or of the logic of its historical position, but it too is based on the idea that criticism is as historically situated as its objects, and that historical-cultural artifacts cannot therefore be *reduced* to the explanatory parameters of any single given model, since all models are constructs, etc., etc. Which is why this form of criticism so often steps backward into autobiography and what Leah Marcus calls "local knowledge" -- trying to be very precise about its epistemological limits, and conscious of "where it's coming from." But all this is common knowledge. Perhaps what is really at issue here is not the culturalist position(s), but the rhetoric used by culturalists against non-culturalists, and vice versa. Some of you out there are cringing every time you hear the word "culture," even though you probably share a lot of culturalist assumptions yourselves. And there are those of us in love with art, in love with the beautiful and the sublime and all that, who absolutely cringe when we hear other people *invoking* these things, as if they were gods.