The first duty of the historian who would understand and explain [sixteenth-century writers] will be to return them to their milieu, where they are immersed in the mental climate of their time.
In an attempt to forge some kind of workable historical method of criticism in light of challenges from structuralism, semiotics, phenomenology, deconstruction, reader-response theory, New Historicism, and various psychological approaches to literature, Robert D. Hume some time ago set out as his first principle that ‘Historicism at bottom implies the illumination of text by context’, arguing that
No sensible interpreter should wish to ignore either text or context: the problem is that one cannot attend fully to both at the same time. One can do a bit of each; one can go back and forth – but one cannot fully carry out both textual and contextual enterprises simultaneously.
Thus extracted, the proposition seems almost commonplace, for much of the critical work since Hume wrote has excavated, dissected, and analysed contextual materials in Shakespeare’s time to understand more reliably the cultural moment in which he wrote: the culture that formed his thinking and the culture of those who constituted his audiences. Such examinations, furthermore, have complicated the issue of combination (and occasionally also of simultaneity) by understanding the further issue of representation: that the ‘objectivity’ of past events and the records of past cultural beliefs when scrutinized provide no securely objective record at all, but rather the subjectivity of past documents and the necessary partiality of their observations, statements, and arguments.
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