Thematic criticism of ShakespeareWhat are some possible objections to thematic criticism as a way of approaching the study of Shakespeare?  Are there any good discussions of this issue in the...

Thematic criticism of Shakespeare

What are some possible objections to thematic criticism as a way of approaching the study of Shakespeare?  Are there any good discussions of this issue in the critical literature on Shakespeare?

Asked on by vangoghfan

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litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that it would be hard to use thematic criticism with Shakespeare because we know so very little about both the author's life and the time period in which he wrote.  We cannot even agree exactly on who wrote the plays or exactly when in some cases.

booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Thematic criticism is at the heart of Shakespearean drama. Besides being an excellent storyteller (although he borrowed the original stories from other, earlier writers), he told stories through the exceptional use of the English language and presented "life-truths" or "themes" that have made his plays timeless. This is primarily because Shakespeare catches the essence of his characters not as fantastic renditions of members of a dramatic cast, but in their humanity: mistakes, love, loss, revenge, anger, etc. These are all things that are still common to lives of a modern audience.

For example, when we read about Hamlet, one theme is deception vs reality: how valid this theme still is today! The play also pushes the idea of knowing the best time to act, and makes for a strong argument that we must not lose sight of seizing opportunities that present themselves (though not in the same fashion as those that confront Hamlet).

Presenting Shakespeare's plays without the thematic component would greatly inhibit the deep, accessible messages that the Bard had in mind as he put his pen to paper. If one were to remove a person's personality or sense of humor, the man or woman left behind would not be the same. Thematic criticism allows us all to study and ponder far-reaching topics, and often each time we read the same play again, something new appears in looking to the thematic element of Shakespeare's works.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Interesting discussions. I think you may have something in the way in which students (and perhaps teachers) focus on themes in Shakespeare and in literature perhaps to the exclusion of other factors, such as style, for example. However, at the same time, as any teacher who has taught more than one Shakespeare play can testify, there are a number of common thematic approaches that do give students a very good handle on some of the main approaches to Shakespeare's plays. I am thinking of the ubiquitous theme of "appearance vs. reality," and how it appears as a legitimate theme in every single Shakespeare play that I have ever taught. Can you think of one where it doesn't appear? Perhaps we need to balance thematic approaches with trying to emphasise other aspects of Shakespeare's plays that don't receive the spotlight in the way that they should.

vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Thanks for the thoughtful replies, literaturenerd and kplhardison!  My question was provoked by recent reading Richard Levin's book New Readings vs. Old Plays. In that book, Levin (an academic gadfly who is also the author of a book titled Looking for an Argument -- a title with a definite double meaning!) makes a very thorough case against thematic criticism, which he saw as one of the chief "schools" criticism at the time he was writing (in the late 1970s).

Obviously, however, many people tend to see "themes" in literature, and indeed I am struck by how often my own students, as well as the students who ask questions at eNotes, stress themes as their main subjects of interest.  I was therefore just wondering how others felt about the kinds of questions Levin raises.  I suspect that he would say that he is attacking abuses of the thematic approach rather than the approach itself, although the book offers fairly broad indictments of thematic critics and thematic essays and books.

Thanks again for your replies! - Bob

kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

Well, robert-c-, isn't this an interesting question. I'm going to confess that I hadn't until now learned of thematic criticism, which, if I understand my hastily undertaken research (the research was done in haste and I hastily dashed off to do it!), has at least some foundation in film criticism and is a reaction against contentless criticism found in modernist and formalist criticism. [Feel free to correct me where ever I'm going astray.] Thematic criticism also differs from the standard quest for theme by examining theme in relation to (1) the author's total life experience, e.g., the defining moment of inspiration, propensity for a given mind set, etc, and in relation to (2) a theme as it appears in the corpus of an author's work or as it appears in the collection of several authors works, thus uniting disparate authors by theme.

So--in relation to applying this to Shakespeare--hmmm--one point for which this might be interesting is to pursue thematic criticism across his body of work in relation to his own life to discern the influence of Protestantism in his life and in the social structure(s) of his day. The example that comes most immediately to mind is Hamlet's indecision as a direct result of his Protestant beliefs in conflict with his father's religious beliefs, which embrace revenge whereas Hamlet's don't. Another idea that springs to mind is to apply thematic criticism to the collected works of Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare to discern their various stances on the mimetic ideal given voice to by Sidney. Perhaps one might determine where the mimetic notion began to break down, as break down it surely did.

So--from these random musings I think I can suggest that while there may be some objections that I don't yet recognize to applying this criticism to Shakespeare--as I don't yet know enough about Thematic Criticism to have objections--I can see how the application of thematic criticism to Shakespeare might yield some useful and enlightening results. There is one text from Harvard English Studies saying of itself that it is the best that looks interesting: The Return of Thematic Criticism, essays edited by Werner Sollors.

Here are a few links for others who, along with me, may not have encountered thematic criticism before:

Thematic Literary Criticism

Littérature et Sensation by Jean-Pierre Richard

Thematic Criticsm Method (in films)

literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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I would find it very hard not to look at Shakespeare thematically. Historically, Shakespeare's plays have been categorized by tragedy, comedy and history.

Essentially, most texts are looked at regarding the themes they present. It would be very difficult to negotiate a text without taking the message into consideration.

Given the fact that Shakespeare's works were based upon the message provided to the reader, forgoing thematic criticism would be very difficult.

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