The principal ambition of this book is to open up a fresh perspective on the study of Shakespeare. But that ambition is inseparable from the broader objective that underpins it, which is to help unlock the impasse in which most modern criticism, it seems to me, has languished for too long. As I argued in Chapter 2,1 when we set out to study a novel, play or poem from the past, and especially from the distant past, we are basically obliged to opt for one of two equally unsatisfactory alternatives. We can either adopt an historical approach, and try to work out what the work once meant by situating it in the world and time from which it sprang; or we can play down the demands of history, and treat the work in effect as if it had been written today, raiding it for reflections of our current preoccupations. One route leads to an archaeological dig, an act of excavation and restoration, which at its best brings the strangeness and remoteness of the work vividly to life, but at its worst turns the text into yet another casualty of the stultifying antiquarianism that still flourishes in modish guises. The other route ends in a blatant act of appropriation, which can indeed capture the work’s relevance to our most pressing modern concerns, but at the cost of repressing or distorting those features of the work that pull it back into the past, that insist on the text’s resistance to our assaults upon its original import. Even the most sophisticated kind of historical criticism, well aware of the way its own modernity warps its view of authors of a bygone age, remains incorrigibly retrospective, the critical equivalent of a driver whose eyes are glued to the rear-view mirror, and who neglects to look out through the windscreen at the unwinding road ahead.
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