Henry James, George Santayana, H. D., W. H. Auden: Four Versions of Shakespeare Out of Context
Keywords:Contextual literary criticism, Fictive world, Literature and Religion, James Shapiro, Henry James, George Santayana, H.D., W.H. Auden
Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America, a study of Shakespeare’s impact in the U.S. since the 1830s, issues in Shapiro’s sympathetic account of a 2017 production of Julius Caesar in New York. That production staged the play in terms of up-to-date conflict between Trump-allied Republicans and Clinton-allied Democrats. Shapiro’s attachment of Shakespeare to current events is a sterling example of a prevailing mode of literary criticism, which ties the worth and relevance of literary art to its historical contexts, whether those contexts be present-day or historically past. But an alternative to the dominant critical mode is discoverable in meditations on Shakespeare by Henry James, George Santayana, H. D., and W. H. Auden. Although each author solicits contextual and historical dimensions of Shakespeare, each foregrounds Shakespeare’s withdrawal from those dimensions. Perhaps these writers’ emphasis on a de-contextualizing, de-historicizing component in Shakespeare – amounting to a retreat to what James calls “the blessed fictive world” – ought not to be overlooked or undervalued by literary and cultural criticism.