An Introduction To Literary Theory

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The Saylor Foundation’sAn Introduction to Literary TheoryThe Saylor Foundation 1

Table of ContentsAn Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory .5An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Hamlet 6Study Questions 7The Literary Theories of Plato and Aristotle .7Application in Shakespeare’s Hamlet 9Study Questions .10De Saussure’s Linguistic Theories .11Application in Shakespeare’s Hamlet . .11Study Questions .12Roland Barthes’ Semiotics 12Application in Shakespeare’s Hamlet .12Study Questions .13Derrida and Deconstruction .13Application in Shakespeare’s Hamlet .14Study Questions .14Lacan and the Mirror Stage .15Application in Shakespeare’s Hamlet .15Study Questions .16Feminist Theory 16Application in Shakespeare’s Hamlet .16Study Questions .17Queer Theory .17Application in Shakespeare’s Hamlet .18Study Questions .18Marxist Theory 19Application in Shakespeare’s Hamlet .19The Saylor Foundation 2

Study Questions .20Frederic Jameson’s Post-Marxism .20Application in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” .21Study Questions .21Bahktin and the Carnival . .21Application in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” . .22Study Questions 22Psychoanalytic Theory .22Application in Shakespeare’s Hamlet .23Study Questions .23Applying Theory to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice .23New Historicism . .24Application in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” . .25Study Questions . 25Applying Theory to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness . 25Eco-Criticism and Eco-Theory . .26Application in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” . . 26Study Questions . 27Post-Colonial Theory . 27Application in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” . .28Study Questions . 28New Frontiers in Literary Theory . 28Trauma Theory . .29Application in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” . 29Study Questions 30Arguments against Theory . .30Study Questions 31The Saylor Foundation 3

Glossary .32The Saylor Foundation 4

An Introduction to Literary Criticism and TheoryBefore we begin our examination and study of literary theory, it is important that wedefine exactly what literary theory is and is not, identify some of the main characteristicsof such, as well as identify some of the key differences between traditional “literarycriticism” and “literary theory.”While literary criticism since the late 19th century has often made use of different“theories” drawn from the social and natural sciences, philosophy, and other scholarlyfields, strictly defined “schools” of literary theory began to appear throughout Europeanand North American intellectual circles, colleges, and universities in the middle part ofthe 20th century. The rise of literary theory during this time—and its continuedpopularity in European and American universities’ literature and humanitiesdepartments—is owed to a number of social and cultural factors. In particular, thesefactors include the development of post-structural philosophy in American andEuropean colleges and universities; the popularity of psychoanalysis, Marxism, andother social and cultural theories throughout the intellectual world; and the multi- andcross-disciplinary academic ideology that began to pervade colleges and universitiesduring the last half of the 20th century.Strictly defined, “literary criticism” refers to the act of interpreting and studying literature.A literary critic is not someone who merely evaluates the worth or quality of a piece ofliterature but, rather, is someone who argues on behalf of an interpretation orunderstanding of the particular meaning(s) of literary texts. The task of a literary critic isto explain and attempt to reach a critical understanding of what literary texts mean interms of their aesthetic, as well as social, political, and cultural statements andsuggestions. A literary critic does more than simply discuss or evaluate the importanceof a literary text; rather, a literary critic seeks to reach a logical and reasonableunderstanding of not only what a text’s author intends for it to mean but, also, whatdifferent cultures and ideologies render it capable of meaning.“Literary theory,” however, refers to a particular form of literary criticism in whichparticular academic, scientific, or philosophical approaches are followed in a systematicfashion while analyzing literary texts. For example, a psychoanalytic theorist mightexamine and interpret a literary text strictly through the theoretical lens ofpsychoanalysis and psychology and, in turn, offer an interpretation or reading of a textthat focuses entirely on the psychological dimensions of it. Traditional literary criticismtends not to focus on a particular aspect of (or approach to) a literary text in quite thesame manner that literary theory usually does. Literary theory proposes particular,systematic approaches to literary texts that impose a particular line of intellectualreasoning to it. For example, a psychoanalytic literary theorist might take thepsychological theories of Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung and seek to reach a criticalunderstanding of a novel such as Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Aliterary theorist applying, perhaps, Sigmund Freud’s notions of trauma to Hemingway’snovel might explore the protagonist’s psychology, using Freud’s theoretical “tools,” andargue that the protagonist suffers from what Freud termed “shell shock” and that thenovel, then, can reasonably be argued to be a commentary upon the effects of war onThe Saylor Foundation 5

the psychology of individuals. Literary theorists often adapt systems of knowledgedeveloped largely outside the realm of literary studies and impose them upon literarytexts for the purpose of discovering or developing new and unique understandings ofthose texts that a traditional literary critic might not be intellectually equipped torecognize.With that said, some literary critics and theorists deny that there is a distinct differencebetween literary criticism and literary theory and argue that literary theory is simply amore advanced form of literary criticism. Other critics argue that literary theory itself isfar more systematic, developed and scholarly than literary criticism, and hence of a fargreater intellectual and critical value than traditional literary criticism per se. Rarely dodifferent groups of literary theorists agree exactly as to how to define what literarytheory is and how it is similar to or different from traditional literary criticism.Today, literary theory is practiced by a vast majority of college literature professors,research scholars, and students throughout English, literature, and humanitiesdepartments in North America and Europe. While some literary scholars debate theultimate value of literary theory as a method of interpretation (and some critics, in fact,object to the practicality of literary theory entirely), it is nevertheless vital for students ofliterature to understand the core principles of literary theory and be able to use thosesame principles to interpret literary texts. Most students studying literature at the collegelevel are, to some degree or another, trained not simply to be critics of literature but,moreover, to function as theorists of literature with the ability to offer interpretations ofliterary texts through several different theoretical perspectives.The study of literary theory is challenging, especially for students who are relatively newto the field. It takes time, patience, and practice for students to get used to the uniqueand sometimes highly specialized language that literary theorists tend to use in theirwritings as well as the often complicated and detailed arguments they make. As youare exposed to literary theory, take the time to carefully consider the argument beingmade, to re-read when you find yourself confused by a statement, and to look up andacquaint yourself with any language or terminology you are exposed to and not familiarwith (the glossary of terms provided in this course will prove helpful for that). Literarytheory can be quite challenging to master but such nevertheless can allow for incrediblyinsights into literary texts that would otherwise be unreachable without making use ofthe interpretive apparatus of literary theory.An Introduction to Shakespeare’s HamletWilliam Shakespeare’s 1602 play Hamlet is arguably the single most “theorized” literarytext in the English language. Hamlet’s aesthetic, psychological, political, philosophical,and literary depth and richness has made the play not only among the most frequentlyperformed, adapted, revised, and studied texts in English literature but also among themost widely taught, debated, and researched literary texts in the world. Severalhundred scholarly books and thousands of scholarly articles have been published aboutHamlet over the last hundred years alone, with new articles and scholarly booksappearing every year on the topic of Shakespeare’s most famous and controversialThe Saylor Foundation 6

play. The play’s richness and ambiguity—as well as its revolutionary style andcharacterizations—allows for a plethora of different interpretations to be reasonablyapplied to it, hence the reason the literary theorist Harold Bloom refers to Hamlet as a“poem unlimited.” Nearly every form of literary theory that we will study in this course—from psychoanalysis and new historicism to feminist theory and queer theory—can bereadily applied to Hamlet in order to develop a deeper critical understanding of the play.In this course, our readings about different literary theories will be supported not onlywith brief essays that seek to provide students with a general overview of the theories athand, but also with interpretations of Hamlet through the perspective of the literarytheories we study.The purpose of this exercise is for you to be able to not only see the theories we studybe put into practical use, but also to be able to recognize the different ways a single textcan be interpreted using different literary theories. That is not to suggest that adefinitive critical or theoretical reading of Hamlet will be offered in this course. Instead,Hamlet will be used as a springboard through which we will be able to recognize howdifferent literary theories can be applied to a literary text in order to explore newdimensions of interpretation.Study Questions1. What is the difference between the act of traditional literary criticism and literarytheory?2. What are some of the critical advantages and disadvantages of literary theory?The Early Origins of Literary Theory: Plato and AristotleWhile literary theory, as a school of thought or mode of literary criticism, is very much aproduct of the mid- to late- 20th century academic world, the first recorded “theories” ofliterature extend back to the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. In fact,Aristotle is widely considered to be the Western world’s first true literary theorist. WhilePlato (who was Aristotle’s teacher) was among the first intellectuals to give carefulconsideration to the role and function of literature in society, Aristotle presented the firstfully developed theory as to how literary art can and should function within society.Plato (429-347 BCE)While Aristotle gave careful consideration to the function and roles of literature in hisPoetics, his teacher Plato also offered an extended critique and definition of the role ofliterature in society in his dialogues The Republic and The Symposium. In TheRepublic, Plato offers a rather pointed and stark critique of literature’s role and purposein society. Plato believed that literature—specifically drama and poetry—weredangerous to the stability of what he envisioned to be an ideal republic or city state. Heargued that the arts served to shape character and that an ideal society must itself trainThe Saylor Foundation 7

and educate its citizens, hence the arts must be strictly censored. Furthermore, Platoargued that an artistic work is always a copy of a copy, hence an artistic work alwaysimitates something real, and all things which are real are an imitation of a universalconcept or idea (what Plato called “the really real”), thus all works of art are copies ofcopies and not fully true or real. Coupled with the ability of an artistic work to stiremotions and inspire action, the illusionary nature of art made such dangerous tosociety in Plato’s view. On the other hand, in his dialogues Ion and The Symposium,Plato speculated that artists make better copies of that which is true rather than whichcan be discovered in reality; hence, the artist can be understood as something like aprophet or visionary.Plato’s theory of art as imitation of truth had a tremendous influence upon early literarycritics and theorists during the Renaissance and 19th century, many of whom oftenspeculated as to the role and function of art as imitation of reality. While modern andcontemporary literary theorists tend not to accept Plato’s notion of art as being adangerous social force, in fact, most literary theorists take exactly the oppositeperspective of Plato, especially in the case of Marxist and new historicist theorists.Most literary theorists argue that literature is in fact a liberating force; Plato has had atremendous impact on the development of literary theory. In fact, many contemporaryliterary theorists argue that Plato’s theory of art as imitation served to first introduce atheory of literature to the Western world. The most lasting and potent aspect of Plato’stheory, surely, is his “Allegory of the Cave” from Book VII of The Republic. In thisallegorical vision, Plato offers an image of chained prisoners facing a wall within a darkcave. Behind the prisoners are a high wall and a fire, and between the wall and the fireis a group of actors holding stick puppets. The prisoners can only see the shadows castby the puppets, which they will understand to be their entire world or reality. If theprisoners are ever released, Plato argued, they would stumble about, be blinded by thefire, and eventually realize that the puppets are only shadows of a far greater reality.Once released, the prisoners will then come to see reality for what it truly is and willrealize that the shadows they had seen before were mere copies of reality itself. ForPlato, those shadows represented images of truth (or symbols of a greater reality) andserved, also, as illusionary representations of truth. Plato’s allegory has served, then, torepresent humanity’s inability to see larger truths. While Plato was contending that artserved, in essence, to block humans from seeing and understanding larger truths, someliterary theorists feel that literary theory offers a method through which people can beginto comprehend greater truths by revealing to them the hidden machinations of realitywhich they are blind to.The Saylor Foundation 8

Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE)In his Poetics (335 BCE)—of which two parts were composed and only the first of whichsurvives—Aristotle offered the world’s first recorded definition and theory of poetry anddrama. Here, Aristotle considers the “first principles” of “poetry,” which he definesmainly as drama in terms of this argument. A work of tragedy, according to Aristotle,should consist of the following elements: plot, character, thought, diction, melody, andspectacle. Aristotle argued that the plot of a tragedy should be logical and flow in areasonable and realistic manner. These logical plot movements will come as a surpriseto readers but make complete sense to the audience afterward. Ideally, a tragic plotshould be complicated and involve the protagonist moving from good fortune to disasterand then to death, with the protagonist realizing along the way the cause of his miseryin order to be released from such. A tragic protagonist, Aristotle argued, should bemoral and inherently good, act appropriate to his circumstances, and be consistent andrealistic in his actions. A character’s thoughts should also be spoken and deliveredclearly to the audience through the use of clear and proper diction. The melody of thetragedy should be delivered by a chorus who is part of the action of the play. Thespectacle of the play—i.e. the costumes and setting—is considered by Aristotle to be oflittle importance and cannot make up for poor acting or an illogical plot. While Aristotle’sideas might not seem remarkable or revolutionary now, he nevertheless was the firstintellectual to develop a true theory of what tragic drama was and how it should andcould operate. Aristotle’s Poetics should be understood not as a strict set of theories forinterpreting literature but, instead, as the first systematic critical approach tounderstanding how a piece of literature can and should operate.Application to Shakespeare’s HamletHamlet does not respond, directly, to either Plato or Aristotle’s notions or theories ofliterature. In fact, it is not known for certain whether Shakespeare himself read eitherPlato or Aristotle, though today most scholars consider it to be likely that he was at leastfamiliar with the basic ideas of Aristotle’s Poetics. Plato would certainly have viewedHamlet as a fairly dangerous work of literature, especially given that its protagonist soflagrantly challenges state authority. A theorist—of whom there are probably very fewtoday—who might accept Plato’s notion of art as being dangerous would point toHamlet as a text which might inspire social and political revolute against political rule. Atheorist operating within Plato’s notions of artistic power might also point to thecharacter of Hamlet as being a perfected, artistic copy of a real human being. Criticshave long celebrated Hamlet for being, in essence, among the most complex andrealistic characters in all of Western literature. While Hamlet is certainly not an idealhuman being—he is, after all, confused, doubtful, angry, and irrational throughout theplay—he is as close to a perfect copy of a real, thinking human being as literature hasThe Saylor Foundation 9

ever seen. Thus, in Plato’s terms, Hamlet is a superior work of art. Furthermore, aPlato-minded theorist would see Hamlet as providing an accurate imitation of varioushuman psychologies. From Hamlet’s tortured intellectual questioning and doubt, toOphelia’s grief and confusion, to Claudius’s guilt and hunger for self-preservation, aPlato-minded theorist would argue that Hamlet provides a decidedly true and realisticvision of human behavior and psychology and serves, then, to reveal deeperpsychological truths to those who read or view it.Aristotle, however, would probably have been troubled by Hamlet’s lack of conformity tothe standards of ancient drama but would have realized that Hamlet fits in with hisdefinition of an ideal tragic drama. A theorist exploring the structure of tragic dramathrough the critical perspective of Aristotle would argue that the play functions, in largepart, as an ide

An Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory Before we begin our examination and study of literary theory, it is important that we define exactly what literary theory is and is not, identify some of the main characteristics of such, as well as identify some of the key differences between traditional “literary criticism” and “literary theory.” While literary criticism since the late .

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