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TRADITIONAL

APPROACHES IN
LITERARY CRITICISM
HISTORICAL – BIOGRAPHICAL CRITICISM
MORAL – PHILOSOPHICAL CRITICISM
TEXTUAL CRITICISM

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 Literary studies in the first part of the 20th
century were dominated by what are now
called «traditional approaches».
 American New Critics call «extrinsic»
approaches to literature.
 They focus on understanding literary
works by bringing external information to
bear on them rather than by close and
careful consideration of what is already
expressed in the work itself.

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 To certain extent all approaches to literature
are by definition extrinsic because a reader
must have certain basic information at hand
to read a literary work at all.
 At the vey least, a reader must know the
language in which the work is written and
must possess a certain basic amount of
cultural knowledge.
 A reader must have at least a minimal
understanding of the conventions of
literature to process the content of a
literary work in a coherent way.
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 We might compare the use of external
information to aid in the interpretation of a
literary text to the activities of a scientist
who interprets a workings of nature. For
instance, the beauty of the stars can be
appreciated without being an expert in
astronomy, but even the most seemingly
naive appreciation of the beauty of nature
involves a complex process of cultural
conditioning.

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 More scholarly traditional approaches include
a) biographical studies, in which a work is
illuminated through a discussion of the
experiences and opinions of its author
b) philosohical studies, in which the ideas
expressed in a literary text are compared to
well-known philosophical concepts – and
often judged in relation to the critic’s own
moral or philosophical strance
c) textual studies, in which the historical record
is carefully sifted in an attempt to determine
the precisely correct rendering of scale
mechanical printing of literary texts.
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 In traditional approach the work of art
frequently appears to be a source that
illustrates background.
 Such an approach often leads to the study
of literature as essentially biography, history,
or some other branch of learning, rather
than as art.
 According to those of the older school,
literature provides primarily an opportunity
for exercising what they perceive to be
really relevant scholarly and cultural
disciplines such as history, linguistics,
biography and philosophy.
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Historical-Biographical Approach
• Its focus is on the life, times, and
environment of the author, and this
approach deals with the effects of these
factors on the work of art.
• Most of literary works can be analysed in
the light of historical-biographical method.
• A reader/a critic studies the work in
accordance with the period in which the
work is produced. Thus, the values and
perception of the reader’s own age are put
aside.
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• Historical-Biographical approach
establishes a bridge between the reader
and the world’s of the author.
• The life of the author, the historical events
and the values of his age help us
understand the work, and in a similar way
the literary work gives information of the
author and his own period.

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 In his book History of English Literature,
French critic Hippolyte A. Taine (1823-
1893) suggests the phrase «race, millue,
et moment»
a) Race stands for “culture and history”
b) Millue is “place”
c) Moment is “time”

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 This approach sees a literary work
chiefly as a reflection of its author’s life
and times or the characters in the work.
 Taine compared the work of literature
to the fossil of a leaf which tells the
world of a previous age.

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 John Milton's sonnet “On the Late
Massacre in Piedmont” illustrates the
topical quality that great literature may
and often does possess. This poem
commemorates the slaughter in 1655 of
the Waldenses, members of a Protestant
sect living in the valleys of northern Italy.
A knowledge of this background clarifies
at least one rather factual reference and
two allusions in the poem.

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 However, novels may lend themselves
somewhat more readily than lyric
poems to this particular interpretive
approach; they usually treat a broader
range of experience than poems do
and thus are affected more by extrinsic
factors.

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 It is a mistake, however, to think that poets do
not concern themselves with social themes or
that good poetry cannot be written about such
themes. Actually, poets have from earliest
times been the historians, the interpreters of
contemporary culture, and the prophets of
their people.
 For example, Blake's “London” is an outcry
against the oppression of human beings by
society: he lashes out against child labour in his
day and the church's indifference to it, against
the government's indifference to the indigent
soldier who has served his country faithfully,
and against the horrible and unnatural
consequences of a social code that represses
sexuality.
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Moral-Philosophical Approach
or Moral/Thematic Criticism
• The moral-philosophical approach is as old
as classical Greek and Roman critics. Plato,
for example, emphasized moralism and
utilitarianism; Horace stressed that literature
should be delightful and instructive. Among
its most famous exemplars are the
commentators of the age of neoclassicism in
English literature (1660-1800), particularly
Samuel Johnson.
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 The basic position of such critics is that
the larger function of literature is to teach
morality and to probe philosophical issues.
They would interpret literature within a
context of the philosophical thought of a
period or group.
 This approach focuses on what is being
taught. It asks the question: «What kind of
truth does this work reveal to us?»

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 Roman critic Horace states in his Ars Poetica
(The Art of Poetry) that literature should be
«dulce et utile» or «sweet and useful», it
means literature should be both entertaining
and enlightening.
 Sir Philip Sidney adopts the same view in
literary criticism in his The Defence of Poesy:
«right poets» «imitate to teach and
delight, and to imitate borrow nothing of
what is, hath been or shall be, but range, only
reined with learned discretion, into the
divine consideration of what may be and
should be».
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 Matthew Arnold, the Victorian critic,
adopted a related attitude; he insisted that a
great literary work must possess «high
seriousness» (Because he felt that Chaucer
lacked it, Arnold refused to rank him among
the very greatest English poets). In each
instance critics working from a moral bent
are not unaware of form, figurative language,
and other purely aesthetic considerations,
but they consider them to be secondary.

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 The important thing is the moral or
philosophical teaching. On its highest plane
this is not superficially didactic, though it
may at first seem so.
 In the larger sense, all great literature
teaches.The critic who employs the moral-
philosophical approach insists on
ascertaining and stating what is taught. If
the work is in any degree significant or
intelligible, this meaning will be there.

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TEXTUAL STUDIES or TEXTUAL
SCHOLARSHIP
 This approach can be considered as
the beginning of New Critisim.
 In this criticism the text is analysed in
terms of «the work of the author», in
other words the critic studies what
urges the author to write such a work,
what influences him, and what kind of
historical motives are reflected.

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 Textual criticism has as its ideal the
establishment of an authentic text, or the
«text which the author intended».
 There are countless ways in which a literary
text may be corrupted from what the author
intended. The author’s own manuscript may
contain omissions and errors in spelling and
mechanics; these mistakes may be preserved
by the text copyists, be they scribes, or
compositors, or scanners, who may add a few
of their own.

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Applying Traditional Approaches on a Text
 Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the quintessence of
traditional criticism.
 Some of the critics think that Shakespeare
draws attention to the potential problem of
succession after the death of Queen
Elizabeth.
 Elizabeth’s advanced age and poor health
may have led the playwright to write such a
work.
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 Polonius is considered to be related to
Burghley (Lord Treasurer), one of the
important politicians of Elizabethan Time.
 Burghley possessed most of the
shortcomings Shakespeare gave to Polonius;
he was boring, meddling, and given to wise
old adages and truisms. Moreover, he had an
elaborate spy system that kept him
informed about both friend and foe. In the
play Polonius assignes Reynaldo to spy his
son Laertes in Paris.
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 Shakespeare creates such a character to
criticise Burgley, and he protrays the lord
after his death in 1598.
 Apart from the historical events or figures,
Shakespeare’s own thoughts are reflected, as
well. As a dramatist, he criticises the
dramatic activity of the period and the
attitudes of the players because the private
theatre employed children and constituted a
rival for the adult companies of the public
theater, for which Shakespeare wrote. That’s
why Hamlet attacks the players because of
their repertoire.

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 Moreover, Shakespeare portrays some
courtiers as stock characters (Osric,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) in the
play to show that they are weak
characters who could not make their
own decisions, instead just puppets in
hand of the authority.

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 The Danish court of the period could be
studied in terms of traditional criticism, as
well. The question in the play is succession,
so one should focus on how the Danish
court solves such a problem.
 And the critic should learn what he needs
to know about Elizabethan England to
understand this play.

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 The critic should not miss that Hamlet
does not succeed to throne after the death
of his father even though he is the only son.
 In Hamlet’s day the Danish throne was an
elective one. The royal council, composed
of the most powerful nobles in the land,
named the next king. The custom of the
throne’s descending to the oldest son of
the late monarch had not yet crystallized
into law.

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 In the light of traditional criticism, also the
moral and philosophical aspects of the
play should be analysed.
 The play emphasises that some humans
are so ambitious for a crown that they
are willing to murder for it and that
others are so highly sexed that they will
violate not only the laws of decorum but
also the civil and ecclesiastical laws against
incest.

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 Another point is that as an intellectual,
Hamlet is in search of revenge. It is
obvious that his philosophical knowledge
and Christian religion should hinder him
and he must realise that revenge is wrong.
However, Hamlet never gives up the idea
of taking revenge because he is a
transitional figure between his “feudal
son” identity and intellectual man.

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Conclusion
 Traditional approaches analyse a work of
art as the mirror of the author and the
society of the period in which it is
written.
 Studying the historical events of the
period, getting information about the
author’s life and experiences could help
us understand what the text explains and
what the author intends.

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 A reader who stays more or less on the
surface of a piece of literature has at least
understood part of what it is about.
 Ones who intend to employ the traditional
approaches to a literary work will almost
certainly employ them simultaneously. That
is, they will bring to bear on a poem, for
instance, all the information and insights
these respective disciplines can give in
seeing just what the poem means and does.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY
 Booker, Keith M. A Practical Introduction to
Literary Theory and Criticism. London:
Longman Publishers, 1995.
 Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. A Handbook of
Critical Approaches to Literature. New York:
Oxford UP, 2005.

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