Historical context and interpretation: be fair to the Zeitgeist!

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In discussions of interpretation, most often people will tell you the same basic advice:
-read the whole work your cutting is from
-ALWAYS refer to the text when queries arise
-question character relationships
-discover what it is the character wants and the devices they are using or could use to accomplish this goal
-look closer and find the subtext
-ASK WHY FOR EVERYTHING

…and so forth. All of this is splendid advice, and I would spout these pearls of wisdom to anyone who is new to the world of interpretation. However, there is one aspect that I feel is forgotten in the Forensics realm which leaves me perplexed. Why do I rarely hear of people looking into the historical/cultural significance of the piece?

In high school and college the historical and cultural views are generally a focal point of most literature courses. In fact, one of the first questions a majority of my teachers would ask is something like “how is this novel capturing the historical context of this time period?” And then of course there would be a brief historical lesson prior to even reading the piece of literature. I adore that literature can be a method to learn about history and culture from a given time period. If we are so eager to interpret as such in a classroom, why not Forensics?

If you are performing a piece that is steeped in historical and cultural significance, is specific to a particular time period or idea, or uses a past event in juxtaposition to a current event I suggest going to your history textbook and reading. Knowing the events of the past, the reasons why they happened, and the FEELINGS related to these events CAN HELP YOUR CHARACTERIZATION! Have you been stuck pondering why your character feels as they feel? Perhaps your answer is related to the societal zeitgeist surrounding a time period.

It is also useful to ask whether the author wrote the work in question to send a message. If that is true, I would also suggest researching what that message was. You may learn a few interesting pieces of information that could be useful in the interpretation of the piece and for characterization (especially if the author is speaking through the narrator).

Delving into the historical, cultural, and authorial background for your piece may yield some extraordinary fruits. Still skeptical? Imagine reading “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift without any knowledge of the heated period he wrote. I used that work as a means to teach high school students about satire; provided detailed information about the historical context and most loved it after hearing the context surrounding the piece. Contemplate how they would have reacted if I would have supplied the text PRIOR to any intelligence as to why it was written! This real-life example is precisely why lacking enlightenment to historical, cultural, or an authorial message can be harmful to your interpretation; you may be missing the point.

Remember, the reading of literature creates amateur historians of us all.

Interesting advice! But something that could easily be overlooked. This should be added to the routine bits of advice people give.

I wish I could have been in that classroom after the students had finished reading "A Modest Proposal."

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