Context is derived from a Latin verb for weaving together. It refers to the pattern of a work, the way its subordinate parts relate to its larger structure. In contemporary literary discourse, however, the term usually refers to the much narrower idea of "historical context," insisting that great works of literature are fully and finally determined by the social circumstances in which they were created. What is puzzling about this is why anyone working with the achievements of literary creativity would find notions of cultural determinism an appealing way to go about enjoying complex works such as a play by Shakespeare. If anything might be expected to resist determination by anonymous cultural forces you would think it would be individual works of art. This essay argues for a more spacious view of context that does not legislate a reader's response to the semantic ordering of great works of literature. It is preferable, in my view, to think of context as the enabling conditions for an understanding between an artist's achievement and a reader's competence. Context allows room for the creativity and the emotional engagement of the reader. This is what characterizes vernacular criticism, spontaneity of response based on acknowledging what is subjectively meaningful in a literary work


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pp. 641-662
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