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Shakespeare’s Hermeneutic Legacy:
Herder on Modern Drama and the Challenge of Cultural Prejudice

It is a common assumption that modern hermeneutics develops as a part of romantic philosophy and its reaction to the ahistorical thinking of the Enlightenment. In this view, hermeneutics grows out of an internal, philosophical agenda, rather than in interaction with actual, historical works of art and literature. In this essay, Gjesdal takes issue with this assumption. She suggests that hermeneutics, as a modern, philosophical discipline, is solidly planted in the Enlightenment tradition in eighteenth-century German philosophy, in particular, its debate about the aesthetic challenges of Shakespearean drama. The essay supports this argument by reference to Johann Gottfried Herder’s 1773 essay “Shakespear (sic).”

It is commonly held that philosophical hermeneutics—hermeneutics as a theory of understanding and method of interpretation—develops as part of romanticism and its reaction to the ahistorical thinking of the Enlightenment.1 Against this assumption, I suggest that hermeneutics, as a modern discipline, is solidly planted within the Enlightenment tradition in German eighteenth-century philosophy, in particular its debate about the aesthetic challenge of Shakespeare’s drama. I support this argument by reference to Johann Gottfried Herder’s 1773 essay “Shakespeare.”

Throughout the 1760s, Shakespeare’s theater was a topic of much discussion in Germany. While some were fascinated by Shakespeare’s recently translated work, critical audiences asked if these plays, so clearly violating the dominant taste and aesthetic standards, could pass as art. The reference to Shakespeare thus provides all that Herder can hope for: it is an example that engages a broader, enlightened audience; concerns critics, as well as philosophers; is at the heart of the newly developing discipline of aesthetics; and is an issue that invites systematic and critical reflection on the cultural-historical conditioning of reason. It is with these concerns in mind that Herder turns to Shakespeare.

Herder’s essay on Shakespeare exists in two drafts and a final version. Between 1770 and 1773, Herder does not change his assessment of Shakespeare—or, for that matter, of the reigning critique of Elizabethan drama. What changes, though, is his attempt to analyze why Shakespeare’s tragedy has been misunderstood and his effort to carve out an alternative, more adequate theory of understanding.

The essay begins with an analysis of the first draft, and then traces the development of Herder’s hermeneutic position through the second and third versions [End Page 60] of his essay on Shakespeare. In the course of drafting and redrafting the essay, Herder develops a claim about the individuality of the work of art, a thesis about the inherent historicity of symbolic expression, and, finally, an analysis of the epistemic challenge of prejudices brought about by the historical-cultural situatedness of the interpreter. I close by offering some brief remarks on the relevance of Herder’s contribution within the climate of contemporary hermeneutics and historicism.


In the first draft of “Shakespeare,” Herder addresses the position of the poet and critic Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg. Against a rigid neoclassical paradigm in art,2 Gerstenberg seeks to vindicate the aesthetic relevance of Shakespearean theater.3 Just as the classicists had used Aristotle to critique Shakespeare, Gerstenberg defends Elizabethan drama by reference to Poetics. Herder sympathizes with Gerstenberg’s aims, but he is less impressed with Gerstenberg’s arguments.4 Contra orthodox classicism, Gerstenberg defends Shakespearean drama, but he remains dependent on the most fundamental philosophical premise of the German debate on Shakespeare: the idea that one can judge a modern work of art in terms of standards deriving from ancient Greek poetics. In Herder’s view, this premise needs to be reevaluated.

In order to work out a more adequate defense of Shakespeare, Herder musters three different, yet closely related arguments. He develops (a) a claim about the singularity of the work of art, (b) a more specific suggestion about the historical content of Shakespeare’s drama, and (c) a notion of the unique relationship between innovation and tradition in creative genius. Each of these points deserves a more detailed discussion.

(a) Classicist poetics is typically perceived as striving for a definition of drama (as opposed, say, to an emphasis on the experiential dimensions of theater). This definition, in turn, is related to criteria of genre. Herder, however, argues that Shakespeare’s drama cannot be pigeonholed by such criteria. [End Page 61] Rather, it is characterized by the fact that it transcends traditional genres (W 2:524).

Herder extends this point to literature as such. The perception of literature through the lens of rules or fixed (generic) definitions reduces the work to a faint version of itself (W 2:524). Hence, the classicists misunderstand not only Shakespeare’s drama but all drama, ancient tragedy included. Greek tragedies cannot be lumped together under a general label or taken to exemplify a set of universal aesthetic norms. Rather, each tragedy must be studied as distinct and individual and appreciated in its specific style and manner (W 2:525).

(b) Having questioned the usefulness of abstract genre definitions and universal norms in aesthetics, Herder proceeds to suggest that Shakespeare’s drama presents the audience with a history (Geschichte) that is far more complex than the well-structured plot recommended by Aristotelian poetics (W 2:525). The introduction of the term “history” might be helpful from a literary point of view, in that it contributes to the reevaluation of Shakespearean drama.5 From a philosophical standpoint, it produces a possible inconsistency. For even though the term “history” might aid in the reevaluation of Shakespeare, it represents a general(izing) category and thus jeopardizes the claim that every work must be treated as singular, in the sense of giving itself its own standard. This inconsistency is only overcome by the introduction of Herder’s next point: the description of Shakespeare’s work as both individual and reflective of its historical context.

(c) True to the rhetoric of his time, Herder describes Shakespeare’s creativity in the language of aesthetic genius (W 2:526).6 In Herder’s work, genius is associated with a certain relation to the historicity of symbolic resources: it is defined by its capacity to expand the prevalent symbolic tradition and create novel expressions that, in turn, are recognized by the critical audiences as aptly reflecting their self-understanding. The work of creative genius is both individual [End Page 62] and expressive of a shared culture and tradition. For Herder, the classicist paradigm, in advocating an ideal of imitation, fails to account for the individuality as well as the historicity of expression—and, importantly, it fails to account for the intrinsic relation between the two, that is, for how tradition exists only in perpetual renewal.

By introducing a notion of creative genius, Herder can argue that it is not just Shakespeare’s narratives or the historical reference points of his drama, but also the very creation of his work that emerges as historical. Shakespeare’s drama is historical in that it brings out novel expressive possibilities and expands the field of thinking and action, that is, the realm of symbolically mediated thought.7

Herder’s reference to creative genius solves the tension between the singularity claim (that each work articulates its own “standards”) and the universalizing claim (that Shakespeare’s tragedies present “history”). Yet the reference to genius is not unproblematic. For, in spite of Herder’s seeking a new description of art—the work being unique, yet reflective of its tradition—the category of individual, creative genius typically refers to a distinctively modern frame of mind. Rather, Herder is committed to an explanatory model that sheds light on ancient and modern drama. Hence, he needs to re-craft the essay and highlight, from the beginning, how the tradition is kept alive by innovation and change.


In the second draft, Herder’s argument moves from a critique of generalizing theories of art and symbolic expression to a positive account of the intrinsic historical character of art in particular and symbolic expression in general. In this context, Gerstenberg’s work, with its attempt at defending Shakespeare by reference to rules gleaned from Aristotle’s Poetics, no longer makes up the polemical foil. Herder now addresses a number of new literary issues, including the question of whether an author needs to be true to the historical material and the claim that Shakespeare’s characters are too diverse to create a unified aesthetic whole. He develops the idea, already implicit in his appeal to Geschichte, of Shakespeare’s drama as a unity-in-difference. In explaining this point, however, the second draft is considerably longer and in certain respects less well-structured than the first draft is. Yet, it is possible to isolate and analyze three steps that bring Herder from a concern about universalist theories of art to a [End Page 63] full-fledged account of the historicity of art in particular and symbolic expression in general. He (a) discusses how Shakespeare’s drama escapes rule classification, (b) suggests that it offers a concrete reflection of humanity, and (c) claims that the particular features of Shakespeare’s work, as it reflects humanity, are expressive of the modern age.

(a) In the first draft, Herder insists that each Shakespeare play must give itself its own standards—indeed, there are as many standards as there are situations in the piece (W 2:542). In the second draft, this point is emphatically repeated (W 2:532). There is no one set of rules for drama, not even for each particular drama, but an infinite number of potential standards or rules (Regelkanon) responding to the various aspects of the individual plays. In Herder’s image-laden lexicon, Shakespeare’s drama does not present us with a beautiful painting, but with a full display of light similar to that created by the sun reflecting in a drop of water (W 2:532).

(b) If Herder insists that each work—and each scene or passage—sets up its own standard of successfulness, it may seem that the very idea of a work dissolves into a myriad of aesthetic fragments. Some notion of totality is needed to avoid this threat. Yet this notion, we already know, must be historically sensitive. How then can Herder combine a notion of the work as totality with a sensitivity to the particularity of each play or part thereof? In the second draft, Herder responds to this question by introducing the idea that Shakespeare’s drama presents us not only with the history of the Elizabethan era but with a representation of humankind (W 2:532).

What previous critics considered the weaknesses of Shakespeare’s drama— that it was untruthful to historical events, that the plot was too complicated, and that the characters were too diverse—is its strength, for Herder. That Shakespeare presents us with a multitude of events and characters, that he poetically processes the historical material, indicates no lack of unity. The unity presented in his drama, though, is not one that can be conceptually summarized; it is a unity of humanity realized in and through a plurality of thoughts, actions, expressions, and experiences.

(c) In this way, Herder suggests, Shakespeare gives form (Gestalt) to a world, plural and diverse, in which the reader recognizes herself. Shakespeare could not have written as the ancient Greeks did without, concomitantly, betraying the cultural and historical horizon of his own world—and, by implication, that of his audience. Shakespeare’s drama reflects his time: that of modernity.8 If one judges Shakespeare by Sophocles’s standards, one is bound to overlook the [End Page 64] intrinsic historical nature of symbolic expression—Sophocles’s, as much as Shakespeare’s. In addition, one is bound to overlook the genuine possibility of self-reflection that the modern audience is afforded through Elizabethan theater. That Shakespeare’s drama does not easily lend itself to genre definitions and that it traverses literary styles and conventions are part of its historicity.9

In the second draft, Herder moves beyond the discussion of the historical differences between the Greeks and the moderns to reflect on the historical situation of the work and the way in which it affords self-understanding and self-reflection. If the text is situated in history, as Herder’s point about self-understanding presupposes, we may assume that this is the case with the reader. Her outlook is shaped by her historical and cultural context. Hence, Herder must address the historical situation of the interpreter. This makes up the philosophical challenge of the third and final version of “Shakespeare.”


In the final version of the essay, Herder significantly expands his focus. He conducts a reflective turn, taking into account not only the historicity of the work, but also the historicity of the interpreter and the philosopher theorizing about the nature of drama in particular and art universally. The situatedness of the philosopher is given a twofold determination: it is an enabling condition for understanding, yet it constitutes a potential limitation for criticism and scholarship.

True to the essay’s central thrust, Herder’s argument is backed up by an analysis of the nature and historical development of Greek and Shakespearean drama. (a) Herder points out that the interpreter’s image of the past, whether of ancient Greek or modern culture, is often reflective of the concerns governing her age and, thus, expressive of conscious or pre-conscious prejudices. (b) Furthermore, he shows how the cementing of prejudices is part of tradition itself. (c) Finally, he asks how, in historical work, illegitimate prejudices can be critiqued and overcome.

(a) Herder reminds the reader that drama is inherited from the Greeks and passed down as a core element of the Western tradition. Throughout this mediation, the idea has gradually taken shape that Greek drama can be laid out in terms of certain rules, which are, in turn, explicated in Aristotle’s Poetics. But [End Page 65] Greek drama is not a universal, rule-bound category. Wishing to combat the classicists on their own grounds, Herder traces the development of ancient tragedy from its simplest beginnings to its more elaborate Sophoclean form.10 The notion of the timelessness of the Greek ideals is itself the result of prejudices: according to Herder, modern readers cling to reductive and simplifying images of ancient drama, images that have been cemented over the centuries. However, these images reflect the modern period to the same or an even stronger degree than they reflect Greek culture.

With this insight, the focus of Herder’s historicity thesis shifts from the work (as laid out in the second draft) to the interpreter and his or her tradition. Herder clarifies his point by reference to the reception of Aristotle’s Poetics. In this context, he is not interested in the history of drama and art per se, but targets the way we—as interpreters, philosophers, and theorists—think and talk about art and culture.

The classicists read Aristotle in light of their own prejudices and used him to bolster their own dogma. When approaching Aristotle “without prejudice and from the standpoint of his own time,” we realize that what he (Aristotle) values in Sophocles is very different from what the classicists value in his work (S 12). Aristotle expounds the “variety” of Sophocles’s poetry. Equally important, Aristotle sees Sophocles as an innovator and sees innovation as “the essence of [a] new poetic genre” (S 13). Sophocles is not judged by the criteria of the past. Nor is he judged by a set of allegedly timeless and universal standards. Rather, he is assessed in light of his ability to express his own time. This is often lost on us modern interpreters. We are misinformed by prejudices whose pervasiveness escapes us. The way in which we view the art and thinking of the past is a question about our access to historical works, but also a question of reflecting critically on the present.

(b) According to Herder, both Shakespeare’s defenders and his critics have been held back by their failure to highlight unhealthy prejudices. Shakespeare’s work has been expounded “by the multitudes who explain, defend, condemn, excuse, worship, slander, translate, and traduce him” (S 1). Herder does not wish to contribute to this reception but sets out to “show that both sides have built their case merely on prejudice, on an illusion that does not really exist” (S 3–4). Shakespeare’s critics and his defenders have observed his work through the lens of classicism and reduced it to a caricature (S 4). Herder certainly wishes to get away from the prejudices of neoclassicism. Yet, more important [End Page 66] than getting around a particular set of (classicist) prejudices is the effort to discuss the general impact of prejudice on understanding.

The chief mistake of classicist aesthetics is neither to approach nonclassical art with measures derived from classical literature nor to misread Greek tragedy, but to believe that its own point of view is universal and free of prejudice. This is the most damaging of all prejudices: that of imagining that one’s own outlook is untainted by the historical and cultural context in which it finds its shape

(c) How, then, is the interpreter to proceed in order to become aware of, reflect on, and possibly challenge the prejudices of her horizon and culture? Herder’s recommendation is unambiguous and harkens back to the theoretical framework worked out toward the end of the first draft. The only way for the interpreter to challenge his or her prejudices is to situate the work within its own time or context of origin (S 12). In the “Shakespeare” essay, Herder does not offer much by way of explaining exactly how such a situating of the work in its original context should take place.11 Instead he proceeds to discuss what may be gained from such a procedure.

By critically investigating expressions of temporally or culturally distant life-worlds, the interpreter not only reaches a better understanding of the work at stake, but of herself and her own culture. Hence, the purpose of the final version of the “Shakespeare” essay is not only to validate the work of the English playwright, but also to reflect on the cultural self-understanding of the German-speaking world. When Herder, in 1765, voiced the need for an anthropological turn in philosophy (W 1:132, 134), this did not simply indicate that philosophy should take an interest in the study of other cultures, but that it should reflect on its own prejudices in approaching works from temporally or culturally distant horizons.12 The anthropological turn involves a historicist-hermeneutic orientation in philosophy: historicist in the sense that the understanding of a given work from past (or distant) cultures cannot be taken for granted but requires scholarly-interpretative work,13 and hermeneutic in the sense that the interpreter, throughout this process, analyzes her own prejudices [End Page 67] on a given subject matter and continuously subjects them to critical examination, gaining understanding of a temporally and/or culturally distant text, as well as a more reflected understanding of herself and her own culture.

When read in this way—by emphasizing why Herder, even if his assessment of Shakespeare remains the same, needs to redraft the essay—Herder’s study of Shakespeare is not only a contribution to the history of literature or the reception of Elizabethan drama, but also an essay on understanding.


Philosophically minded readers have often assumed that Herder’s engagement with Shakespeare amounts to little but literary history or, at most, poetics.14 This, however, is false. The young Herder’s literary analyses were produced almost twenty years before Kant published his Critique of Judgment. For Herder and his generation, art is not a subject of pure aesthetic judgment in the Kantian sense of the word. Rather, art is the predominant form through which Enlightenment audiences encounter culturally distant life forms, and even the predominant form through which they encounter their own tradition. As much as art is seen as beautiful, it is treated as a historical object—an object that generates scholarship and epistemological queries about the nature of understanding and about the way in which prejudices systematically hamper the outlook of historical interpretation. The Enlightenment engagement with literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular, is the beginning of modern hermeneutics. If we see hermeneutics in this way, its commitment is not simply that of responding to ontological questions (as it has been in the tradition of Heidegger and Gadamer), but of relating to the challenges—epistemic, moral, political, or existential—that emerge from textual engagement with historical works.

In raising such questions, and combining an epistemic approach to interpretation with a larger, philosophical discussion of how human being is historically and culturally situated, Herder’s Shakespeare studies shed light on the recent turn to historicism within the human sciences. Through his engagement with tragedy, Herder not only works out the philosophical basis for a hermeneutic theory of interpretation; his co-thinking of interpretation and human historicity—his insistence that these dimensions of human life must be discussed together—presents us with a philosophical dimension often overlooked by contemporary [End Page 68] historicism, be it in the field of Shakespeare studies or beyond. At the end of the day, our interpretative efforts are rooted in our status as historical and cultural beings and so our scholarly pursuits must be situated within, yet point beyond, the actual historical and cultural framework from which we talk or write. Borrowing from Kant’s famous lines, Herder’s particular achievement is to show that in the field of historical scholarship, a merely epistemic position risks ending up being empty; but a one-sided focus on ontology runs the risk of blindness. In his engagement with Shakespeare, as it develops through the early 1770s, Herder articulates a position that goes beyond the either-or quality of epistemology versus ontology. He suggests that our engagement with literature, past or present, must be rooted in a systematic philosophical account of what it is to be a historical being and a set of reflections on how we, in our interpretive endeavors, can and should be committed to expanding the horizons from which our reflections and interpretations emerge. This, in my view, is the true relevance of Herder’s Shakespeare studies.15 [End Page 69]

Kristin Gjesdal

Kristin Gjesdal is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Temple University. She is the author of Gadamer and the Legacy of German Idealism (2009) and a number of articles on post-Kantian philosophy.


1. In the words of Hans-Georg Gadamer, who has a tendency to reduce pre-Hegelian hermeneutics to a series of proto-historicist contributions, “Historicism, despite its critique of rationalism and of natural law philosophy, is based on the modern Enlightenment and unwittingly shares its prejudices.” See Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2003), 270.

2. Both Gerstenberg and Herder viewed classicism as a strictly rule-oriented, deductive approach to art. For a more nuanced discussion of classicist aesthetics, see Frederick C. Beiser, Diotima’s Children: German Aesthetic Rationalism from Leibniz to Lessing (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009).

3. See Wilhelm von Gerstenberg, Briefe über Merkwürdigkeiten der Litteratur (1766), letters 15–18, reprinted in Shakespeare in Germany 1740–1815, ed. Roy Pascal (New York: Octagon Books, 1971), 55–71.

4. Johann Gottfried Herder, Werke in zehn Bänden, ed. Günter Arnold et al. (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1993), 2:522. Further references to the Werke will be abbreviated “W,” and cited by volume and page number.

5. It allows, for example, the inclusion of ghosts, witches, people of all classes, and other character types that were not in line with the aesthetic sensitivities of classicist drama. Furthermore, it allows a reevaluation of Shakespeare’s language, which was often subjected to drastic measures of “improvement” in the German translations. For a discussion of these points, see W 2:524–26.

6. Here, Herder follows Edward Young. Young emphasized the originality of Shakespeare and claimed that “the first ancients had no merit in being originals: they could not be imitators. Modern writers have a choice to make, and therefore have a merit in their power.” See Martin William Seinke, Edward Young’s “Conjectures on Original Composition” in England and Germany (New York: G. E. Stechert, 1917), 47, 64–65. Young’s work was translated into German in the late 1750s; Conjectures was published in German in 1760. However, Herder was reading English under Hamann’s tutorship and thus had access to the original work. See John H. Zammito, Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002), 240–41.

7. This point is related to Herder’s philosophy of language (W 1:181). See also Johann Gottfried Herder, Treatise on the Origin of Language, in Philosophical Writings, ed. and trans. Michael N. Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 87, 96. Further references to this work will be abbreviated “PW,” and cited by page number.

8. I discuss this point in more detail in “Reading Shakespeare: Reading Modernity,” Angelaki 9.3 (2004): 17–31.

9. In Kalligone, Herder traces this insight back to Edward Young and praises him for realizing that to imitate the ancients is ultimately to do something different from what they did (W 8:652). This point was already spelled out in the first draft, and in Fragments, where Herder claims that ancient works could not have been produced by moderns, just “as little as we Germans will ever receive a Homer who is in all respects for us that which Homer was for the Greeks” (PW 42).

10. Johann Gottfried Herder, Shakespeare, trans. Gregory Moore (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008), 8–17. Further references to this translation will be abbreviated “S,” and cited by page number.

11. Such a discussion, though, is part of the agenda in “Über Thomas Abbt’s Schriften” (1768), PW 167–78.

12. In Another Philosophy of History, Herder observes how his fellow philosophers expect that “when a storm shakes two smalls twigs in Europe, the whole world trembles and bleeds.” See Johann Gottfried Herder, Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings, ed. and trans. Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin (Cambridge: Hackett, 2004), 58.

13. Heise argues that the plurality of culture is intrinsically connected to its existence in time: “Die Pluralität der Kulturen, die sich aus dieser Anordnung ergibt, ist nicht relativistisch begründet, sondern folgt der Einsicht, daß Kultur zeitlich bestimmt ist und deswegen nur als Plural gedacht werden kann.” See Jens Heise, Johann Gottfried Herder zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius Verlag, 1998), 19.

14. It is symptomatic that even a judicious reader like Robert Norton reasons that Herder’s work on literature is an “example of the young Herder’s ideal of historical analysis at its practical best.” See Robert Norton, Herder’s Aesthetics and the European Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991), 80–81, 76. The Deutscher Klassiker edition suggests that Herder’s work on Shakespeare is fundamentally a contribution to literary theory; see W 2:1169 (“Überblick”).

15. I elaborate on this point in a forthcoming expanded version of this essay. See Kristin Gjesdal, “Literature, Prejudice, Historicity: The Philosophical Importance of Herder’s Shakespeare Studies,” in Die Aktualität der Romantik, ed. Michael Forster and Klaus Vieweg (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2013).