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What is a historical context and can texts be explained or enriched by considerations of context A definition of the phrase historical context is the historical circumstances that form the setting for an event statement or idea and in terms of which it can be fully evaluated and assessed1 In looking at the historical context of literature there are different strains that can be looked at such as the writers context the texts context the readings context and the language context2 When applied to literature this way of reading clearly opens up a great deal of information to consider As a result certain movements of literary criticism are out rightly opposed to reading texts with attention to context Cleanth Brooks an American formalist critic of the twentieth century believed that Speculation on the mental processes of the author takes the critic away from the work into biography and psychology3 He ascertains that the work itself should be studied not the creation of it examining the authors life describes the process of composition not the structure of the thing composed4 In other words biographical information is surplus to requirements and gets in the way of analysing the text for what it is Roland Barthes 1915-1980 was one of the leading figures in French structuralism and in his landmark essay The Death of the Author 1968 he attacked the act of examining the authors intentions as a means of understanding the text more thoroughly The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author5 Barthes believed that to attain the ultimate meaning6 the biography and psychology of the author should be cast aside by the reader and the focus should instead be on the text It is language that speaks not the author7 However only subscribing to Barthes and Brooks theories limits our choices as readers Ralph Waldo Emerson believed We read often with as much talent as we
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