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The long chain of reception

26 October 2005

The word 'reception' has a special sense in the humanities. It is to do with our relationship with the past, its literature and culture.

Reception is the way that works from the past have been interpreted or 'received' by those who came later - as well as the process of dialogue between the work and the present interpreter who is inevitably influenced by previous interpretations and prevailing theories.

Take Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Since we know that Shakespeare read Ovid's Metamorphoses and that this had an influence on his play, we could say that Dream is a 'reception' of Ovid. But rather than just being inertly influenced by a text from the past, Shakespeare's role is as an active interpreter of Ovid's poem - he engages with it, interprets it, understands it in a certain way, and then incorporates that understanding into his own play. As a result, we may have our views of both Ovid and of Shakespeare modified by our joint reception of the two different texts - the Metamorphoses of Ovid on the one hand and Shakespeare's Dream on the other.

So behind any interpretation of Ovid today lies a 'chain' of receptions. Right from Ovid's earliest readers people have been reacting, interpreting, responding, and producing new works based on Ovid. These affect later ones, so there is a continuous chain stretching down from the original work to the current interpretation, which will be affected in various ways by that pre-existing chain. Sometimes you react, sometimes you say, "No, I don't agree with that way of reading Ovid". But even when you do that, you are still in the chain, you are not reacting only to the work itself.

It doesn't make any sense to talk about 'original' meaning

This way of looking at the interpretation of works of the past is particularly associated with German hermeneutics and a philosopher called Hans-Georg Gadamer. The other view, that we can know the past 'as it really was', is often called the 'positivist' view. But Gadamer argued, and Martindale agrees with him, that such positivism is a delusion - any interpretation is always a mediation between the work and the receiver.

If you look at the history of interpretations, what you find is that there are hundreds of different interpretations, so it doesn't make any sense to talk about the 'original' meaning. Look at translation, for example. Translation puts the original work into our language with our concepts, our presuppositions, our prejudices and our instincts. So whichever way you look at it, there is always an act of mediation involved.

In collaboration with Professor David Hopkins from the English Department, Martindale is about to embark on a major work of reception - the Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. To be published by Oxford University Press, this enormous project will take ten years to complete and involve more than 100 contributors to the five volume series. Martindale and Hopkins will be general editors of the whole enterprise, as well as editing the volume for 1660-1780. They will receive essays from the contributors and, through the editing process, make their own contribution to the long chain and its continued reception by the next generation.

Charles Martindale/Classics and Ancient History


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