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This site was created to help explain the critical approach of Historical-Biographical Criticism, one of the two types of criticism under the heading of the "Traditional Approaches" to criticism. Throughout this site you will find examples of ways to use this approach, links to information on this approach and some suggestions on which works of Literature this approach could be used to help analyze. The first button in the link section near the bottom of the page provides a brief list of advantages as well as disadvantages of using this style of criticism.

According to A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature: Fourth Edition the Historical-Biographical approach can be defined as the approach that "...sees a literary work chiefly, if not exclusively, as a reflection of the author's life and times or the life and times of the characters in the work" (Guerin, 22). Understanding the social structure or way of life of a certain time period give the reader a greater knowledge base from which to draw conclusions and better understand the story. Discovering details about the author's life and times also provide similar ways to further develop ideas about a story.

There are a variety of resources available to help with the understanding of this criticism from the traditional approach:

A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature: Fourth Edition by Wilfred Guerin, Earle Labor, Lee Morgan, Jeanne C. Reesman, and John R. Willingham.

Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice (3rd Edition) by Charles E. Bressler.

Literary Theory: The Basics by Johannes Willem Bertens.

Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton (**This book is recommended if you want to see the benefits and problems with many of the different critical approaches).

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism edited by Vincent B. Leitch.


In this section I have provided an example of a way to use the Historical-Biographical Approach using a well known work from Literature.

by William Shakespeare

If you use this style when approaching the text of the play, you might want to focus on the style of rule in Denmark during Shakespeare's time. It would also be helpful to note the way revenge was viewed by the people in England {The people whom these plays were written for} during this time. Revenge was viewed as a sin against both God and the State. When one kills as an act of revenge it was thought that God would be offended because he was the one that was supposed to control human life. When someone was killed un-naturally it was perceived as a great violation of what was accepted as right. How does this change the meaning of Prince Hamlet's choices in the play? Also, one could examine the Catholic notion of Purgatory, and examine what role Purgatory played in the newly Protestant England. Catholics viewed Purgatory as a middle ground between Heaven and Hell where people could go to work off venial sins (or non-mortal sins, murder was a mortal sin). There was no such thing as Purgatory in the Protestant religion. Audience members would have had to decide whether to view the ghost of King Hamlet, who appears in Act I of the play, as a ghost sent from a Purgatory they did not believe in to seek vengeance for his murder or whether they should adhere to what their faith dictated and see the ghost as a demon sent from Hell to insight murder. Using all these insights, a reader could begin to re-examine the character of Hamlet as well as some of the other supporting players in the story.



This page is property of Sarah Kautzman April 2005