When I was in college, getting my degree in English, teacher after teacher would explain why a work of art was great. With a tone of certainty they would list all the reasons.
In the 1960s Freudian interpretations were popular and many literary works were seen through a psychological perspective. This approach was often so heavy handed we all learned the joking phrase, "Well, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
Others interpreted works with a Jungian or symbolic slant. When I was in the honors program for creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, we were told that Eudora Welty had once been asked if the sudden appearance of marble cake in one of her short stories was a reference to the yin-yang symbol, the two complimentary sides of life. Her reply was simple, "I just like marble cake."
In my senior year I became quite irritated with academic explanations. Teachers taught a work of art was great because it involved universal themes, archetypes, fundamental conflicts etc. -- all of which were true, of course, but something basic was missing. It took me years to understand just what that was.
I began by thinking in reverse. Suppose I wrote a novel that had all the elements a great novel must have, would that mean that my novel was great? Of course not. Very few works of art seem to grab us and hold our attention decade after decade, century after century. So there had to be something more -- and quite fundamental.
What that man creates by means of reason
will pale before the art of inspired beings.
~ Plato ~
were a "phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers."
This is to be expected. The view point of each is different. Yet great art contains a timeless core that is compelling no matter how much a culture changes and no matter what the era.
HOW TO TEACH GREAT LITERATURE TODAY
I believe great literature should be taught not only with today's understanding, but also with an historical perspective that includes various interpretations from the past. This method would allow students to consider different approaches and as a result think in greater depth about the meaning of a work.
To make my point, I researched a number of images from performances of Shakespeare's Macbeth. For 400 years this play has held our attention, and today seems more popular than ever. The following pictures are in chronological order. In them you will see a wide variety of interpretations starting in the 1700s right up to a few years ago. In addition you will notice that Macbeth has been performed in the non-English-speaking world as well.
I found these images on commons.wikimedia.org so that I could publish them in this blog without any copyright problems, but these pictures are just the tip of the iceberg as this play has been performed by hundreds of theater groups over that last four centuries.
From the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays published in 1623