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King Lear pp 60–66Cite as

The literary canon and the classic text

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The words ‘canon’ and ‘classic’ both evoke notions of evaluation and hierarchy. The literary canon can be narrowly defined as that which is accepted as authentic (as for example in the context of distinguishing canonical from apocryphal works in relation to the Bible or to Shakespeare), but it is usually defined more broadly as that which is assumed to be ‘good’ literature, in fact the ‘best’ literature: that which is worth preserving and passing on from one generation to the next. The term ‘classic’ can sometimes be used to cover a whole canon (as when we refer to all of Greek and Latin literature as ‘the classics’), or it can be a vaguely derogatory term meaning ‘conventional’ (as in ‘That is a classic example of revenge tragedy’), but it can also be a term of high praise, applied to a work of literature which is not only in the canon but at the top of the canonical hierarchy, a ‘great’ work perceived as having special value for its culture.

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© 1988 Ann Thompson

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Thompson, A. (1988). The literary canon and the classic text. In: King Lear. The Critics Debate. Palgrave, London.

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