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The Teaching of King Amenemhat I
Commentary. General issues

'Political' historical background and content of the composition

Literary compositions have generally been mined by Egyptologists searching for political history. Literature is often identified as propaganda, in particular since the brilliant but one-sided treatment of the subject by Posener 1956. There is a political dimension to all human communication: however, when we do not know dates of composition, can we identify the 'political dimension' of a particular work of literature? (see the question of dating the composition).

In line with the over-riding focus on 'political history', the ascriptions to king Amenemhat I within the composition, and to the scribe Khety in a Ramesside manuscript, have often been taken at face value. Such literal readings have underestimated the potential for strategic use of naming. In general, the 'straight' political reading of a literary composition obscures both its prime literary value and any possible historical content. It is important to read and re-read the composition, to assess its aesthetic qualities, before venturing into surrounding political historical terrain for non-literary information. On the other hand, the political history forms part of the background to the writing and reading of the composition, and must also be examined, though as secondary to the literary content. Taking English literature as an analogy, today few viewers of a production of Hamlet will have any precise knowledge either of the Danish political historical background, or of access to it on the part of the Renaissance English dramatist. This does not prevent the viewer from enjoying the production, nor does it remove the knowledge of the political histories from the realm of research. It does, though, encourage us to look at literary compositions primarily as literary, and secondarily as residual historical documents.

For the main historical episode inferred from the Teaching of king Amenemhat I, see the issue of regicide.


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