Shakespeare is usually set apart from his contemporaries, in kind no less than quality. This book sees Elizabethan drama as drawn together by a shared need to deal with contradictory pressures from heterogeneous audiences, censorious authorities, profit driven managers, and authors looking for classic status and social esteem. The power of poetry gives these contradictory purposes an intensity and scope that speaks directly to our own motives, aspirations, and evasions. But this connection must be shallow if we do not face the strangeness as well as the accessibility of this repertory. Starting from texts rather than systems, experience rather than explanation, Hunter argues that only by treating the unfamiliar and even the distasteful with equal seriousness can we allow the familiar in Shakespeare its historical separateness as well as its imaginative intimacy.
Hazlitt's ideas about many of the plays have now come to be valued as thought-provoking alternatives to those of his contemporary Coleridge, and Characters of Shakespear's Plays is now viewed as a major study of Shakespeare's plays, placing Hazlitt with Schlegel and Coleridge as one of the three most notable Shakespearean critics of the Romantic period.