New historicism  

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"An "ancestor" of the new historicism noted in Mikics is C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959), which set the comedies against a contemporary cultural background of popular traditions like the "lord of misrule", where authority was inverted, transgressed and burlesqued." --Sholem Stein

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New Historicism is an approach to literary criticism and literary theory based on the premise that a literary work should be considered a product of the time, place, and circumstances of its composition rather than as an isolated creation. It had its roots in a reaction to the "New Criticism" of formal analysis of works of literature, which was seen by a new generation of professional readers as taking place in a vacuum. New Historicism developed in the 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic Stephen Greenblatt, and gained widespread influence in the 1990s.

New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand the work through its historical context and to understand cultural and intellectual history through literature, which documents the new discipline of the history of ideas. Michel Foucault based his approach both on his theory of the limits of collective cultural knowledge and on his technique of examining a broad array of documents in order to understand the episteme of a particular time. New Historicism is claimed to be a more neutral approach to historical events, and is sensitive towards different cultures.


The study

New Historicist scholars begin their analysis of literary texts by attempting to look at other texts—both literary and non-literary— to which a literate public had access at the time of writing, and what the author of the original text himself might have read. The purpose of this research, however, is not to derive the direct sources of a text, as the New Critics did, but to understand the relationship between a text and the political, social and economic circumstances in which it originated. A major focus of those New Historicist critics led by Moskowitz and Stephen Orgel has been on understanding Shakespeare less as an autonomous great author in the modern sense than as a clue to the conjunction of the world of Renaissance theater—a collaborative and largely anonymous free-for-all—and the complex social politics of the time. In this sense, Shakespeare plays are seen as inseparable from the context in which he wrote. See contextualism, thick description.

In this shift of focus, a comparison can be made with the best discussions of works of decorative arts. Unlike fine arts, which had been discussed in purely formal terms, comparable to the literary New Criticism, under the influences of Bernard Berenson and Ernst Gombrich, nuanced discussion of the arts of design since the 1970s have been set within social and intellectual contexts, taking account of fluctuations in luxury trades, the availability of design prototypes to local craftsmen, the cultural horizons of the patron, and economic considerations— "the limits of the possible" in economic historian Fernand Braudel's famous phrase. An outstanding pioneer example of such a contextualized study was Peter Thornton's monograph Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland (1978).


Clearly, in its historicism and in its political interpretations, New Historicism owes something to Marxism. But whereas Marxism (at least in its cruder forms) tends to see literature as part of a 'superstructure' in which the economic 'base' (i.e. material relations of production) manifests itself, New Historicist thinkers tend to take a more nuanced view of power, seeing it not exclusively as class-related but extending throughout society. This view derives primarily from Michel Foucault. In its tendency to see society as consisting of texts relating to other texts, with no 'fixed' literary value above and beyond the way specific societies read them in specific situations, New Historicism also owes something to postmodernism. However, New Historicists tend to exhibit less skepticism than postmodernists, and show more willingness to perform the 'traditional' tasks of literary criticism: i.e. explaining the text in its context, and trying to show what it 'meant' to its first readers.

New historicism also has something in common with the historical criticism of Hippolyte Taine, who argued that a literary work is less the product of its author's imaginations than the social circumstances of its creation, the three main aspects of which Taine called race, milieu, and moment. It is also a response to an earlier historicism, practiced by early 20th century critics such as John Livingston Lowes, which sought to de-mythologize the creative process by reexamining the lives and times of canonical writers. But New Historicism differs from both of these trends in its emphasis on ideology: the political disposition, unknown to an author himself, that governs his work.

Foucauldian basis

Following Foucault, New Historicism frequently addresses the idea that the lowest common denominator for all human actions is power, so the New Historicist seeks to find examples of power and how it is dispersed within the text. Power is a means through which the marginalized are controlled, and the thing that the marginalized (or, other) seek to gain. This relates back to the idea that because literature is written by those who have the most power, there must be details in it that show the views of the common people. New Historicists seek to find "sites of struggle" to identify just who is the group or entity with the most power.

Foucault's discussions of the panopticon, a theoretical prison system developed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, are particularly useful for New Historicism. Bentham stated that the perfect prison/surveillance system would be a cylindrical shaped room that held prison cells on the outside walls. In the middle of this spherical room would be a large guard tower with a light that would shine in all the cells. The prisoners thus would never know for certain whether they were being watched, so they would effectively police themselves, and be as actors on a stage, giving the appearance of submission, although they are probably not being watched.

Foucault included the panopticon in his discussion of power to illustrate the idea of lateral surveillance, or self-policing, that occurs in the text when those who are not in power are made to believe that they are being watched by those who are. His purpose was to show that power would often change the behavior of the subordinate class, and they would often fall into line whether there was a true need to do so or not.

Although the influence of such philosophers as French structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser and Marxists Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton was essential in shaping the theory of new historicism, a lot of credit must be given to the work done by Foucault. Although some critics believe that these former philosophers have made more of an impact on new historicism as a whole, there is a popularly held recognition that Foucault’s ideas have passed through the new historicist formation in history as a succession of épistémes or structures of thought that shape everyone and everything within a culture (Myers 1989). It is indeed evident that the categories of history used by new historicists are standardised academically. Although the movement is publicly disapproving of the periodisation of academic history, the uses to which new historicists put the Foucauldian notion of the épistéme amount to very little more than the same practice under a new and improved label (Myers 1989).

Insofar as Greenblatt has been explicit in expressing a theoretical orientation, he has identified the ethnography and theoretical anthropology of Clifford Geertz as highly influential.


New historicism has suffered from criticism, most particular from the clashing views of those considered to be postmodernists. New historicism denies the claim that society has entered a "post-modern" or "post-historical" phase and allegedly ignited the 'culture wars' of the 1980s(Seaton, 2000). The main points of this argument are that new historicism, unlike post-modernism, acknowledges that almost all historic views, accounts, and facts they use contain biases which derive from the position of that view. As Carl Rapp states: '[the new historicists] often appear to be saying, "We are the only ones who are willing to admit that all knowledge is contaminated, including even our own"'(Myers 1989).


  • Myers, D G 1989, The New Historicism in literary study, viewed 27 April 2006, [1]

Further reading

  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translation of Surveiller et Punir. Vintage, 1979.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning. U Chicago P, 1980.
  • Orgel, Stephen. The Authentic Shakespeare. Routledge, 2002.
  • Veeser, H. Aram (Ed.). The New Historicism. Routledge, 1989.
  • Dixon, C 2005, Important people in New Historicism, viewed 26 April 2006, [2]
  • Hedges, W 2000, New Historicism explained, viewed 20 March 2006 [4]
  • Murfin, R. & Ray, S 1998, The Bedford glossary of critical and literary terms, Bedford Books, St Martins.
  • Myers, D G 1989, The New Historicism in literary study, viewed 27 April 2006, [5]
  • Rice, P & Waugh, P 1989, Modern literary theory: a reader, 2nd edn, Edward Arnold, Melbourne.
  • Seaton, J 1999, "The metaphysics of postmodernism", review of Carl Rapp, Fleeing the Universal: The Critique of Post-rational Criticism (1998), in Humanitas 12.1 (1999), viewed 29 April 2006, [6]
  • The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary 2004, 4th edn, Oxford University Press,South Melbourne.

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