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New Historicism by Neema Parvini LAST REVIEWED: 03 June 2019 LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0015

New historicism has been a hugely influential approach to literature, especially in studies of William Shakespeare’s works and literature of the Early Modern period. It began in earnest in 1980 and quickly supplanted New Criticism as the new orthodoxy in early modern studies. Despite many attacks from feminists, cultural materialists, and traditional scholars, it dominated the study of early modern literature in the 1980s and 1990s. Arguably, since then, it has given way to a different, more materialist, form of historicism that some call “new new historicism.” There have also been variants of “new historicism” in other periods of the discipline, most notably the romantic period, but its stronghold has always remained in the Renaissance. At its core, new historicism insists—contra formalism—that literature must be understood in its historical context. This is because it views literary texts as cultural products that are rooted in their time and place, not works of individual genius that transcend them. New-historicist essays are thus often marked by making seemingly unlikely linkages between various cultural products and literary texts. Its “newness” is at once an echo of the New Criticism it replaced and a recognition of an “old” historicism, often exemplified by E. M. W. Tillyard, against which it defines itself. In its earliest iteration, new historicism was primarily a method of power analysis strongly influenced by the anthropological studies of Clifford Geertz, modes of torture and punishment described by Michel Foucault, and methods of ideological control outlined by Louis Althusser. This can be seen most visibly in new-historicist work of the early 1980s. These works came to view the Tudor and early Stuart states as being almost insurmountable absolutist monarchies in which the scope of individual agency or political subversion appeared remote. This version of new historicism is frequently, and erroneously, taken to represent its entire enterprise. Stephen Greenblatt argued that power often produces its own subversive elements in order to contain it—and so what appears to be subversion is actually the final victory of containment. This became known as the hard version of the containment thesis, and it was attacked and critiqued by many commentators as leaving too-little room for the possibility of real change or agency. This was the major departure point of the cultural materialists, who sought a more dynamic model of culture that afforded greater opportunities for dissidence. Later new-historicist studies sought to complicate the hard version of the containment thesis to facilitate a more flexible, heterogeneous, and dynamic view of culture.

Owing to its success, there has been no shortage of textbooks and anthology entries on new historicism, but it has often had to share space with British cultural materialism, a school that, though related, has an entirely distinct theoretical and methodological genesis. The consequence of this dual treatment has resulted in a somewhat caricatured view of both approaches along the axis of subversion and containment, with new historicism representing the latter. While there is some truth to this shorthand account, any sustained engagement with new-historicist studies will reveal its limitations. Readers should be aware, therefore, that while accounts that contrast new historicism with cultural materialism—for example, Dollimore 1990 , Wilson 1992 , and Brannigan 1998 —can be illuminating, they can also by the terms of that contrast tend to oversimplify. Be aware also that because new historicism has been a controversial development in the field, accounts are seldom entirely neutral. Mullaney 1996 , for example, was written by a new historicist, while Parvini 2012 was written by an author who has been strongly critical of the approach.

Brannigan, John. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism . Transitions. New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-26622-7

Introduction to new historicism and cultural materialism aimed at the general reader and student, which does much to elucidate the differences between those two schools. In doing so, however, it is perhaps guilty of oversimplification, especially as regards the new historicists, who, according to Brannigan, never progress beyond the hard version of the containment thesis.

Dollimore, Jonathan. “Critical Developments: Cultural Materialism, Feminism and Gender Critique, and New Historicism.” In Shakespeare: A Bibliographical Guide . New ed. Edited by Stanley Wells, 405–428. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

A cultural-materialist take on “critical developments” over the decade of the 1980s that elaborates on the differences between new historicism and cultural materialism. Useful document of its time, but be aware of identifying new historicists too closely with the containment thesis it outlines, which became softer and more nuanced in later new-historicist work.

Hamilton, Paul. Historicism . New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge, 1996.

DOI: 10.4324/9780203426289

Guide to wider tradition of historicism from ancient Greece to the late 20th century. Chapters on Michel Foucault and new historicism usefully view both subjects through this wider lens, although some of the nuances (for example, the differences between new historicism and cultural materialism) are lost along the way. See especially pp. 115–150.

Harris, Jonathan Gil. “New Historicism and Cultural Materialism: Michel Foucault, Stephen Greenblatt, Alan Sinfield.” In Shakespeare and Literary Theory . By Jonathan Gil Harris, 175–192. Oxford Shakespeare Topics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Structured into three parts: the first on Foucault, the second on Greenblatt’s “Invisible Bullets” (see Greenblatt 1988 , cited under Essays ), and the third on the cultural materialist Sinfield. Concise, if cursory, overview. Its focus on practice rather than theory renders it too specific to serve as a lone entry point, but useful introductory material if considered alongside other accounts.

Mullaney, Steven. “After the New Historicism.” In Alternative Shakespeares . Vol. 2. Edited by Terence Hawkes, 17–37. New Accents. New York and London: Routledge, 1996.

By its own admission a “partisan account” (p. 21) of new-historicist practice by one of its own foremost practitioners. Argues that the view of new historicism become distorted through oversimplification. Reminds us of the extent of new historicism’s theoretical and methodological innovations, which detractors “sometimes fail to acknowledge” (p. 28).

Parvini, Neema. Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory: New Historicism and Cultural Materialism . New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

DOI: 10.5040/9781472555113

More comprehensive in coverage than other available guides, perhaps owing to its more recent publication. Features a timeline of critical developments, a “Who’s Who” in new historicism and cultural materialism, and a glossary of theoretical terms. Includes sections on Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault and offers clear distinctions between early new-historicist work and “cultural poetics.”

Robson, Mark. Stephen Greenblatt . Routledge Critical Thinkers. New York and London: Routledge, 2007.

Although centered on Greenblatt, this book effectively doubles as an introduction to new historicism and its concepts. Lucidly written, it features some incisive analysis and a comprehensive reading list to direct further study.

Wilson, Richard. “Introduction: Historicising New Historicism.” In New Historicism and Renaissance Drama . Edited by Richard Wilson and Richard Dutton, 1–18. Longman Critical Readers. New York and London: Longman, 1992.

Gains from being very theoretically well informed. Argues that new historicism is best understood, ironically, if historicized in the context of Ronald Reagan’s America and the final years of the Cold War. An excellent entry point to understanding new historicism and its concerns. A section contrasting cultural materialism with new historicism closes the piece.

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new historicism thesis example

A New Historicist looks at literature in a wider historical context, examining both how the writer's times affected the work and how the work reflects the writer's times, in turn recognizing that current cultural contexts color that critic's conclusions.

For example, when studying Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, one always comes to the question of whether the play shows Shakespeare to be anti-Semitic. The New Historicist recognizes that this isn't a simple yes-or-no answer that can be teased out by studying the text. This work must be judged in the context in which it was written; in turn, cultural history can be revealed by studying the work — especially, say New Historicists, by studying the use and dispersion of power and the marginalization of social classes within the work. Studying the history reveals more about the text; studying the text reveals more about the history.

The New Historicist also acknowledges that his examination of literature is "tainted" by his own culture and environment. The very fact that we ask whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic — a question that wouldn't have been considered important a century ago — reveals how our study of Shakespeare is affected by our civilization.

New Historicism, then, underscores the impermanence of literary criticism. Current literary criticism is affected by and reveals the beliefs of our times in the same way that literature reflects and is reflected by its own historical contexts. New Historicism acknowledges and embraces the idea that, as times change, so will our understanding of great literature.

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new historicism thesis example

New Historicism

Stephen Greenblatt

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

New Historicism is a literary theory that began to gain popularity in the 1980s. It prioritises viewing literature within its historical and social contexts above all else. The theorist Stephen Greenblatt (1943-) is one of the foundational figures in the field.

Today, New Historicism has become influential in literary studies worldwide. Read on for the principles of New Historicism, some of its key theorists, and an example of how to use the theory to analyse texts.

New Historicism, content warning, StudySmarter

New Historicism literary theory

New Historicism as a theory is attributed to American theorist Stephen Greenblatt. It involves analysing a given text in the context of its historical background. This includes considering the political , social , and economic conditions of the time the writer lived in. New Historicists see history as central to any and all texts. The theory also considers the societal background of the critic or individual evaluating a text using New Historicism. Just as a writer is influenced by their time period when creating a work, we are also influenced by our time period when reading and analysing it. New Historicism promotes nuance when studying a text. Society is constantly changing, and texts should be fairly viewed through the context of the society that produced them.

New Historicism, a selection of antique books on a shelf, StudySmarter

New Historicism developed from its parent theory of Old Historicism .

Old Historicism is a literary theory that promotes viewing a text within its cultural and historical contexts.

There are some key differences between New and Old Historicism. While New Historicism sees history as inextricably linked to analysing literature, Old Historicism viewed it more as background to be considered during analysis. Old Historicism also sees literature as being impacted by history, whereas New Historicism views the relationship as reciprocal. History can influence literature, and literature can influence history. When coming up with the theory of New Historicism, Greenblatt expanded on the ideas of Old Historicism, adding nuance.

Many consider New Historicism to be an anti-theory literary theory. It rejects a great deal of theoretical jargon, instead prioritising the grounded study of history.

Principles of New Historicism

New Historicism can be quite a broad and encompassing field of study. Read on for characteristics that will help you recognise and understand the theory when you see it.

✔ History is central : New Historicism views history as having a direct and undeniable impact on any literary text produced.

✔ All historical factors must be considered : When analysing a text using New Historicism, social, economic, and political factors must all be analysed. These all contribute to the historical background of a text.

✔ The critic's historical conditions are relevant too : Just as an author is shaped by their time period, so is any critic analysing a text. We must consider our own society, and how this may inform the biases we bring to a text when reading it.

✔ Power is a key consideration : New Historicism frequently looks at how power manifests itself in an author's writing. Societal hierarchies vary depending on time period. An author's work may either critique or confirm structures of power in their given society. This can provide insight into a text's historical context. This aspect of New Historicism is primarily influenced by the theorist Michel Foucault (1926-1984).

Michel Foucault was a highly influential twentieth-century French literary theorist. He has been, at times, called a Marxist and a Socialist but generally refused to be labelled. One of Foucault's key theories was that human existence and history are inextricably linked. Historical changes have a profound impact on humanity. Another central theory of Foucault's is that there is a direct connection between knowledge and power that must be acknowledged. The exercising of knowledge gives power, and wielding power involves some depth of knowledge. Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976) are two of Foucault's most important theoretical texts.

✔ Nuance is key, and history is ever-changing : New Historicism prioritises nuance above all else, and all aspects of historical context should be considered. The theory also acknowledges the ever-changing nature of history.

New Historicism theorists

Below are some central figures in the field of New Historicism.

Stephen Greenblatt is an American literary theorist specialising in the study of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Greenblatt is attributed to founding the field of New Historicism. The term is first mentioned in Greenblatt's theoretical text The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (1982).

In this book, Greenblatt provides an example of a New Historicist analysis of a text. Shakespeare's play Richard II (1597) left out a key abdication scene in its original performances as the character of the aged Richard II (1367-1400) was quite similar to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) at the time. There were fears that an abdication scene could be viewed as a potentially treasonous criticism of the Queen. Some five years later, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (1565-1601), paid Shakespeare's company a large sum of money to perform the play the night before the Earl was planning a rebellion to seize the throne from Queen Elizabeth. The rebellion failed, and the Queen herself then commissioned Shakespeare's company to perform Richard II the night before Devereux's execution for treason.

In the context of the monarchy, abdication refers to giving up the throne and renouncing all power that came from any royal titles.

This is a key example of a New Historicist analysis of a literary text. Whether or not to include a central scene in Shakespeare's play was decided based on the prevalent historical conditions of the time. Greenblatt's definitions of New Historicism were foundational to the theory and are how the majority of critics would still define the theory today.

New Historicism, a portrait of William Shakespeare in elaborate clothing, StudySmarter

Harold Aram Veeser

Harold Aram Veeser (1950-) is an American university professor and literary theorist. He is known for his contributions to both New Historicism and Postcolonial theory.

Postcolonialism explores the cultural, social, and economic legacies left behind in a formerly colonised country. The impacts of colonisation can haunt nations for decades and centuries to come. The theory rose to prevalence in the twentieth century as many countries that had once been occupied and colonised by powerful Western nations, like Britain and France, began to gain independence. Postcolonial novels explore these concepts through fictional characters, typically tying in real events. Famous postcolonial novels include Midnight's Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie (1947-) and Chinua Achebe's (1930-2013) Things Fall Apart (1958).

Veeser's The New Historicism (1989) has become a central theoretical text in the field. It both adds to and corroborates points made by Greenblatt in his work. Like Greenblatt, Veeser also makes the point that both an author and a critic are undeniably impacted by the time period they live in. As quoted below, Veeser adds that, in New Historicism, both texts considered great works of literature and texts viewed as more ordinary should be treated equally. New Historicism makes a concerted effort to remove elitism from literary criticism. Veeser, like many New Historicists, engages in a critique of capitalism , but he builds on this by saying that critics often participate in capitalism themselves and should acknowledge this.

Literary and non-literary "texts" circulate inseparably. ( The New Historicism , Introduction)

Capitalism is a way of structuring an economy. It allows private businesses and individuals to own and control their own assets and goods without governmental interference. This creates a marketplace in which the supply of goods is provided for consumers based on demand. The majority of countries in the Western world today operate under some version of a capitalist system.

New Historicism in literature

Since its conceptualisation in the 1980s by Stephen Greenblatt , New Historicism has become one of the most influential modern literary theories. The vast majority of English Literature departments in universities today use New Historicism frequently in their studies. It is one of the most commonly used literary theories. New Historicism encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to literary studies, bringing in the fields of history, sociology, and cultural studies , in a way that had not been widespread before. New Historicism challenges many of the concepts presented by older literary theories in its anti-elitism.

New Historicism example

Let's consider an example of how to analyse a text using New Historicism.

Content warning : the below section contains mentions of anti-Semitic prejudices.

Oliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is a story about the difficult life of an orphan in Victorian Britain. Dickens showcases the cruel and impoverished world of London at this time. The social critique that Dickens engages in can easily be analysed through a New Historicist lens. Dickens is pointing out what he sees as the inadequacies of his society and how these impact marginalised children.

There is another angle that New Historicists may view Oliver Twist from. The character of Fagin, a criminal and mentor to many orphaned children, has been judged by modern critics to be anti-Semitic . Dickens uses multiple anti-Semitic stereotypes when describing Fagin. He is depicted as greedy, and money-hungry, and there are detailed descriptions given of his large nose. A New Historicist analysis of Oliver Twist would read these stereotypes in the context of their time. While unacceptable today, these anti-Semitic prejudices would have been normal and accepted in Dickens's society. Additionally, a New Historicist would be aware that a modern critic's discomfort with these stereotypes is directly influenced by their modern society and time period.

Anti-Semitism is the term used for prejudice and discrimination against Jewish people.

New Historicism - Key takeaways

Frequently Asked Questions about New Historicism

--> what is historicism.

Historicism is a literary theory that involves viewing a text within its historical context.

--> How do you apply New Historicism to a text?

You can apply New Historicism to a text by considering its social, cultural, economic, and political contexts with nuance.

--> What is New Historicism?

New Historicism is a literary theory founded by Stephen Greenblatt that encourages acknowledging the importance an author's given time period has on the text they produce. This same importance goes for the time period of the critic analysing the text.

--> Who started New Historicism?

Stephen Greenblatt started New Historicism.

--> Which work is an example of New Historicism?

New Historicism can be used for any text, but one example of a relevant text is Oliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens.

Final New Historicism Quiz

What is New Historicism?

Show answer

A literary theory that involves viewing a text within its historical context.

Show question

Who founded New Historicism?

Stephen Greenblatt.

When was New Historicism founded?

In the 1980s.

What was the first text Greenblatt used for a New Historicist analysis?

Shakespeare's Richard II .

Other than Greenblatt, who is another important New Historicist?

Harold Aram Veeser.

What is New Historicism's parent theory?

Old Historicism.

What does New Historicism prioritise above all else?

Other than the author's historical background, who else's time period is key in a New Historicist analysis?

That of the critic or individual analysing the text.

Which scene did Shakespeare leave out of Richard II  in its original performances?

The abdication scene.

Which monarch did Shakespeare seek to appease in altering Richard II ?

Queen Elizabeth I.

How is New Historicism an anti-theory theory?

Because it rejects theoretical jargon.

Which theorist influenced New Historicism's considerations of power?

Michel Foucault.

How does Veeser argue for removing elitism from literary criticism?

By viewing all texts as equally important, regardless of their status.

How widespread is New Historicism today?

It is used by the majority of English Literature departments worldwide.

How would New Historicists view the anti-Semitic prejudices in  Oliver Twist ?

As a product of their society.

Where was Stephen Greenblatt born?

In which university did Greenblatt receive his first bachelor's degree?

Yale University.

Which playwright does Greenblatt specialise in the study of?


What literary theory did Stephen Greenblatt found?

New Historicism.

What are two key texts by Greenblatt?

The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance and Practicing New Historicism .

What is the definition of New Historicism?

Analysing a text using the historical context it was written in.

Which Shakespeare play does Greenblatt use to give an example of a New Historicist analysis?

Richard II .

How does New Historicism reject elitism?

By avoiding academic terminology.

Which two universities has Greenblatt taught at?

The University of California and Harvard University.

When did New Historicism begin to gain popularity?

Why did Shakespeare remove a key scene from  Richard II ?

He feared a scene with an aged monarch giving up the throne would seem treasonous to Queen Elizabeth I.

Which other theorist collaborated with Greenblatt on Practicing New Historicism ?

Catherine Gallagher.

What is Greenblatt's position on studying more minor literary works?

That it is worthwhile as all works can enrich our knowledge of literature and history.

What is a cultural matrix?

The cultural conditions that members of a given society experience.

What is Greenblatt's latest book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics , a criticism of?

The Trump administration.

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  1. New Historicism - Literary and Critical Theory - Oxford ...

    In its earliest iteration, new historicism was primarily a method of power analysis strongly influenced by the anthropological studies of Clifford Geertz, modes of torture and punishment described by Michel Foucault, and methods of ideological control outlined by Louis Althusser.

  2. 10.7: New Historicism - Humanities LibreTexts

    New Historical scholarship, it follows, is interdisciplinary, drawing on materials from a number of academic fields that were once thought to be separate or distinct from one another: history, religious studies, political science, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and even the natural sciences.

  3. What is New Historicism? - CliffsNotes

    For example, when studying Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, one always comes to the question of whether the play shows Shakespeare to be anti-Semitic. The New Historicist recognizes that this isn't a simple yes-or-no answer that can be teased out by studying the text.


    CULTURAL CONTEXT: AN ARGUMENT FOR NEW HISTORICISM OVER POSTMODERNISM IN ANALYZING POPULAR LITERATURE A Thesis Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies College of Arts & Sciences of John Carroll University In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts By Conor P. King 2018

  5. The Implications of New Historicism for Evangelical Bible ...

    At the crux of New Historicism is an interdisciplinary approach that studies literature with a dual focus on its literary nature and its identity as a historical text, profoundly yet complexly tied to its cultural and historical context.

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    New Historicism Examples There were multiple notable proponents of new historicism. A few are listed below. Stephen Greenblatt: Stephen Greenblatt is credited with pioneering new...

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    New Historicism encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to literary studies, bringing in the fields of history, sociology, and cultural studies, in a way that had not been widespread before. New Historicism challenges many of the concepts presented by older literary theories in its anti-elitism.

  8. (PDF) New Historicism - ResearchGate

    the shift from historicism to New Historicism emphasizes the relation between events and emotional response and informs the notion that such events are never to be considered neutral.