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New Historicism

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. 

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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, StudySmarterFig. 1 - New Historicists view texts in their historical context.

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

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, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Greenblatt's first New Historicist analysis was of a Shakespearean play.

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

  • New Historicism is a literary theory that involves analysing a text within its historical context.
  • The theory was first written about by theorist Stephen Greenblatt in the 1980s.
  • Harold Aram Veeser is another key New Historicist.
  • New Historicism prioritises making history central to any literary analysis and always acknowledging nuance.
  • New Historicist critics are also aware of their own biases and prejudices that are influenced by the time period they live in.

Frequently Asked Questions about New Historicism

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

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

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.

Stephen Greenblatt started New Historicism.

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

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