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.
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.
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.
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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