Literary and Critical Theory Cultural Materialism
Hans Bertens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0091


Cultural materialism as a literary critical practice—this article will not address its anthropological namesake—is a Marxist-inspired and mostly British approach to in particular Shakespeare and early modern English literature that emerged and became prominent in the 1980s. Its emphasis on the historical and material conditions of the production and reception of texts has remained influential, even if its political commitment and interventionist purposes have largely been abandoned and increasingly ignored. While certain of its formulations would seem to echo Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, or other thinkers of the period, the main influence is the British literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams, and his re-theorization, following Antonio Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony, of the orthodox Marxist binary of base and superstructure. For Williams, who coined the term “cultural materialism,” culture is neither a mere reflection of that base nor wholly independent of it. This does not rule out intentional human practice, but rejects the idealist position in seeing that practice as inseparable from specific historical conditions. Still, with culture not wholly determined by an economic base, it plays its own role in the construction and/or reproduction of the social totality, and inevitably becomes the site of ideological struggle. Next to the dominant, hegemonic cultural formation we will thus find declining, residual formations and nascent, emergent ones. Cultural materialism focused on the ideological forces at work in Shakespeare (and early modern literature more generally), in Shakespeare studies, and in contemporary re-stagings and representations—in for instance secondary education and advertising—of Shakespeare and/or his work. Rejecting humanist beliefs in transcendent, ahistorical, truth and in an essential human nature, cultural materialists insisted on historicization and argued that Shakespeare—and the study of literature in general—had been hijacked by a conservative humanist ideology that presented itself as timeless and “natural” and perhaps unwittingly colluded with a profoundly unjust and rapacious social order. One of cultural materialism’s main interests was social stratification and the way in which the dominant social order sought (and seeks) to legitimize itself—for instance through the construction of socially marginalized groups as “other,” a practice that led to an early interest in issues of gender and race, and would substantially contribute to the rise of queer studies. Inspired by its belief that ideological hegemony is never absolute and that all ideology at some point contradicts itself, cultural materialism reads texts for signs of subversion and political dissidence, arriving at often provocative interpretations whose ulterior purpose was to serve as interventions in current political debates.

General Overviews

The theories and insights brought together in Williams 1977 were crucial to the emergence of cultural materialism, but do not necessarily provide the best starting-point. Harris 2003 offers a brief introduction to Marxist criticism, cultural materialism, and its American counterpart, the so-called “new historicism,” with which cultural materialism is often but inaccurately conflated, and usefully highlights the differences between them. Kamps 1995 is another brief introduction that discusses the various “materialist” approaches to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Dollimore 2004 is an account (and partisan defense) of cultural materialism by one of its leading practitioners, while Drakakis 2001 is a succinct but incisive retrospective by another important cultural materialist. The spectacular rise of cultural materialism in the 1980s is illustrated by the publication, in the next decade, of a number of book-length introductions. Milner 1993 focuses on the specifically British origins of cultural materialism and its disagreements with structuralist and poststructuralist positions. Brannigan 1998 discusses both cultural materialism and the American new historicism and their indebtedness to, respectively, Raymond Williams and Michel Foucault, and goes on to offer examples of cultural materialist and new historicist literary-critical interpretations. Wilson 1995 also covers cultural materialism and the new historicism and finds a remedy for cultural materialism’s perceived shortcomings in the thought of Lacan and Bataille. Like Brannigan, Wilson offers examples of cultural materialist readings. Marlow 2017 is a spirited recent introduction to cultural materialism that seeks to restore its flagging fortunes and contributes its own cultural materialist reading. Ryan 1996, another mid-1990s publication that rode the surf of cultural materialism’s heyday—and that of the new historicism—is an anthology that collects important texts by literary-philosophical theorists and by prominent representatives of both approaches.

  • Brannigan, John. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. Basingstoke, UK, and London: Macmillan, 1998.

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

    Lucid discussions of cultural materialism and its American counterpart, the “new historicism,” and their main influences, notably Marxist thought and the work of Raymond Williams and Michel Foucault. Offers a cultural materialist reading that aims to read “dissidence in(to) the poetry of Alfred Tennyson.” Considers how new historicism and cultural materialism can deal with decolonization “from the perspective of the colonised.”

  • Dollimore, Jonathan. “Introduction.” In Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Edited by Jonathan Dollimore, xlv-xc. 3d ed. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    Dollimore prefaced the second edition of his pathbreaking study with a lengthy introduction (included in the third edition) that sets out the aims and methods of cultural materialism and in so doing discusses—in for instance the “Containment/Subversion” section—the ways it differs from the “new historicism” with which it is often confused or conflated.

  • Drakakis, John. “Cultural Materialism.” In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. 9, Twentieth-Century Historical, Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Edited by Christa Knellwolf and Christopher Norris, 43–58. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    A brief but thorough overview by one of the most prominent cultural materialists. Sketches the intellectual context within which cultural materialism emerged and expertly discusses the differences between cultural materialism and the new historicism. Excellent on the problem of cultural materialism’s not unproblematic theorizations of dissidence and of agency. Not all that easy but rewarding.

  • Harris, Jonathan Gil. “Materialist Criticisms.” In Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide. Edited by Stanley Wells and Lena Cowen Orlin, 472–491. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A brief and useful introduction to Marxist criticism, cultural materialism, and new historicism. Admirably accessible.

  • Kamps, Ivo. “Materialist Shakespeare: An Introduction.” In Materialist Shakespeare: A History. Edited by Ivo Kamps, 1–19. London and New York: Verso, 1995.

    A brief but stimulating overview of the various “materialist” approaches to Shakespeare. Introduces a collection that offers contributions by both new historicists (e.g., Louis Montrose and Stephen Greenblatt) and cultural materialists (Alan Sinfield, John Drakakis, Graham Holderness, and others).

  • Marlow, Christopher. Shakespeare and Cultural Materialist Theory. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781472572974

    Excellent recent introduction to both cultural materialism and new historicism. Examines the differences between the two approaches and discusses cultural materialism’s view on “human agency in history.” Offers by way of illustration a detailed cultural materialist reading of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

  • Milner, Andrew. Cultural Materialism. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1993.

    Shows how cultural materialism emerged from a distinctively British culturalist tradition and situates it with respect to structuralist and poststructuralist theorizing. Limits itself mostly to cultural materialism’s intellectual influences and sources. Wide-ranging in spite of its brevity. Eminently useful and accessible introduction to the field.

  • Ryan, Kiernan, ed. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism: A Reader. London: Arnold, 1996.

    A collection of seminal articles and excerpts by theorists like Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams, and Jacques Derrida and leading critics like Stephen Greenblatt, Alan Sinfield, and Catherine Belsey.

  • Wilson, Scott. Cultural Materialism: Theory and Practice. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

    Opens with an exposé of the ideological shortcomings of humanist criticism and discusses both cultural materialism and new historicism. Draws on the writings of Jacques Lacan and Georges Bataille in its critique of cultural materialism and in its readings of Lear, The Tempest, and other texts. Not the most accessible of introductions.

  • Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

    Includes, in its section on “Cultural Theory,” a number of seminal essays, in particular “Base and Superstructure,” “Hegemony,” and “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent,” that laid the foundation for cultural materialism. Requires some familiarity with Marxist theorizing.

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