New Historicist Criticism is
- a research method, a type of textual research, that literary critics use to interpret texts
- a genre of discourse employed by literary critics used to share the results of their interpretive efforts.
Key Terms: Dialectic; Hermeneutics; Semiotics; Text & Intertextuality; Tone
|Culture||the values, conventions, social practices, social forms, and material features of a racial, religious, or social group|
|Discourse||written or spoken language that is often used to study how people use language|
|Historical Milieu||a materially rooted social environment tied to a specific historical period|
American critic Stephen Greenblatt coined the term “New Historicism” (5) in the Introduction to The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (1982). New Historicism, or Cultural Materialism, considers a literary work within the context of the author’s historical milieu. A key premise of New Historicism is that art and literature are integrated into the material practices of culture. Consequently, literary and non-literary texts circulate together in society. Analyzing a text alongside its historical milieu and relevant documents can demonstrate how a text addresses the social or political concerns of its time period.
New Historicism, or Cultural Materialism, considers a literary work within the context of the author’s historical milieu. A key premise of New Historicism is that art and literature are integrated into the material practices of culture; consequently, literary and non-literary texts circulate together in society. New Historicism may focus on the life of the author; the social, economic, and political circumstances (and non-literary works) of that era; as well as the cultural events of the author’s historical milieu. The cultural events with which a work correlates may be big (social and cultural) or small. Scholars view Raymond Williams as a major figure in the development of Cultural Materialism. American critic Stephen Greenblatt coined the term “New Historicism” (5) in the Introduction of one of his collections of essays about English Renaissance Drama, The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance. Many New Historicist critics have studied Shakespeare’s The Tempest alongside The Bermuda Pamphlets and various travel narratives from the early modern era, speculating about how England’s colonial expeditions in the New World may have influenced Shakespeare’s decision to set The Tempest on an island near Bermuda. Some critics also situate The Tempest during the period of time during in which King James I ruled England and advocated the absolute authority of Kings in both political and spiritual matters. Since Prospero maintains complete authority on the island on which The Tempest is set, some New Historicist critics find a parallel between King James I and Prospero in The Tempest. Additionally, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe can be interpreted in light of the true story of a shipwrecked man named Alexander Selkirk. Analyzing a text alongside its historical milieu and relevant documents can demonstrate how a text addresses the social or political concerns of its time period.
Foundational Questions of New Historicist Criticism
- Does the text address the political or social concerns of its time period? If so, what issues does the text examine?
- What historical events or controversies does the text overtly address or allude to? Does the text comment on those events?
- What types of historical documents (e.g., wills, laws, religious tracts, narratives, art, etc.) might illuminate the meaning and the purpose of the literary text?
- How does the text relate to other literary texts of the same time period?
Online Example:Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”: A New Historicist Reading
Discussion Questions and Activities: New Historical/Cultural Materialist Criticism
- Identify and define key words that you would consider when approaching a text from a new historical/cultural materialist position.
- Discuss the significance of the fact that art and literature are integrated into the material practices of culture.
- Employ a New Historicist approach to demonstrate how a specific literary text addresses a social topic of its historical milieu.
- Using the Folger Digital Texts from the Folger Shakespeare Library, examine act one, scene two, lines 385-450 of The Tempest. What political concerns, social controversies, or historical events of this time period do you think The Tempest treats?
- What research would you conduct to argue whether or not The Tempest addresses either slavery or colonialism? Support your viewpoint with a few examples of sources that you would explore and include in a research paper about the topic.