What Are the Main Elements of New Historicism?

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  • Written By: J.E. Holloway
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 21 January 2019
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New Historicism is a form of literary criticism that focuses both on understanding a literary work through its historical context and on understanding historical events through literary analysis. This school of criticism arose in the 1980s and gained wide acceptance during the 1990s. Major proponents include Stephen Greenblatt and Alan Liu, even though not all critics considered New Historicists agree with the label.

This form arose as a response to schools of literary criticism such as the "New Critics" of the 1970s, which focused its critical approach entirely on the text of a literary work, disregarding its historical context. To those critics, a literary work had to be understood solely on its own merits, existing essentially independently from its intended audience and even from the intentions of its author. Against this view, New Historicists argued that works had to be understood within the cultural and social context of their production. In this respect, the school did not differ from previous eras of literary criticism, but returned to an earlier method of literary analysis.


New Historicism differed from previous approaches to literary criticism in several important ways, however. New Critics consider literary works as products of their social and cultural circumstances, but they also consider history and culture as a product of literature and art, examining the ways in which these techniques shape identity historically. This school also considers the historian or literary critic to be a product of specific historical circumstances. All criticism, therefore, is a product of its own time and reflects a contemporary understanding of history and literature, rather than an absolute meaning.

Approaches to literature in this school, therefore, tend to focus on the relationship between a text and its context. For instance, studies of William Shakespeare tend to focus less on the role of Shakespeare's individual creativity and more on the overall structure of the theater and of society in Elizabethan England. The approach recognizes Shakespeare's work as containing multiple meanings, each influenced by and in turn influencing the social environment in which the plays were staged.

Key New Historicist texts include Stephen Greenblatt's 1980 book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, the series of essays on Shakespeare by Louis Adrian Montrose and The New Historicism, a collection of essays edited by H. Aram Veeser and released in 1989. The journal Representations also publishes work from this perspective. This school of thought has become widely accepted in academia.


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Post 4
@hamje32 - I tend to agree with you. And I am also sympathetic to the views of the first poster. I think what that points to is the incomplete nature of any totalizing theory of literary criticism.

Literature is such a big, wild beat that it is foolish to think there is only one angle to view it from. New historicism has a lot to offer readers. And it is undeniable that it can offer critics a deeper understating of the meaning of any work, regardless of the context. But the reason that we still read these books is because we find a way to make them relevant to the present.

Post 3
I was a lit studies major in college and I studied with one professor who was a major proponent of new historicism. I was pretty green when I got to college but I found myself immediately intrigued by the theories and practices of new historicism. It almost seemed counter intuitive to argue against it. How could you not consider the author's time and place when you analyze a text?
Post 2

@MrMoody - I see what you’re saying, but I tend to think of the literary work as its own entity. Once the author releases that work, it takes on a life of its own.

Regardless of the historical context, you are limited in your understanding, because there may be layers upon layers of meaning in the text that even the author himself did not realize when he wrote it.

I believe that when you write, there are subconscious ideas that get embedded into the text. You may not know it yourself, but later on some other people will uncover these deeper layers of meaning.

I believe that this is the basis of psychoanalytical approaches to literary criticism and even some of the new feminist criticism as well, which points out the patriarchal symbolism in literature.

Post 1

I wish that New Historicism literary theory had gained widespread acceptance back when I went to college. When I studied literature, there was a lot of subjective analysis of the literary text.

The feeling seemed to be that you could never really know what the author intended; people were free to read their own meaning into the text. I found this approach to be quite frustrating, because I had the conviction that words meant something and that in fact it was possible to infer what the author was saying, if we understood the times in which he lived.

My position was not very popular, but it’s refreshing to discover that in fact a movement exists which advocates that context is important in literary interpretation.

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