What is New Historicism

New historicism theory – an explanation

As described, the new historicism theory evaluates literature through a comprehensive analysis of the social and cultural events that surround the event being described and so much more how these socio-cultural events help to build the event. In essence, new historicism aims at understanding intellectual history through literature and literature through the cultural context surrounding the historical event.

What is new historicism?

From the description of the new historicism theory, we can say that new historicism refers to the analysis of literature while taking a keen interest in the socio-cultural and historical events that are involved in building literary work as it assumes that every piece of literature is as a result of a historical event that created it.

New historicism basically takes into account that literary work or rather any literature work has time, place and thus a historical event as its key components and that these key elements can actually be deciphered from the literary text following keen analysis of the text even if these elements are not clearly depicted by a writer in his or her work.

New historicism deals with textuality of history, that is, the fact that history is built and fictionalized and the history of the literary text is without a doubt found within the socio-cultural and political conditions surrounding its conception and interpretation as stated by Louis Montrose.

New historicism despite its opposition to the ideas put forth by poststructuralism, it is basically similar to poststructuralist since it also defies the of a common human nature shared by the author, literary characters and readers and instead takes into account the view that these key players surrounding a text have diverse identities.

Some of the key assumptions of new historicism which were given by Harold Aram Veeser in “The New Historicism include:

  • Each act that is expressed is as a result of a network of material practices.
  • Every act of uncovering, analyzing and opposition actually uses ways that it condemns and hence may conform to that which it exposes.
  • Literary and non-literary texts circulate inseparably.
  • There is no social boundary whether imagined or archived that gives access to universally unalterable truths nor portrays the unchangeable nature of human.
  • An analytical or rather critical means and a language good enough to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy is described.

How new historicism came to be

New historicism came to be in the 1980’s quickly taking over the then known and widely appreciated phenomena of New Criticism and with its advancement has greatly influenced the way in which literature is looked at. New historicism came into play with analysis of the works William Shakespeare, a renowned literature writer mostly dealing with poetry among other excellent literary works in the 1980’s.

Despite the numerous attacks be feminist, traditional scholars and even cultural materialists, new historicism still developed its roots and slowly become a prominent study tool for the modern literature works in the 1980.s and 1990’s.

The word new historicism was coined by Stephen Greenblatt, a critic and English professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Stephen coined the word when he put together a bunch of essays and with some form of desperation to bring out the introduction, Stephen said that the essays presented a phenomenon which he referred to as the new historicism.

Greenblatt is well known for his books studies of the Renaissance which made him one of the key players in the establishment of new historicism. He inspired a great number of scholars who were particularly interested in Renaissance studies and the anecdotal approach of literature.

As mentioned earlier, William Shakespeare’s work were core in bringing about new historicism as a new literature study tool. Stephen Orgel together with other new historicist critics pioneered the study of Shakespeare’s works were his plays were deemed inseparable from the context in which they were written. This, in turn, led to understanding Shakespeare less as a great author than as a way of reestablishing the cultural milieu renaissance theatre and the very complex political scenario of that time.

Other prominent players in the conception of new historicism include; Lynn Hunt and Michel Foucault, who also taught at UC Berkeley as it rose as a postmodern approach to history.

Michael Foucault is a key figure in the new historicism. His interest in issues such as ideologies, power, epistemology and subjectivity have gone a long way in influencing critics not only in literal studies but also in other disciplines. His readiness to evaluate and openly discuss somewhat controversial disciplines such as medicine, criminology, sexuality and governance coupled with his questioning of the principle of specialization has led to other critics examining interdisciplinary connections even where the disciplines have never been taught to be connected and as a consequence never really examined together.

This interesting approach to literature analysis taking a keen interest in the finer details especially with regards to the cultural, social and a little bit of the political scenes influencing the context of the text under study caught the attention of many historical critics and scholars working at the time of its production.

Thus, its spread like wildfire transcending socio-cultural and historical boundaries. The quick adoption of the New Historicism gave rise to some other phenomena including the “new new historicism.”

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Historical criticism

Historical criticism which may also be referred to as higher criticism or the historical-critical method is a form of criticism which looks closely into the origin of ancient literature to comprehend the text. This has been mostly applied in understanding Jewish and Christian writings from old, that is, the Bible together with other forms of religious books.

Historical criticism majorly aims at uncovering the primitive meaning of the literature in its original historical context. Moreover, it also seeks to recreate the historical scene of the writer and audience of the text.

It is however prudent to understand that historical criticism in this sense is not the act of looking for faults or errors in the literature as the word “criticism” would suggest but rather refers to the in-depth analysis of the piece of literal work with the aim of understanding it better especially where social-cultural and political issues at the time may have influenced how the text was written and hence influencing the so-called context of the text.

Historical criticism seeks to comprehend the social and cultural dynamics that surround literature work by answering questions such as:

  • The time that the text was written.
  • The person who wrote the literature.
  • The events that happened at the time the literaturewas being written.
  • How the literature has evolved with time to the form in which it is present today.
  • What message did it carry to the very first audience of the literature and what did it mean to the readers.

Most importantly, historical criticism seeks to answer the question that is more often than not evaded referred to as “authorial intent”. This describes what the author intended for the text to mean at his or her time and place.

Historical criticism started in the 17th century and became widespread in the 19th and 20th century. It was majorly focused on the historical investigation of the texts, but in some instances, this was not available leading to the adoption of philosophical and theological comprehension of the book.

Historical criticism has its roots in the Protestant Reformation since its view to religious studies was free from any ounce of traditional interpretation and also the European Enlightenment. Whereas the Protestant Reformation brought about the use of new tools to focus attention on the literal or rather the plain meaning of the literature, Enlightenment went a long way in questioning the traditional beliefs while bringing in a new focus on human intellect and scientific objectivity.

Over time, and with each passing century the means of literature criticism evolved into the following presently known methodologies:

  • Source citation- as the name suggests, this methodology particularly aims at identifying the original source of the text. It can be attributed to Richard Simon, a French priest in the 17th century. This methodology questions if the text resulted from a single source, author or historical context and aims at uncovering sources within any literary work. A common instance is in the Gospel books (Mathew, Mark and Luke) which share the similar texts and hence a historical critic will analyze these Biblical texts to identify the actual source of the text.
  • Form criticism- this methodology breaks down the Bible or literature work into sections, that is, periscopes or stories which are further analyzed and subdivided into genres which include: plays, lamentations, epistles, gospels, prophecy, laws, hymns, prose or verses. Essentially it aims to decipher what the text is meant to portray by analyzing the linguistic patterns used to bring out the text.
  • Redaction criticism- in this case, the critic focuses on analyzing how the writer brought together the various traditions and culture into one whole comprehensible text. It may also be done by analyzing the collection, arrangement, modification and alteration of the original source into the form that the text is in hence the name redaction. It is mostly used to reestablish the community and intention of the writer of the text.
  • Tradition criticism- this is an aspect of form criticism where the critics focus on finding the means through which the periscopes became part of the larger texts and most importantly how the oral were changed to writing. This methodology is however considered obsolete due to questionable stability, detectability and priority of oral traditions.

In summary, historical criticism takes into account the outside influences or factors that help to build the context of literature such as the author’s life, historical and cultural circumstances at the time in which the literature was written unlike other forms of criticism such as textual and formal criticism which consider the text itself.

Who is a Historicist

A historicist, from the definition of new historicism, could be defined as a person who analyzes any form of literature taking into consideration the cultural, social and historical events that make up the core content of the text. Some elements that are worth noting about historicist include:

  • Their keen interest in recovering lost histories, which is a characteristic shared by new historicist and cultural materialists.
  • Unlike cultural materialists, new historicists tend to shift their attention to the high class or rather those individuals up the social hierarchy.
  • Have a key interest in governance, culture, past and present events among other institutions.
  • Hold the perception that each and every cultural event is key in making history and should be considered for historical analysis.
  • View literatureas more than just a work of art or rather an artefact as do the new criticists and also do not hold the view of liberal humanists who believe that literature has timeless significance and universally valuable.
  • New historicists goal is to simultaneously comprehend literature through its historical and cultural context while analyzing the cultural and intellectual history portrayed by the literature.
  • Have an interest in questions of economy which include; circulation, negotiation, profit and exchange and how some of the activities, in and including literary work, which appears to be above the market are in fact driven and wholly influenced by the forces of demand and supply (determinants of market value).

In conclusion, New Historicism is generally a literature analysis tool which focuses on interpreting the social, cultural and political factors which affected the author thus influencing the context in which the writer wrote the text.

These factors are distinct to a specific time and place hence the overall and strong influence of history in literature and vice versa. With this guide you are now equipped in all angles concerning new historicism and so you should be able to pass it on to other generations.