New Historicism

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New Historicism is a general term for a loosely organised approach to literary study that looks at the historical context of a work from a perspective influenced by poststructuralism. It rejects the traditional distinction between the text and the context – that is, between the play or poem and the historical conditions existing at the time it was written, in a way that reminds us of the method of ancient Indian epic writers: Valmiki and Vyasa. Where traditional historical criticism sees a literary text against a backdrop of historical events, New Historicism views the text as a participant in the historical or political process that it reconceives. (Both Valmiki and Vyasa poetically view historical and political processes and present them to their readers in texts that seem to blend recurring historical/political events and cultural values, with appropriate definitions.) One might say that this approach is interested in “the historicity of texts and the textuality of history,” as Louis Montrose explains it.

New Historicist thought has been strongly influenced by the theories of the French poststructuralist, Michael Foucault, particularly his conception of the shifting dynamics of power, and the methods of the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whose “thick descriptions” of cultural practices provide a procedural model. A New Historicist analysis often begins with an anecdote describing an event seemingly far removed from literature – an account of a dream, for example. The analysis will then relate the anecdote to a literary text, not in terms of a direct connection, but as a parallel experience or key both text and event to a political or social question.

A well-known example is Stephen Greenblatt’s essay “Shakespeare and the Exorcists” on Shakespeare’s King Lear. Traditional scholarship has recognized, for a long time, that an anti-Catholic pamphlet, written by an Elizabethan contemporary, Samuel Harsnett, is a minor source of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Harsnett’s pamphlet sets out to expose the fraudulence of certain exorcisms performed by Jesuit priests in 16th century England.

In Greenblatt’s analysis, both source and the play emerge as “part of an intense struggle to redefine the central values of the society. At the heart of this struggle was the definition of the sacred.” Out of this interaction, Shakespeare, according to Greenblatt, reconceives this Protestant/Catholic conflict in terms of a religion of the theatre. The play offers us a fictional encounter with evil, not unlike the exorcist’s, to satisfy our need for such an experience. As removed as this appears to be from the usual view of King Lear, Greenblatt’s analysis, if not his conclusion, convincingly illuminates both the play and its source.