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New Historicism

Michel Foucault was a highly influential twentieth-century French literary theorist. He has been, at times, called a Marxist and a Socialist but generally refused to be labelled. One of Foucault's key theories was that human existence and history are inextricably linked. Historical changes have a profound impact on humanity. Another central theory of Foucault's is that there is a direct connection between knowledge and power that must be acknowledged. The exercising of knowledge gives power, and wielding power involves some depth of knowledge. Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976) are two of Foucault's most important theoretical texts.

Nuance is key, and history is ever-changing: New Historicism prioritises nuance above all else, and all aspects of historical context should be considered. The theory also acknowledges the ever-changing nature of history.

New Historicism theorists

Below are some central figures in the field of New Historicism.

Stephen Greenblatt

Since its conceptualisation in the 1980s by Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicism has become one of the most influential modern literary theories. The vast majority of English Literature departments in universities today use New Historicism frequently in their studies. It is one of the most commonly used literary theories. New Historicism encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to literary studies, bringing in the fields of history, sociology, and cultural studies, in a way that had not been widespread before. New Historicism challenges many of the concepts presented by older literary theories in its anti-elitism.

New Historicism example

Let's consider an example of how to analyse a text using New Historicism.

Content warning: the below section contains mentions of anti-Semitic prejudices.

Oliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is a story about the difficult life of an orphan in Victorian Britain. Dickens showcases the cruel and impoverished world of London at this time. The social critique that Dickens engages in can easily be analysed through a New Historicist lens. Dickens is pointing out what he sees as the inadequacies of his society and how these impact marginalised children.

There is another angle that New Historicists may view Oliver Twist from. The character of Fagin, a criminal and mentor to many orphaned children, has been judged by modern critics to be anti-Semitic. Dickens uses multiple anti-Semitic stereotypes when describing Fagin. He is depicted as greedy, and money-hungry, and there are detailed descriptions given of his large nose. A New Historicist analysis of Oliver Twist would read these stereotypes in the context of their time. While unacceptable today, these anti-Semitic prejudices would have been normal and accepted in Dickens's society. Additionally, a New Historicist would be aware that a modern critic's discomfort with these stereotypes is directly influenced by their modern society and time period.

Anti-Semitism is the term used for prejudice and discrimination against Jewish people.

New Historicism - Key takeaways

  • New Historicism is a literary theory that involves analysing a text within its historical context.
  • The theory was first written about by theorist Stephen Greenblatt in the 1980s.
  • Harold Aram Veeser is another key New Historicist.
  • New Historicism prioritises making history central to any literary analysis and always acknowledging nuance.
  • New Historicist critics are also aware of their own biases and prejudices that are influenced by the time period they live in.

Frequently Asked Questions about New Historicism

Historicism is a literary theory that involves viewing a text within its historical context.

You can apply New Historicism to a text by considering its social, cultural, economic, and political contexts with nuance.

New Historicism is a literary theory founded by Stephen Greenblatt that encourages acknowledging the importance an author's given time period has on the text they produce. This same importance goes for the time period of the critic analysing the text.

Stephen Greenblatt started New Historicism.

New Historicism can be used for any text, but one example of a relevant text is Oliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens.

Final New Historicism Quiz

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What is New Historicism?

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A literary theory that involves viewing a text within its historical context.

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Who founded New Historicism?

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Stephen Greenblatt.

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When was New Historicism founded?

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In the 1980s.

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What was the first text Greenblatt used for a New Historicist analysis?

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Shakespeare's Richard II.

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Other than Greenblatt, who is another important New Historicist?

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Harold Aram Veeser.

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What is New Historicism's parent theory?

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Old Historicism.

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What does New Historicism prioritise above all else?

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Nuance.

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Other than the author's historical background, who else's time period is key in a New Historicist analysis?

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That of the critic or individual analysing the text.

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Which scene did Shakespeare leave out of Richard II in its original performances?

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The abdication scene.

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Which monarch did Shakespeare seek to appease in altering Richard II?

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Queen Elizabeth I.

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How is New Historicism an anti-theory theory?

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Because it rejects theoretical jargon.

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Which theorist influenced New Historicism's considerations of power?

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Michel Foucault.

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How does Veeser argue for removing elitism from literary criticism?

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By viewing all texts as equally important, regardless of their status.

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How widespread is New Historicism today?

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It is used by the majority of English Literature departments worldwide.

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How would New Historicists view the anti-Semitic prejudices in Oliver Twist?

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As a product of their society.

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Where was Stephen Greenblatt born?

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Boston.

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In which university did Greenblatt receive his first bachelor's degree?

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Yale University.

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Which playwright does Greenblatt specialise in the study of?

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Shakespeare.

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What literary theory did Stephen Greenblatt found?

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New Historicism.

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What are two key texts by Greenblatt?

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The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance and Practicing New Historicism.

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What is the definition of New Historicism?

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Analysing a text using the historical context it was written in.

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Which Shakespeare play does Greenblatt use to give an example of a New Historicist analysis?

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Richard II.

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How does New Historicism reject elitism?

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By avoiding academic terminology.

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Which two universities has Greenblatt taught at?

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The University of California and Harvard University.

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When did New Historicism begin to gain popularity?

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The 1990s.

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Why did Shakespeare remove a key scene from Richard II?

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He feared a scene with an aged monarch giving up the throne would seem treasonous to Queen Elizabeth I.

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Which other theorist collaborated with Greenblatt on Practicing New Historicism?

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Catherine Gallagher.

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What is Greenblatt's position on studying more minor literary works?

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That it is worthwhile as all works can enrich our knowledge of literature and history.

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What is a cultural matrix?

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The cultural conditions that members of a given society experience.

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What is Greenblatt's latest book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, a criticism of?

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The Trump administration.

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