Course:ENGL211/New Historicism

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New historicism is a method of literary criticism in which literature and history are viewed simultaneously in the analysis of a text. Developed in the wake of literary criticism methods that dismissed the incorporation of history behind a text, new historicism sought to present an analysis that viewed history as contingent, fragmented, unstable, and unable to be crafted into one grand historical narrative or to be simply built out of objective facts. Literature, by extension, is deeply interdependent on and influenced by history and vice versa. History and literature, then, are ultimately and irrevocably linked in a complex, interrelated network of multiplicity of meaning, constant exchanges of social and cultural energy, and self-mediation through discourse.

Biographic material

Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt, founder of new historicism.

Stephen Jay Greenblatt (1943–) is considered a pivotal figure in the foundation of new historicism, even introducing the term to literary criticism in 1982 despite his preference for the title of “cultural poetics”. An American theorist born in Boston, Greenblatt attended both Yale University and Pembroke College and now teaches at Harvard University as John Cogan University Professor of Humanities. He has also given lectures and taught in numerous international schools, such as the University of Oxford and the University of Kyoto, and has won a Pulitzer Prize. His fields of expertise in Shakespearean studies, Renaissance studies, and culture led him to become deeply interested in the way in which literature and history intersect. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Greenblatt first touches upon the concepts that would make up this new method of literary criticism. In this paper, which is one of many other successful published articles, this is seen in the way in which he asserts that the fashioning of the self is dependent on culture. Culture is consequently dependent on history, which is then dependent on culture. Greenblatt utilised this initial observation to develop a comprehensive method of literary criticism in which the inextricable link between history and literature could begin to be understood. This would become new historicism.

Greenblatt’s concept of the circulation of social energy first surfaced in a paper of the same title. He claims to “desire to speak with the dead”[1] in The Circulation of Social Energy, referring to the many past voices that make up literature and the arts. This concept was the first step toward determining the link between history and literature, though The Circulation of Social Energy focuses on Renaissance theatre as opposed to literature. His revolutionary explanation that social, and thus cultural, “energy” is continuously produced and exchanged by history and literature provides the basis for subsequent new historicism readings. Both, he explains, are constantly impacting and influencing one another according to the specific cultural energies being perpetuated in specific works. More simply, this means that the history of a particular time provokes the creation of particular literature and that this particular literature provokes the interpretation of this particular history in turn. In the wake of poststructuralism and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, Greenblatt urges readers to understand how vast and essential this cyclical relationship is. He also explains how cultural, anthropological, and historical contexts and origins behind literature should not be overlooked in literary criticism as was done before in earlier literary criticism theories such as new criticism.

His method was not received without its share of scrutiny by other critics. Many argued that Greenblatt’s approach lacked focus on human agency in that it circumvented the author and the specific intentions or creative inspirations behind his work. Denial of aesthetic significance, the critics included, removed from literature its strictly formal aspects and ability to exist independent of history. An additional point of contention laid in Greenblatt’s overall fragmentary readings of texts, in which his analysis did not provide concrete and final interpretations but rather a multitude of potential interpretations not unlike the way in which Derrida’s own deconstruction functions. Outside of these criticisms, Greenblatt’s new historicism proved and continues to prove itself to be a challenging literary criticism method.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault, influential post-structuralist.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, historian, and a critical theorist, known to be one of the most influential figures in the social sciences, particularly when it concerns any field that touches on power, sexuality, and control. Foucault’s fame started in the academy. But with its sweeping intensity and explicit depiction of violence, Foucault’s work also made its way outside the academy, inspiring non-philosophers, activist groups, and, notably, post-anarchists.

Foucault first studied at Lycée Henri-IV, known as one of the country’s most prestigious secondary schools, and then at the elite École Normale Supérieure, which only had one hundred slots for students. There he encountered many of the ideas that his philosophy grew out of. Taught by Louis Althusser and Jean Hyppolite, he learned about existentialism, phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism and Marxism. Influenced by Marxism, Foucault was interested in ideology and its social implications — how it affected the public and how the public responded. But Foucault distinguished his own method by searching for the history of these ideologies: he wanted to know how, why, and in what way the outdated modes of power we once found permissible came to be seen as deplorable.

This resulted in one of his most famous ideas: the Panopticon. The Panopticon, originally imagined by Jeremy Bentham, is a space where small cells encircle a tall tower. There are a number of particulars that distinguish different models — e.g. how tall the tower is, whether the tower projects light onto the cells, the size of the cells, etc. — but the basic idea remains the same: everyone in the cells should be visible from the tower, but not vice versa. The technical ingenuity, and the factor Foucault is interested in, is the fact that those in the cell would never know whether they are being watched, and therefore would begin to watch, and discipline, themselves — even if no one happened to actually be in the tower. Foucault claimed we already live in a Panopticon. Pointing to the unsettling resemblance between schools, factories, hospitals, and prisons, all of which themselves resemble the Panopticon, he detailed the ways the modern world underlying set-up is conceptually similar to the Panopticon. He noted that everyone has a file — a driver’s license, a passport, a home, etc., and a well-documented history — such that everyone is easily observed. This is especially true since the invention of the internet.

Though he’s more often labelled a post-structuralist than a new historicist, Foucault (1926-84), nonetheless had an tremendous effect on Greenblatt and thus on the movement more generally. Greenblatt explains his encounter with Foucault’s ideas as revelatory: ”It was the revelation that even something that seems timeless and universal has a history.”

The theory

Old historicism

Preceding new historicism is the concept of old historicism, perpetuated by scholars of both the past and present. In old historicism history is singular, specific, and is regarded as background and context. History to old historicists, then, is entirely stable and fixed within its linear frame of established facts and information. It makes use of the reflection model, which states that literature simply reflects the history in which it was written. In this, literature and history are viewed and treated as separate from one another. Analysis of literary texts, as a result, are based on a single perspective to produce a single interpretation, which in turn effects a single and definite meaning. This decidedly structuralist concept would soon undergo great changes as a result of the introduction of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction.

New historicism and deconstruction

In the wake of the unravelling of the rigidity of structuralism, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction made the revolutionary assertion that “everything is multiple, unstable, and without unity”.[2] New historicists distinguished themselves from old historicists by applying this theory to historicism itself. History became histories and the stability previously cemented in synchronic facts became unstable in the vast litany of meanings and interpretations suddenly available for analysis. This is a result of deconstruction’s understanding of internal contradictions, in which a single, quantifiable meaning is challenged by multiple interpretations and therefore multiple meanings. New historicists, as a result, believed in the presence of multiple perspectives leading to multiple understandings of literature and history.

In relation to this multiplicity is deconstruction’s concept of otherness or difference, which rejects essentialism or generalisation in literature, specifically regarding identity. New historicists follow this same pattern, dismissing old historicism’s desire to assert an “essence” of a literary text or history for want of a singular interpretation and meaning. This is in part due to Greenblatt’s poststructuralist belief that “there is no escape from contingency”.[1] History relies on and is shaped by variables, thus old historicism’s application of a specific and stable set of facts to history is rendered unstable, the set itself, or what is considered factual, subject to and determined by the many interpretative perspectives available.

New historicism and postcolonialism

Where new historicism and postcolonialism converge is in both being deeply entrenched in history and literature, with postcolonialism specifically oriented around the writing that was produced during and subsequent to resistance of colonialism. This link to history is also evident in postcolonialism’s use of poststructuralism and deconstruction. Foucault’s discourse, for example, is prevalent in postcolonial studies and functions in a similar manner to the way it does in new historicism. In postcolonial studies, scholar Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism is part of a Western-produced Foucauldian colonial discourse that dominates postcolonial criticism. Orientalism describes the way in which the West produced and reproduced a discourse that constructed the East as “sensual, lazy, exotic, irrational"[2], purporting what it describes.

There is a sense of the new historicist’ rejection of old historicism’s desire for fixed, stable history in the form of Homi K. Bhabha’s deconstructionist refusal to accept similarly fixed, stable racial stereotypes. He specifically denies the lack of space for “variation and change”[2] for those who are subject to these stereotypes, much in the way old historicism’s structuralist rigidity denied multiplicity. This same instance of multiplicity is also prominent in postcolonial studies, manifesting as cultural multiplicity that communicates, according to Parker, “a sense of continuous cultural change across history”[2]. This notion is similar to new historicism in that it refers to not only Greenblatt’s circulation of social energy but to the ever-constant temporal change of history itself that so much of new historicism is based on.

New historical readings of literature

Driving new historicism was the reinvention of the old historicist reflection model into the mediated reflection model. With this approach history and literature was no longer thought of as separate but rather as deeply interdependent upon and interwoven with one another. Robert Dale Parker explains this notion by explaining how “literary texts influence the sociohistorical world that influences the literary texts, so that the textuality of history and the historicity of texts shape and reshape each other in a continuous cycle of mutual influence”[2]. In more concise terms, the literature thus actively responds to the history rather than passively reflecting it. This is another example of Greenblatt’s circulation of social energy.

Presentism interprets literature and history by applying what Parker calls “models from the present”[2]. While the use of presentism has been criticised for its use of a contemporary lenses when viewing the past, it is nonetheless essential in new historical readings. It provides an understanding of the way in which history changes both temporally and socially and how history is, as Greenblatt and Parker note, ultimately contingent and dominated by multiplicity.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Greenblatt, Stephen. "The Circulation of Social Energy". Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 553-568. Print.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.