The Birth of New Historicism

In 1979, then US president Jimmy Carter signed into existence the US Department of Education, “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” (US Department of Education website).


In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran for US president on a platform that included the abolition of the Department of Education.  Indeed, despite the constitutional arguments in favour (or not) of such a move, Reagan’s legacy as governor of California was widely touted as a part of his image as a fiscal conservative.  During his gubernatorial years, Reagan called for an end to free tuition in California schools, demanded 20% across the board spending cuts, repeatedly slashed construction projects on state campuses, and famously claimed that the government “should not subsidize intellectual curiosity” (“Ronald Reagan…” New York Times Oct 25, 1970).


At roughly the same time during the 1970s as to-be President Reagan was calling for decreased funding for educational institutions across California, a French philosopher, historian, and literary critic named Michel Foucault was invited to visit the University of California at Berkeley.  He had just published two major works, Discipline and Punish and the beginnings of his multivolume History of Sexuality.  In his work, Foucault argued that one can understand history through what he calls “discourses.”


Discourses are not just statements or texts but practices.  That is, there is an entire legal discourse, just as there is an entire medical discourse, a literary discourse, and even, yes, a historical discourse.  These discourses are not just what is said within those disciplines, but they structure how the discipline is conducted and can consist of the institutions that mark the discipline, the economic factors that inform a discipline, the very concept of a “discipline” itself.  How does one punish under the law?  How does one treat madness?  How does one judge what counts as a “literary” text?  Discourses provide the limitations of knowledge at any given time.  A discourse creates its own object.  For instance, as Charles Horrocks and Zoran Jevtic describe:

Criminal behaviour can give rise to a whole series of objects of knowledge (criminal character, heredity and environmental factors) only because a set of rules and conditions were established between institutions, economic and social practices and patterns of behaviour.  These do not add up to criminality, but their relations and differences allow us to say something about criminality as a discourse.

Discourses, however, are mutually interpenetrating such that they reflect back upon each other.  Institutions from one discourse are cited, recirculated, and adapted in another.  For instance, we see trials (an institution of legal discourse) in plays (an artifact of literary discourse).  The mutual inter-penetrability of discourses was one of the things that Berkeley scholars really began to become excited about.

Berkeley people liked to get excited about ideas

Berkeley scholars were able, finally, to articulate a way of talking about, say, Shakespeare, which paid attention to history, without making history a totally alien and morally stultifying world.  Prior to this, the primary mode of analysis in the English academy, New Criticism, argued that the only way you can understand a text was to work within the text alone.  The text was a self-contained puzzle to New Critics.  You might have to look up an occasional reference here and there, but the meaning of a text was inherently self-contained.


Here, however, Foucault seemed to be suggesting that a literary text was not just illuminated by its historical context, but informed it.  That the discourses of literature and politics and law and history were all mutually informative, not just in a given historical moment, but in the historical moment which Berkeley scholars found themselves.  That is, what counted as “literature” or even “valuable scholarly study” was informed by the discourses of politics and economics.

Reagan’s assault on the education system of California could be resisted… Foucault’s concept of “discourse” could provide a model through which resistance could be articulated and promulgated…


The scholars who were entering Shakespearean and what was then known as Renaissance studies in the 1970s saw an academic establishment that was morally vacuous.  Rather than resisting moral outrages like the Vietnam War and encroaching neo-liberalism under Reagan and others, the academic establishment of literary studies claimed that the meaning of a text was whole in and of itself, that rhetorical figures, literary devices and tropes were the primary means to analyze those texts, and that the term “a text” meant just what you think it means.

What does this have to do with Shakespeare?


The scholars who came up in the 1970s in the US imported some of Foucault’s ideas (along with Habermas, Riceour, Gadamer, Barthes, Derrida, Austin, Searle, Althusser, and others) and radically changed the way that the study of literature was done.  The New Historicists were taking a stand against the New Critics, arguing that the discourses of literature and history were deeply intertwined, but other politicized literary critical models emerged at roughly the same time – feminist analysis, queer theory, performance theory.  Each worked to overthrow what they saw as the morally compromised mode of academic engagement of the previous generation.

Not a New Historicist, but Butler’s ideas are deeply influenced by Foucault (among others).


The term “New Historicism” was first used by Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, where he argued for “the mutual permeability of the literary and the historical.”  Why “New,” however?

Stephen Greenblatt


This “New” was to distinguish it from an older way of understanding literary texts that predated even the New Critics – what might be now called “Old Historicism.”  This older model simply situated the literary text within the historical discourse.  That is, the literary text is informed by historical knowledge within “Old Historicism,” but the relationship goes only one way.  For example, there are references within Shakespeare that are obscure today  which an audience of the 1590s would immediately have understood.



An old historicist might unpack some of those references, but would not go on to make an argument about how those reference construct an understanding of sexuality because in that older view of history, sexuality was not a construct.  Sexuality simply was.  Indeed, sexuality meant very straightforward and “vanilla” heterosexuality.  Anything else was somehow perverse.  In the New Historicist mode of analysis, one could explicate all of the sexual references in Midsummer Night’s Dream to show how sexual desire was constructed in different ways for different classes, different sexes, different genders.

New Hist

It didn’t take long for New Historicism to catch on widely across the English speaking academy.  A twin to the school of thought was already developing independently in Great Britain, which was called “Cultural Materialism.”  Indeed, to this very day, Cultural Materialism and New Historicism are often viewed as interchangeable concepts.  (They aren’t really interchangeable, but they often are described that way.)  Indeed, New Historicism became the dominant theme within Renaissance studies to the point that the discipline even changed the name of the object of study.  Remember, discourses create their own objects.  It became clear quickly that if one was to look at history of the period, that “Renaissance” was terribly Eurocentric and ignored the influence of international trade and relations upon literature.  It effectively ignored the majority of the world.  Thus, “Renaissance Studies” became “Early Modern Studies.”

And we recognized that there was more to the world than just Europe…

It also didn’t take very long for New Historicism to develop its own particular and characteristic style and voice when doing analysis.  That is, New Historicist essays and books fell into a recognizable and swiftly parodied pattern.  The analysis would start off with a historical fact from the political world, the economic world, or the law.  Then the scholar would unpack the concept that was introduced until eventually, almost accidentally, one arrived at the literary text under study – say, Shakespeare.  For example, a scholar might start talking about a law passed by Elizabeth I creating a new branch of government, which was threatened by James I, and somehow, by wandering path, one was led to Macbeth.  The idea was to show that the multiple discourses at play were, indeed, mutually interpenetrating and that power circulated in a culture rather than came from a single source.  The argumentative form was so common, though, that it became the subject of parody by the 1990s.


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