New Historicism

New historicism is a relatively new, and not widely understood method of analyzing and criticizing texts. Stephen Greenblatt has been regarded as the most prominent specialist of new historicism along with his co-author Catherine Gallagher. Together, Greenblatt and Gallagher compiled some of their essays and ideas in the book Practicing New Historicism. In the introduction of their book the pair convey to the reader how new historicism came to be, and the struggle that the diverse group of colleagues had in arriving at a consensus to adopt a type of structure or guidelines to be followed. This group of colleagues consisting of a “literary critic and art historian; historian and political scientist; Lacanian, Foucauldian, Freudian, neopragmatist; deconstructor and unreconstructured formalist” (Gallagher, 2001) met for several years to share their professional opinions on how a text should be viewed as a new historicist. Interestingly enough, there is no standard set of qualifications to analyze a text using the new historicism method.

Greenblatt and his colleagues brought their views on new historicism to the English world in the 1980’s, and have been developing and expanding since. In the beginning of their studies much of what was being examined as historical texts was Renaissance Literature and Victorian era Literature primarily written and published in Europe. An example that surfaces often in conjunction with Greenblatt is his new historicism depiction of William Shakespeare’s, The Tempest. While a historicism view of The Tempest would be to say that it is a play about the colonization in America, Greenblatt was more concerned with analyzing the cultural dynamic. What exactly was Shakespeare’s purpose in writing this play? It is not that he is not interested in Character dynamic, and their relationships, but would rather analyze what the relationship between the characters can tell the reader about the societal behaviors. Additionally, when examining those social behaviors, is the writer conveying them in a positive or negative light, and how does that resonate with the meaning of the text. Greenblatt suggests that when The Tempest was written, it was very important to Shakespeare to convey the stronghold that England still had over the colonies in the new world, and to portray how beneficial England’s influence is in civilization. (Harmon, 2012)

As was described in the introduction to Gallagher and Greenblatt’s book, the compiled group of colleagues actually found through their reading of each other’s thoughts how to pull new historicism ideals out of texts, and they actually started to arrive at certain agreements and began to blend some of the practices from their school or criticism of expertise. However, due to that sort of theoretical blending, much of the concern to do with this particular school of criticism is due to that ambiguity. Even within the confines of scholars that consider themselves to be new historicists, there is much dispute over what is significant.

The primary reason for the dispute is due to the idea that unlike old historicism that focused on the way in which texts depicted historical traditions, new historicism would examine literary works as guides to delve into the ways in which certain social, political and economic status resulted in behaviors regarding laws, principles of conduct and etiquette. (Harmon, 2012) A new historicist will examine those elements of the text and assess them into what they believe to be the philosophy behind the text. Now because there are so many different elements to be examined when reading as a new historicist a political scientist will more than likely pull examples from a text to support their understanding of the books philosophy that will differ from those opinions of a Freudian.

New historicists will argue that many of the schools of criticism are too simplistic in their evaluation of a text. Veeser put it best in his introduction to his book The New Historicism, by stating that “social and cultural events comingle messily, by rigorously exposing the innumerable trade-offs, the competing bids and exchanges of culture.” Giving way to the argument that new historicism is a valid way of interpreting texts because the best new historicists are the ones who derive their theories by examining the ideals of Marxists, postcolonialist and social historians to name a few.

Louis A. Montrose is “often cited as exemplary” (Veeser, 1989) as a new historicist. This status has seemingly evolved from his ability to combine the aspects of multiple schools of criticism to divulge new cultural or social meaning from a text in some of his early papers. Lending emphasis to the idea that a proper new historicist is never following a strict set of standards or guidelines. Upon further thought, this ideal and method is accurate because history is never-ending, and cultural and social change will always occur with progression; therefore, a new historicist attempting to find the correlation must engage with an open mind to examine more modern texts. In the 1980’s, when the criticism was in its infancy, and the more relevant texts to be studied were Renaissance and Victorian era material, the knowledge of culture and society was thoroughly documented, and new historicists could examine different ways in which to study the culture of the text by implementing some of the different stands of other schools of criticism. Similarly, new schools of criticism will more than likely evolve, and perhaps even a new form of historicism, but as these new criticism evolve, new historicists will examine their theories to interpret whether or not there is anything that can be gained from a new historicism’s point of view.


  1. Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 12th ed. Boston: Longman, 2012. Print.
  2. Gallagher, Catherine, and Stephen Greenblatt. “Introduction.” Practicing New Historicism. Pbk. ed. Chicago [Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 1-19. Print.
  3. Veeser, H. Aram. “Introduction.” The New Historicism. New York [etc.: Routledge, 1989. ix-xvi. Print.

Further Reading:

  1. Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism, 2001, call no. PN81.G44 2001.
  2. H. Aram Veeser, The New Historicism, 1989, call no. PN81.N43 1989.
  3. Joshua E. Polster, Reinterpreting the plays of Arthur Miller: an approach using cultural semiotics and new historicism, 2010, eBook, AN 500490.
  4. William D Dean, History Making History: the New Historicism in American Religious Thought, 1988, call no. BR115.H5 D4 1988.

Suggestions 1 and 2 were also sources for my research, and provide a large sample of works from multiple new historicists. Suggestion 3 is what drew me to my criticism of choice because studying the works of Arthur Miller was one of my favorite topics in my high school english class, and I can remember studying the history of the era and how it related to the content of The Crucible. Lastly, I chose suggestion 4 as another interest piece, but only got a chance to briefly skim it. However, the notion of analyzing religious content as a new historicist, should provide for an interesting outlook.

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1 Response to New Historicism

  1. Pingback: Stephen Greenblatt | johnadamsarchive

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