Every time you think you've got a material understanding of my views on Shakespeare, I swerve.
But let's back up. What's the big deal with New Historicism, you ask? Well, for one thing, at a time when most theory was either formalist (meaning that it focused on language and style—take a look at New Criticism, for example) or context-based (like that old-school historicism that said that literary texts revealed important information about a given time period), Stephen Greenblatt made two moves that delighted and horrified various critics.
First, he argued that literature was informed by its historical context, rather than the other way around. And second, he said that the analysis of each and every text was influenced by the time period in which that text was read and analyzed.
NBD, right? Wrong. Major BD. Basically, Greenblatt's method turns literary analysis into a detective game: you've got your critic gathering a mountain of evidence to prove that specific elements of the past helped create the text. That's tough stuff.
For instance, let's say you wanted to argue that public belief in magic and fairies influenced Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. If you want to go the New Historical route, you'd not only have to do a boatload of research about the play; you'd also have to do a boatload of research about religion and superstition during Shakespeare's time—and then you'd have to connect that back to the author and the text. According to Greenblatt, you've got to rebuild the past in order to figure out the text and fill in its missing pieces.
Now, don't go thinking that New Historicism is just about Shakespeare and the English Renaissance. No way: New Historicism is a way of analyzing texts of pretty much any time period. It's a method that can help you figure out how the historical backdrop of a text affects the way we should interpret it. It's alsoa method that helps you understand how your interpretation of a text (and its context) rests on your own experience of your own historical moment.
All right, Shmoopers: let's get our history on.