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Let’s play parallel universe and suppose for a minute that Shakespeare hadn’t lived in Elizabethan England but in our own day and age. Maybe he would have experienced the end of the Cold War, 9/11, Britney Spears, the Iraq War, global warming, the Mission Impossible movies, and whatever else is important from the past 25 years.
Maybe he’d be “Billy Shakes” on Facebook.
Even if Bill is writing plays, he’d be frustrated because those Tom Cruise movies are bringing home the bucks and there’s not so much interest in theater. The poor dude’s having a rough time making ends meet as a playwright.
So, seems clear that a Shakespeare born in our day and age would be a little different from the guy who lived in the late sixteenth century and wrote stuff like Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest (the prototype for the first Mission Impossible). And that’s because the circumstances surrounding a twentieth-century Shakespeare would be very different from the circumstances surrounding the English Renaissance Shakespeare we all know and love.
To put it simply: circumstances matter. New Historicism is all about paying close attention to the historical context of literary works. After all, plays, poems, novels, art in general are a product of a specific time and place. We’d be pretty dumb to ignore those contexts, because arty things reflects the values of their culture, of the specific time and place, and it also comments on those values.
So the New Historicists aim to do two things: first, they want to study how a work of literature reflects its historical and sociocultural context—that’s why you’ll often find dust-covered New Historicists digging in ancient archives to get the background for that one line in one poem.
Second, they want to understand how a literary work comments on and relates to its context. So the archive hunt won’t just reveal that this thing was written in 1385, but also what it was like to live in that year, and what people (or at least poets) thought and felt at that starriest of historical moments.
So what do New Historicists do, aside from archive-digging? Well, their approaches are really interdisciplinary. They throw together history, literature, anthropology, sociology, economics and whatever else takes their fancy. They love mixing things up by bringing together different types of texts, and erasing usual lines that divide them—so, literary texts are compared with nonliterary documents, “high” literature with “low” literature, you name it.
Only by mixing things up in this way, they say, can we arrive at full understanding of a literary work and its context.
Well, obviously, because Shakespeare. Does it change how you read or watch his plays when you know that women characters during Shakespeare’s time were played by boy actors? Or that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet who died in infancy (hey, doesn’t that name sound weirdly familiar? Kind of like the title of his famous tragedy Hamlet?)?
This is the fun thing about New Historicism: it gives all kinds of super interesting context for understanding works that we read again and again. We think we know these works, but when we learn more about how they were performed, or about how the author’s biography feeds into them, or about how the political and social upheavals of the time are reflected in them, the work is totally transformed. Tah-dah!
New Historicism is a super influential theoretical school. The fact of the matter is that the New Historicists transformed the way that literary criticism was done. They made it legit for literary critics to talk about politics and class and power, and to take an interdisciplinary approach to the study of literature.
New Historicism also makes us question basic categories that we take for granted as literary theorists. What is “literature”? How do we draw the line between “literary” and “non-literary” texts? What’s the difference between “canonical” and “non-canonical” literature?
Pretty key questions, right? We can’t take ourselves seriously as literary theorists without considering the questions that New Historicism poses.