Study Guide

New Historicism Buzzwords

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Think of a character everyone knows. Let’s say Hamlet. How do we know that he’s a ghost-seeing, uncle-blaming, speech-making, moody little princeling who just can’t make up his poor little mind? Because of how he’s fashioned. And who fashioned this most fashionable of theatrical princes? Shakespeare, of course—and the playwright engaged in some pretty heavy-duty self-fashioning himself.

Self-fashioning is this term coined by the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who made it up to describe the way that Renaissance authors like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe created identities for themselves (and for their characters) according to the social, cultural, and political codes of their time.

That’s why Shakespeare’s remembered as “The Bard of Avon” and associated with the Globe Theater, Queen Elizabeth, a pointy beard, and a time when only men were actors. These writers couldn’t escape these codes, even when they tried (can you imagine Shakespeare with an afro?). They were trapped!

Culture as text

Culture’s like a book. We can open it, read its rituals, social patterns, economic structures, and common behaviors as if they’re words or paragraphs, and that way we can understand how a culture works.

Basically, the New Historicists think of culture as a text. And literary texts are little texts within this big text that is culture. Everything’s a text. Got that?


Nope, not the thing you shoot gunpowder out of during a war or monkeys during a circus (besides, that’s a cannon). This is the word for the group of works that represents the “best” literary works of a given language. William Shakespeare, for example, is a canonical writer (are you sick of him yet?). We read him in middle school, we read him in high school, we read him in college, we read him on Shmoop. We can’t escape him, even when we’re sick of him. Why? Because he’s an important part of the English canon.

While (white, male, old-ish) scholars like Stephen Greenblatt and Harold Bloom talk about how important it is to “stick to the canon,” a bunch of folks from far-out fields like cultural studies, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and queer theory talk about how we ought to challenge the canon because of how it excludes people who have traditionally faced marginalization from mainstream culture.

In other words, those white, male, old-ish scholars pick white, male, dead-ish writers to include on the canon, and lots of just-as-good writers from less white or less male walks of life get left out. So is Shakespeare famous just because a bunch of old academics tell us he should be? Well, probably not (he’s not a bad playwright after all). But maybe other writers are, and that’s something to think about when you’re dividing authors into categories like “canonical” or “non-canonical.”


So, you can probably guess this one already. It’s about all those other works (the vast majority) that are not considered to be “high” literature. Think cheap crime thrillers, sci-fi, romance novels. Literary scholars don’t read these works so much because, well, they think they’re kind of inferior (definitely inferior to Shakespeare). But the New Historicists like to study non-canonical works alongside canonical works, saying that the distinction between “high” literature and “low” literature is just plain…useless.

The same goes for the works by authors who are non-white, non-male, from non-western cultures, or non-traditional modes of writing. If they’re non-canonical, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth studying! And maybe some of them will even sneak into the canon, or make younger, more open-minded scholars reinvent what the canon really is anyway.

Cultural Poetics

This is another name for “New Historicism.” Why are there two terms for the same theoretical movement? Don’t ask us. Ask Stephen Greenblatt, who prefers to use “Cultural Poetics” to describe his own practice, instead of “New Historicism.” But it pretty much means the same thing, except instead of emphasizing that it’s a new way to look for the historical sides of texts, it focuses on how it’s a way to look for the cultural sides of poetics (which can mean prose or other art forms too, not just poetry).


A literary work (or an art work) that depicts aspects of social or cultural life is representing what those aspects are like in real life. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a representation of star-crossed love. Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is a representation of Latin-American history.

The New Historicists’ job is to see how literary representations reflect aspects of the social (or political, economic, cultural) life of their time, and also how they comment on or critique them.


Duh—stuff that happened in the past. Right?

Hold your horses! According to the New Historicists, history isn’t just a list of facts that we compile. That’s because history will be told differently depending on whose point of view it’s being told from. There are many different versions of history, so many different ways for it to show up in art or literature. Tricky, eh?


A discourse is made up of a group of texts, statements, or utterances relating to a specific topic or theme. There’s a “discourse” relating to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, for instance (we can call it the “Brangelina” discourse). There’s a scholarly “discourse” relating to Shakespeare’s work. There’s legal “discourse” around who should be arrested and why.

There are lots of different types of discourse—what’s important is to recognize how one book or thing someone says about a topic can be a reflection of the whole treasure trove of ideas already expressed about that issue—and that trove is the “discourse” around that concept.


Material things matter, people (get it? Material…matter…oh well).

Basically, everything that we do—including what we think—is determined by our material conditions (are we rich or poor? What do we do for work? What kind of a house do we live in?). The New Historicists take material conditions very seriously because they think that these conditions are really important in how literary works (and all art works, for that matter) are produced and consumed by audiences.

So bringing it back to the history thing—it’s not just that people decided they didn’t like tea anymore that led to the American Revolution—it has to do with the material circumstances (the taxes on tea, the soldiers who drank the tea, the flavor of tea) surrounding those events, too.


No, New Historicists don’t have cold feet because their blood doesn’t pump well (well, maybe the one in the basement archive does). This idea has to do with the circulation of power. The New Historicists like to study and understand the way power circulates in a society, from the big people down to the little people—and sometimes back up again! And they’re especially interested in the way that literary texts participate in the circulation of power.

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