Study Guide

New Historicism Texts

  • Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare (1601-02)

    Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night is chock-full of cross-dressing women and confused identities. And there’s lots of love and romance in there as well. How can it not be fun?

    So riddle me this: what does the play’s representation of gender and sexuality tell us about Elizabethan attitudes towards these issues?

    Plus, does a knowledge of Elizabethan stage conventions (for example, the use of boy actors to play women characters) change our understanding of the play? If so, how?

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (1595)

    Drumroll please…and, it’s another comedy by William Shakespeare. This one’s full of magic, mischievous fairies, and lovers who fall in and out of love, for real reasons and sorcery-related ones. And there’s also a play-within-the-play and plenty of animal body parts.

    How does this play engage with and represent patriarchy? Do you agree with Louis Adrian Montrose, who says that the emphasis on patriarchy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflects men’s anxiety during this period about being ruled over by a woman (Queen Elizabeth)?

    And chew on this: how does the play-within-the-play (Pyramus and Thisbe) reflect on, and relate to, theatrical conventions of the time?

  • “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798” by William Wordsworth (1798)

    It’s a poem about a walk that Wordsworth took to the area surrounding Tintern Abbey, an old ruined abbey built in the Middle Ages. Doesn’t sound too exciting? Well, it is, especially when we put our New Historicist lenses on.

    So. The poem was written on July 13th. That’s the day before July 14th. Sure it’s obvious if you’re good at counting, but if you know your international holidays then you’ll be aware that the 14th is Bastille Day, the day that marked the beginning of the French Revolution of 1789. How does this knowledge change our reading of Wordsworth’s poem?

    What kind of social and economic contrasts does the poem allude to or set up? Where do we find traces of these contrasts in the poem?

  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

    This book’s about a journey into the Congo that goes way wrong. And it’s all about colonialism, imperialism, and the madness of greed.

    In what ways can an understanding of British imperialism during the Victorian era help us understand the themes of exploration and conquest in Heart of Darkness?

    How do the depictions of Africa in Conrad’s novel reflect common stereotypes of the time about the continent and its people? Does the novel challenge these stereotypes in any way, or does it fall into the same set of first-world assumptions?

  • The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

    Marlowe’s play is a story about a Jewish merchant’s conflict with the Christian rulers of Malta who want to steal his money. Things get pretty ugly, and poor Barabas, the Jewish merchant, gets screwed over in the end. Mo’ money, mo’ problems, as the poet says.

    What does the play’s focus on money and wealth suggest about the rise of capitalism during the Elizabethan period? How does the play respond to and comment on this rise?

    Stephen Greenblatt suggests that the play both challenges and affirms anti-Semitic ideas that were widespread during the Elizabethan age. Do you agree? Do you think the play leans more towards affirming these ideas, or undermining them?

  • Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt (1980)

    Here's the book that kick-started the New Historicist craze by talking about how cultural specifics shape the way writers live, think, and write. If there's anywhere to start to learn more about New Historicism, it’s here.

    According to Greenblatt, how did English Renaissance writers such as Thomas Wyatt, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare "self-fashion," and how is this process of self-fashioning reflected in their work?

    Why, according to Greenblatt, is it so important to take the socio-historical context of Renaissance literature into account when studying this literature?

  • The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation by Jerome McGann (1983)

    In this Romantic-era-specific blockbuster in New Historicism criticism, Jerome McGann shows us how Romantic poetry engages with politics, social issues, and economics. Those Romantics were more complicated than we think.

    What does McGann mean by the “Romantic ideology?” How does this ideology influence the way that literary critics have traditionally approached the Romantic period?

    What are some of the ways in which Romantic poetry reflects its social, political and historical context?

  • Rethinking Historicism: Critical Readings in Romantic History by Marjorie Levinson, Marilyn Butler, Jerome McGann, and Paul Hamilton (1989)

    We can see just how useful a New Historicist approach is to the study of Romantic poetry in this collection of essays, which has contributions from four important New Historicist scholars considering cultural and historical details that enrich our understanding of Romantic-era texts we know and love (or don’t know, but would love if we did).

    According to Marjorie Levinson in the introduction to this book, how does “new” historicism differ from “old” historicism?

    According to the authors in this book, how does taking into account the historical context of Romantic poetry deepen our understanding of this poetry?

  • The New Historicism by Harold A. Veeser (Ed.) (1989)

    Here we go with another very useful collection of essays by New Historicist critics. We’ll find readings of Renaissance and Romantic writers here as well as a bunch of theoretical essays that tie New Historicism to other schools such as Marxist criticism and feminism.

    The essays in this collection are on a variety of different periods and subjects. What threads tie these essays together? What are some of the New Historicist assumptions or concerns that they all share?

    New Historicism is often characterized as a “politically committed” field. How do the essays in this collection reflect this? To what extent can we describe New Historicism as a politically engaged school of literary criticism?

  • Practicing New Historicism by Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt (2001)

    Okay guys—in case you were confused, New Historicism isn’t just a bunch of moldy abstract ideas; it’s a practice you can put to use in real life. In this book, two of the most important scholars in the field show us how New Historicism is done.

    But for real, what’s the diff? Why do Gallagher and Greenblatt insist that New Historicism is more of a “practice” than a “theory”? What, in their opinion, is the difference between practice and theory?

    Why, according to Gallagher and Greenblatt, is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of literature so useful?