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New Historicism in Literature

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  • 0:04 What is New Historicism?
  • 0:49 Notable Figures
  • 1:33 Field Relationships
  • 2:08 Criticism
  • 3:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson discusses New Historicism, a literary critical movement that developed in the 1980s. This lesson identifies the movement's primary objectives, discusses noteworthy figures, describes New Historicism's relationship to other critical movements, and summarizes criticism of the movement.

What Is New Historicism?

New Historicism is a literary critical movement, which first developed in the 1980s. The new historical approach emphasizes the cultural context in which text is produced, rather than focusing exclusively on the formal structure of the text itself. New Historicism posits that literary works are not singular or solitary forms, but, instead, a product of different networks of socio-material practices. As such, literary works should be interpreted, not for their universal themes or historical content, but for their meaning as objects embedded in a certain socio-historical milieu. Thus, to understand a literary text, critics need to first understand the author's background and the cultural context in which the work was produced.

Notable Figures

Stephen Greenblatt is credited with launching New Historicism. He first used the term 'new historicism' in his work, The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (1982) to describe the permeability of literature and history. Discussing Queen Elizabeth's hostility towards Shakespeare's play, Richard II, Greenblatt argues that literary criticism is always historical in nature and that there is no such thing as pure aesthetic value. Fredric Jameson is another well-known New Historicist. Jameson is famous for his dictate-\-'always historicize'-- commanding literary critics to pay attention to the social and historical context in which a work was produced. Another noteworthy New Historicist is Alan Liu.

Field Relationships

New Historicism is related to Cultural Studies, which is a broader movement in the humanities and social sciences that emphasizes that individual experience is culturally specific, rather than universal. Both New Historicism and Cultural Studies are indebted to the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who argued that knowledge (discourse) is a product of a vast network of systems that can be defined as much by ruptures as by cohesive themes. New Historicism also reflects the legacy of Marxist criticism, since it seeks to unveil the ideological conditions that shape a given text.

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