Introduction to New Historicism

New Historicism is a literary theory that proposes to understand Literature in connection with culture, politics, history and social realities. New Historicism argues that artistic work is not detached from the social and cultural practices of the times. It was first developed around 1980 by Stephen Greenblatt.

New Historicism proposed that an artistic entity is a product of the social and cultural circumstances in times in which the entity was produced. It is based on the following principles –

A work of art is a part of material practices within society. It states that a work of fiction cannot be totally detached from non-fiction. It further states that a fictional entity is attached to history. 

New Historicism fundamentally is defined as a theory that analyzes a text in connection with political and historical realities. Thus New Historicism is the opposite of New Criticism. While New Criticism focused only on the purity of the text, on the other hand, New Historicism rejects the idea of text as an isolated, pure concept.

New Historicism states that a text is not divorced from external agents of influence such as economics, societal influences, and material circumstances. New Historicism also proposes that there is no absolute boundary between fiction and history.

Thus fiction is to be understood through history and history is to be understood through fiction. New Historicism also tells that fiction and non-fiction are not totally separate from each other.

So any artistic production also becomes a medium of political expression. The act of reading and understanding a text happens at the site of performance in the outside world. For instance – A particular book may also tell a lot about its historical backdrop through its storytelling.

New Historicism rejects the idea of art as a purely aesthetic concept. It instead argues that art is connected with material realities in which an artistic entity was produced. Within New Historicism, the emphasis is not on the internal details of a text.

The emphasis of New Historicism is on the external agents surrounding a text. Stephen Greenblatt’s discourse on Shakespeare has led to a breakthrough in the field of New Historicism in which Greenblatt has proposed to rewrite Shakespeare’s legacy through interaction with political, cultural, material, social, economic and historical themes.

For instance – Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, at a certain point was only read as an artistic work. But New Historicism has given a chance to read the play through a post-colonial lens. Some of the scholars associated with New Historicism are Stuart Hall, Raymond William, and Stephen Greenblatt.