Sample New Historicism Essay

The approach of New Historicism argues that a work of literature does not exist devoid of its conditions or circumstances.  In this light, literary works are as much a product of the author's mindset as well as the conditions that surround it.  The historical and social context of the author is almost as important as anything else in assessing the construction of the literary work.  In this light, New Historicism is based off of the contingent, stressing its role in the development of literature.   This can be seen in many works.  I think that Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is a fine example because only through understanding how the experience of Partition, homelands that exist in the subjective, and the idea of displacement in Rushdie's own life can the full magnitude of the novel be explored.  The works of Nadine Gordimer are another example of how the New Historicist approach can yield greater insight into the work.  When seen in the context of South Africa's struggle with Apartheid, writings such as the short story "Once Upon a Time" acquire even more meaning to them.

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. New Historicism as Literary Theorie
2.1. The Origin of New Historicism
2.2 Influential People in New Historicism
2.3. How New Historicism is applied

3. Summary of William Shakespeare`s “The Tempest”

4. New Historicism applied on „The Tempest”
4.1. Shakespeare`s Time of Textual Production
4.2. “The Tempest” and the Influence on its Time
4.3. Power Struggles in “The Tempest”

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

The power that makes us handle ourselves and others around us is something we do not even notice, but that is central to all our lives. While actual physical violence is far away for many of us, nobody can deny how society has a certain rule over each of us. We have expectations towards others and ourselves that are central for the way we think and behave. Cultural values do not only shape our daily lives but also every text that is written. These texts on the other hand have the power to influence our values and believe on what is wrong and right.

Because I am very interested in this topic and also how texts form our picture of the world I chose to write about New Historicism.

New Historicism is a literary theory that, in my opinion, everybody can understand and relate to.

A central idea is how every text shows signs of the time and the society it is produced in. A logical consequence, since the author is never free of perceptions of his time and never subjective. On the other hand a text, read by many people, can easily influence their opinions and believes. For example the texts written about Queen Elisabeth contributed to her image of the Virgin Queen. These ideas, bought up as literary theory in New Historicism, are important until today. While books and theater plays might not be as important for many of us we are influenced, not only by television, but also by newspapers and articles we read. Our “self” is still created through the society we live in.

I chose “The Tempest” by Shakespeare to apply New Historicism on, because thinking about the main ideas of the theory I immediately found several aspects that fitted with the play.

Shakespeare wrote “The Tempest” in 1611. England was at this point the most powerful empire on the planet and also the biggest one that ever existed until today. Founded on worldwide trade and an enormous armada the empire reached from North America to Australia and included nearly five million people. Several aspects and themes important at this time can be found in the play. In addition the development of the Empire helped Shakespeare become such an influential writer, as I will explain later on.

Another important point why I chose “The Tempest” is the fact that New Historicism deals with power struggles within a social system, how it affects people and also how they rebel against it. “The Tempest” is a play full of such struggles, for example between Caliban and Prospero.

This paper contains of my introduction which you have just read, followed by a section about New Historicism in which I want to try to explain the theory and how it is applied. Within this part I will first try to make clear where the theory originated and who was important for its development. Then I will go on with how it is used. In the next part I will give a short summary of “the Tempest” to then apply New Historicism on the text with specific examples. In the end I want to show in my conclusion why it was a good choice to pick this theory and this text.

“The souls most fed with Shakespeare’s flame, still sat unconquered in a ring, remembering him like anything”, said G.K. Chesteron (1874-1936) in “The Shakespeare Memorial”. This quote and many others show how Shakespeare’s texts have the power to influence people now as well as 500 years ago. This idea is not only central to New Historicism but also what this term paper is about.

2. New Historicism as Literary Theorie

2.1. The Origin of New Historicism

New Historicism is a literary theory that, in my opinion, everybody can understand and relate to.

To do so, we first have to look at the definition of culture itself though. Culture is central in New Historicism because it defines and is defined by society, and society’s structure is important for a new historical approach. The meaning of the word “culture” has largely expanded other the last century. While once the term was “reserved for what most literary academics would now consider to be a rather narrowly defined “high” culture” (Bertens, 2008, p.135), today culture is seen as everything made by humans. Both Richard Hoggarts, an English literary critic, and Raymond Williams work contributed to this change.

“Both emphasized the valuable and life-enhancing qualities of culture, in particular working class culture that from the perspective of high culture had generally been condemned and ignored” (Bertens, 2008, p.136).

With this step a whole new field of texts and contexts opened up to cultural studies and also to literary critics. The new view of culture became central for two major literary theories: New Historicism and Cultural Materialism.

To now understand New Historicism it is of importance to also understand where it came from. New Historicism is of American origin “and has remained largely American” (Bertens, 2008, p.139). The term “New Historicism” came up when “in 1982 […] Stephen Greenblatt used it to describe recent work of himself and others on the Renaissance period” (Bertens, 2008, p.141). New Historicism developed parallel to Cultural Materialism in Britain and shows several similarities. Central Question asked in these theories are, how literary texts relate to their historical background. Both Theories are often focused on studying traditional texts such as Shakespeare, which I will also do, but since the 1980s have “spread to the study of other periods” (Bertens, 2008, p.146). Central themes are “notion of the self, of discourse, and of power” (Bertens, 2008, p.140). This means that both theories deal with how we perceive ourselves, how we interact with those around us and how we use power or are an object to power. Another central aspect of both theories is that they claim a text can never be understood out of his historical context. This also automatically makes the author a subject to his context and therefore to his historical background, living circumstances, class, family and world view.

It is important to in addition realize, that texts do not only reflect history but also “actively make history” (Bertens, 2008, p.140). A text always is a “vehicle for power” (Bertens, 2008, p.140) because it influences the people who read it. Finally both New Historicism and Cultutral Materialism do not believe that there is a difference between literary texts and other texts.

After these parallels what in the end makes New Historicism different from Cultural Materialism?

Bertens says in his book Cultural Materialism focuses more on ideology and therefore leans towards Marxism while New Historicism focuses on power and therefore leans towards Poststructuralism.

New Historicism centralizes around

“how the self is subject to power relations and how it always functions within larger structures that may even completely control whatever self-fashioning seemed initially possible. […] self is always a construction, (that) our identity is never given, but always the product of an interaction between the way we want to represent our selves […] and the power relations we are part of.” (Bertens, 2008, p.142).

This focus on power relations and on how the “self” is created through society distinguishes New Historicism from Cultural Materialism and also is what made it into one of the central theories used from the 1980´s until today.

2.2 Influential People in New Historicism

New Historicism, not only being used widely in the 20th century but still being used today, was influenced by many important Socialists and Theorists.

While Stephen Greenblatt was the first to use the term “New Historicism”, Michel Foucault and Jonathan Dollimore where two theorists, who contributed to the definition of the term.

As you can read in the book `Literary Theory` by Ingo Berenymeyer Michel Foucault was teaching “at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s” (Berensmeyer, 2014, p.104) and while he was also involved in the development of other literary theories such as Structuralism he encouraged his students to find a connection between texts and their historical background. Because of this Berkely became the center of the development of New Historicism in America. Students, often specialized in Renaissance literature, “rose to the challenge of developing a new approach to the interplay between literary texts and their historical contexts” (Berensmeyer, 2014, p.104). Stephen Greenblatt was one of them.

Jonathan Dollimore on the other hand was a social theorist and studied at the University of London. In 1984 he wrote his first edition of “Radical Tragedy”, a second edition in 1989 and a third in 2004 followed. In the first edition Dollimore “argues that dominant ideologies of the time, such as the religious idea of providentialism, ‘constituted an ideological underpinning for ideas of absolute monarchy and divine right’ and were thus used by the state to support its centers of power.” (UK Essays, 2014). While he is often said to have been a Cultural Materialist this clearly also is an important point in New Historicism. In his second edition Dollimore argues that “the theater played a crucial role in contributing to the eventual collapse of the institutions of the Church and State” (UK Essay, 2014). This takes the idea of New Historicism further because now we don not only look at how Shakespeare was influenced by his time but also how his texts influenced the time. Both ideas though have become central to New Historicism.

Although there are many other important theorists such as Louis Montrose, in my opinion Foucault and Dollimore where two that influenced the development (in America) very much and their opinions had an effect on how we use New Historicism today.

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