New historicism can get a little bit complicated, so there are few articles or handouts available that give a clear concise explanation for our needs here in APE. I will try to give a quick summary of the central ideas and further expound on them in class. The New Historicists will have to forgive me for butchering and simplifying their critical stance to such a degree. Before explaining New Historicism I should say a few things about traditional historical analysis so that you can compare the two and see where they diverge. Historical Criticism goes back a long way and has been around for quite some time. The emphasis of historical inquiry in literary analysis is to analyze the time in which the text was written and to see how the time is reflected in the work. The questions that historical analysis would ask are: 1. 2. 3. “How does the work reflect the period in which it is written? What literary or historical influences helped to shape the form and content of the work? How important is the historical context to interpreting the work” (Meyer 2072)?
New Historicism is concerned with many of the same principles as Historical Criticism, but has taken into account many of the theories of the 20th Century that suggest that there is no absolute truth that we can fully understand or account for. The result of this is that New Historicists don’t believe that they are dealing with “true” history in an absolute sense, but that any moment in history consists of many different voices and perspectives that are vying for validation. So, where traditional historical critics were interested in developing a holistic view of a time, era, or event, the New Historicists are interested in seeing how events or historical eras contain various points of view and are interested in looking at the complexities of the situation. Their strategies and ideas can be generalized by the following questions that they might ask: 1. "What kind of documents outside the work seem especially relevant for shedding light on the work" (Meyer 2072)? New Historicists widen the range of materials that can be used to give a fresh perspective on the text under analysis. This can include traditional documents like diaries and letters to more obscure sources like census reports, or medical records of the time. For example, a critic analyzing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might look at documents from mental institutions during the 50’s and 60’s that show the daily routines of patients in various wards. From notes provided by nurses and doctors, they could extrapolate to what extent the ward presented in the novel is mirrors reality, or to what extent it is a construction of Kesey with the intent to put forth a particular message. Any document or source of information is usable if it gives a valid perspective on the text. This demands that New Historicists need to spend a lot of time doing research on a given time period since all materials are fair game. This also means that it is a difficult critical stance for students to apply since they usually don’t have the background knowledge necessary, or the time to acquire it. 2. "How are social values contemporary to the work reflected or refuted in the work" (Meyer 2072)? With this question critics are interested in seeing how the text may be supporting one particular ideology or point of view while excluding others. Things to think about in relation to this question would be the social status of the author, as well as the audience that it is intended for. How might these things shape the form or content of the work? If we were studying Shakespeare we might be concerned with the fact that he wrote many of his plays for an aristocratic court. How might this have effected the nature of the plays that he wrote as well as the message of those works? An example of this might be with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which contains a villainous Jew named Shylock. Given that Shakespeare is writing for a Christian audience that has no love for Jews, does his portrayal of Shylock help to maintain a certain religious and social order that places Jews at the bottom of the social hierarchy. A critic could even place this play within a historical context that led to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. A critic could also take another view and try to see is there is some commentary in play that gives Shylock a voice and allows him to speak in a way that a Jew never could in that society.
In The Tempest the character of Caliban is a monstrous deformity that illustrates the basest elements of humanity in animal form. 1999.
Works Cited Meyer. Martin’s. Can we read Merchant of Venice the same way after WWII? How does that effect the way that we read the play? How does these offer differences in interpretations. but many modern critics have put him in the forefront in their analysis of the play. Michael. He is a secondary character within the play. "How does your own historical moment affect your reading of the work and its historical reconstruction" (Meyer 2072)? New Historicists recognize that any interpretation of events consists of many differing viewpoints. and this becomes more complex when we recognize that we are interpreting the time or event from a completely different context than that of its contemporaries. What might have been a central issue of concern for people at the time a text was written may not be the same issues that we are concerned with in the 21st century.3. and how might we validate certain voices now that might not have been validated in the past? Another Shakespeare example illustrates the point well. Caliban is used to give voice to the native people of the colonized New World and addresses the exploitation and cultural colonialism that Prospero and his European civilization represent.
. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 5th ed. but from our current point of view this is a valid perspective to consider when reading the play. ed. Boston: Bedford/St. When Sophocles wrote Antigone it was probably not in his mind to make a feminist pronouncement or the rights of women. New Historicists try to address the differences of readings that occur when we apply new contexts to a text.