New Historicism: A Brief Note

A critical approach developed in the 1980s in the writings of Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicism is characterised by a parallel reading of a text with its socio-cultural and historical conditions, which form the co-text. New Historians rejected the fundamental tenets of New Criticism (that the text is an autotelic artefact), and Liberal Humanism (that the text has timeless significance and universal value) . On the contrary, New Historicism, as Louis Montrose suggested, deals with the “texuality of history and the historicity of texts.” Textuality of history refers to the idea that history is constructed and fictionalised, and the historicity of text refers to its inevitable embedment within the socio-political conditions of its production and interpretation. Though it rejects many of the assumptions of poststructuralism, New Historicism is in a way poststructuralist in that it rejects the essential idea of a common human nature that is shared by the author, characters and readers; instead it believes that identity is plural and hybrid.

A New Historicist interpretation of a text begins with identifying the literary and non-literary texts available and accessible to the public, at the time of its production, followed by reading and interpreting the text in the light of its co-text. Such an interpretative analysis would ideally begin with a powerful and dramatic explication of the “anecdote”, which is the historical context or the co-text. Thus the text and the context are perceived as expressions of the same historical moment. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980) does a New Historicist reading of Renaissance plays, reavealing how ‘self-fashioning was an episteme of the era, as depicted in the portraits and literature  of the time.

The discipline of New Historicism has been influenced by Althusserian concept of ideology; the Derridian deconstructionist idea that a text is at war with itself; Bhaktinian dialogism which posits that a text contains a multiplicity of conflicting voices; and most prominently by Foucauldian Power/Knowledge and discourse. Analysing the nature of  power, Foucault  expounds that Power (for instance, in the form of the panoptic surveillant sate), defines what is truth, knowledge, normalcy. New Historicism believes in the Foucauldian idea of the “capillary modes of power” which like Althusser’s Ideology interpellates the lives and actions of the citizens.

Foucault’s archeological concept of history as archive, informs yet another tendency of the New Historicists, in that they consider history as fictionalised and as a “co-text” while traditional historians consider history as facts and as the background to the text, which is the foreground. Foucault observes that history is characterised by gaps and fissures contemporary historicists highlight the discontinuities and conflicts of history, rather than write in a coherent manner. He does not, like traditional historians, write history as a unified, continuous story.

Thus New Historicism applies the poststructuralist idea that reality is constructed and multiple, and the Foucauldian idea of the role of power in creating knowledge.

Categories: Literature

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14 replies

  1. I found the article decent. But, I would be very glad if I got an example of any literary work explaining with New Historicism.

  2. Thank you very much for this article. This is very comprehensive and enlightening! I’m now currently my undergraduate thesis in Literature using this approach. Thank you so much!

  3. I read through this article and found it useful and inciting. I wish to use extract from it in a paper I am writing.I wish to ask about how I can cite it.

    my e-mail is :

  4. I would like to have a starter or better still, orientation on reading Joyce’s A Portrate of the Artist As a Young Man with the optic of New Historicism. Although I found the above article interesting, I found it a little complicated to project it on the text

  5. Thanks for this very educative and well explained piece. can you please educate me on the various strands of new historicism and their poetics? thank you.


  1. The Textuality of History and the Historicity of Texts – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  2. New Historicism’s Deviation from Old Historicism – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  3. Foucault’s Influence on New Historicism – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  4. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  5. Stephen Greenblatt and New Historicism – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  6. Literary Criticism of George Puttenham – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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