New Historicists' Viewpoints on Renaissance Term Paper

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In addition, Lett (1987) emphasizes that, "Cultural materialists maintain that a society's modes of production and reproduction determine its social structure and ideological superstructure, but cultural materialists reject the metaphysical notion of Hegelian dialectics that is part of dialectical materialism" (80). Indeed, according to Bradshaw (1993), "the British cultural materialist knows that the 'radical,' 'subversive,' 'marginal,' or 'dissident' perspective is always superior (9). This author maintains that British cultural materialist readings of Shakespeare tend to assign particular characters or speeches a privileged, supra-dramatic significance that may override meaningful analysis if care is not taken (Bradshaw 9).

According to Bate (1994), it has become increasingly common in recent years for scholars to adopt either the new historicism or cultural materialist perspective alone when considering these literary works, particularly as they apply to Shakespeare. In this regard, MacDonald (1994) suggests that the New Historicist camp enjoys a clear advantage because they "define their own disciplinary affiliations by what they call themselves, what forums they publish in, and whom they cite. Not all Shakespeareans identify with this particular subfield, but there are those that cite each other and cite the same extradisciplinary sources (e.g., Foucault)" (14). Another critic asks whether new historicism may ultimately be considered as a "backlash phenomenon": "A flight from theory or simply a program for producing more 'new readings' suited to the twenty-five-page article and the sixty-minute class" (Grady 227).

Based on his research and analysis, Bate, though, suggests that this all-or-nothing approach can introduce some constraints to understanding the big picture involved. Consequently, this author uses a broad historical approach to discern the mentality of Shakespeare and his contemporaries with some fruitful results:

Recent critical developments have helped me to see what I did not see when I began work on the project twelve years ago, that the subject has a political dimension. The so-called New Historicism in Renaissance studies is interested above all in power; for the Renaissance, Ovid was an exemplar of poetic power, a narrator of sexual power, and a victim of political power, so he would seem to be fertile ground for a New Historicist reading. However, it seems to me that the problem with the New Historicism is that it collapses these different kinds of power into one; Shakespeare sometimes does this, but more often he keeps them apart (emphasis added). (Bate ix)

According to Easthope (1991), there are some similarities between cultural materialism and New Historicism; however, cultural materialism manages to avoid the absoluteness involved in New Historicism to the degree that it acknowledges that the disseminating force of textuality must be considered in terms of its being part of a network of relations inextricably involved with other aspects of the social formation at a given moment, but as they are regarded from a modern perspective as well, providing the reader with a more balanced perspective. In this regard, Easthope emphasizes that, "The relevant history is not just that of four hundred years ago, for culture is made continuously and Shakespeare's text is reconstructed, reappraised, reassigned all the time through diverse institutions in specific contexts" (121).

Based on new historicist perspective, then, Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors," it would seem reasonable to maintain that there is more of a reflection of the quality of the actors that were available to the Bard that communicate this sense of power rather than the quality of the society in which it took place. Noting that Shakespeare had a large repertoire of talent from which to draw to help him communicate the subtleties of his messages, Hunter (1997) suggests that the 'New Historicist' language of "subversion and containment" attempts to attach the phenomenon to the medium rather than to the alleged quality of the society in which it emerges. By sharp contrast, Bradshaw argues that cultural materialists have it all wrong because "there is an unexamined assumption that what is being privileged corresponds with the ideological viewpoint that we are to think 'the play' really promotes but that far more obviously corresponds with the critic's or director's own ideological inclinations. Those uncertainties which the play provokes are regarded, or at any rate treated, as though they were some kind of obscuring overlay or static" (37).

Because new historicists would seek to interpret these works according to a subjective analysis of selected texts according to their own unique perspectives, there is a real danger of misinterpretation involved. In fact, what is important from a new historicist perspective largely depends on such modern analyses that runs the risk of assigning meaning where none actually exists: "Here it is worth remembering how Elizabethan actors were given parts and cues, not complete texts, and were not burdened with the knowledge that they were interpreting our national classics" (emphasis added) (Bradshaw 37).


Like qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, the research showed that both new historicists and cultural materialists bring something different to the table, all of which can contribute to a deeper and more complete understanding of life during a given period in history. Like qualitative and quantitative research, both the new historicism and cultural materialism were shown to share some commonalities as well in terms of how they both seek to discern important social insights from literary works and texts in terms of their historical context. While some observers might question the usefulness of either of these approaches to a modern society, Wilson (2002) emphasizes that such analyses provide contemporary researchers with a sense of some of the earliest textual traces of how and why people act the way they do today, which are important implications for the healthcare community and mental health professionals alike.

Works Cited

Bate, Jonathan. Shakespeare and Ovid. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2001.

Bradshaw, Graham. Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Cartelli, Thomas. Marlowe, Shakespeare and the Economy of Theatrical Experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Crane, Mary Thomas. Shakespeare's Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Easthope, Antony. Literary into Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Fossen, R.W. (Ed). A Woman Killed with Kindness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Grady, Hugh. The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Greer, Germaine. Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Hunter, G.K. English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Lett, James. The Human Enterprise: A Critical Introduction to Anthropological Theory. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987.

Low, Jennifer. (2002). "Matthew R. Martin. Between Theater and Philosophy: Skepticism in the Major City Comedies of Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton. Comparative Drama 464.

MacDonald, Susan Peck. Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.

McEvoy, Sean. Shakespeare: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2000.

Mcguire, Philip C. (1994). "Recent Studies in Tudor and Stuart Drama." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34(2):443.

Orlin, Lena Cowen. Private Matters and Public Culture in Post-Reformation…

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