To establish the purposes of and uses for this guide
Why this book and why now?
•Why is it still important and necessary to learn about new historicism and cultural materialism
•The aims of this guide
•How this book is structured
Some readers of this book may take a look at the title and perceive juxtaposition between the word ‘contemporary’ and the phrase ‘new historicism and cultural materialism’. Stephen Cohen first claimed to be writing ‘after new historicism’ in 1996, so how can either of these movements be thought of as being ‘contemporary’? Others may recoil in horror and trepidation at the word ‘theory’. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, did not Terry Eagleton, among others, assure us that the Great Age of Theory is over?1
Surely now at last, academics from literature departments everywhere could retreat to the relative safety of traditional, archival historical scholarship without the taint of such ghastly phrases as ‘ideological state apparatus’ or ‘overdetermination’ clouding our thinking and confusing our students?
Writing now, over a decade into the twenty-first century, it is difficult to remember a time when lecturers would not remind their students to ‘provide historical context’ in their essays. Fredric Jameson’s endlessly repeated maxim ‘always historicize’ scarcely needs repeating anymore. It is the aim of this book to show university students and their teachers not only how we arrived at this point but also how new historicism and cultural materialism far from being ‘over’ are in fact still the overwhelmingly dominant approaches of Shakespeare scholars today – regardless of whether or not they identify themselves as being new historicists or cultural materialists and, perhaps more contentiously, whether or not they recoil in terror at the word ‘theory’ as described above.
In 1988, David Simpson bemoaned: ‘there is no clear consensus that the task of literary criticism is to teach an analysis of the historical production of writing.’ 2
It is not difficult to see how dramatically the critical climate has shifted since Simpson was writing. In 2000, Tamsin Spargo introduced Reading the Past
by claiming that ‘cultural materialism and new historicism seem to have become the new orthodoxy in many Literature departments’.3
It is safe to say that in North America new historicism has replaced the New Criticism as the dominant modus operandi
of literary criticism and that in Britain cultural materialism has the edge over ‘the textual skills of Englit’ 4
in all but the most resilient of English departments. The genesis of these critical modes has not been without controversy. As Peter Erikson notes, by the mid-1980s new historicism (and, by association, cultural materialism) had completed its ‘initial phase of development . . . and entered a transitional stage marked by uncertainty, growing pains, internal disagreement, and reassessment’.5
From this transitional stage the new historicist / cultural materialist approach to literature emerged reinvigorated and victorious in the 1990s, producing study after study in all periods across the discipline and establishing itself firmly as the new status quo.
Then, in the 2000s, something else happened. New historicism and cultural materialism had become so entrenched that critics felt they no longer needed to theorize to the extent they once did. ‘Theory with a capital T’ was so ‘ubiquitous’ that it became old hat.6
The ‘golden age of cultural theory’ seemed like a moment that had passed.7
It was once the case that new historicist and cultural materialist essays would include lengthy discussions of how they were defining ‘ideology’ and ‘culture’ and ‘social dissidence’ replete with
suitably deferential references to Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Pierre Macherey, Raymond Williams and Pierre Bourdieu. But you would be hard-pressed to find a recent study of Shakespeare’s plays that even mentions this cast of characters, let alone engages seriously with their respective theories. So does this mean that we have simply moved ‘beyond’ Foucault and friends? My deep suspicion is that nothing could be further from the truth. We might no longer be treated to 20-page tracts on the virtues of Discipline and Punish
, indeed we might no longer get a reference to Foucault at all, but we will get a detailed historical essay establishing what the people in Shakespeare’s time and place thought about whatever issue is at stake, most likely with the implication that Shakespeare’s play is complicit with the status quo. There will be no mention of such old-fashioned terms as ‘ideology critique’ or ‘discourse analysis’, despite the fact that the essay is – consciously or not – plainly working within the same theoretical framework that produced those terms. I am saying that although the idea of ‘Theory’ is increasingly frowned upon by many within the academy, its influence endures hidden, disavowed and unquestioned. This is perhaps a little ironic considering that Althusser’s ideology or Foucault’s concept of power work in exactly the same way: they are systems that function invisibly – you do not realize that that you are caught up in them, they are assumptions that appear to be ‘common sense’.
In some literature departments, theoretically engaged new historicism and cultural materialism have given way to a kind of old-fashioned antiquarianism in which the importance and primacy of historical contextual work is seen as little more than a matter of common sense and ‘Theory’ as little more than a distracting and confusing waste of time. It would not be difficult to find Shakespeare scholars in any of the world’s leading universities today to support that position. My own view is that this ‘anti-Theory’ stance is conservative and profoundly lacking in self-awareness, two things of which it would have been unimaginable to accuse new historicists and cultural materialists in the fervour of the 1980s. It is one aim of this book to uncover and challenge some of the unspoken assumptions under which many scholars and their students operate in the modern literature department. In short, those who follow the ‘status quo’ may no longer refer to themselves as ‘new historicists’ or ‘cultural materialists’ but rather shrink from such obviously ‘theoretical’ labels to get on the ‘real work’ of literary history, no questions asked. I would argue that despite this tendency new historicism and cultural materialism still broadly represent the status quo, especially in
their anti-humanist belief that individuals have few natural characteristics and are simply the products of their social conditions. The idea that human beings are as much products of their genetic makeup, their DNA, as they are of their social and cultural milieu would still very much be considered controversial in most English departments. If you do not believe me, why not test it out in your next postcolonial or feminist seminar group?
Just as with any status quo, the legacy of new historicism and cultural materialism must be contextualized and subjected to further assessment distinct from those found in their gestation period. From the vantage point of critical hindsight, we can dispassionately assess the true impact of these approaches on Shakespeare studies and in the discipline more widely. I am not alone in thinking that perhaps new historicism and cultural materialism have been rather too successful in their annexation of the discipline. I am also not alone in questioning their assumptions, theoretical foundations and overall worth to literary scholars. In order to come to such conclusions, it is first necessary to understand how new historicism and cultural materialism transformed literary studies in the 1980s, which theories they utilized and how, through these theories, they radically reread Shakespeare’s plays.
I intend this book both as study aid and catalyst; my aim is not only to educate the students who read it but also to encourage them to think critically about the ideas at stake in new historicism and cultural materialism and to move beyond them in their own theory and practice. I would like as much as possible to demystify ‘theory’ from the jargon and perceived complication with which it is typically associated so that students can engage directly with the ideas at stake. I believe we are on the verge of a sea change in Shakespeare studies, at the punctuation mark between two eras of scholarship. I see two major turns on the horizon:
1Towards evolutionary criticism following advances made in evolutionary psychology and neurobiology, advances that are starkly at odds with the anti-humanism of new historicists and cultural materialists. Broadly speaking, this is a turn from culture to the individual.
2Towards a renewed concern with form and language. Again, broadly speaking, this is a turn from a concern with historical context to text.
This is an ideal time to look back at the legacy of the past 30 years of new historicist and cultural materialist criticism while thinking seriously about what is to come in the future. The lists of ‘key questions for students’ that follow each section are intended to facilitate this aim. This book is written as an accessible and concise entry point into a large and complex field, I encourage students to follow up on my recommendations in the ‘further reading’ lists, especially in areas that particularly interest them.
This book follows a clear chronological structure: in Chapter 2
, I outline the most important positions in twentieth-century Shakespearean criticism before Stephen Greenblatt published Renaissance Self-Fashioning
in 1980. This will help us assess the impact of new historicism and cultural materialism in the 1980s and 1990s later in the book. Chapter 3
establishes the key concepts that new historicists and cultural materialists have adapted from the theorists that influenced them most profoundly: Clifford Geertz, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault (since the term ‘cultural materialism’ was coined by Raymond Williams, I will be dealing with his theory in the relevant chapter). Chapter 4
focuses on new historicism, its key ideas and methods, as well as criticisms of them and Chapters 5 does the same with cultural materialism. Chapter 6
delves into the many divergent positions that exist under the general umbrella of historicist and materialist work. And finally, in Chapter 7
I look at some of the emerging new alternatives and offer a few final thoughts on how we might move beyond new historicism and cultural materialism.8
Key questions for students
•Why is it important to establish the historical cont...