How can New Historicism be applied to Shakespeare's plays Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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New historicism is a kind of literary criticism that arose in the 1980s.  One of the ways in which it differs from traditional historicism is in its emphasis on a multiplicity of historical contexts for literary works, rather than single contexts.  For instance, E. M. W. Tillyard’s famous book The Elizabethan World Picture can be seen as a product of traditional historical criticism. The very title of the book suggests that there was such a thing as “The” Elizabethan world picture. In other words, the very title of the book implies that Elizabethans broadly agreed about how to view the world. New historicists would argue, on the other hand, that it is too simplistic to talk about any single, unified view of the world during any historical era, especially the Elizabethan period, which was a time of enormous tension (especially having to do with religion). Instead, new historicists would suggest that any historical era, event, or product is a site of conflict and contention and negotiation. In other words, new historicism often emphasizes power struggles of all kinds in every aspect of history, including literary texts.

Power struggles, of course, are main features of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. In Hamlet, for example, Hamlet becomes engaged in a highly dangerous power struggle with his uncle, Claudius. In Macbeth, the title character struggles for power not only with other Scottish aristocrats but also with his own wife. In Othello, Iago is engaged in a struggle for power with Othello, with Cassio, and even with Desdemona, although none of these three characters is really aware of the struggle until the end of the play. A new historicist analysis of the power struggles in these plays would, however, not stop with these obvious struggles but would explore the ways in which issues of power are all-pervasive in these dramas. New historicists would also explore the ways in which these plays were not only influenced by history (a common approach of traditional historicism) but how they also in turn participated in history and influenced history themselves.

See: E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto and Windus, 1943).

See also: H. Aram Veeser, ed. The New Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1989).

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