With a simple declarative statement, noted Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt laid the foundation for what would become New Historicism, a mode of cultural inquiry that would change the direction of literary theory in the final two decades of the twentieth century. In his seminal volume Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (1988), Greenblatt acknowledges, “I began with the desire to speak to the dead.”
Desire is the keystone of New Historical inquiry, which aims to explore the past through its documents and to do so not as objective observers governed solely by reason, but as subjective participants fully cognizant that scholarly impartiality is impossible. Human interests are never far from human emotions, thus, human passion governs human inquiry. New Historicism, in its efforts to examine the material and ideological elements that governed people’s lives in specific time periods, is “conversing with the dead” through examining literary and historical texts; but this conversation is controlled by the living. In their approach to the past, New Historians can be considered time-traveling reporters. Primarily, these critics are interested in how literature functions as a political tool, as a by-product of power, and as part of cultural reproduction.
New Historicism is characterized by a desire to understand not only the work of literature—indeed, any creative work—but also the context in which...
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