New Historicism is a form of literary criticism that focuses both on understanding a literary work through its historical context and on understanding historical events through literary analysis. This school of criticism arose in the 1980s and gained wide acceptance during the 1990s. Major proponents include Stephen Greenblatt and Alan Liu, even though not all critics considered New Historicists agree with the label.
This form arose as a response to schools of literary criticism such as the "New Critics" of the 1970s, which focused its critical approach entirely on the text of a literary work, disregarding its historical context. To those critics, a literary work had to be understood solely on its own merits, existing essentially independently from its intended audience and even from the intentions of its author. Against this view, New Historicists argued that works had to be understood within the cultural and social context of their production. In this respect, the school did not differ from previous eras of literary criticism, but returned to an earlier method of literary analysis.
New Historicism differed from previous approaches to literary criticism in several important ways, however. New Critics consider literary works as products of their social and cultural circumstances, but they also consider history and culture as a product of literature and art, examining the ways in which these techniques shape identity historically. This school also considers the historian or literary critic to be a product of specific historical circumstances. All criticism, therefore, is a product of its own time and reflects a contemporary understanding of history and literature, rather than an absolute meaning.
Approaches to literature in this school, therefore, tend to focus on the relationship between a text and its context. For instance, studies of William Shakespeare tend to focus less on the role of Shakespeare's individual creativity and more on the overall structure of the theater and of society in Elizabethan England. The approach recognizes Shakespeare's work as containing multiple meanings, each influenced by and in turn influencing the social environment in which the plays were staged.
Key New Historicist texts include Stephen Greenblatt's 1980 book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, the series of essays on Shakespeare by Louis Adrian Montrose and The New Historicism, a collection of essays edited by H. Aram Veeser and released in 1989. The journal Representations also publishes work from this perspective. This school of thought has become widely accepted in academia.