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New Historicism is a theory in literary criticism that suggests literature must be

studied and interpreted within the context of both the history of the author and the
history of the critic. The theory arose in the 1980s, with Stephen Greenblatt as its
main proponent, and became quite popular in the 1990s. Critics using this approach
look at a work and consider other writings that may have inspired it or were inspired
by it, as well as the life of the author and how it relates to the text. Unlike previous
historical criticism, which limited itself to simply demonstrating how a work
reflected its time, New Historicism evaluates how the work is influenced by the time
in which the author wrote it. It also examines the social sphere in which the author
moved, the psychological background of the writer, and the books and theories that
may have influenced him or her.
New Historicism declares that all history is subjective. New Historicists believe that
historians can never provide the truth or an accurate portrayal of past events.
Similar to language, history is but one of many discourses, or ways of viewing the
world. By viewing history as one of several important discourses tat directly affect
the interpretation of a text, New Historicists asserts that their approach provides
followers with a practice of literary analysis that highlights interrelatedness of all
human activities, admits prejudices, and gives a more complete understanding of a
New historicists remind us that it is treacherous to reconstruct the past as it really
wasrather than as we have been conditioned by our own place and time to
believe that it was. And they know that the job is impossible for those who are
unaware of that difficulty, insensitive to the bent or bias of their own historical
vantage point. New Historicism is based on the belief that bias exists in every
culture. As such, each cultural society has a different history of the accounts of the
world. New Historicists believe the only way to approach a texts meaning is to
suspend all bias. Thus, when new historicist critics describe a historical change,
they are highly conscious of the theory of historical change that informs their
Stephen Greenblatt is one of the pioneers of the American branch of Cultural
Poetics, or New Historicism. Greenblatt believes that ones culture permeates both
texts and critics. Because all of society is intricately interwoven, so are critics and
texts, both to each other and in and to the culture in which they live and in which
the texts are produced. Because critics are influenced by their culture, New
Historicists believe that no critic can escape from public or private cultural
influences that bias their unique interpretation of a text. Michel Foucault furthers
Greenblatts theory through a concept he calls episteme. Foucaults episteme is a
concept that states each period in history develops its own perceptions concerning
the nature of reality through language and thought. From Foucaults point of view,
history is a form of power. Each era or group of people develops a personal
episteme which controls how that groups views reality. History then becomes the
study and unearthing of a web of interconnecting forces that shape the bias of each
culture and society. Foucault states that historians must realize that they are
influenced by the episteme in which they live aside bias in order to be objective
when criticizing history or a text. Clifford Geertz contributed to New Historicism
through the idea of thick description. Thick description describes the insignificant
details present in any cultural practice. Geertz theorizes that these details can
provide inherent contradictory forces at work in a culture. Geertz believes that each

discourse of a culture must be uncovered in hopes of showing how all discourses

interact with each other in the framework of cultural elements.
Ultimately, New Historicism aims to smudge the line between literature and history,
admit that definitive interpretations of a text are unattainable because relative
material concerning a text is diffused, recognize that power affects literature as
deeply as it does history, look to single moments in history that are influenced by
literature or influence literature, and show that history can no longer be considered
a background to literature, but rather an interpretive tool. New Historicism is based
on the beliefs that texts are shaped by and help shape social forces, literature is
shaped by historical moments while shaping the reader to that text, that one of the
most important elements in analysis is discovering what social surroundings helped
for the text, and that writers are subject to social biases, as such no text can ever
be entirely objective.
New historicists apply techniques such as language examination to texts. Language
is equivalent to history in that both are forms of discourse. A meaning cannot be
derived from any text because they are ongoing conversations with the readers,
and writers. Another approach to new Historicism is examining history as an equal
discourse as the text, rather than the background it was treated as in Old
Historicism. By including history in the examination of discourse, the lines of
discourse are blurred which allows critics to examine all facets of social interaction.
The prominent technique used in New Historicism is the examination of the
interlocking material a text is composed of, which includes the life of the author, the
social rules found in the text and the works reflection on historical situations. New
Historicists gather as much information as possible about the text and author,
examine the historical setting as part of the text, and suspend personal bias to
gather meaning of the separate voices in the text.
Approaching William Shakespeares play, Hamlet, as a New Historicists requires
historical context of the time period the text was written. Shakespeare created his
works during the Elizabeth era of England, in which Queen Elizabeth I ruled.
Elizabethan England saw a social distance between the lower class, higher class,
and royal families of the country. This time period in England also persecuted crimes
with the highest punishment, often being death. Women were trusted with lesser
roles than men, as they were not permitted to be educated or hold any higher
position in society. Religion was of utmost importance as a spilt of Protestants from
the Catholic Church fragmented Christianity. Theatre was also an important part of
Elizabethan life, often depicting tragedies that taught underlying moral principles.
The historical context of Elizabethan times in which Shakespeare wrote tragedies
provides the societal norms to apply to Hamlet. However, bias must be suspended
when viewing a text, as the control of history is not objective.
The examination of government of the Elizabethan age provides insight to the play
of Hamlet. A New Historicist approach would approach the rule of a monarchy with
close examination, as England, Shakespeares homeland, was under such rule
(Kusonoki). One observation made is that the monarchs within the play are male,
representing a patriarchal monarchy, though in England at the time the play was
written, a woman, Queen Elizabeth I was in power (Aguirre). The history of Queen
Elizabeths matriarchy contrasting with the patriarchy of Shakespeares Hamlet, as
well as his other plays, suggest that Shakespeare supported a patriarchal society.

The belief in royal families was that women were not fit to inherit the male figures
title as ruler. This norm of Elizabethan society influenced Shakespeares Hamlet
through the character of Gertrude. King Hamlets death meant that Gertrude would
rule Denmark, a socially abnormal idea of Elizabethan society (Aguirre). The
influence of this belief on Shakespeare forms the plot of Hamlet. The need for a
male ruler propels Gertrude to marry Claudius, even after such a short time after
King Hamlets passing.
In the Elizabethan era, women were expected to obey the male figures of society
().The societal norm that women must obey their husbands develops the conflict
between Hamlet and Claudius, as his mother is thrust in the middle of the two
(Siegel). The idea that women were incapable of ruling in a monarchial society is the
basis of Hamlet. Shakespeares Hamlet satirizes the societal expectation that
women are incapable of ruling by placing Gertrude in marriage with a man that is
not only incapable of ruling, but also rose to power through the murder of his
brother (Bell). The influence of Elizabethan times speaks through Claudius rise to
power and Gertrudes inability to rule Denmark by the expectations of Elizabethan
This view is also supported through the history of the woman characters of Hamlet.
The histories of the women in Shakespeares plays are ones of distrust. The women
figures are often the compelling forces behind the tragic fall of Shakespeares
characters. For example, Lady Macbeth coerces her husband into murder, setting up
his tragic fall. Gertrude, Hamlets mother, marries her late husbands brother.
Gertrudes actions contribute to the distrusting relationship with her son in the
contrasting views of King Hamlets ghost and her quick marriage to Claudius ().
Hamlet is torn between the instruction of the Kings ghost and the loyalty he feels to
his mother. Hamlet distrusts his mother and her knowledge of the crime against his
father. The distrust exhibited by Hamlet fits the Elizabethan belief that women were
not meant to be placed in positions of power.
The importance of Hamlets madness is essential to analyzing the play through a
New Historicist point of view. In the Elizabethan times of Shakespeare, madness was
by definition: "internalization of disobedience." Therefore, a conclusion can be
drawn that Shakespeare roots Hamlet's insanity to the plea for revenge made by his
father's ghost. Hamlet feels guilty that he has disobeyed his father by taking so long
to avenge his death. This is noted when Hamlet sees his father's ghost for the
second time after berating his mother to see if she knew of Claudius sin. His
father's ghost says to Hamlet that he has taken too long to avenge his murder.
The technique of disparate voices, or the examination of contrasting voices that vie
for attention in a text, is a New Historicism approach that looks to attain meaning
through personal bias of the texts voices. The voice of King Hamlets ghost and the
voice of Hamlet vie for attention through the character of Hamlet. King Hamlets
voice is one of instruction and certainty, whereas Hamlets voice is one of
uncertainty and doubt. King Hamlet first appears to his son to inform him of his
murder and to instruct him on a plan of action to extract revenge (Bell). The voice of
King Hamlet instructs his son to take vengeance on Claudius and recover the
historic crown of Denmark. King Hamlets voice is reflective of Shakespeares own in
terms of societal beliefs. The usage of King Hamlets voice as a ghost stuck in
Purgatory speaks to the state of religious acceptance and beliefs in Elizabethan

society. Shakespeares criticism of the forced Protestantism is apparent through the

voice of King Hamlet, who seeks to preserve the crown of Denmark.
The voice of King Hamlet is also representative of religious beliefs concerning
ghosts of the Elizabethan age. New Historicists point to the information of King
Hamlets ghost being in Purgatory. Purgatory was the controversial belief in
Shakespeares time. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, former Catholics were
forced to convert to Protestant beliefs, which deny the existence of Purgatory
(Greenblatt). Shakespeare included the ghost of King Hamlet to incite debate
concerning the controversial role of ghosts in Elizabethan society. Catholics of the
Elizabethan age believed that ghosts were spirits that return to pass on information
or carry out a certain task with divine permission. Protestants took an opposite
position, as they believed ghosts were demons returning to tempt relatives into
eternal damnation (Greenblatt). The influence of these religious views influenced
Shakespeares play through the voice of King Hamlets ghost and Hamlets
reluctance to accept the ghost. Shakespeare speaks out against Protestant
reformation through King Hamlets voice.
The voice of Prince Hamlet is one of uncertainty and doubt. Hamlets voice is
reflective of society during the Elizabethan era. Hamlet agonizes over the decision
of extracting revenge on Claudius, and when the appropriate time to do so is.
Hamlets voice reflects the Protestant beliefs of Elizabethan England, as he at first
fears that the ghost of his father is leading him to damnation (Greenblatt). The
voice of Hamlet enters the stage of uncertainty as he delays the extracting o his
revenge throughout the play. In one instance, Hamlet withdraws from killing
Claudius as he prays in fear that he will go to heaven without punishment for King
Hamlets murder (Millicent). This scene depicts the influence of Elizabethan age as
the questioning of religious reforms filled the minds of society.
Hamlets voice opposes the voice of King Hamlets through the manner of action the
character of Prince Hamlet takes. Rather than accept the instruction of the ghost,
Hamlet searches for concrete proof of Claudius transgressions (Greenblatt). Hamlet
concocts a play mirroring the murder of his father in order to view Claudius reaction
and judge his guilt. Hamlet states that, the plays the thing wherein Ill catch the
conscience of the king. Hamlet is seeking concrete truth of his fathers murder in
order to carry out the wishes of King Hamlets ghost. Elizabethan times influenced
the voice of Hamlet, as he questions the reality of the ghosts claims. Hamlets
doubt furthers his madness as the truth of the situation comes the surface, blending
the voices of King Hamlets certain voice and Hamlets doubtful voice into an
underlying notion of truth in the religious changes of the Elizabethan age.
New Historicism is a literary theory that calls readers and critics to suspend
personal bias when approaching a text, as there is no absolute version of history.
New Historicism also requires critics to examine the historical period of which the
text was written, as well as the authors history when approaching a text. The
theory also seeks to examine disparate voices that struggle for attention within a
text to derive meaning from the work. A New Historicist approaching Shakespeares
play, Hamlet, would examine the position of monarchial rule in Elizabethan age to
surmise that Gertrude inhabiting the throne of Denmark is a plot device used to
speak to the position of women in the royal family. A New Historicist approach also
examines the voices of King Hamlets ghost and Prince Hamlet to examine the

authors position on religious beliefs involving ghosts of the Elizabethan era. The
literary approach of New Historicism exhibits Shakespeares belief in a patriarchal
society and the stance of intermingling religious ideas working in harmony in his
play, Hamlet.

Aguirre, Manuel. Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty.
Review of
English Studies 47 (1996): 163-74.

Bell, Millicent. Hamlet, Revenge!

Hudson Review 51 (1998): 310-28.

Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An introduction to Theory and Practice.

Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2001.


Kusunoki, Akiko. Oh most pernicious woman: Gertrude in the Light of Ideas on

Remarriage in Early
Seventeenth- Century England. Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Uno. Hamlet
Collection 2. New
York: AMS, 1995. 169-84.

Siegel, Paul N. Hamlet, Revenge! The Uses and Abuses of Historical Criticism.
Shakespeare Survey 45 (1993): 15-26.