Seeks to1 dispute ‘common sense’


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Literary Theory

In non-academic contexts, texts are meant to be ‘use alone’.

- You read or hear the text and form your opinion.

The Theory Wars in Lit Crit revolve around whether literature is different.
Literary theory seeks to1 dispute ‘common sense’ interpretations of the meaning of a text.


- Because common sense is a historical construction.

- Because academia is about forcing people to think rather than2 accept assumptions3.

It aims to4 make students think differently about their objects of study.
Literary criticism has traditionally been poor in methodology.

Over the last 50 years lit crit has therefore5 borrowed methodology from other academic disciplines including:

  • anthropology (structuralism),

  • psychology (Freudianism),

  • economics (Marxism),

  • politics (New Historicism), and

  • biology (Darwinism).

The assumptions of these methodologies lead to6 radically different conclusions.

Can the text be isolated from the context in which it was written?

Can we know what the author’s true thoughts and ideology were?

Can we assume7 that authors are consciously or subconsciously ideologically motivated?

Can we analyse characters as if they were real people?

Theory is enriching8 when we recognize that it is inherently speculative.

It is massively limiting if we accept it premises and therefore5 its conclusions dogmatically.

Your objective therefore5 must be to

  • suspend your disbelief (it is counter-intuitive and anti-‘common sense’ by its very nature)

  • seek to1 understand its motivations, objectives and conclusions, and only then

  • constructively criticize its method.

New Historicism & Cultural Materialism
New Historicism and Cultural Materialism can only be understood as a reaction to New Criticism and Historicism.
In the Beginning there was... Historicism

- which sought to1 judge texts in their historical context

- and sought to1 understand the interconnections between literature and the larger9 culture.

- identify how the values of the past differ from ours.

In the Shakespearian context the supreme work of historicism is Tillyard’s

The Elizabethan World Picture (1943).
New Criticism

  • New Criticism was a critical theory developed by a group of American critics and very influential from the 1940s to the 1960s.

This approach can be classified as Formalist since it concentrated on the analysis of the form and structure of the work; that is, the organization of its meaning.

  • The New Critics put emphasis on the text which was considered as an autonomous entity. The text was analysed in isolation since10 they believed historical or social contexts were irrelevant to its meaning.

The meaning, for the new critics, is within the text itself. New Criticism held two central theories that support such view: the “intentional fallacy” and the “affective fallacy”.

  • The affective fallacy proclaims that we should not interpret a text according to its readers responses.

  • In other words, New Criticism was against biographical and subjective analysis of the texts.

  • For the New Critics, each text has a central organic unity.

The method they used was known as “close reading”. It entailed a thorough11 examination of structural and stylistic elements such as words, syntax, symbolism, metaphors, characterization, argument, setting, tone, rhythm, meter, diction, etc.

These critics were determined to find out in what ways all these elements related to each other and how, as a whole, they fashioned the organic unity of the work giving it its meaning.

It should be noted that New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, Feminism and Queer Theory are now around 30 years old and so can only be considered ‘new’ in a relative sense.

New Historicism (a.k.a.12 the “historical method” or “cultural poetics”)
In opposition to New Criticism and like Historicism, NH seeks to1 understand the interconnections between literature and the larger9 culture.
While accepting this aspect, New Historicism rejects13 all other aspects of the older Historicism on the following grounds14:

1. There are two meanings of the word ‘history’:

a. “the events of the past” and

b. “telling a story about the events of the past”.

Poststructuralist thought (and therefore New Historicism) makes it clear that history is always ‘narrated’, and therefore5 the first sense is untenable. The past can never be available to us in a pure form, but always in the form of ‘representations’.

2. Historical periods are no longer conceived as unifying entities. There is no single ‘history’, only discontinuous and contradictoryhistories’. There was no single Elizabethan world-view. The idea of a uniform and harmonious culture is a myth imposed on history and propagated by the ruling classes in their own interests.
3. Historians can no longer claim15 that their study of the past is detached and objective. We can never transcend our own historical situation. The past is not something which confronts us as if it were a physical object, but is something we construct from already written texts of all kinds16 which we construe17 in line with18 our particular19 historical concerns20.
The basic tenets21 of New Historicism – according to H. Aram Veeser, The New Historicism (1989) are:

  1. literary and non-literary texts cannot be separate. (It would be much more logical to say that the distinction between lit. and non-lit. texts is a false one – but that’s just me being picky22).

  2. every act of communication exists in a wider23 network of social functions.

  3. humankind24 has no essential nature; every society produces different types of people.

The New Historicists

  • The New Historicists were the generation of American Marxists that as students failed to25 use the momentum of the anti-Vietnam War movement to achieve real change in the USA.

Their thesis is that the ruling class always wins because they failed to25 defeat their ruling class; they saw their radical ideas contained26.

However, a really radical reading would be that New Historicism is itself a containment of Marxism!
In other words, Marxism should be about picket lines and revolutionary change – academic Marxists like Greenblatt tell their potentially radical students that the state always contains ideas – leading to the inevitable question “so what’s the point in being a Marxist, then?”

  • NH rejects13 the transcendent or autonomous aesthetic value of literary texts in favour of researching the contexts of their production, consumption and status.

In other words, literature should be interpreted in the context of politics and institutional power, class and gender conditions, and the economic forces of production and imperialism.

So, for example, Shakespeare is simply a product of his culture. NH asks the question:

To what extent27 does this piece of literature conspire with the forces of oppression or subvert them?”

  • New Historicism is based on Marxist anthropology, for example Georges Balandier’s ‘Political Anthropology’: “The supreme ruse28 of power is to allow29 itself to be contested30 ritually in order to consolidate itself more effectively”.

From this point of view, any apparent subversion in Shakespeare is really just31 ‘letting off steam’ (= liberar tensiones).

  • New Historicism aims to4 explain how a culture’s forms of expression (e.g. literature and religion) make up32 a society and endorse33 its values at specific historical times.

  • NH reject13 the preoccupation with moral value.

  • NH questions the literary canon and its implicit value.

  • In contrast to cultural materialism, New Historicism does not emphasize the possibility for dissent, it has characteristically argued that any instances of apparent ‘subversive’ ideas in Shakespeare are always already contained26, serving only to prove34 the dominance and necessity of the status quo.


  • Notice that NH is highly35 selective about the plays it refers to; if the play doesn’t fit the theory, it is ignored.

  • New Historicists like to take an apparently unrelated minor text or historical anecdote from somewhere in approximately the same historical period and ‘prove’ that it exemplifies the same dominant ideologies they find informing Shakespeare’s text. The anecdote can come from well before or even after the piece of literature – it is enough to say that the idea was floating around at the time.

So an anecdote from 1580 from Montaigne referring to a village between France, Switzerland and Italy about cross-dressing girls can be linked to36 As You Like It (1599-1600).

Would you take me seriously if I said that because belief in horoscopes is relatively widespread in Western society I can assume that the person sitting at the end of the third row in the tutorial believes in horoscopes?

You have to decide if this is a serious analysis.

‘Old’ Historicists, such as Tillyard had to prove that Shakespeare knew Hall and Holinshed.

  • The anecdotes typically chosen by NHists tended to be not only very striking in themselves but also new to most critics and students.

They thus37 generated both a tremendous sense of excitement and the impression that NH really did have access to new sources of knowledge and ideas.

  • Notice that the NHists are not above distortion; Greenblatt fundamentally misrepresents Machiavelli in ‘Invisible Bullets38’ – Machiavelli does not use the figure of Moses to present Old Testament religion as fundamentally fraudulent. Greenblatt takes the passage out of context; Machiavelli is not considering the origins of religion and does not voice a negative attitude towards it.

  • Moreover, on p. 96 and 100 of Invisible Bullets Greenblatt talks about how Thomas Harriot began to produce “a glossary, the beginnings of an Algonkian-English dictionary, designed to facilitate further acts of recording and hence39 to consolidate English power in Virginia… with its Algonkian equivalents for fire, food, shelter”. This is all invented; in Harriot’s Report there is no glossary of any description and no translation of the three words cited (or any others).

  • New Historicism is characterized by a horrendously complex use of the English language which makes the following of quite simple arguments and arduous task40. Perhaps this demonstrates that there is a real difference between literary and non-literary texts: literary texts are satisfying to read, they don’t leave you feeling, “that could have been written a whole lot better”.

Charivari /,a:ri:’va:ri:/: New Historicism in Practice

New Historicist Michael D. Bristol put forward41 the idea in 1990 that Othello might be read as a rite of ‘unmarrying’.
He links the disturbance organized at night in the street by Iago to the custom of ‘charivari’.
Bristol says, “Charivari was a practice of noisy festive abuse in which a community enacted a specific objection to inappropriate marriages”.
Bristol thus37 insinuates that the whole play is about the inappropriateness of the marriage between Othello and Desdemona, however nice they might be as individuals.
This is typical of New Historicism:
1. Bristol presents a distorted representation of charivari to make it fit his theory:
Charivari (probably from a Roman word meaning ‘headache’) was associated above all with France.

It was often simply a racket42 made on a wedding night, not an expression of disapproval.

Where it was an expression of disapproval or ridicule it was associated with:

a. widows who remarried before the established period of mourning43 had finished

b. couples who were unable to consummate their marriages.

c. a way of coercing unmarried couples to get married.

But the beginning of the 17th Century Charivari was largely44 a rural custom, where it survived.
2. The only two characters who express disapproval of the marriage are Iago and Barbantio.

Both of these characters express racist ideas but one is undoubtedly the arch-villain and the other is partly upset45 because his right to influence who his daughter married has been ignored.

3. The noise is made outside Barbantio’s house, not outside Othello’s.

Quite simply, the theory doesn’t fit46 the facts, even though the initial idea looked very attractive because it used an obscure element of European social history.

New Historicism in Practice II: Cross-dressing:
In September 1580, as he passed through a small French town on his way to Switzerland and Italy, Montaigne was told an unusual story that he duly47 recorded in his travel journal48. It seems that seven or eight girls from a place called Chaumont-en-Bassigni plotted49 together ‘to dress up as males50 and thus37 continue their life in the world.’ One of them set up51 as a weaver52, ‘a well-disposed young man who made friends with everybody’, and moved to a village called Montier-en-Der. There the weaver fell in love with a woman, courted her, and married. The couple lived together for four or five months, to the wife’s satisfaction, ‘so they say’. But then, Montaigne reports, the transvestite was recognized by someone from Chaumont; ‘the matter was brought to justice, and she was condemned to be hanged53, which she said she would rather54 undergo55 than return to a girl’s status; and she was hanged for using illicit devices56 to supply57 her defect in sex.’ The execution, Montaigne was told, had taken place only a few days before. I begin with this story because in Twelfth Night Shakespeare almost, but not quite, retells it.

from Stephen Greenblatt’s article ‘Fiction and Friction’

in Shakespearean Negotiations (Oxford, 1988).

Read any synopsis of Twelfth Night (e.g. or better the original play itself and decide for yourself if it “almost... retells” the story above.

New Historicism in Practice III: Antisemitism:
Greenblatt convincingly links58 the persecution, prosecution and execution of Queen Elizabeth’s Portuguese Jewish doctor, Rodrigo Lopez and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
However, notice that this is a fundamentally different type of anecdote. This is a notorious59 case causing a wave of popular antisemitic xenophobia in the same city and at the same time as the playwrights60 were writing (Lopez was languishing61 in prison while Elizabeth fought with her conscience over signing his death warrant while Marlowe was writing his play).
Moll Cutpurse
Shakespeare liked the idea of a young woman pretending to be62 a man.

  • In The Merchant of Venice Portia dresses up as a male63 lawyer and wins her case.

  • In As You Like It Rosalind dresses up as a young man, Ganymede, and teaches Orlando how to be a good lover.

  • In Twelfth Night Viola passes herself off as64 a man called Cesario.

  • In Cymbeline Imogen dresses up as a young man, Fidele, for her own protection as she travels across Britain.

However, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Mary Frith (c. 1584-1659), was more incredible than all these cross-dressing65 characters.

Mary dressed as a man, carried a sword and swore66 a lot.

She was so famous that two plays were written about her in 1610:
  • John Day’s The Madde Pranckes67 of Mery Mall of the Bankside and

  • The Roaring68 Girl by Middleton and Dekker.

As her epithet ‘Cutpurse69’ suggests, Mary was a petty criminal70.

She was also a pimp71 supplying female prostitutes for men and young male prostitutes for rich women.
We know that at 60 she was released72 from Bedlam hospital having been ‘cured of insanity73’.
This may or may not have been related to her cross-dressing.
She reportedly shot Civil War General Fairfax in the arm.
She died at the venerable age of 75.
Shakespeare had a famous case of cross-dressing “on his doorstep” – yet nobody has ever suggested that any of his cross-dressing characters were influenced by Moll.

Cultural Materialism

“Cultural materialism seeks to1 discern the scope for dissident politics of class, gender, race and sexual orientation, both within texts and their roles in culture.”

Alan Sinfield,

Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (1992)

[Yes, that sentence is grammatically flawed]

  • Cultural Materialism sees literary criticism as a form of political resistance, both in condemning the past and ‘challenging’ the present.

  • CM focuses more on the present than on the past.

Cultural Materialism presents itself as a way of using Shakespeare’s plays to change the current political situation.

  • It is “a combination of historical context, theoretical method, political commitment and textual analysis”.

  • Texts are examined as places where “ideological power and illusion is consolidated, subverted or contained”.

  • CM hunts for74marginal voices” – minority groups considered subversive at the time – who are likely to have been75 excluded from the historical record (e.g. the Calibans and the women in Shakespeare’s stuff).

  • So, while New Historicists tend to concentrate on those at the top of the social hierarchy (i.e. the church, the monarchy, the upper-classes), Cultural Materialists tend to concentrate on those at the bottom of the social hierarchy (the lower-classes, women, and other marginalized peoples).

  • Again, all this is designed to dismantle the universality of Shakespeare.

  • Everything is either reduced to politics (i.e. the struggle of the oppressed) or ignored.

  • Literature is either an emancipation from social oppression or it is collusive with power.

  • New Historicists tend to draw on the disciplines of political science and anthropology given their interest in governments, institutions, and culture, while Cultural Materialists tend to rely on economics and sociology given their interest in class, economics, and commodification.

The protocols of British academic life allow29 critics of Shakespeare both to care about the texts and the uses to which they can be put and to show this openly, without being accused of undue76 subjectivity or of a stifling closeness to the text.

By contrast, the American tradition is to preserve a greater emotional distance.

Tentative Conclusions
Clearly history is written by the victors and historians/literary critics in all ages have their baggage of assumptions00.
- All societies have a diversity of opinion. There is no such thing as a singular worldview that can be attached to a society.
- Authors are undeniable a product of their times. If Shakespeare had been born a generation earlier or later he wouldn’t have written sonnets or history plays. If he had lived a hundred years earlier he’d probably have written morality plays. Were he alive today, he’d be writing TV series!
- Plays were the result of social forces. For example the Master of Reveals could censor material and, for example, 50 expletives were removed77 from Othello by this official.
- Historiography, sociology, anthropology, etymology and economics can give us fresh insights into what influences a text.
- The canon as understood in the early 20th Century was restrictive and tended to overvalue dead white men. However, the canon in the last 50 years has proved to be quite porous and able to evolve with contemporary tastes.
But these theories can get overexcited.
Great emphasis is laid on the fact that boys played women in Elizabethan drama but this was a legal requirement not an aesthetic choice.

- it might affect how a playwright or actor viewed gender (i.e. the construct of what male or female means) but it was not his choice.

Rosalind may choose to call herself Ganymede when she dresses up as a boy (Ganymede was a beautiful boy who was kidnapped and raped by Zeus in Greek mythology)

- but the name appeared first in Shakespeare’s source (Rosalynde (1590) by Thomas Lodge)

Yes, Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet who died aged 11 in 1596.

- the name is similar to Hamlet but Shakespeare took the story of Hamlet from the so-called Ur-Hamlet (c. 1589), which took the name form the Icelandic legend of Amleth.

The Shakespearean Method
Shakespeare had learned from Marlowe to create fissured characters as a means to realism (starting with the Bastard in Richard II).
Shakespeare had also learned from Seneca in his rhetoric classes at school to argue both sides of the case.
One of the chief characteristics of his plays is that his characters are allowed29 to justify themselves from their own standpoints78 because this leads to rich, complex, interesting and convincing drama.
However, it also means that any critic can emphasize one position, ignore another and come up with a startling new theory. Theatre directors can do the same and produce radically different works for the same text; that’s why Shakespeare so awesome!
The extreme example is the use of Coriolanus by Fascists, the Soviets and democratic socialists (e.g. Brecht) in the mid-decades of the 20th Century.
A Cynic’s Conclusion
To maintain its academic status, Literary Criticism must constantly produce new research.

By 1970 the possibilities for the linguistic analysis of Shakespeare’s canon were exhausted, so English literature professionals desperately needed a new avenue of study.

Once NHism and cultural materialism were exhausted in the mid-1990s – significantly with the Republicans and Conservatives out of office – Performance Theory took over from the Marxians.

The ‘theory warswere largely over79 by the mid-1990s with NH and Cultural Materialism incorporated the lit crit toolkit80 as useful tools.

- one online literature guide has a title within its section on New Historicism that asks, “Does Anyone Still Read this Stuff?”81

Gay Theory
The search for homosexuality in Shakespeare’s plays has largely44 been provoked by the apparent homosexual desires expressed in The Sonnets (see the tutorial notes for them for further discussion).
The picture is complicated by

  • the ambiguity and difficultness (for us today).

For instance82, when Sebastian says to Antonio (at III.iii.42 of Twelfth Night) “you shall have me” at the Elephant Inn it sounds to us like a pretty clear offer of sexual availability.

However, there is no record of ‘have’ being used sexually in Early Modern English.

  • the encoding (real or imagined) of references to homoeroticism.

Encoding does exist in literature – for example, the cigarette case in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Troilus and Cressida includes the homosexual relationship between Patroclus and Achilles with no obvious moral disfavour (except on the part of the cowardly Thersites who calls Patroclus a “masculine whore83”).
Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet is often interpreted as a gay figure.

Two Antonios (in The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night) are considered potentially gay, giving rise to84 speculation that they refer to a real Anthony of some sort). There are other Antonios – e.g. in The Tempest, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Much Ado About Nothing – can the theory hold for them too?

Bear in mind that:

  1. male-male relationships in Shakespearean England did not conform to contemporary ideas (e.g. in relation to touching and kissing). So, there may be homoeroticism in Shakespeare’s plays but it should be judged critically, not presupposed.

  1. Generally speaking Shakespeare’s society was homo-social – valuing interaction between men more highly than that between men and women.

  1. There is a tendency for people to find what they are looking for in Shakespeare’s tens of thousands of words of dramatic texts. We cannot assume that any character who is unattached is automatically gay or lesbian; this is as unfair as doing so in life.

People and characters should be allowed29 to define their own sexuality.

  1. Plays, with their provisional trying on and discarding of identities, offer tremendous opportunities for the investigation of how provisional gender categories can be and how volatile the workings of erotic desire, and Shakespeare made the most of these opportunities throughout85 his career.

Feminist Criticism
There are two major strands86 of feminist criticism:
1. The search for and re-evaluation of texts written by women but excluded from the canon

This is not just a ‘quota system’. By ‘rediscovering’ writers such as Anne Locke, Mary Wroth, Aphra Benn, Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley, feminist critics have made an important contribution to our understanding of the evolution of literature in general.

2. An analysis of what female characters say (and leave unsaid) and what is said about women in canonical words to make explicit the inherent sexism works of literature.

Notice that feminist criticism rejects13 traditional psychoanalysis because of its incontrovertibly sexist foundations.
Fem Crit also accused New Historicism of stealing from its revelations.

We will pursue this fruitful line of analysis as we study the individual plays (Henry V, As You Like It, King Lear, and The Duchess of Malfi).

1 to seek to (seek-sought-sought) – try to, attempt to

2 rather than – as opposed to, instead of

3 assumption – supposition

4 to aim totry to, attempt to

5 therefore – for this reason

6 to lead to (lead-led-led) – result in

7 to assume – (false friend) suppose

8 enriching – enhancing, good

9 largergreater, more general

10 since – (in this case) given that, because

11 thoroughdetailed, exhaustive

12 a.k.a.also known as

13 to reject – repudiate, not accept

14 groundsbasis, reasoning

15 to claim – state, declare

16 kind – type, sort

17 to construe – interpret

18 in line with – according to

19 particular – (false friend) specific

20 concernsinterests, focus

21 tenetprinciple, precept

22 picky – pedantic

23 widermore general

24 humankind – humanity

25 to fail tonot be able to

26 to contain – control

27 to what extent...? – to what degree...?, how much...?

28 rusesubterfuge, stratagem, trick

29 to allow – permit

30 to contest – (false friend) challenge, resist

31 just – (in this case) only

32 to make up (make-made-made) – constitute, compose

33 to endorse – approve, validate

34 to provedemonstrate

35 highlyvery

36 to link to – connect to, associate with

37 thus – in this way, therefore

38 the title refers to the supposed idea amongst Native Americans in Virginia that the English colonists had invisible bullets that killed them – referring to the diseases the Europeans brought with them

39 hence – in this way, thus, therefore

40 task – job

41 to put forward (put-put-put) – present

42 racket – (in this case) cacophonous noise, din

43 mourning – lamentation for a dead family member

44 largelymostly, primarily

45 upsetirritated

46 to fit – coincide with

47 duly – in the appropriate way

48 journaldiary

49 to plot – (in this case) conspire

50 malesboys and/or men

51 to set up (set-set-set) – establish oneself

52 weaver – sb. who makes textiles

53 to be hanged – be executed

54 would rather – would prefer to

55 to undergo (-go/-went/-gone) – suffer

56 devices – (in this case) stratagems, subterfuges

57 to supply – (in this case) compensate for

58 to link – connect

59 notoriousinfamous

60 playwrightdramatist

61 to languishsuffer and wait

62 to pretend to beact as if you are, simulate that you are

63 male – (in this case) masculine

64 to pass oneself off as – pretend to be

65 cross-dressing (adj.) – transvestite

66 to swear (swear-swore-sworn) – use bad language

67 i.e. ‘mad pranks’ (= adventures)

68 roaring – (in this case) riotous, uncontrollable

69 cutpurse – (archaic) sb. who steals furtively, pickpocket

70 petty criminalminor delinquent, thief

71 pimp – sb. who manages prostitutes

72 to release sb. – free sb., permit sb. to leave

73 insanitymadness, craziness

74 to hunt fortry to find

75 are likely to have been – were probably

76 undue – inappropriate

77 to remove – (false friend) eliminate

78 standpoint – perspective

79 were more or less over – had effectively finished

80 toolkitbox of tricks, (in this case) methodological alternatives


82 for instance – for example

83 whoreprostitute

84 to give rise to (give-gave-given) – cause, provoke

85 throughoutduring all of

86 strand – branch

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