ENGLISH 291U: Reading Shakespeare After New Historicism

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This graduate course examined Shakespeare’s works and Shakespeare Studies more broadly as they exist in the aftermath of the critical movements loosely and closely bound under the label of “The New Historicism.” Looking at the ways in which scholars approached (and still approach) Shakespeare’s poetry and dramatic works––the works themselves, and the college-level textbooks produced in response to the critical renaissance of the 1980s and 90s, we considered the gains, losses, and opportunities for the scholarly study of Shakespeare that those movements left in their wake. The background image in my course banner is a detail from Pieter Bruegel’s Children’s Games(1560), a painting Stephen Greenblatt discusses in the Foreward of our course textbook, the essay collection A New History of English Drama (1997). Greenblatt describes the painting in classic New Historicist terms, noting that the games it depicts represent aspects of culture that we must approach seriously; forms of “play,” Greenblatt teaches us, warrant just as much critical attention as more “official”versions of history. While the painting includes more than eighty different games in progress, Greenblatt is transfixed by what is happening in the upper corner: a group of people are burning someone at the stake for being a witch. This detail, then,becomes the linchpin of the argument that acts of “playing” are not merely joyful trivialities for children;by extension, acts performed by the players at the English Theatre are essentially political. The Foreward is a wonderful example of the elegance and energy ofNew Historicism: it invites us to see the ideological import in culture and play and reminds us that doing so take work. But the Foreward also exhibits the NewHistoricist tendency to fashion grand claims out of elaborate critical fictions. Indeed, I’ve never been able to find anything that looks like witch burning in the painting, nor could any of my students. My work is heavily influenced by New Historicism, and I developed this class, in part to show students the exciting proliferation of Shakespeare criticism that it inspired in an earlier generation of scholars. Of course, I also wanted to make clear that the school was not without its critics, and that we all need to think carefully about how to understand and use historical evidence.

In addition to reading primary works by Shakespeare and other contemporary documents that illuminated the historical and cultural conditions in which he wrote, my students gained familiarity with several schools of thought that are typically associated with New Historicist work, most prominently among them Feminism, Marxism, and Cultural Materialism. The class also discussed the schools to which prominent New Historicists forged their methodologies in explicit opposition: New Criticism, Biographical Criticism, “SourceStudies” and “Old” Historicism. We covered several subjects important to the study of historicist methodologies more broadly, including questions of authorship and issues of print culture and invigorated by coincident interests in the “NewBibliography.” Not all of the course dealt with “meta”concerns, of course; students wrote a formalist analysis of primary works by Shakespeare, and they also spent quite a bit of time learning strategies for conducting sound research in literary studies more broadly.In their final project for the course, students had several options for putting New-and-Post-New Historicist approaches to good use, including one that allowed students pursuing advanced degrees in Education, rather than English, to introduce and create a set of lesson plans.

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