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 ONE'S OWN TIME AND PLACE

Part 1:

 

One of Shakespeare’s defining knacks, so it’s said, is and was his ability to render his own time and place more or less irrelevant to the appreciation of his art.1  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as I was settling into the last college in which I would spend my teaching career, there was a theoretically informed return to history in Renaissance/early modern studies and, therefore, the study of the works of Shakespeare.

 

Part of that return to history was the result of Stephen Greenblatt who is regarded as, arguably, the major founder of  New Historicism, a set of critical practices that he often refers to as "cultural poetics."  I became aware of this New Historicism because it frequently came-up in my reading of literary theory and literary criticism in the field of English Literature in which I was a lecturer in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  I was required to know about literary theory and literary criticism in  order to prepare my charges for their study of English Literature.

 

Part 2:

 

New Historicism(NH) consolidated critical theory2 for the study of literary theory and criticism as well as sociological theory, fields where critical theory was found.   NH gained widespread influence in the 1990s at the same time that I had come to teach sociological theory as part of the study of human services, and literary criticism as part of the English Literature syllabus.  I taught English Literature to matriculation students wanting to go to university the following year; I also taught sociological theory to human service students working on their Certificate IV as well as on their Associate Diploma at what is now the Polytechnic-West, Thornlie Campus in Perth Western Australia.

 

This New Historicism(NH) first developed in the 1980s, primarily, as I say above, through the work of the critic and Harvard English Professor Stephen Greenblatt.  In the 1990s NH gained widespread influence.  NH aims on the one hand to understand literary works, like novels and plays, through their cultural context and, on the other hand, to understand intellectual history through literature.  In some ways NH followed the 1950s discipline of the History of Ideas. NH often referred to itself as a form of "Cultural Poetics."  In the 1990s I was also teaching a course in the History of Ideas, and so it was that for several years my reading was embedded in NH.

 

Part 3:

 

NH is a form of postmodernism applied to interpretive history. Postmodernism(PM) is a late-20th-century movement in the arts, architecture, and criticism; PM is and was a departure from modernism.  PM includes skeptical interpretations of culture, history, art, literature, philosophyeconomicsarchitecture, fiction, and literary criticism. PM is often associated with deconstruction  and post-structuralism because PM's usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural and deconstructuralist thought. 

 

For students and teachers, lecturers and tutors, professors and academics like myself many of these terms and theories, frameworks and paradigms, these modes of reasoning, gave rise to ambiguity and complexity. To put this simply: all this was very complex to say the least.  All these fields of study aimed to understand  elements of human culture in terms of their relationship to larger, overarching systems,  structures, and their inter-relationships, I encourage readers to do some study of these complex fields in order to grasp what I am saying here.

 

Part 4:

 

Greenblatt's works have been influential since the early 1980s when he introduced the term 'new historicism'.  Greenblatt has written and edited numerous books and articles relevant to NH, the study of culture, Renaissance studies, and Shakespeare studies. He is  considered to be an expert in these fields.  He is also co-founder of the literary-cultural journal Representations which often publishes reviews and articles by new historicists. His most popular work is Will in the World, a biography of Shakespeare that was on the New York Times Best Seller List for nine weeks.]  He won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2012 and the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2011 for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

The larger issue in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare  by Stephen Greenblatt(Cape, 430 pages, 2004), and it’s an issue which arises from the whole genre of literary biography as it is often practiced, is the heuristic poverty of biographical explanations of works of art.  Literary works might find their origins in lots of places: reading,  complex emotions, dying fathers, splendid daughters, chance encounters, grandparents, memory, fantasy, pressing need, friendships, enmities, financial pressures, local faction, drink, religious discord, demons, darkness, aliens, synaptic mis-firings, a sound in the street, modes of land tenure, the muse. But all of this amounts to 'a heuristic poverty', as Dobson explains.-Ron Price with thanks to 1 Michael Dobson, "A Furtive Night’s Work" in The London Review of Books, a review of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro, Faber, 430 pages; and 2 See 'Critical Theory' below. Part 5:

 

My own time and place is

highly relevant to what I

write, unlike the works of

Shakespeare, at least that

is the view of some of the

literary theorists & critics.

 

I can appreciate the ideas

of these New Historicists,

and have attached some of

their ideas to my own way

of trying to understand my

own time and place and the

times and places of all those

whom I come across in the

long and complex history of

human society on our planet.

 

1 Critical theory is a school of thought that stresses the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. I came across this field of sociological theory in the 1990s when I was a lecturer at what is now a Polytehcnic in Western Australia.  As a term, critical theory has two meanings with different origins and histories: the first originated in sociology and the second originated in literary criticism, whereby it is used and applied as an umbrella term that can describe a theory founded upon critique; thus, the theorist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them." I first came across this subject matter in the early-to-mid-1990s. For more go to:

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_theory

 

Ron Price

 25/11/'14 to 28/11/'14.

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Belated thanks, Eclogite, for your post. There are several possible starting points for a discussion. As I open my post, I make the point that: "One of Shakespeare’s defining knacks is and was his ability to render his own time and place more or less irrelevant to the appreciation of his art.1  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as I was settling into the last college in which I would spend my teaching career, there was a theoretically informed return to history in Renaissance/early modern studies and, therefore, the study of the works of Shakespeare." Is Shakespeare's own time and place more or less irrelevant to the appreciation of his art? I would have thought so; what do readers here think?

----------------------------------

A second place to begin a discussion is in relation to these words in my post: "NH aims on the one hand to understand literary works, like novels and plays, through their cultural context and, on the other hand, to understand intellectual history through literature." What is the best way to study literature?  I leave these questions with readers and, again, I thank Eclogite for his question.-Ron Price, Australia

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