In the 1980s and 1990s, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism were two related and very influential schools of literary theory. Below are a few influential titles:

Of course, all schools of literary theory have studies Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but New Historicism and Cultural Materialism seemed to intensify this interest. Is this impression correct? If yes, why was this?

  • Maybe because the founders of these "movements" juat happened to be Shakespeare scholars? Here's a (negative) account of Stephen Greeblatt newcriterion.com/issues/2017/9/…
    – CJ Sheu
    Jul 10, 2018 at 7:31

2 Answers 2


CJ Sheu suggested in a comment that the reason may be 'because the founders of these "movements" just happened to be Shakespeare scholars'. I checked this hypothesis by looking up the doctoral dissertations of the scholars listed in my question.

  • Stephen Greenblatt's doctoral dissertation, submitted in 1969, was about Sir Walter Ralegh and was revised and republished in 1973 as Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (Pallardy).
  • Jonathan Dollimore's thesis was Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, submitted at the University of London in 1985 (available for registered users at the British Library's EThOS).
  • John Drakakis's PhD was awarded by the University of Leeds in 1988 based on the dissertation The Plays of Shackerley Marmion (1603-39): A Critical Old Spelling Edition.
  • Catherine Belsey's PhD was awarded by the University of Warwick in 1973, based on the dissertation Patterns of Conflict in the English Morality Plays.
  • Alan Sinfield's DLitt was awarded by University College London in 1987 (according to Wikipedia), but his dissertation is not listed in UCL Discovery, nor in the British Library's EThOS.

Three out of five theses about Elizabethan or Jacobean literature is not too bad, since morality plays (see Belsey's dissertation) were still being performed in early Tudor times. Based on this, the hypothesis that the founders of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism started out as Shakespeare scholars is not quite confirmed but studying other Elizabethan or Jacobean literature puts one in a good position to study Shakespeare.

Sources (besides the British Library's EThOS / e-theses online service):

  • But ... Sir Walter Raleigh was also an Elizabethan writer, so isn't this four out of five?
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 3, 2021 at 12:14
  • @PeterShor I counted Raleigh, Marmion and Shakespeare as Jacobethan; the morality plays are pre-Elizabethan, as far as I know. For this reason, I counted 3, plus a "joker" for the morality plays. Perhaps the wording could be improed?
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 3, 2021 at 12:20
  • I misunderstood ... it looks like I didn't read it carefully enough.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 3, 2021 at 12:21

Is this impression correct?

No. Both the New Historicism and Cultural Materialism were informed by cultural Marxism and were in revolt against the text-based orthodoxy of the time. They viewed a text in the crucible of its time: the life of the author, and the intellectual, social and cultural ideologies he would be embroiled in as well of those of his audience, or readers. Given that Shakespeare is so often said to be the most universal genius that Britain has produced, it's perhaps no surprise that these critics focused on him to discover what it said about Britain and it's literature and politics.

It's also pertinent, that in the New Historicism, they took into account the critics own views and beliefs as informing the interpretation of the text. Personally, whilst this can be freely acknowledged, I don't see how a critic can be so wholly objective that he can lift himself or herself away from his or her times to give that kind of judgement. To my mind, these are judgements that critics at some, much later date (to give them critical distance) can make.

  • This answer misses the point of the question and makes several uninformed errors. (1) There is no such thing as "cultural Marxism" (2) "revolt against the text-based orthodoxy of the time": not true. (3) "they took into account the critics own views and beliefs as informing the interpretation of the text": not true. Assertions with no evidence provided—no citations, no supporting quotations. The absence of evidence is unsurprising, since the claims made in this answer are baseless.
    – verbose
    Feb 4, 2021 at 10:37

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