The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance
Leading proponent of “New Historicism”, a key figure in the shift from literary to cultural poetics and from textual to contextual interpretation in the U.S. Inspired by Michel the New Historicists see the literary work as a vessel tossed in a social sea of competing interests, antagonistic values, and contradictions. For Greenblatt, literary works are “fields of force, places of dissensions and shifting interests, occasions for the jostling of orthodox and subversive impulses.”New Historicism begins to be political by denying that any social world is stable and that artworks are separated from the power struggles constituting social reality. The literary work is a player in the competition among various groups to gain their ends, a competition that takes place on many levels. New Historicism accepts Foucault’s insistence that power operates through channels; not just direct coercion and governmental action but also, daily routines and language. Because discourse organizes perception of the world by its categorical groupings and because symbols bind social agents emotionally to institutions and practices, conflicts over images resonate throughout the social order. New Historicism pays attention to discursive disputes in particular texts and also examines how particular texts are addressed to other texts, other discursive orders, in the wider culture. A “cultural poetics” tries to identify the key images –and the values, beliefs, practices, and social structures that those images point toward- of a particular cultural moment. The New Historicist does not consider the cultural moment unified, with the literary text reflecting that unity. The text is a dynamic interweaving of multiple strands from a culture that is an unstable field of contending forces. Any given text is an attempted intervention in the ongoing struggle to influence or even dominate the cultural field. The critic’s own work intervenes in his or her own present, responding to and striving to alter contemporary configurations of power. The New Historicists, following Foucault, construct narratives in which dispersed and disputed power becomes more insidious and dominance grows more dominant. They want to emphasize history’s contingencies, its fluidity in any given moment, but they also emphasize how history reveals the growth of forms of power that continuously affect subject’s lives. Historians have objected that these literary critics read a few nonliterary texts, juxtapose them with plays or novels, and think they are doing history. But New Historicism is part of a change in literary studies –and in history as well. Instead of asking what a particular text means in and of itself, New Historicists ask what it means within the social relations in which it is embedded. Rather than focusing on the masterpiece or on the author of masterpieces, they attempt to understand the lived social reality of the era being studied. Blurred distinction between literature and history. New Historicists pay attention to how particular texts are addressed to other texts in the wider culture. They try to identify the key images- and values, beliefs, practices and social structures that those images point to-of a particular cultural moment. By the late 1990s literary critics seldom explicitly identified themselves as New Historicists, but the emphasis on context over text still prevailed in literary studies.
Wilson historical reconstruction of history: historical research to find a stable core of meaning that unites disparate and contradictory parts into an organic whole vs. a vision which has no respect for the integrity of the text. Against monological historicism, concerned with a single political vision identical to that held by the entire population. Literature conceived as a mirror of the period beliefs from a safe distance.

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