Unlike with other historicist approaches to literature, for a New Historicist history is not (or not just) a backdrop against which, for example, a play like Shakespeare’s King Lear was written; the connections between such a text and the historical (facts/events) conditions in which it was written are always more complex. This is because New Historicism refuses to prioritize a literary text. Instead it focuses on parallel readings of other literary and non-literary texts in order to frame the text in a politically-charged and fully-embodied ‘historical’ experience.
In his essay Shakespeare and the Exorcists, Stephen Greenblatt makes clear that whilst we acknowledge that Shakespeare used historical background material for King Lear (like a contemporary account of exorcisms written by one Samuel Harsnett that provided the names of the fiends like Flibbertigibbet that hounded Edgar, the disguised Poor Tom), we cannot assume that the borrowing of information was a one way street. Perhaps others borrowed as much from Shakespeare as he did from them? If so, then what might this mean for the ‘larger cultural text’?
The New Historicist reminds us that history itself is ‘written’ in the same way as is a literary text. More importantly, the history that we are most likely to read was written by the ‘winning’ side – i.e. those who successfully held and retained power. Rather like Michel Foucault, the New Historicist believes that words are power and that it is through words that we are ‘communicated’ into being. Those who would ‘normalise’ and ‘socialise’ us to their purposes will ‘write’ history to suit their purposes.
Hence Greenblatt examines the ‘institutional strategies’ in which both Lear and Harnsett’s account of exorcisms are embedded. He concludes that both are part of an ‘intense’ and sustained struggle’ to redefine societal values during the late 16th and early 17th centuries in regards to sacred institutions upon which of course the king’s ‘divine right’ to rule rested. It was all part of a politically inspired strategy to ‘reinscribe evil’ on the ‘professed enemies of evil’ – and if by his text Harnsett was trying to expose this ruse for what it was – performance/theatre (and apparently he was somewhat successful in this goal), then perhaps the message that Shakespeare meant to send along with his character Poor Tom (whether intentionally or not) was along the same lines?
We will never know for certain but by regularly asking questions such as this, New Historicists problematise the understanding of the relationship between literature and history. There are many who are happy reading the significance of Poor Tom and related references to Bedlam as a symbol of the madness into which the play is descending or as reflective of the way in which ‘mad’ people were treated during the period. After all Bedlam was a bricks and mortar place with a reputation and history which is well documented and to make too much more of Poor Tom and Bedlam than that, is not without it dangers.
While it is true that all texts, both literary and non-literary, carry history with them, it would seem all too easy (in hindsight) for the New Historicists to discover links and influences that simply were not present at the time; or if they were present then it is equally easy to under or estimate their effect; looking back in time, one is hardly likely to get the mix exactly right for not only are they dealing with contemporary 16th and 17th century interpretations of what was going on at the time but we are throwing in own 21st century gloss as well. Indeed this is part of the goal of Cultural Materialism – using present day materials (like a program from a recent production of King Lear) to examine cultural consistencies between then and now.
This brings up a whole new set of potential problems through trying to identify issues that are timeless – in the sense that they were topical both in the 16th/17th centuries and in the 21st century. Whilst in some regards history does repeat, it is again all too easy to look back in time and overlay contemporary concerns onto historical situations in a way that is at best inappropriate and at worst, rewriting history to suit New Historicist viewpoints in the same way that along with Foucault, they often accuse others. This is especially true as they move further and further away from the actual text in front of them as they conjecture how it is that language really works.