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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: October ::
After the New Historicism?; Historical Fact
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0788.  Sunday, 15 October 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Dan Pigg <IVAD@UTMARTN.BITNET>
        Date:   Friday, 13 Oct 95 10:56:37 CST
        Subj:   After the New Historicism?
 
(2)     From:   David Lindley <
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 >
        Date:   Saturday, 14 Oct 1995 09:13:55 GMT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0783  Re: Historical Fact
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Dan Pigg <IVAD@UTMARTN.BITNET>
Date:           Friday, 13 Oct 95 10:56:37 CST
Subject:        After the New Historicism?
 
Several months back there was a discussion on the impact of the New Historicism
on Shakespeare and early modern studies.  Either it is my perception or it
seems true that New Historicism seems to be on the decline or is being in some
way modified.  What do we call this new and developing school of criticism that
seems to be replacing NH?  Someone has called it neo-formalism.  Has anyone
else heard this term, and if so, how has it been used?  Thanks, Dan.
 
Daniel Pigg
Department of English
The University of Tennessee at Martin
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Lindley <
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 >
Date:           Saturday, 14 Oct 1995 09:13:55 GMT
Subject: 6.0783  Re: Historical Fact
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0783  Re: Historical Fact
 
Gabriel Egan confidently asserts that he thought historians had abandoned the
notion of historical 'fact' - and if they haven't they should.  It is this
notion that seems to me 'silly'.
 
Whilst it is certainly proper that we recognise the degree to which 'history'
is constructed - and relies upon traces that are always mediated through text -
the fashionable abandonment (by literary critics rather than historians) of the
whole notion of factual evidence is perverse and damaging.
 
Two simple examples:
 
1) Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by a Scottish monarch, James I.
Fact(?) This has significant consequence for the understanding and explication
of Shakespearean dramatic texts, and the student not aware, either of the
chronology of the plays or of this most basic piece of information is liable to
make a hash of reading them.  It's not the most important thing about the
tragedies of Macbeth and King Lear, or  the anxieties of Measure for Measure
(so distinct from the earlier 'Elizabethan' comedies), certainly - and  I would
agree that arguing that this 'fact' is sufficient to explain, or explain away,
those texts is indeed plainly 'silly'. But it is surely a significant
constituent of their preoccupations?
 
2. For a long time it was assumed that Jonson's masque, Golden Age Restored,
was performed in 1615. 'Factual' evidence - the ambassadorial reports
discovered by John Orrell - demonstrates incontrovertibly that this is wrong,
and that the masque was performed in 1616.  Once this is recognised then the
whole reading of the work changes, since it becomes obvious that it is keyed to
the events of the Overbury trial.
 
These are things I would call 'facts' - and would claim make significant
difference to the way we might understand literary texts. Not to give our
students some respect for the evidential and demonstrable is a grave
dereliction of scholarly duty, it seems to me.
 
Of course things become much more complex and difficult once one begins to ask
about things treated as 'givens' (the 'crypto-facts' of much historicist
criticism, new and old) - the 'absolutism' of the Jacobean state, or
'patriarchy' - or the 'anti-semitism' of the period, for example.  But even
here, one way of escaping the tyranny of prepackaged assumptions so often
crudely mobilised by critics of all theoretical persuasions is through  an ever
more attentive regard for those things that can be 'factually' established.
 
To re-iterate: I'm not for one minute denying that the historian/critic is
implicated in the construction of the history they present as 'fact', and that
we are judging between competing stories etc. etc.  I think it essential that
we and our students should be sceptical and critical of history's claims to
'truth'. But, even if it means I have to wear the penitential  badge of
'empirical old historicist' over a white sheet weekly in my lectures, I'm not
prepared to abandon the notion that 'facts' matter, and the consequent belief
that scholarship is about founding hypothesis as securely as may be in
evidence, whilst at the same time knowing and acknowledging that the evidence
is never complete, never free from interpretation.
 
David Lindley
 

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