New Historicism: the Interrelation of Art and Society in Macbeth

In Shakespeare’s literature, the theory of new historicism is presented within the storylines. When interpreting the text, both the history of the author as well as the critic are kept in context and serve to give the most depth to the literature. Both aspects of Shakespeare’s literature are highlighted, acknowledging the author’s and critic’s influences, which cause the pieces to be appreciated as multifaceted and complex works. An author’s specific circumstances and time play an impactful role, in contrast to the critic’s own beliefs and surrounding environment.

When looking at Stephen Greenblatt and his interpretation of the literature from a wider historical context, new historicism is considered to have influenced every traditional period of English literary history. Greenblatt stressed the importance of how art and society are interrelated, thus causing the audience to think deeper about the relationship between literature and history. Being that art is embedded into our everyday lives, these pieces of work are examined by how the author’s situation shaped the literature itself, and, in turn, how the work reflects the author’s position and standpoint. A critic’s work will naturally always be colored, due to overall status and influences planted throughout the critic’s environment. This is represented in our current society and civilization because being in a different time inevitably makes people ask questions that would not have even been considered for the corresponding year of Shakespeare’s plays. As times change, our comprehension of these important pieces of literature. When we study the history of a text, it happens to reveal more of a complex description of the reality of humanity and its historical progression. On the other hand, when studying the text itself, the history is unveiled with mere facts and events to describe the era. The main focus of new historicism is to not isolate the literature, but to utilize elements outside of the text to further your understanding of it.

In Greenblatt’s criticism ‘Resonance and Wonder’, he describes going into a museum, and how it can be considered a metaphor. A sense of awe is welcomed, when entering an exhibit; jaws drop and eyes grow wide because it literally feels as though they are walking into another era. It is known that although these pieces are not in their proper context, the audience is left wondering and wanting to come back for more. People are led to believe that they know everything about this subject just by viewing these historical exhibits, but realistically they are incapable of knowing everything about this one subject. Greenblatt’s use of museums in historical context explain the process of how art is embedded into society. Impacting art resonates in everyone’s daily life, and Greenblatt’s “attempt at reducing the isolation of individual ‘masterpieces’ restores the tangibility, openness, and permeability of boundaries that enabled the objects to come into being in the first place […]” (Greenblatt 44) With a new historical approach, the reader is able to view Shakespeare’s work with a wider outlook.

While engrossed in Macbeth, studying the dispersion of power between social classes allows the reader to historically understand why Shakespeare is writing these pieces. The play “depicts themes of ambition, power, and revenge through the lenses of the social, religious, political, ideological values in place during the time Shakespeare was writing.” (Rodrigues 1) Without knowing these influences, the understanding for Macbeth would not be at its full potential. Utilizing Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587) as his source, Shakespeare provides the characters and actions, intentionally blurring fact and fiction throughout his erroneous portrayal of the plot. It is necessary to examine these inaccuracies when reading because they reveal how Shakespeare’s decisions as an author are directly influenced by cultural context. His audience, at that time, plays a key role in trying to comprehend why Shakespeare chose to write what he did because of the expectations that must be met by Shakespeare.

In regards to Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587), Duncan is displayed as a terribly weak leader. His cousins, Macbeth and the Earl of Orkney, composed an alliance together and killed Duncan. Macbeth finessed the crown and conceitedly became King. On the other hand, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Duncan is perceived as a stable, intelligent, and much older king. This contrasts with Holinshed’s Macbeth because in reality, he was an inexperienced and inferior king with little power. Also, the legitimate Macbeth had a reasonable claimed the throne through his maternal blood relatives, whereas Shakespeare’s Macbeth did not have a justifiable claim as King. Even the timeline of the plot differentiated in Shakespeare’s adaptation; Macbeth in fact ruled for 17 years, yet the entire action of the play only takes course over a single year. Shakespeare’s main goal for including these commonalities and differences was to promote the uniting of English and Scottish thrones under a singular ruler and kingdom. (Rodrigues 2-3) By establishing and accentuating similarities amidst the two kingdoms, and stressing the importance of natural order by demonstrating grisly consequences. Being that she had no heirs, Queen Elizabeth’s succession would be carried out by any male descendant related to her. Her cousin, King James IV of Scotland, was appointed to be crowned, and the lawful status of King, in this cultural context, would knowingly not dare be questioned, let alone challenged. Having established a succession, an attempt at stealing this throne would produce internal disarray and unwelcomed conflict. Macbeth’s consequences were clearly displayed throughout the play, due to his disruption of the thrones rightship. The prominent contrast between a controlling tyrant and a bona fide, proper king highlights the importance of a suitable ruler. Without applying a new historical approach, these underlying political themes would have gone over an audiences head, which is why using historical context is advantageous when studying Shakespeare and other works of literature and art.

Many people criticize new historicism as an approach to diminish the literature’s artistic presence and utter aesthetic. When reading Macbeth through this contextualized lens, the audience is compelled to analyze how much influence was acquired by Shakespeare and how it shaped his decisions as a writer. When focused on the historical period in which the play was produced, the story of Macbeth, depicted by Shakespeare, is undoubtedly determined a direct consequence of his time.  

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