The chief aim of this volume is to introduce students and the general reader to two theoretical ‘movements’ which have become prominent and influential practices in all aspects of the discipline of literary studies. Because both theories are very much active, and still contested, even controversial, it is important that this book does not present them as a body of knowledge to be applied to a text, any text, as a formal exercise. It is an important realisation of both new historicism and cultural materialism that its practitioners and its writings are subject to specific historical conditions, and became prominent in specific circumstances at specific times. We might ask, for example, why both emerged in the early 1980s, why both seemed to have come to prominence in Renaissance studies, why both have had large areas and genres of literature to which they have never been ‘applied’ in critical readings. There are particular types of literary texts in which reading these theories encounters great difficulties. There have also been significant changes in the types of readings produced and the directions in which these theories have been pushed by recent writings that might lead us to question whether or not they are coherent theories any more, if indeed they ever were. It is always worth examining, when one learns of a ‘movement’ or genre, if the body of texts and practitioners included in the category really have enough in common to warrant such a grouping; given the differences of approach and style of many new historicist and cultural materialist critics, the status of both theories as coherent groupings will be questioned in this volume.
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