The critical school of 'new historicism' is very much at the centre of contemporary debates on literary studies and theory. Much 'new historicist' writing has focused on Renaissance texts, and this book is a timely exploration of that connection and its significance for 'English' as a whole. Howard Felperin subjects many of the most challenging claims of 'new historicism' to rigorous analysis, distinguishes sharply between its American and British versions, and probes the causes and consequences of its politicization of literary studies. The philosophical as well as political issues central to current debates are examined and the uses served by the canonical texts at their centre analysed within a broad cultural and historical perspective. This searching reconsideration of contemporary critical theory and practice yields fresh readings of a number of classic texts - including Hamlet, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Shakespeare's Sonnets, More's Utopia, Donne's poetry, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness - as well as a deepened understanding of the complex and changing functions of the canon itself.