[W]e need urgently to recognise the permanence of the present’s role in all our dealings with the past. We cannot make contact with a past unshaped by our own concerns. (Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes (eds), Presentist Shakespeares, London: Routledge, (2007): 3.)

When we experience a Shakespeare play, we experience it in a specific place and time. You don’t read or watch Shakespeare in a vacuum.
Presentism is interested in understanding how a literary text is experienced in the present. This theoretical approach acknowledges that our experience of the present (as critics, readers, spectators, students) inevitably shapes our experience of the literary text.
Evelyn Gajowski offers the following definition:
presentism has developed as a theoretical and critical strategy of interpreting Shakespeare’s texts in relation to contemporary political, social, and economic ideologies, discourses, and events. In so doing, presentism has consequently challenged the dominant theoretical and critical practice of reading Shakespeare historically. (Evelyn Gajowski, ‘Beyond historicism: presentism, subjectivity, politics’, Literature Compass 7/8 (2010): 675.)
Historicist approaches (including new historicism) aim to understand a text in its own historical context. Presentism, however, understands a text through the context in which it is consumed (Gajowski 675). From a presentist perspective, our own sense of the present influences how we understand the historical contexts of Shakespeare’s plays. 
However, this does not necessarily mean that presentism is at odds with historicist approaches to understanding Shakespeare or other literary texts. Gajowski adds that presentism does not suggest that historical investigations into Shakespeare’s context should be discontinued: ‘History, we can all agree, matters’ (680). Terence Hawkes makes a similar point in Shakespeare in the Present:
For none of us can step beyond time. It can’t be drained out of our experience. As a result, the critic’s own ‘situatedness’ does not – cannot – contaminate the past. In effect, it constitutes the only means by which it’s possible to see the past and perhaps comprehend it. And since we can only see the past through the eyes of the present, few serious historians would deny that the one has a major influence on their account of the other. Of course we should read Shakespeare historically. But given that history results from a never-ending dialogue between past and present, how can we decide whose historical circumstances will have priority in that process, Shakespeare’s, or our own? (Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare in the Present, London: Routledge (2002): 3.)
A presentist approach to Shakespeare thus takes into account a reader’s or spectator’s temporal, social, political and geographical contexts. Gabriel Egan explains that: 
In the past ten years, Presentism has become a way of doing literary criticism by explicitly evoking the present concerns that motivate a desire to reread old literature (especially Shakespeare) to discover resonances that it could not have had for its first audiences or readers, because these only became possible as a consequence of what happened between then and now. (Gabriel Egan, ‘The presentist threat to editions of Shakespeare’, in Cary DiPietro and Hugh Grady (eds), Shakespeare and the Urgency of Now: Criticism and Theory in the 21st Century. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2013), 39.)
This requires a self-conscious reflexivity on our part; not only must we critically examine Shakespeare’s text, but we must also examine our own relationship to that text.
This is particularly significant for a dramatic text. Kate Flaherty points out that:
“[M]eaning” in theatre is constituted by the qualities of a particular (and passing) encounter and not by the fulfillment of a hallowed original intention. In this vein, meaning is generated by intersections between the imaginative plenitude of the play-text and the conscious exigencies of the cultural moment in which it is performed. (Kate Flaherty, Ours As We Play It: Australia Plays Shakespeare, Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing (2011), 4.)
For Flaherty, theatrical texts make meaning through their encounters with the present or our own ‘cultural moment’. Flaherty elaborates that ‘a performance is not a self-contained entity … it is permeable to its contexts, and … the meanings it creates are generated through encounters with living culture.’ (Flaherty, p. 8)
What does this mean for the study and reception of Shakespeare’s plays? Or, to use Gajowski’s questions:
The question is – what do we do with that moment of recognition of the utter contemporaneity of Shakespeare? Do we let it flit away back into the obscurity of unconsciousness? Or do we analyze it, intervening into past meanings that have been constructed over decades and centuries? From a presentist’s point of view, the answer is obvious. (679-80)
There are many answers to the questions of ‘what to do’ with presentism and what presentism means for the study of Shakespeare. 
First, presentism is especially pertinent for dramatic texts like Shakespeare’s plays because, as Flaherty points out, a performance is by nature ‘permeable to its contexts’ and ‘generated through encounters with living culture’. Terence Hawkes reinforces this:
Presentism thus highlights what has been termed drama’s ‘performative’ function: a feature that always operates concurrently with, and perhaps as a modification of, its referential function. The effect of that realignment is to sophisticate and expand our notion of performing, and to refocus interest on what the early modern theatre meant by the activity it termed ‘playing’. (Hawkes, Shakespeare in the Present, 5.)
Presentism’s spotlight on the immediate context in which a play is experienced encourages us to consider the performativity of Shakespeare’s plays. What is it like to perform a play like Richard III today? How is a play like this ‘generated’ through encounters with living, modern culture?
Second, how we edit and produce Shakespeare texts today depends on how we prioritise the past and the present. As Gabriel Egan notes, editors working on 400 year-old Shakespeare plays want to make these texts ‘accessible to modern readers’, which Egan adds ‘seems like a Presentist activity: privileging of the needs of today over the conservation of the past’s alterity’ (41). Yet, he adds, editors ‘usually also want to render the past accurately in all its puzzling alterity’ (Egan, 41). How do we balance both of these needs? 
Third, it is important to recognise that presentist approaches to Shakespeare are already taking place. Gajowski, for example, refers to the ‘inherently presentist nature of the feminist project’ (680). Feminist, queer, or ecocritical approaches to Shakespeare implicitly appropriate ‘presentist’ frameworks in their application of attitudes and ways of thinking which emerged from modern ‘cultural moments’ and contexts. In fact, Grady and Hawkes argue that it is impossible to escape the present:
For we can never, finally, evade the present. And if it’s always and only the present that makes the past speak, it speaks always and only to – and about – ourselves. It follows that the first duty of a credible presentist criticism must be to acknowledge that the questions we ask of any literary text will inevitably be shaped by our own concerns, even when those include what we call ‘the past’. (Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes (eds), Presentist Shakespeares, London: Routledge, 2007, 5.)
While presentism offers an interesting way to understand how we engage with and interpret Shakespeare’s plays, many questions remain over how to use presentism and how presentist approaches impact the way we think about Shakespeare. Some critics think of it as a type of ‘anachronism’.  We also need to be careful about what we mean by the ‘past’ and the ‘present’. What is the relationship between the two? How do we construct ideas about the past and about our own context?
To get you thinking about presentist approaches to Shakespeare’s plays, you may like to consider the following questions:
  • Is it inevitable that we will relate what we read to our own context? Does this help or hinder our understanding of Shakespeare?
  • Consider your own ‘present’ context in which you are experiencing Shakespeare’s plays. What shapes your present?
  • Are there ‘contemporary political, social, and economic ideologies, discourses, and events’ that relate to the play you are reading at the moment?
  • We tend to think about the past and the present as definitively separated, even as opposites. Is there a different way of considering this? How might you describe the relationship between the past and the present? How (and why) exactly do we differentiate between the ‘early modern period’ and our own time period? 
  • What role does the future have in presentism, and in Shakespeare studies? If we consider the past and the present to be important, should we also be thinking about the future?
Finally, how might you go about offering a presentist reading of Richard III? As Mark Robson notes,
This [Richard III] is clearly a play that carries a certain historical weight, that has given rise to many adaptations and revisions, and that is most often talked about as a ‘history’ play (even if it also partakes of tragedy). Whether concerned with the Tudor myth, Shakespeare’s use of the chronicles as sources, or the dramatization of debates on the nature of kingship and political subjectivity, Richard III has been a fruitful jumping-off point for historicist readings. (Mark Robson, ‘Shakespeare’s words of the future: promising Richard III’, Textual Practice 19(1), 2005, 15.)
As a play so often ‘historicised’, then, how might we interpret it through the lens of presentism?
Egan, Gabriel. ‘The presentist threat to editions of Shakespeare’, in DiPietro, Cary, and Hugh Grady, eds. Shakespeare and the Urgency of Now: Criticism and Theory in the 21st Century. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 38-59.
Flaherty, Kate. Ours As We Play It: Australia Plays Shakespeare, Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2011.
Gajowski, Evelyn. ‘Beyond historicism: presentism, subjectivity, politics’, Literature Compass 7/8 (2010): 674-691.
Grady, Hugh and Terence Hawkes (eds), Presentist Shakespeares, London: Routledge, 2007
Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare in the Present.  London: Routledge, 2002.
Robson, Mark. ‘Shakespeare’s words of the future: promising Richard III’, Textual Practice 19(1), 2005, 13–30.