The Founder of the New Historicism Has a New Book Out ... About Shakespeare

Roundup: Talking About History

Richard Byrne, in the Chronicle of Higher Educaton (subscribers only) (Sept. 28, 2004):

... [T]he overall narrative thread of Shakespeare's life is frayed in many places, and broken completely in others.

Tying that thread back together is the goal of Stephen Greenblatt's new biography, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (W.W. Norton). In the book, Mr. Greenblatt seeks to combine the scholarship that has made him a central figure in the world of literary theory with the demands of a popular audience. To begin with, he says, shaping the scant facts of Shakespeare's life into a cohesive whole posed some problems....

... Mr. Greenblatt, who served a term as president of the Modern Language Association, is best known as the founder of "New Historicism" -- a school of literary criticism that reconnects literary works to the social and historical currents of their time. New Historicists' aim in making such connections is to illuminate larger issues of power and culture embedded in literature and history. In his 1991 University of Chicago Press book, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, for instance, Mr. Greenblatt probed the writings of Christopher Columbus and other explorers to unlock how their views of the "marvels" of discovery became harnessed to the cruelties of colonization.

Shakespeare has been a key topic in Mr. Greenblatt's work. Three of his previous books, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare in 1980 (University of Chicago Press), Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England in 1988 (University of California Press), and Hamlet in Purgatory in 2001 (Princeton University Press) applied his theories to Shakespeare's work.

In Hamlet in Purgatory, for instance, Mr. Greenblatt examines Shakespeare's most famous play in the light of the pitched battle over the existence of purgatory between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century. Catholics saw purgatory as a spiritual state of suffering where imperfect souls were purified before ascending to heaven (and could be aided by the prayers -- and donations -- of the living), but Protestants saw a scam that was both contrary to Scripture and the occasion of clerical corruption.

Mr. Greenblatt sifts through antipurgatory polemics and ghost stories of Shakespeare's age before turning to Hamlet, a play that famously commences with the appearance of a ghost from purgatory in the form of Hamlet's father. His gambit of linking that ghost to the religious fervor of Shakespeare's time exposes a complicated interplay between theater and spirituality at the heart of the work.

But New Historicism's celebration of the messy historical conflicts literally written into works of art does run somewhat counter to the task of biographers, who impose chronology and narrative on history's unruly muddles.

For his part, Mr. Greenblatt says that writing Will in the World was a chance to revisit ideas that he explored in his doctoral dissertation on the life of another Renaissance figure, Sir Walter Ralegh.

"The model that I had of what it was to have a life in relation to a set of historical events was a little thin," he recalls, "as if people had lives and then there was this thing out there called history that they connected to." Mr. Greenblatt says that moving back toward biography "is, in some sense, just a tiny shift in optic, to return to what has always been my interest."

Some scholars do point to tensions between New Historicism and strict biography. Robert S. Miola, a professor of English at Loyola College in Maryland who is editing a forthcoming volume of early modern Catholic writing for Oxford University Press, says that New Historicism has made Shakespeare scholars "more attuned to the relations between cultures and artistic achievements, [and] so more likely to take closer looks at biography." But he argues that "the hard work must be done by old historicism methods -- work with manuscripts in public record offices, local archives, patient assembling of evidence. The downside of New Historicism has been an impatience with all of that and a reliance on sometimes misleading anecdote and the encouragement of a tendency to generalize without warrant and evidence."

Mr. Wells also points to a significant divergence between the aims of scholars plowing through archives and biographers. "It's not the biographers who tend to produce the evidence," he says. "They are the interpreters, rather than primary investigators."

In Will in the World, Mr. Greenblatt's creative suppositions about Shakespeare's life often win out over certainty. Anecdote and coincidence mix easily into his narrative, which also draws heavily on a close reading of the works for clues about the writer....

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