Open the curtain and see their puppets play

Peter Burke

  • Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England by Stephen Greenblatt
    Oxford, 205 pp, £22.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 19 812980 7
  • Representing the English Renaissance edited by Stephen Greenblatt
    California, 372 pp, $42.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 520 06129 2

Like sociology and anthropology, the study of art and literature, especially the art and literature of the Renaissance, seems to be taking a historical turn in the Eighties. To a historian like myself this trend is obviously encouraging. Indeed, for a historian the problem is not so much to explain the rise of the so-called ‘New Historicism’ associated with Stephen Greenblatt and his friends and followers, as to account for the hostile reactions to it. Why should it be considered subversive to replace literary texts in their historical contexts? Is the movement dangerous because it is historicist or because it is new?

Greenblatt’s new book brings together four essays centred on Shakespeare (three of them revised versions of articles in print), prefaced by a statement of intent. The essays concentrate on Henry IV, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, King Lear and The Tempest. Greenblatt’s method is to juxtapose famous ‘literary’ texts with lesser-known, ‘non-literary’ texts, such as Jacques Duval’s Des Hermaphrodits (1603), Samuel Harsnett’s A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (also 1603) and Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588). He claims that a close study of Harsnett allows a re-interpretation of King Lear; that an examination of the Renaissance views of gender, sex and hermaphrodites discussed in Duval will illuminate Twelfth Night, especially the roles of the twins Viola and Sebastian; and that ‘understanding the relation between orthodoxy and subversion in Harriot’s text’ will give us a fuller understanding of Henry IV.

An example may serve to show how Greenblatt’s approach works. One of his essays, to my mind the most successful in the whole collection, deals with ‘Shakespeare and the Exorcists’. At the end of Elizabeth’s reign the Anglican clergyman Samuel Harsnett, chaplain to the Bishop of London (and himself a future Archbishop of York), published an attack on Catholic exorcists in general and on the Jesuit William Weston in particular. It has been known since the 18th century that Shakespeare knew Harsnett’s work and borrowed from it the names of the devils by whom Edgar, in Lear, claims to be possessed. According to Greenblatt, however, the relation between the two works is far closer than that. They form part of ‘an intense and sustained struggle’ over the definition of the sacred, in which Harsnett’s aim is to show that exorcisms are ‘egregious Popish impostures’. Greenblatt’s method is to make a close analysis of Harsnett’s text as if it were a work of art, paying careful attention to its rhetoric, its metaphors. As it turns out, Harsnett’s text is a work of art, vivid, ironic, witty, and constructed around, or out of, the image of the theatre. The author calls Weston’s exorcisms ‘this play of sacred miracles’, ‘this wonderful pageant’, ‘this holy legerdemaine’, ‘this tragicall comedie’. In similar fashion he began his earlier Discovery of the Fraudulent Practises of John Darrell (another exorcist, but a Protestant one this time) with the invocation: ‘open the curtaine, and see their Puppettes play.’

Harsnett’s point is that a ritual which seems to manifest supernatural power is no more than a play. Greenblatt’s point, by contrast, is that King Lear is a ritual, all the more powerful because it was created and viewed in a culture familiar with exorcism. What he calls an ‘appropriation’ has taken place, a ‘transfer of possession and exorcism from sacred to profane representation’. One is reminded of the argument of the late Frances Yates, popularised by Sir Roy Strong, about the replacement of the image of the Virgin Mary by that of the Virgin Queen.

This brief summary does less than justice to the richness of Greenblatt’s interpretation, or to his skill in interweaving 16th-century texts – Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft, for example – with the researches of historians of witchcraft and exorcism, such as Carlo Ginzburg, Keith Thomas and the late Perkin Walker, and with the theories of anthropologists concerned with possession in contemporary societies, from Alfred Métraux on Haiti to Bruce Kapferer on Sri Lanka. In a similar way, Greenblatt’s essay on Twelfth Night ranges from Galen to Foucault in order to demonstrate ‘a relation between medical and theatrical practice’ and to suggest that ‘Shakespeare discovered how to use the erotic power that the theatre could appropriate.’ The essay ‘Invisible Bullets’, at once concerned with the power of theatre and the theatre of power, draws on Geertz and Turner as well as on Harriot and Machiavelli to argue that ‘the Henry plays confirm the Machiavellian hypothesis that princely power originates in force and fraud even as they draw their audience toward an acceptance of that power.’ The Henry plays are examples of subversion and also of its containment. Here Greenblatt is at his closest to recent studies in the politics of literature by British literary historians such as David Norbrook and Jonathan Dollimore.

These essays, which originated as lectures, are certainly dazzling performances. To historians like myself, what is most impressive about them is not the attention to historical context, which we have been trained to expect, but the subtle analysis of the rhetoric of texts such as Harriot’s and Harsnett’s. It is not easy to specify how far, how directly and in what ways the essays illuminate Shakespeare’s own performance. They widen the range of possible interpretations rather than make any particular interpretation stick. What they do illuminate directly is the culture of the Renaissance.

A long-standing problem for cultural historians has been how to describe a period or cultural configuration without making it seem too homogeneous, how to reveal connections between art and literature and society without assuming that every aspect of the period was the expression of a single zeitgeist. The most common reaction to the loss of faith in the zeitgeist has been to reject the kind of portrait of an age painted so vividly by Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga and to retreat into monographs on limited topics. An exciting feature of Greenblatt’s book, made most explicit in his introductory essay, is that he offers a way of putting an age, or culture, together again. His own slogan is ‘the poetics of culture’, defined as the study of ‘the collective making of distinct cultural practices and inquiry into the relations among these practices’. In other words, he recommends a concern with the processes of borrowing or exchange between the different ‘zones’ of a culture – religious, medical, theatrical, political, and so on.

We need to understand not only the construction of such zones but also the process of movement across the shifting boundaries between them. Who decides what materials can be moved and which must remain in place? How are cultural materials prepared for exchange? What happens to them when they are moved?

His own essays tackle the ‘What’ question head-on, even if the ‘Who’ question remains virtually unanswered.

There is much to be said for Greenblatt’s model, or rather his map, in which culture is viewed as an area divided by many frontiers across which different kinds of goods may circulate more or less freely at different moments in history. A similar model or map of culture is implicit in the work of historians in other fields: Michael Baxandall, for example, has explored the possible relation between cultural practices as different as painting, gauging barrels, and calligraphy, and Roger Chartier is concerned, like Greenblatt, with both practices and representations, and above all with the different uses and the diverse meanings of the ‘same’ text or object.

These examples raise questions about the novelty of the so-called ‘New Historicism’. The story its supporters tell about its origins is a relatively simple one. It is presented as a reaction against formalism, and also against a more traditional literary history, as exemplified by J. Dover Wilson and E.M.W. Tillyard: this literary history worked on the assumption of the unity of an age, the homogeneity of the ‘Elizabethan World Picture’. The New Historicist story follows the pattern of thesis (Old Historicism), antithesis (New Criticism) and synthesis, and concentrates on what was happening in departments of English literature, at the expense of developments elsewhere – notably the Warburg school of cultural history (including Baxandall) and the Annales school of social history (including Chartier). Greenblatt’s essays, which take a text and recreate its context by the careful juxtaposition of other texts, are reminiscent of Warburg’s way with images. The discussion of the so-called atheism of Harriot in Greenblatt’s ‘Invisible Bullets’ is equally reminiscent of Lucien Febvre’s famous study of the so-called atheism of Rabelais. Even the references to anthropology, which are part of the lingua franca of cultural studies today, have their parallels in Febvre’s work in the Forties and Warburg’s in the Twenties.

‘We are all cultural historians now,’ as a colleague in literature at the University of Sussex remarked to me in the Sixties, at a time and in a place where there were many attempts to link literature to the history and philosophy of its period. Greenblatt and his group have been going further in the same direction. In a sense, the New Historicism marks not so much the revival as the end of literary history, its dissolution (like the current dissolution of art history) into the history of culture. There will of course remain a need for specialists in texts as for specialists in images, but the fences between disciplines are falling into disrepair, while many frontier guards turn a blind eye to intellectual contraband.

Greenblatt is no stranger to collaboration (or at least to negotiation) across disciplinary boundaries, as his involvement in the journal Representations testifies. Only five years old, it has already established itself as one of the most exciting scholarly journals in the English-speaking world. It is good to see anthologies of its articles on specific themes appearing in book form. The first of these, Representing the English Renaissance, raises the question of whether, like Warburg and Febvre, Greenblatt has, intentionally or not, founded a school.

This volume contains 14 essays which originally appeared in Representations. The first, ‘Murdering Peasants’, by Greenblatt himself, juxtaposes the representations of peasants in Sidney’s Arcadia and elsewhere in 16th-century English literature with Dürer’s famous design of 1515 for a ‘Monument to Commemorate a Victory over the Rebellious Peasants’. Where Panofsky passed over this design with the bare comment that Dürer ‘went out of his way to ridicule the revolting peasants’, Greenblatt scrutinises it with care from three points of view: the artist’s intention, the genre and the historical situation. His interpretation is almost, but not quite, a refusal to interpret, stressing the ambiguity of an image which can be viewed equally plausibly as ‘the harsh celebration of official order’ (by emphasising the mock-heroic forms) or as an expression of ‘personal dissent’ (by stressing the parallels between the defeated peasant and the suffering Christ).

The 13 remaining essays, whose authors include Stanley Fish, Louis Montrose, Stephen Orgel and Robert Weimann, concentrate on Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. A number of these essays are concerned with representation in a fairly strict sense of the term – representations of the self, of gender, of power, of England. Like Greenblatt, several contributors employ the strategy of the surprising juxtaposition, placing the work of Shakespeare, Spenser, Nashe and Jonson side by side with Elizabethan miniatures, the Wunderkammern of the late Renaissance and the art of map-making. Again like Greenblatt, a number of contributors draw on contemporary social and cultural theory, from Mikhail Bakhtin and Roman Jakobson to Jacques Lacan and Georg Lukacs: given the concern with collective representations, it is surprising to find no reference to Emile Durkheim.

However, other essays in the volume have little in common with Greenblatt’s work, beyond some vague concern for the relation between literature, history and society, and might equally well have been published in another journal. It is clearly necessary to distinguish two groups under the banner of the New Historicism, the collaborators and the sympathisers, and it may be useful to concentrate on the first, and in particular the essays by Louis Montrose, Steven Mullaney, Patricia Fumerton and Richard Helgerson. All four are officially teachers of English literature, but their interests, like Greenblatt’s, have led them to transgress disciplinary boundaries and to work on what looks to me rather like cultural history – on problems such as ‘cultural representation in the English Renaissance’, Elizabethan and Jacobean representations of England, representations of Queen Elizabeth.

Montrose’s powerful essay centres on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it considers the play in the context of what he calls ‘figurations of gender and power in Elizabethan culture’. He discusses the image of the Amazons, ‘ubiquitous in Elizabethan texts’, as well as that of the Virgin Queen (compared to an Amazon by Sir Walter Raleigh in his Discovery of Guiana). He emphasises the ‘ironies, dissonances and contradictions’ in Shakespeare’s text as well as in Elizabethan England, a male-dominated society whose prince was a woman, to conclude that the play ‘creates the culture by which it is created, shapes the fantasies by which it is shaped, begets that by which it is begotten’.

Mullaney does not discuss Amazons but he has a good deal to say about Brazil, or more exactly about Renaissance representations of Brazil, notably the mock-combat staged for Henri II of France on the occasion of his entry into Rouen in 1550, complete with artificial villages and real Indians. He also has a point to make about Henry IV. The link between Shakespeare and the Brazilians is Mullaney’s notion of the ‘rehearsal of cultures’ as a moment – a visit to the theatre, for example, or to a madhouse or a cabinet of wonders – when ‘cultural decorum’ is suspended. The link with Henry IV is rather more flimsy. The taverns of Eastcheap are Prince Hal’s Brazil, the exotic environment in which decorum is again suspended and he is able to forget that he is heir to the throne. As in the case of some of Greenblatt’s essays, I thought that Mullaney’s flickering torch illuminated Renaissance culture more brightly than Shakespeare’s text.

Richard Helgerson’s essay on cartography is also concerned with royalty and authority. Although it focuses on the county maps of Christopher Saxton, its main point is to suggest analogies between the development of poetry and chorography in Early Modern England, claiming that both genres ‘begin in close alliance with the court’ but declare their independence: in Helgerson’s terms, they ‘emerge as sources of cultural authority’ rivalling that of the crown, and even become sources of ‘subversion’. My problem here, as in a number of other places in the volume, is to discover exactly what is being claimed, in order to decide how the claims might be verified or falsified.

Closer or at any rate more tangible links between text and non-text are suggested by Patricia Fumerton in her essay on Elizabethan miniatures and sonnets. Sidney and Hilliard alike deal in secrets, which are revealed to a select group of listeners and spectators. The essay concentrates on the contradictions between the public and the private implicit in both forms. Unlike some of her colleagues in this volume, Fumerton is concerned with connections and with uses as well as with analogies, and she builds up her argument step by step, pointing out, for example, that miniatures were shown by their owners to intimate friends in the most private rooms of their houses, while love poetry was read aloud in the same private rooms and the texts kept in these rooms in ornamental cabinets.

The essays discussed so far are a fair sample of the work of the Greenblatt school, or better, perhaps, group. They are far from homogeneous. Fumerton and Helgerson draw heavily on history but eschew cultural theory. Montrose does draw on theory but is closer than Greenblatt to Marxism in general and to Fredric Jameson in particular. What the authors have in common is their desire to see texts which commonly bear the label ‘English literature’ as part of some larger context – the context of Renaissance culture, or of representation and its practices. They like to juxtapose the familiar with the unfamiliar. Many of their comparisons seem far-fetched; some are certainly worth the carriage, and allow us to see familiar texts in a new way.

Another common feature of these essays is their language, which is in some danger of turning into a code employed as much to demonstrate membership of the group as to communicate to other listeners and readers. A new approach obviously needs new concepts, and some of the keywords, such as ‘appropriation’, ‘constitute’, ‘strategy’ or ‘transgression’, have an obvious function. I am rather less convinced of the utility of Greenblatt’s notion of ‘energy’, despite his ingenious defence of it as a return to the original Greek meaning of energeia. However, there are many more new terms embedded, encoded, inscribed or even transcoded in the discourse, or the cultural practice, of Greenblatt and his collaborators. It is far from clear whether all these inkhorn terms are really necessary.

A more serious criticism of the Greenblatt group concerns its methods. I am not sure that they have yet accepted all the intellectual consequences of their transgression of the boundaries of English literature. They do not always seem to be aware when they cross the line between evidence and speculation. At times they seem to be attempting to base conclusions about cultural or social history on little more than a close reading of a few texts. If they do not want to practise other methods, they might perhaps collaborate more closely with those who do. The poetics of culture, as Greenblatt defines it, is too important a task to leave to literary critics, or even to ex-critics.