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.

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