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The New Historicism

Shakespearean Negotiations 

By Stephen Greenblatt

(University of California Press, 205 pp., $20)

The Place of the Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England

By Steven Mullaney

(University of Chicago Press, 178 pp., $24.95)

External observers must have noticed abundant signs of tumult in the world of academic literary criticism. Some, remarking with dismay the proliferation of forbiddingly obscure titles, may have lost interest or given up the hope of discovering what is going on. University teachers of English—the body of men and women who consider themselves charged with the duty of doing the nation’s serious reading—seem to be talking copiously, but only to one another. Moreover, their world is, though reasonably polite, unremittingly competitive; there is a ceaseless struggle for preeminence and visibility, which helps to explain the ever more rapid succession of novel methods and theories.

In calmer and more timid times, academic criticism, fearing to seem inexact or unscientific, took a protective coloring from the respectable disciplines of history and philology. After World War II, however, there were great changes, partly caused by the huge expansion of the universities. An enormous increase in the numbers of students seeking to be taught English required comparable reinforcements in faculty, who became more various, less learned in some ways (in history and in philology, for instance) and in other ways more adventurous and ambitious. The New Criticism called for attention to the text, rather than to any context; and that entailed a principleddevaluation of history. This kind of criticism was labeled “formalism” by friend and foe alike.

During the ‘60s we saw the brief triumph of structuralism (another variety of formalism, very different but still devaluing history). It still has its practitioners, but most would now agree that its main importance was to usher in various post-structuralisms, of which the most central and most thrilling has been deconstruction. The true home of deconstruction is in philosophy, and its main exemplar and exponent, Jacques Derrida, is by training and vocation and practice a philosopher. But deconstruction naturally does not encourage the maintenance of deconstructible boundaries between disciplines, and its principal strategy— roughly, to ask what a text is inadvertently saying, in contradiction to its more ostensible sense—is easily transferred to literature.

The transfer has two consequences of concern here. First, the differential techniques of deconstruction are often simplified to the point where the critical results are distinguishable from the older kind of formalism only by the use of the patented jargon, and by an interpretative liberty that some old fogeys cannot distinguish from license. Second, the collapse of the old disciplinary limits has radically altered the focus of literary studies, which are now eclecticallyphilosophical, anthropological, sociological, psychoanalytical, and up to the minute in all of these respects. This is true not only of soi-disant deconstructors; others have joined in. The Marxists, though suspicious of the new philosophy, have allowed it to modify their ways of talking about texts and contexts. The feminists, some of them anyway, have also taken it aboard. Fashionable literary criticism is now about much more than literary texts.

One of the  most recent varieties actually calls for a return to history. It is indeed called “neo-historicism” or “the new historicism” in the United States. (Similar work in England is identified as “cultural materialism,” and by that name acknowledges the late Raymond Williams as a progenitor.) Its practitioners everywhere have reacted directly to the two consequences of deconstruction named above. They eschew ludic license, and they study literature in a wide context of contemporary social-historical discourses. As their American name suggests, they represent some kind of return to pre-formalism and to history; but it is a commodious recirculation made with no intention of reoccupying precisely the old position. This is history from a very different set of perspectives, provided by Michel Foucault and others.

What are the constraints on the way a period “thinks”? What is the relation between the discourse of literature and the discourses of contemporary power? It is all a long way from the old Marxist historicist diagrams, though it is there that we might find its roots, as indeed the name of the British movement suggests. Meanwhile sophisticated neoMarxisms, a developing interest in hermeneutics, and a lot of other factors have combined to justify the neo in neohistoricism.

Though the mood of this new movement isn’t predominantly polemical, it is obviously opposed to old-style “bourgeois liberalism,” a wimpish doctrine hardly deserving to be so described. Those who hold it have simply failed to see that the notion of the autonomous individual is nothing but a fiction concealing the truth that each of us is merely a random meeting point for rival power discourses. The history of individualism is the history of this fictive self-fashioning, the history, therefore, of a lie by which we pretend not to be enslaved.

It is fundamentally a melancholy attitude. Those who express it must be conscious that they themselves are not exempt from its logic; they too must be the puppets of discourses they never made, which is perhaps why their writings lack the bounce and cheek of more libertarian post-structuralists. Their tragic situation calls for a measure of self-effacement, a lot of serious documentation, and very little levity (though Stephen Greenblatt does tell a joke or two). One agreeable consequence is tonal. These books are written with a gravity that is even slightly ostentatious; they couldn’t conceivably be confused with those written by critics who, believing there is no difference between criticism and “primary” literature, come at us like highly individual and autonomous poets, all flashing eye and floating hair.

Of course this preliminary account of neo-historicism is very crude. It is meant only as a minimal explanation of its attractiveness. The acknowledged leader of the school—a man with a growing international reputation—is Stephen Greenblatt of Berkeley. He is a Renaissance specialist, and concerns himself, as Burckhardt did long ago, with the character and the origins of Renaissance individualism, though he naturally comes up with different answers. Shakespeare, and especially his theater, are central to Greenblatt’s meditations, as they are to those of Steven MuUaney, who teaches at Ann Arbor but has obvious associations with northern California and with Greenblatt. Between them these books should give a fair idea of how the new historicism works on its central ground.

Greenblatt opens his book with a rather moving credo. Much as he would like to think of great artists as totalities in relation to whatever society in which they may live, he is convinced that all texts are “sites of institutional and ideological contestation.” His way of examining them will be to look at the margins of a text for traces of its transactions with power discourses outside it, for its “dynamic exchanges” with the institutions of society at large. For this operation, the theater offers an ideal situation: it is marked off by obvious conventions and by assumptions from “real life,” from the circumambient world, yet it has easily permeable boundaries.

Thus the history plays of Shakespeare can represent or mirror political hierarchies, but at the same time distort or subvert them. The transvestite comedies will do the same for sexual lawand custom, and the tragedies for religious rituals handed over to them by the official church. Like other historians, Greenblatt has an ambition “to speak with the dead,” but to do that truly one needs to see the dead or their traces as in large measure “the products of collective negotiation and exchange.” He knows that over time the mode of our response to these traces must vary—everything changed, for instance, when Shakespeare became a book rather than a theatrical repertoire—but his aim is to get as close as possible to those primordial negotiations.

The actual method seems to be to choose a point near the periphery of possible relations, to “swerve” away from the central text and then move in toward it, with a view to enriching the understanding of it by bringing to bear on the center this information about the remote partner in a lost “negotiation.” Thus the chapter on comedy opens with a reference to a case reported by Montaigne, in which a peasant woman who passed as a man was hanged because she “married” a woman and used “illicit devices to supply her defect in sex.” A little later there follows a detailed account of a similar “marriage,” borrowed from a treatise on hermaphroditism. Greenblatt wants to demonstrate the essential instability of what was officially regarded as the most stable of all the social and anthropological givens of the period, namely the man-woman difference, “the foundation of all individuation.”

A lot of this information is fascinating in itself. For example, it was thought that the female sex had male organs imperfectly developed and was therefore weaker and colder and more in need of enticements to sexual activity. A great deal of foreplay or “libidinous tickling” was needed to bring them up to the temperature at which their supposititious sperm could successfully blend with the male’s, as was necessary for conception. (The ovaries had not yet been identified.) Greenblatt thinks the men-women dialogues and the “dallying with words” in Shakespearean comedy are a counterpart of this “erotic chafing”: fiction and friction become one in the theater, and “the theatrical representation of individuality is in effect modeled on what the culture thought occurred during sexual foreplay and intercourse.”

This strikes me as more engaging than plausible, though it isn’t difficult to understand that boys acting girls pretending to be boys could be a rich source of titillation. (In fact it has been shown by others to have been so.) In the end, as Greenblatt remarks, the sexual chaos is resolved. Nature is shown to be true to her bias, and the women marry not women but men, the men not men but women. But since the cast is, in fact, all male, there is some residual confusion of discourses even then.

Despite the charm of all the peripheral detail, I couldn’t help feeling that there was a weakening of interest when the plays themselves were directly addressed. There is a great quantity of sexological or political sack, but only a pennyworth of interpretative bread. The chapter with King Lear at its putative center tells us a lot about exorcism as practiced by Jesuit missionaries and condemned by the official church. The point is that Shakespeare, using Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, a well-known source, took over the exorcism that the church discarded, but returned it as a fiction, as the theatrical illusion Harsnett said it was, though at the same time subverting official doctrine—”a simultaneous appropriation and swerving from the discourse of power.” This is a characteristic “negotiation” between theater and the structuresof power. It is illustrated by much the same method (itself one of swerving and appropriation) in the chapter on The Tempest, which is certainly more subtle than most of the colonialist approaches we’ve grown accustomed to. Yet much is missing, (It is true that Greenbiatt says in advance that this must be so, since he is deliberately working on the margins, and not on the main body, of the plays,) Mullaney’s book is Greenblattian, down to the use of an identical peripheral example, but it is by no means simply derivative, and in some ways it’s more exciting than the master’s. He studies the map of Elizabethan London; all the theaters are situated in the Liberties, sections that for historical reasons lay outside the control of the city yet on its very borders, for example just across the Thames at Southwark. The Liberties were places of misrule— the site of brothels, leprosaria, and so forth—deplored yet necessary, a sort of perpetual topographical carnival. The presence there of the theaters emphasized their marginality, which was like that of the actors’ status: they escaped the penalties due to vagabonds only by being the nominal servants of noble households, permitted to exist on the civic margin by a court that was in thisat perpetual odds witb the city.

There is very little that is new in Mullaney’s documentation. Only the interpretative dialect is new, offering a “rhetoric of space,” along with a great deal of speculation about the symbolic topographies of other cities, and corralling into the project as many bizarre anecdotes as possible, including some rather amazing facts about the ritual dispatch of lepers to the Liberties and the theatrical treatment of criminals condemned to death. Mullaney believes that “we are developing a more public sense of culture and its ideological complexities, and along with it a more public sense of ‘sense’ itself, of meaning, its social contexts, and the interplay of dialectic that informs them both,” And he, too, finds it easier to talk about the social contexts and tbe dialectical interplay than about the theater itself. The best of the book is in its treatment of the city and its Liberties, which means that it is itself, and perhaps appropriately, marginal.

There are ingenuities here, for instance about Measure for Measure, whicb I found unpersuasive. The claim that we are being offered for the first time something like a full study of the complex senses of the word “equivocation” in Macbeth— which goes beyond merely pointing out the references to the evasive answers permitted to Jesuits under torture—is, I’m afraid, simply untrue. Still, it must be said that Mullaney, like Greenblatt, compels one to think afresh about the strange position of a theater existing on the margin of an authoritarian society  and indeed about the whole question of the social and political contexts of works of art.

Frank Kermode is the author or editor of more than 60 books. His most recent work is Concerning E.M. Forster.

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