The High Cost of New History

Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England

by Richard Helgerson
University of Chicago Press, 367 pp., $27.50

An influential group of American academic literary critics has decided that, history—cultural history—so long neglected, it is said, by earlier influential groups, is now its most urgent business. They are called “the New Historicists.” The English Renaissance has apparently been chosen as the period promising the best return on this investment in new historical techniques; so the reign of Elizabeth I is now the rage in late twentieth-century California, and especially at Berkeley, where the movement called the New Historicism originated.

It is to be noted that although the practitioners are professors of literature their aim is not quite the old-fashioned one of interpreting literature as such. The best of them may still show a more or less vestigial interest in literature, but others, perhaps a majority, reject what they probably regard as a discredited myth of literary value, wishing rather to show that poetry and indeed all forms of writing hitherto quite undeservedly given the honorific title of literature should be considered as no more than “discourses” involved in the interplay of all the other discourses—social, political, legal, and so forth—that constitute any culture at a given historical moment.

Richard Helgerson, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, makes a point in Forms of Nationhood of occasionally distancing himself from other New Historicists, but he shares the same desire to deaestheticize literature. His methods and his terminology presuppose some acquaintance with theirs, and readers lacking that qualification may need a preliminary briefing. The best way to get it is to read the works of the chef d’école, Stephen Greenblatt, although the movement has acquired considerable diversity in the hands of his confident disciples, not all of whom can think as cogently or write as well as he.

Greenblatt maintains that “works of art, however intensely marked by the creative intelligence and private obsessions of individuals, are the products of collective negotiation and exchange.” Accordingly he means to explore “the poetics of culture”—to study the “half-hidden cultural transactions through which great works are empowered.” So instead of treating Shakespeare’s plays as somehow isolated or autonomous, he will seek to show how they benefit from the “social energy” they derive from their “negotiations” with other aspects of the culture. For, like people, these works are to be thought of as products of what Foucault calls the “dynamic circulation” of social discourses.

Greenblatt’s way of doing this may be illustrated from the chapter “Fiction and Friction” in his Shakespearean Negotiations (1988). He begins by citing Montaigne’s account of a case of hermaphroditism recorded near Rouen in 1580, when a woman was “hanged for using illicit devices to supply her defect of sex.” He then discusses some similar cases before considering the topic of sixteenth-century sexual physiology more generally: Was there, as traditional medicine maintained, a quite strict homology between male and female sexual organs? Could an unusually large clitoris serve as a penis? If boundaries were not sharply defined, why was there such insistence on strict sexual differentiation…

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