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The New Shakespeare?

Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England

by Stephen Greenblatt. (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics, 4)
University of California Press, 205 pp., $20.00

Exciting new developments in the last few years have changed the face of Shakespeare studies, more suddenly than ever before. Traditional assumptions about Shakespeare’s language, ideology, text, etc., have been questioned, often successfully, and good anthologies of this very recent criticism are already available.1 A new book by Stephen Greenblatt, the author of Renaissance Self-Fashioning and one of the leading figures of the latest Shakespeare revolution, is an important event.

The book, as subtle and learned as we have come to expect from Mr. Greenblatt, is not easy to read, so I begin with a brief description. After an introductory essay on “the circulation of social energy,” where he defines his general approach, Mr. Greenblatt has four chapters on one or more of Shakespeare’s plays reinterpreted according to “the new historicism.” The plays that receive most attention are Parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV and Henry V, Twelfth Night, King Lear, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest.

Each chapter starts with an anecdote culled from Renaissance scientific works, sermons, colonialists’ tales—a case history, which is analyzed brilliantly, revealing implications that less expert readers might well have missed. The anecdote illustrates how Renaissance governments and their agents controlled political or cultural minorities, and Shakespeare’s plays of course dramatized similar problems. The anecdote seems to be an essential feature of “the new historicism,” anchoring the plays and their problems in something solidly “historical,” but from these anecdotes to the plays is a big step, and sometimes we get there without quite knowing how. Mr. Greenblatt refers to “linkages,” and describes the anecdotes “as part of the particular and contingent discourse out of which historically specific subjects were fashioned, represented, and communally incorporated.”

Chapter three (“Fiction and Friction”) may serve as an example. “In September 1580, as he passed through a small French town on his way to Switzerland and Italy, Montaigne was told an unusual story”—of a girl who dressed up as a male, moved to a different place, and set up as a weaver. The weaver fell in love with a woman, and married her. “The couple lived together for four or five months, to the wife’s satisfaction, ‘so they say.’ ” But the transvestite was recognized and brought to justice, and “was hanged for using illicit devices to supply her defect in sex.” “I begin with this story,” says Mr. Greenblatt (how seriously?), “because in Twelfth Night Shakespeare almost, but not quite, retells it.”

The anecdote is meant to throw light on the play’s treatment of sexual identity. “I would suggest that Twelfth Night may not finally bring home to us the fundamental distinction between men and women; not only may the distinction be blurred, but the home to which it is supposed to be brought may seem less securely ours, less cozy and familiar, than we have come to expect.”

In Twelfth Night, Mr. Greenblatt argues, “events pursue their natural curve, the curve that assures the proper mating of man and woman. To be matched with someone of one’s own sex is to follow an unnaturally straight line; heterosexuality, as the image of nature drawing to her bias implies,—is bent. Shakespeare’s metaphor is from the game of bowls,” in which the ball has a built-in tendency to swerve. “Swerving,” Mr. Greenblatt goes on, “is not a random image in the play; it is one of the central structural principles of Twelfth Night.” He asks, “How can we question the [human] nature that like a weighted bowl so providentially draws to her bias and resolves the comic predicaments?” He then proposes to “search out the off-center weight implanted in” human nature. “To do so we must historicize Shakespearean sexual nature, restoring it to its relation of negotiation and exchange with other social discourses of the body.” We “must” historicize, obedient to the new historicism.

That leads to a second anecdote. “In 1601 in a small town near Rouen, a thirty-two-year-old widowed mother of two…had a very odd experience.” For nearly five weeks she had shared her bed with another woman, Marie, who whispered one evening “that she was in fact a man—a claim she (or rather he) graphically demonstrated.” The two wished to marry, so Marie, having been brought up and known as a female, “needed to acquire a new sexual identity in the eyes of the community.” Marie asked to be called Marin, changed to male clothing, and announced his matrimonial intentions. The lovers were put on trial, and condemned, Marin to be burned alive, their crime being sodomy, for a medical examination revealed no signs of masculinity in Marin. He “maintained that as a consequence of the terror of imprisonment, his penis had retracted, but the court dismissed his claim.” Marin appealed, and a new medical examination was ordered. One of the doctors, Jacques Duval, unlike his colleagues,

was determined to probe. This determination was rewarded: responding to his finger’s pressure was “a male organ, rather large and hard”; a second examination left no doubt, for the friction of the doctor’s touch caused Marin to ejaculate, and the semen, he reports, was not thin and watery like a woman’s but, like a man’s, thick and white.

As Mr. Greenblatt rightly insists, a culture’s sexual discourse takes a critical part in the shaping of identity. Even Marin “had the most conventional of goals: a publicly recognized name and gender, an officially sanctioned marriage.” Duval, who wrote a book On Hermaphrodites, had less conventional ideas—or rather, being a scientist, he had wider horizons. He believed that “a single individual is in reality double, since all bodies contain both male and female elements,” and that “there are not two radically different sexual structures but only one—outward and visible in the man, inverted and hidden in the woman.” These beliefs were part of the Galenic heritage, “which Renaissance physicians at once elaborated and challenged”—hence the Renaissance interest in sex changes and prodigies.

Mr. Greenblatt moves on to Duval’s account of coition. “Seed is produced and emitted by the concoction, or cooking, of blood; this cooking is accomplished through erotic friction between men and women.” And then Mr. Greenblatt moves from friction to fiction: Renaissance medical texts, he writes,

suggest that the generative power of nature centers on fruitful, pleasurable chafing, and I want to propose that this notion…resonates in the fashioning of Shakespearean characters, particularly in comedy…. Friction could be fictionalized, chafing chastened and hence made fit for the stage, by transforming it into the witty, erotically charged sparring that is the heart of the lovers’ experience.

The representation of chafing, however, “is not restricted to Shakespeare’s lovers; it is diffused throughout the comedies as a system of foreplay.”

After twenty fascinating pages of anecdote and science there follow six disappointingly short pages on the comedies, where “dallying with words is the principal Shakespearean representation of erotic heat.” One might pettishly ask “what of those who dally with words in soliloquy?” but I want to put a different question. Why is it that the new historicism is so uninterested in authors and dates? The three chief authorities in chapter three are Montaigne, Duval, and Ambroise Paré, all French. We hear that Paré is cited from the first English translation of 1634. We are not told that Duval’s On Hermaphrodites was not translated into English in the Renaissance period and that, strictly speaking, this title did not then exist.

Mr. Greenblatt of course has his answer to the cavil that Shakespeare, when he wrote his comedies, is not likely to have been familiar with Duval, Paré, and Montaigne’s travel journal. We are dealing, he explains, with a shared code. “Sexuality is itself a network of historically contingent figures that constitute the culture’s categorical understanding of erotic experience.” The culture’s? From far-away California the whole of Europe may appear to be a single culture, but not so from near at hand—and France and England, different in so many other ways, have always been particularly divided in their attitudes to erotic experience. In France, it is worth adding, professional actresses performed in public when boy actors were still playing female roles in England. The erotic chafing of England’s “transvestite theater,” as Mr. Greenblatt calls it, may have something in common with the scientific theories of French physicians (which, to be sure, did not pass unchallenged), but that something needs to be more clearly defined. The leap from one culture to another, and from sexual friction to verbal dallying, leaves me a little dizzy.

The longest chapter in Mr. Greenblatt’s book, now revised and reprinted for the fourth time, deals most directly with authority and subversive counterforces; the relation between the two is a leading theme throughout. Mr. Greenblatt sees subversiveness wherever he looks, perhaps rightly, his case histories this time coming from T. Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors (1567) and T. Harriot’s Brief and True Report of the new found land of Virginia (1588). Harriot described how evangelical colonialism subjugated the Algonquin Indians, who were “persuaded that the Christian God is all-powerful and committed to the survival of his chosen people”; for instance, infected by European diseases the Indians imagined that they were shot by “invisible bullets.” The English saw these Indian deaths as a moral phenomenon, “and hence,” Mr. Greenblatt writes, “the ‘facts’ as they are observed are already moralized: the deaths occurred only ‘where they used some practice against us,’ that is, where the Indians conspired secretly against the English.”

Harriot described the customs and beliefs of the Indians, and compiled a glossary, “the beginnings of an Algonquin–English dictionary,” all of which was to be useful in consolidating English power in Virginia. Harman published the “lousy language,” or cant terms, of criminals and vagabonds, and thus helped authority to hunt down social outsiders in England, and bring them to justice. In doing so, Harman betrayed the confidence of these criminals, and yet “his broken promises are acts of civility, necessary strategies for securing social well-being.” Understanding the relation between orthodoxy and subversion in Harman and Harriot, Mr. Greenblatt says, “will enable us to construct an interpretive model that may be used to understand the far more complex problem posed by Shakespeare’s history plays.”

According to Mr. Greenblatt, the modern state as presented in the history plays “is shown to be based upon acts of calculation, intimidation, and deceit.” In this chapter he ascribes to Shakespeare a bleaker view of authority than may be necessary. “Out of the squalid betrayals that preserve the state [in Henry IV, Part 2] emerges the ‘formal majesty’ into which Hal at the close, through a final, definitive betrayal—the rejection of Falstaff—merges himself.” So much is made of various betrayals that it is worth asking whether this word needs some explanation. A betrayal presupposes some kind of prior relationship, in this case friendship. “The betrayal of friends does not subvert but rather sustains the moral authority and the compelling glamour of power.” Falstaff and Hal, however, had a very special relationship; whether we call the fat man the prince’s servant, jester, sparring partner, Vice, exploiter, teacher, or friend, no single word can do justice to the complexity of their imbroglio, and to describe the rejection as a betrayal is to simplify it, just as it flattens the old ruffian to call him merely “irresistible.”

  1. 1

    For example, Representing the English Renaissance, Stephen Greenblatt, ed. (University of California, 1988).

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