• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 by dress? Another relevant question: What was the purpose of sexual pleasure? The answer was that sexual heat in both male and female was thought necessary to conception—the female “penis” must also be induced to ejaculate—and this heat was produced by the friction of lovemaking. Now “a culture’s sexual discourse plays a critical role in the shaping of identity,” and also in the shaping of sexual representations in the theater. So the “fruitful pleasurable chafing” of lovemaking is transferred to Shakespearian comedy, with all that titillating cross-dressing; and comedy can be not only play but also foreplay. Amorous friction becomes theatrical fiction, as Twelfth Night demonstrates.

Another essay links Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603) with King Lear. As Greenblatt remarks, it had been known for a long time that the fiends mentioned by Edgar in his role as Poor Tom got their names from Harsnett; but nobody else seems to have read the whole of the Declaration, or someone would have noticed that it mounts an attack, from the position of the established Church, on the practice of exorcism, especially as used by Jesuits, though also by Puritan enthusiasts. Here the “negotiation” that interests Greenblatt arises from this official Anglican condemnation. By forbidding priests to treat cases of demonic (often demonstrably fraudulent) possession, the Church left the practice to the players, as we may see from Lear—Edgar’s possession is of course quite expressly fraudulent. Thus “the official church…cedes to the players the powerful mechanisms of an unwanted and dangerous charisma”; a quite alien ecclesiastical discourse feeds the power of tragic theater. And there is still enough continuity between the Elizabethan and our own very different culture for us to enjoy these “spectacular impostures.”

Such a summary does not convey the pleasing ingenuity of Greenblatt’s arguments. He is understandably more concerned with demonstrating the relevance of his bizarre marginal material than with the plays nominally at the center of his picture, so it may be unfair to complain of a sense of let-down when he eventually gets to them. But it is important that he does regard them as central, and as “supremely powerful works of art.” This view, as I remarked, is by no means universally held by his epigoni, who tend to regard the high value placed upon Shakespeare’s work as evidence of a bourgeois plot: for them all value is contingent, and the special value traditionally attributed to Shakespeare’s works arises from persistent brainwashing administered by entrenched and self-serving institutions.

So, excluding considerations of values, these New Historicists study the great Renaissance texts only as clues to a broader cultural (predominantly political) history, teasing out of them all manner of hierarchical, sexist, and imperialist implications. One practitioner, Leonard Tennenhouse, expressly states that his purpose is “to overturn some of the depoliticizing tendencies of [the] discipline” and to show the plays of Shakespeare “as a series of semiotic events, the staging of cultural materials, the mobilization of political representations.”1 According to Louis Montrose, the pedagogical benefits of this approach are that teachers can now show their students how they too are at once sustained and constrained by the “regime of power and knowledge”2 that happens to obtain in their time.

However that may be, it will already be apparent that some current new-historicist socio-practical maneuvers are much less seductive than Greenblatt’s. We are weightily told by Leonard Tennenhouse, for instance, that when Petruchio, in The Taming of the Shrew, starves Kate and keeps her awake he is treating her “as if she existed in denial of the material practices of the body.” A reading of T.H. White’s The Goshawk suggests a different view, that he is taming her exactly as hawks were tamed. When at the end of the long battle of wills involved in the training process she comes to his call and attacks not him but his prey, she is behaving like a successfully trained falcon. This doesn’t make his behavior any more admirable, but it is surely more useful than the quest for novelty at the expense of the obvious.

Tennenhouse also tells us that Gloucester in King Lear is blinded as a punishment for the offense of preferring his illegitimate to his legitimate son, so foisting an outsider into the aristocracy. That the intrusive bastard, Edmund, is a friend and ally of the people who are putting out his father’s eyes (they even address him by his father’s title) here becomes irrelevant. What is important is that their crime should be seen as representing a politics the author happens to want to see represented—Cornwall’s atrocity “purifies the aristocratic body.”3 It is easy enough to say something new if you don’t care whether it makes any sense.

Helgerson’s plan is to describe the interaction of “different discursive communities” on a larger scale than usual. He wants to show that the discourses of his choice together constitute “a concerted generational project,” or what he rather grandly calls “the writing of England.” The project goes beyond mere literary history, for it involves the complex relation between this nationalist enterprise and the sources of political power, identified as the monarchy, whose absolutist claims the new writings of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries effectively contest, and the rival forces of the aristocracy and the rising mercantile classes. To this end Helgerson’s six long chapters study poetry, the law, chorography (map-making and related activities), voyaging, the theater, and religion, the chief consideration being always to reveal the ways in which political power was circulated and represented.

This is clearly a bold enterprise, and the results are often interesting, though not always convincing. It may seem a little harsh, when so much is included, to criticize the book for what it leaves out; but its peculiar omissions, along with an habitual far-fetchedness in the treatment of what it does include, are its principal faults.

First a word on the far-fetching. One of the dangers of this kind of history is a tendency to emphasize newness by claiming high importance for matters alleged to have been neglected hitherto. For example, Helgerson makes large claims for his novel view of the youthful Spenser. There was a time in the 1570s when some young poets were wondering whether the adoption of “quantitative” verse might be what English poetry needed to bring it up to scratch. Since Classical verse, Greek and Latin, was quantitative—that is, used a system in which syllables were classified as long or short, and prescribed rules about what might and might not be done within the hexameter line—it could be that a similar system would confer a comparable dignity on vernacular poetry. Spenser gave the matter some thought, and while doing so exclaimed in a letter to his friend Gabriel Harvey, “Why, a God’s name, may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language?” Helgerson insists on a new interpretation that gives this remark very grave import. After much farfetched glossing of the words “we,” “kingdom,” and “language,” he concludes that we have here a quasi-royal Spenser (“we”) talking about his aim to “govern the very linguistic system, and perhaps more generally, the whole cultural system” of England.

It is unlikely that Spenser had any such plan in mind. He was tempted by the idea, partly, perhaps, because it was taken seriously in France. Of course there were snags: considering the word “carpenter,” he argued light-heartedly that the English should adopt the Latin rule requiring that the middle syllable must be long before two consonants; this would require “carpenter” to be pronounced, in poetry, “carpénter.” He admitted that this sounded strange, but thought we might get used to it. After all, he says, it’s our language; the Greeks sometimes imposed quantity, as it were by force, on language that resisted it. Why should not quantity be imposed on English verse in the same way? “Rough words must be subdued by use.” The idea is that after all the language belongs to us, and we can push it around a bit if we choose, just as the Greeks did theirs.

  1. 1

    Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare’s Genres (Methuen, 1986), pp. 13, 15.

  2. 2

    Louis Montrose, “Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History,” English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 16 (1986), pp. 5–12.

  3. 3

    Tennenhouse, Power on Display, p. 139.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print