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Art Among the Ruins

Shakespeare After Theory

by David Scott Kastan
Routledge, 264 pp., $18.99 (paper)


New Historicism emerged as an influential movement in the 1980s with Stephen Greenblatt’s early studies in Renaissance culture, and Greenblatt, who reluctantly takes credit for inventing the label, remains its most eminent practitioner. Broadly speaking, New Historicism is a way, or a bundle of ways, of writing about literary history which incorporates insights provided by other intellectual disciplines, refuses to isolate literature from other forms of discourse, and assumes that the entire culture, including many aspects of it generally overlooked by conventional history—for instance, anecdotes concerning the lives and behavior of ordinary people—can be regarded as text, with all of its parts somehow interrelated. A typical essay of Greenblatt’s will begin with an anecdote of the kind he himself calls “outlandish,” coming from well outside the range of normal historiography, and attending, for example, to transvestism, riots, exorcisms, or life in peasant villages.

The New Historicists have absorbed methods and materials from a diversity of sources, not least from the speculations of the French philosopher of history Michel Foucault concerning the operations of power and the conflicts of discourse in a given society. But it is probably true that their practice has been most influenced by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

Geertz developed the method he called “thick description,” which treated an entire culture as a coherent network of signs; the particular text that attracted his interest, say Balinese cockfighting with its rituals, was to be understood as implicated in the entire culture, so that an account of cockfighting in Bali should not be isolated from other cultural phenomena but should be “thick,” in the sense that the cockfighting needed to be understood as the manifestation of a collective consciousness informing the institutions of the society at large. By adapting this method, literary criticism, argues Greenblatt, “could venture out to unfamiliar cultural texts, and these texts—often marginal, fragmentary, unexpected, and crude—in turn could begin to interact in interesting ways with the intimately familiar works of the literary canon.”

Greenblatt’s studies in Renaissance culture—ingenious, learned, elegantly written—have been copiously imitated but never rivaled. It is through his influence that New Historicism has been a dominant interest among academic literary critics for something like a generation, so it is not surprising that some of them are showing signs of restlessness and hinting that it’s time to move on. David Scott Kastan says so quite explicitly in Shakespeare After Theory, whereas Greenblatt and his collaborator, Catherine Gallagher, seem to have chosen this moment, when the fashion is said to be passing its zenith, to provide compelling instances of what, in the right hands, the method or practice can still achieve.

The result is a collection of essays of remarkable virtuosity. As usual the authors won’t say exactly what sort of thing they think New Historicism is; they are “practicing” it, not “theorizing” it. You know what it is by watching what they do; it is a practice, not a theory. It has no prescribed doctrinal basis beyond the assumption that its business with literature is to treat it as “the key to particular historically embedded social and psychological formations” (meaning “to what happens in history and human behavior”). To their list of distinguished mentors or predecessors the authors now add Herder, an exemplary exponent of that “mutual embeddedness of art and history” which informs their own “fascination with the possibility of treating all of the written and visual traces of a particular culture as a mutually intelligible network of signs”:

Major works of art remain centrally important, but they are jostled now by an array of other texts and images. Some of these alternative objects of attention are literary works regarded as too minor to deserve sustained interest and hence marginalized or excluded entirely from the canon. Others are texts that have been regarded as altogether nonliterary, that is, as lacking the aesthetic polish, the self-conscious use of rhetorical figures, the aura of distance from the everyday world, the marked status as fiction that separately or together characterize belles lettres.

There has been in effect a social rebellion in the study of culture, so that figures hitherto kept outside the proper circles of interest—a rabble of half-crazed religious visionaries, semiliterate political agitators, coarse-faced peasants in hobnailed boots, dandies whose writings had been discarded as ephemera, imperial bureaucrats, freed slaves, women novelists dismissed as impudent scribblers, learned women excluded from easy access to the materials of scholarship, scandalmongers, provincial politicians, charlatans, and forgotten academics—have now forced their way in, or rather have been invited in by our generation of critics.

What this means is that in principle any information that survives from a past cultural epoch can be summoned in support of the interpretation of some particular cultural phenomenon such as a Shakespeare play; for instance, Greenblatt, in his Shakespearean Negotiations (1988), links a report by Montaigne of a marriage between two women with cross-dressing and gender confusion in the plot of Twelfth Night. Such links help to describe more “thickly” the culture under description. The arts provide only some of the clues to the character of the whole. But although such interests may seem to move criticism away from particular works of art, these writers still profess a certain veneration for the arts: “Major works of art remain centrally important, but they are jostled now by an array of other texts and images.”

As another example of the method, one may cite Greenblatt’s essay “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs.”1 It begins a long way from Shakespeare, with an anecdote published in the American Baptist Magazine in 1831, concerning the tyrannous behavior of the writer toward his “self-willed” child, a little more than one year old. The anecdote becomes the occasion for a study of strategies of intense familial love which had their origin in the England of Shakespeare. The child, offered food only in return for a manifestation of love, is subjected to and fails a “love test,” like Lear’s daughter Cordelia. Greenblatt then studies family relationships in Jacobean England, and their bearing on the conduct of Lear and Gloucester in the play. The nature of the family, its conventional duties and disciplines, were inevitably represented in the drama of the time, which is already “saturated with social significance”; and these conventions (understood as part of the natural order of things) were still observable in an American minister, the president, no less, of Brown University, who tormented his baby son in 1831.

This partial account of one essay may serve to show something of the originality and scope of the method. It provoked the obvious criticism that the confrontation of major with minor works of art, or with documents of historical and sociological rather than artistic interest, would weaken the independence and authority of the former. The response was that the confrontation actually explains what it means to be major.

In an analogy that plays a large part in Practicing New Historicism Greenblatt and Gallagher suggest that the old view of major works as somehow cut off from the surrounding world, transcending the normal and embodying “the freedom of the human imagination,” is analogous to the Catholic Eucharist, a miracle of transubstantiation, a piece of bread turned into the body of Christ, texts transformed into canonical icons. But of course New Historicists don’t accept this bit of old-style aesthetic magic, preferring to see art as just one more element or sign in the whole cultural structure; though some, including Greenblatt, find reasons to explain why the works we still think of as literature have lasted better than the others.

What these writers do in practice is to “identify, out of the vast array of textual traces in a culture, which are the significant ones.” They look for an “interpreting detail” which stands out from the mass of cultural evidence; which is somehow “luminous”; which says to the person who wants to analyze a culture, “start here.” Such details may be anecdotes of the sort Greenblatt used in his essay on Lear. In so far as New Historicism has an established method of proceeding, it depends on the use of anecdotes as starting points, a dependence justified at length in the opening chapters of this book. The anecdote is seen as that “luminous detail” from which one begins the exploration of a cultural network which may also have within it some venerable masterpiece.

Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a great book from an earlier epoch, is claimed by the authors as a distinguished precedent. In his study of Western realism Auerbach chose for depth analysis a series of passages from the whole range of Western literature and related them to the culture in which the works that contain them originated. In each chapter the entire analysis is developed from a single passage, a canto of the Paradiso, a passage from Père Goriot or To the Lighthouse. But despite superficial similarities Auerbach’s method is essentially different from that of the New Historicists; he does argue from a fragment to a whole, but starts from works acknowledged to be of central importance to that whole, whereas New Historicism can fix on any luminous detail anywhere in the entire cultural setting, and indeed expressly prefers the “marginal and eccentric.”

So the effectiveness of New Historical anecdote has nothing to do with Auerbach but a lot to do with the fun that can be had from devising arguments meant to relate marginal stories to some central work, as in the example given above, where the nineteenth-century minister’s anecdote is surprisingly juxtaposed with Lear’s love test. Such juxtapositions recur in almost all Greenblatt’s Shakespearean essays.

The danger of the procedure, as the authors admit, is that an anecdote may be chosen “out of the hundreds of thousands of possibilities” simply because it already “sounded like” a passage in Marlowe or Shakespeare; so that the effect of surprise and confirmation when it turns out to sound like Marlowe or Shakespeare is spurious. And indeed it is hard to see how the choice of luminosities can avoid being affected by prior interests. However, the anecdote, if sufficiently “outlandish and irregular,” might have the satisfying effect of undermining what had looked like historical certainties, so opening up the cultural network and undermining “history’s normal epistemological assumptions.”

The assumptions referred to are those of conventional historians who make up a narrative of past events according to inherited notions of what is important and what is not, ignoring anecdotes “incompletely digested by the larger narrative” which “divulge a different reality” and which “historians cannot assimilate into typicality or coherent significance.” The effect of introducing this “outlandish” matter into the narrative can be sensational, the luminous detail emitting “flashes of a horrific outside to any conceivable historical order.” This may administer a salutary jolt to the investigator. It can put “one beside oneself, momentarily beyond a merely cognitive relation to one’s task.” That is to say, the anecdote can give the New Historicist a sudden insight into connections and relations not previously observed or suspected.

  1. 1

    In Stephen J. Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (Routledge, 1990).

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