Shakespeare After Theory
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 …