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.”

Is Falstaff’s implied refusal to repay Shallow’s thousand pounds (“Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound”), so carefully juxtaposed to the rejection, a betrayal? No, for “if the young dace be a bait for the old pike,” says Falstaff, “I see no reason in the law of nature but I may snap at him” (III.2.325). The rejection of Falstaff is at least in part a self-betrayal, insofar as he had refused to acknowledge the pike in Hal, and is therefore self-deceived. Although no one will accuse Mr. Greenblatt of lacking subtlety, his powerful thesis eases away some subversive detail when he finds time to look, very selectively, at the plays. After all, there are many kinds of power; Falstaff’s kind, like Cleopatra’s, may be calculating and deceitful as well, and the collision of two power-systems, when Hal rejects him, can be interpreted in different ways.

Power and the abuse of power is another leading theme. Mr. Greenblatt writes well about the theatricality of Renaissance institutions—the effect of public executions, exorcists as performers, royal power “manifested to its subjects as in a theater.” Near the end of the final chapter he considers the relations between Renaissance theater “and the surrounding institutions.” Those who agree that the theater can be—perhaps has a duty to be—subversive may wish that this section were longer. For though Mr. Greenblatt has made a case for “linkages” between the theater and other institutions (e.g., the monarchy, the Church, the Virginia Company), the theater differs from all the rest. The other institutions respect one another, the theater thrives on disrespect, even disrespect to itself (hence the clowns, and subplots that parody the main plot). A successful theatrical performance is a display of institutional power which may at the same time debunk institutional power, as Henry V exposes the hypocrisies and self-deceptions of the Church, of nationalism, military honor, marriage, kingship, etc. The theater therefore contradicts, by the use it makes of its own subversiveness, some of the points apparently scored by the plays; or, as Mr. Greenblatt might say, it shoots “invisible bullets” against its own abuse of power.

Other chapters bring other rewards, and also other questions. “Shakespeare and the Exorcists” explores King Lear and Samuel Harsnett’s A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), an attack on Jesuits who claimed that they could cast out devils. Exorcism had attracted a great deal of attention for some years; many books were written about it, some alleging that the exorcists and the possessed were impostors, others defending them. Harsnett argued that the Jesuits induced the hysterical “possession” that they pretended to cure, and were themselves instruments of the devil. Greenblatt comments that “this strategy—the reinscription of evil onto the professed enemies of evil—is one of the characteristic operations of religious authority in the early modern period and has its secular analogues in more recent history when famous revolutionaries are paraded forth to be tried as counter-revolutionaries.”

The fact that Shakespeare referred to Harsnett’s Declaration when he wrote King Lear has long been known, yet this knowledge “has remained almost entirely inert, locked in the conventional pieties of source study.” Mr. Greenblatt contends that both works were embedded in institutional strategies, part of an intense and sustained struggle “to redefine the central values of society…. At the heart of this struggle…was the definition of the sacred.” He sees King Lear as

haunted by a sense of rituals and beliefs that are no longer efficacious, that have been emptied out. The characters appeal again and again to the pagan gods, but the gods remain utterly silent…. Edgar is no more possessed than the sanest of us…. Likewise Lear’s madness has no supernatural origin; it is linked, as in Harsnett, to hysterica passio.

One “link,” then, between Harsnett and King Lear is that the former wished to demystify exorcism and that the play broods upon spurious exorcism, as when Edgar tells Gloucester that he has seen a demon depart from him (4.6.69–74). Links there may be, but is it true that by 1600 “Shakespeare had clearly marked out possession and exorcism as frauds”? Mr. Greenblatt barely mentions Macbeth; a good case has been made, however, for believing that Lady Macbeth’s invocation, “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here” (1.5.37–38) leads to her being possessed2 ; and this would explain her almost demonic power in the immediately following scenes.

I am also uneasy about calling King Lear a play from which beliefs have been “emptied out.” Though the gods do not answer, a belief in moral imperatives gradually reasserts itself. As others have noticed, when Cornwall’s servant risks his life to protect Gloucester (3.7.71) the play reaches a turning point. And has Cordelia’s belief in love been emptied out?

Again, Mr. Greenblatt sees Harsnett, “backed by his powerful superiors,” as the spokesman of the Church of England, and in a sense this is true. Yet many others spoke for the Church of England and at the same time spoke for themselves, in the sordid scramble for preferment. Mr. Greenblatt seems uninterested in Harsnett and his strategies, perhaps because institutions matter more to him than individuals. Even so, the individual spokesman of an institution may still repay study.

If one goes no further than to the Dictionary of National Biography one finds that the impression given by Harsnett’s books, of a strident, domineering man, is amply documented. The son of a baker, Harsnett in his career (1561–1631) and personality resembled Cardinal Wolsey. At Cambridge he rose to be a fellow (1583) and master (1606) of Pembroke Hall, and he also became bishop of Chichester, Ely, Norwich, and finally, archbishop of York (1628). But he had his setbacks. Shortly after taking orders he was denounced as a papist; later he acted as a book licenser, allowed John Hayward’s Reign of Henry the Fourth (1599), a book that was interpreted as treasonable; terrified, he wrote to the attorney general “letters which are in pitiable contrast to his published utterances.” He ruled in Cambridge “with a high hand,” was accused of High Church practices, and was forced to resign as master when the fellows exhibited fifty-seven articles against him. As a bishop his “harsh and overbearing demeanour” made him unpopular.

Harsnett, in short, was an ambitious Church politician, and A Declaration was a bid for promotion. He belonged to one wing of the Chruch, he pursued his own strategies while ostensibly serving his superiors, so the voice of Harsnett was not necessarily the voice of the Church. This chapter, accordingly, prompts questions not unlike those already asked. How do we define a culture, and an institution? How self-conscious and single-minded are they in their “strategies”? How individual can you be inside your culture or institution?

Mr. Greenblatt’s curious ambivalence about the status of Harsnett and other authors cited, purveyors of cultural pressures whose personal motives seem to matter very little in his arguments, extends even to the author of Shakespearean Negotiations. He is always there, playing a kind of hide-and-seek with the reader. “I began with the desire to speak with the dead”—so starts the first chapter; “I want to begin this chapter with a sermon”—so starts the last. One has the feeling that he is very much an individual, not just a cultural spokesman. He describes himself as “conventional in my tastes” (reading tastes?), and those tastes cannot be disregarded. I recall the remarkable candor and ambivalence of the epilogue of Mr. Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning. “I want to bear witness at the close to my overwhelming need to sustain the illusion that I am the principal maker of my own identity.” In Shakespearean Negotiations fashionable theory and the need for self-identification are also uncomfortable bedfellows.

Within his book, Mr. Greenblatt matters—eroding the reader’s firm ground, asking questions, jostling. Perhaps Duval and Paré and Harsnett matter a little as well, in theirs. (Mr. Greenblatt, if I may say so, also has his place in the larger world, as a fierce blaze of social energy. Though he writes about the Renaissance period, we are left in no doubt about the implications for our own culture, or cultures.) If so, why not acknowledge it? And if you grant that Harriot’s potential subversiveness remained invisible not only to the Indians “but also to most readers and quite possibly to Harriot himself,” it becomes all the more clear that other individuals matter as well. “Institutional strategies” point back to strategists—but who were they?

Mr. Greenblatt’s own strategies are explained in the opening chapter. “What is ‘social energy’?” he himself asks, referring to his subtitle, and his answer is abstract and may baffle some readers.

The term implies something measurable, yet I cannot provide a convenient and reliable formula for isolating a single, stable quantum for examination. We identify energia only indirectly, by its effects: it is manifested in the capacity of certain verbal, aural and visual traces to produce, shape and organize collective physical and mental experiences…. I want to understand the negotiations through which works of art obtain and amplify such powerful energy.

Like others today, Mr. Greenblatt sees literary works as ideological battlefields where orthodox and subversive impulses from the outer, social world reenact their differences—and the author, if not dead, seems to be no longer in the driver’s seat but a battered piece of luggage, unwanted, embarrassing. He is quite open about it:

If one longs, as I do, to reconstruct these negotiations, one dreams of finding an originary moment, a moment in which the master hand shapes the concentrated social energy into the sublime aesthetic object. But the quest is fruitless, for there is no originary moment, no pure act of untrammelled creation. In place of a blazing genesis, one begins to glimpse something that seems at first far less spectacular: a subtle, elusive set of exchanges, a network of trades and trade-offs, a jostling of competing representations, a negotiation between joint-stock companies.

As usual in Mr. Greenblatt’s writing, the imagery is carefully selected to act upon the reader from a particular point of view. Subtle exchanges, trade-offs, jostling—already one senses that his “Elizabethan world picture” may be as one-sided as E.M.W. Tillyard’s in the 1940s, as much precommitted to a single, all-defining vision. And why the “circulation” of social energy in the book’s title? What kind of energy is it now? Every change of image in the book has a design upon the reader; every aside, every anecdote is tactical, so much so that it is easy to overreact, and to resent the author’s semivisible parti pris. A pity, for Mr. Greenblatt’s reflections on power, culture, and society during the Renaissance are shrewd, and they bear on the more difficult problems of today.

Finally, we may ask, “How new is the new historicism? And how does it differ from the old?” As Mr. Greenblatt explains it, mainstream literary history in the first half of this century looked for “a stable core of meaning within the text,” was “concerned with discovering a single political vision,” and failed to see that this vision may be the product of the historian’s—or critic’s—interpretation. The new historicism, on the other hand, “erodes the firm ground of both criticism and literature. It tends to ask questions about its own methodological assumptions and those of others,” and about “the jostling of orthodox and subversive impulses” in literary texts.3 If these are important differences, the new historicism is not all that new. I am reminded of Don Cameron Allen, who gave a cool welcome to Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture.

In the presentation of a world picture, we must also learn to read the unprinted works of the suppressed majorities. I know of no Renaissance defences of atheism, but the multitude of treatises against atheism are an evidence of its reality.4

That was as long ago as 1945. Shortly thereafter A.P. Rossiter lectured on “Ambivalence and the Dialectic of the Histories,” and came to conclusions not unlike Mr. Greenblatt’s. Henry V, for example, is “a propaganda play on National Unity; heavily orchestrated for the brass. The sounding—and very impressive—rhetoric shows how something is being stifled.”5 The “new” historicism has long roots, and continues a distinguished tradition.

Mr. Greenblatt’s historicism has already attracted much discussion, and also several replies. A penetrating essay by Edward Pechter6 examined an earlier version of the Harsnett study, and commented on Mr. Greenblatt’s general method.

The text is said to be produced by its ideological and historical situation; it is unambiguously dependent, while the culture is unambiguously determining. Gone as well is the acknowledgement that history is itself a text, constituted by interpretation; rather, Harsnett has assumed the objective status of a stable point of reference.

Aware of such criticisms, Mr. Greenblatt makes very modest claims for his case histories, as I have called them. He wants “to look less at the presumed center of the literary domain than at its borders, to try to track what can only be glimpsed, as it were, at the margins of the text,” and promises “insight into the half-hidden cultural transactions through which great works of art are empowered.” It would be more accurate to say that he looks hardly at all toward the presumed center—by which I mean books that were widely read and that discussed power and subversiveness directly, shooting visible bullets (Holinshed for a start). This is a loss, for such books could have provided the stable point of reference that his method really needs.

But when all is said, Shakespearean Negotiations remains an impressive achievement, whether or not we agree with every part of it. Despite some jumps in the argument here and there, Mr. Greenblatt offers many new insights into Elizabethan social pressures; and the case histories with his explanations, are at the very least suggestive, and help to confirm what was once a minority view of the plays—that their author was not an arch=conservative. My only serious complaint is that the title refers to Shakespeare and Renaissance England, whereas the book itself, so sharp on cultural stereotypes and on the abuse of power, should be read by all students of history and literature, by all thinking men and women. And also by all presidential candidates.

This Issue

March 31, 1988