“In a small glass case in the library of Christ Church, Oxford,” Stephen Greenblatt writes at the beginning of “Resonance and Wonder,” the last and most recent of the nine essays in Learning to Curse, “there is a round, red priest’s hat.” A note card, he continues, “identifies it as having belonged to Cardinal Wolsey,” and “informs us [that] the hat was acquired for Christ Church in the eighteenth century, purchased, we are told, from a company of players.” This “miniature history” accompanying the exhibit may (he allows) be “too vague to be of much consequence,” but it teases Greenblatt’s imagination: “I do not know the name of the company of players,” he muses, “or the circumstances in which they acquired their curious stage property, or whether it was ever used, for example, by an actor playing Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, or when it was placed under glass.” Yet, as an emblem of contingency, of the mobility of cultural artifacts, including texts, in time, the Christ Church hat and its mysterious adventures fascinate him.

The hat in the display case does not evoke “wonder,” in the manner of a great Impressionist painting. “Wonder,” as Greenblatt sees it here, springs from the capacity of an art object to command “an exalted attention,” to generate in the spectator “surprise, delight, admiration, and intimations of genius.” The response has its origins, he argues, in the medieval and Renaissance cult of the marvelous. Wolsey’s hat does, however, project its modest but compelling store of “resonance”: something accumulated in the course of its transmigration from the wardrobe of a prince of the Church, to theater tiring-house, to the glass reliquary where it still radiates its “tiny quantum of cultural energy,” in the Oxford college founded by its original owner.

“Resonance” for Greenblatt depends on context; it is a product not of the uniqueness or spellbinding quality of the object in itself, but of its relation to “a dense network of evolving and often contradictory social forces.” He expresses some concern in this final essay that the devotees of “resonance” may currently be threatening to strangle “wonder,” as opposed to honoring it as a point of departure. The new Musée d’Orsay in Paris, for instance, by dispersing attention among a wide range of lesser cultural objects, and positioning the masterpieces of Monet or Cézanne where they are difficult to see, downgrades or at least makes “wonder” difficult to experience. Greenblatt himself now seems troubled by some of the consequences of “the new historicism” he insists he never meant to formalize, but of which he has become the recognized high priest. New historicist “resonance,” all the same, is far more distinguishable than “wonder” in this collection.

Selected from essays written over a period of some fifteen years, these pieces make it possible to see how Greenblatt’s own brand of historicism took shape, displaying what he describes in the introduction as “the uneven evolution of my critical methods and interests.” Uneven it may be, but certain characteristics remain constant. One of them is Greenblatt’s tendency to handle historical circumstances approximately. A wide-brimmed cardinal’s hat, for instance, can indeed be viewed under glass in Christ Church library. The note accompanying it, however, provides information rather different from that Greenblatt attributes to it. It explains that the hat was found in the Great Wardrobe by Bishop Burnet (who died in 1715) when he was Clerk of the Closet. Burnet’s son left it to his housekeeper, from whom it passed to the Dowager Countess of Albemarle’s butler, and then to the countess herself, who in 1776 presented it to Horace Walpole. Described in the Strawberry Hill sale of 1842 as Wolsey’s, the hat was bought by the actor Charles Kean, who is said to have worn it more than once when playing Wolsey in Henry VIII. Kean died in 1868. It was after the death of his only child, a Mrs. Logie, that various members of Christ Church purchased it, for the sum of sixty-three pounds, and presented it to the foundation. This note card is known to have been in place for at least a quarter of a century.

The elegance with which Greenblatt accommodates Wolsey’s hat to a story about how the Reformation tried to dismantle the “histrionic apparatus of Catholicism” by selling off papist vestments to the professional players makes one almost regret having to disturb it with the specificities of Burnet and his son’s housekeeper, Horace Walpole, Kean, and Mrs. Logie. Greenblatt writes engagingly in the introduction to Learning to Curse about how his “will to tell stories, critical stories or stories told as a form of criticism,” reaches back to his own childhood: initially to the narratives he (or his mother) told about his young self, later to his father’s more defensive and obsessive tales. An attractive gesture toward the origins of a critical procedure, it is also a reminder that childhood or private fictions have a license to be multiple and arbitrary. It matters, however, in the context of “Resonance and Wonder,” that by suppressing or reinventing what the Christ Church note card actually says, Greenblatt has prevented the hat from telling him a story, different and at least as interesting as the one foisted upon it, which would also have the advantage of being historically true.


Greenblatt’s fondness for dealing with literary texts selectively, detaching a single passage and making it speak for the whole, is another some-what disquieting characteristic. Works of art have internal as well as external “resonances.” Their parts respond to one another, are conditioned by their immediate as well as by their social and historical surroundings, in ways he is willing to ignore. To say this is not to complain that he refuses to write the kind of formalist criticism from which (as he relates in his introduction) he fled while at Yale graduate school. Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), the deservedly celebrated book with which Greenblatt established his reputation, shows him to be an able, and sometimes subtle, close reader of texts. The newly collected essays, however, like those in Shakespearean Negotiations (1988), develop a trend already apparent in the 1980 book. Arranged as they are, in chronological order, they suggest that works of literature, as opposed to those large cultural, social, and political movements of which they are a part, have come to interest Greenblatt progressively less and less.

Only one of the essays in Learning to Curse, “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism,” originally published in 1978, could be said to deal with a literary text as a whole. Here, Greenblatt uses Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” to write interestingly about Marlowe’s Barabas as “the alienated essence of Christian society”: the quintessential representative of a social and economic structure which loathes him, and against which he wages a ruthless private war. The openly declared “fantasy” with which this essay opens—about Marx as Barabas’s surviving anti-Semitic child, assailing his father’s Judaism as merely capitalism stripped of its Christian spiritualities—leads freshly and persuasively into a discussion of the psychology of The Jew of Malta: its use of aphorism, its rhetorical strategies, and the underlying peril of the way Marlowe encourages and manipulates the anti-Semitic response of his audience. Greenblatt engages in the kind of far-reaching cultural speculation he enjoys while also, for once, allowing the play to exist as something more than a few deracinated fragments.

Elsewhere, the situation is different. Greenblatt studiously accumulates so much material from the researches of various social and religious historians, psychologists, political scientists, and anthropologists, that the great works of literature which he continues to address—by Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, and other members of what is, on the whole, a very traditional canon—are nearly lost to sight. Quoted from so glancingly as to become almost redundant, they seem less interesting than the material in which he enmeshes them, and sometimes only tenuously related to it. It is difficult, for instance, to feel in “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs” that the Reverend Francis Wayland’s smug and ghastly story about how he high-mindedly starved his fifteen-month-old son into a condition of abject filial love, an account first published in the American Baptist Magazine of 1831, and more recently in various studies of child-rearing patterns in Jacksonian America, really tells us much about Cordelia and her father in King Lear. Instead of exploring how Sidney’s Arcadia, or The Tempest, or King Lear genuinely illumine and are illuminated by their cultural settings, Greenblatt amasses evidences which bear in upon and often seem to control works that are cited, for the most part, in ways that prevent them from speaking to the reader in anything like their full complexity.

Both the strengths and the limitations of this method are already apparent in the title essay, “Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century” (1976). Here Greenblatt brings together a rewarding amount of information about European attitudes toward the languages of the New World, most of them dismissive but a few both sympathetic and intelligent. The two most common mistakes made about Indian tongues, he concludes, were either to slander them as gibberish, or else to wave them airily aside and assume—on the grounds of “a powerful unspoken belief in the isomorphic relationship between language and reality”—that no linguistic barrier of any importance existed. “Perhaps the profoundest literary exploration of these themes in the Renaissance,” he declares, is to be found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

That is a large and promising claim. Unfortunately, Greenblatt never substantiates it. In a single imaginative leap, he identifies Caliban as metaphor incarnate: the walking embodiment of linguistic “difference” conjoined with “likeness.” Difference, however, turns out to depend on six lines in the second scene of Act Two, where Caliban offers to show Stephano and Trinculo crab apples, pig-nuts, marmosets, and “Young scamels from the rock.” The “rich, irreducible concreteness of the verse,” Greenblatt finds, compels us to recognize the independence of Caliban’s “construction of reality,” while its alien “opacity” is emblematized by the fact that “we do not to this day know the meaning of the word ‘scamel.’ ” This is all very seductive, but it requires only a moment’s reflection to protest that “rich, irreducible concreteness’ is characteristic of much verse in The Tempest, of Prospero’s “midnight mushrumps” and “green sour ringlets…. Whereof the ewe not bites” quite as much as of Caliban’s crab apples and nimble marmosets, and that “scamels” is only one of a number of words in Shakespeare (Hamlet’s dram of “eale,” or the “arm-gaunt” steed in Antony and Cleopatra) which we still cannot define, even though uttered in an Old World context.


Meanwhile, other attitudes toward language are ignored. Alonzo and Gonzalo’s appreciative response to sign language, the “excellent dumb discourse” of the spirit shapes they take for courteous “people of the island,” goes unremarked, as does Shakespeare’s insistence that Caliban’s staple idiom, in distinction from the prose of Stephano and Trinculo, civilization’s savages, should be verse. Might a connection exist between Caliban’s verse speaking and Puttenham’s contention in The Art of English Poesie (1589) that among New World peoples, poetry is more ancient than prose? Greenblatt cites Puttenham but without reference to Shakespeare’s play. Concerned, as ever, with the iniquities of colonialism, what strikes him most forcefully is Caliban’s snarling rebuke to Prospero and Miranda:

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

This, apparently, represents “devastating justness, … an absolute if intolerably bitter moral victory.” But as Greenblatt knows, Caliban does far more with the language he has been taught than curse.

He omits to mention that only a few lines before this outburst, a calmer Caliban had remembered that being told how “To name the bigger light, and how the less, / That burn by day and night” was one of the best things about his early relationship with Prospero. It is true that Shakespeare allows Caliban (like Shylock and Malvolio) to put a case for having been victimized. In the context of the play as a whole, however, his claim that “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother” sounds less like the cry of the oppressed than the frustration of a second-generation colonialist displaced by later arrivals. In enslaving Caliban, Prospero has merely repeated, in a milder form, what that earlier exile Sycorax did to Ariel—and what Stephano in his turn proposes to do to Caliban and Miranda. If the island belongs by right to anyone, it would seem to be to Ariel, an apparently indigenous spirit who cherishes his freedom but would never think to claim the place where he enjoys it as a possession.

A similar distortion of the evidence in order to convict an imperialist can be seen in the handling of Edmund Scott’s Exact Discourse of the Subtilties, Fashions, Pollicies, Religion, and Ceremonies of the East Indians (1606). In the last section of his introduction, Greenblatt reproduces at length a horrific passage describing the way Scott and his men tortured and finally killed a Chinese goldsmith who refused to admit to “an attempt to rob them of their gold.” Accessory to the crime, in his view, is the Hakluyt Society editor who, in 1943, could find words of praise for Scott’s energy and endurance while making “no direct comment on this passage at all in his long introduction.” This seems somewhat disingenuous, given that the editor does in fact deplore “these barbarous proceedings” in a note appended to the passage itself. More important, however, is the fact that by severing the episode from its context, and also using an old, inaccurate edition instead of the widely available facsimile (1973), Greenblatt has turned Scott into “a sadist” without trying to investigate what might impel a man who was not a psychopath to countenance—and record in detail—an act of such appalling cruelty.

What Scott and the other employees of the East India Company in Java did to their Chinese prisoner was inexcusable. It is not, however, once returned to its place in Scott’s narrative, inexplicable. Greenblatt’s brief reference to “commercial rivalry with the Dutch, fear of fire and theft, and growing hatred of both the Javanese and Chinese natives [sic],” gives the reader unacquainted with Scott’s text no idea of just how desperate the predicament of these English traders was. Around Scott, his companions died one by one. Weakened by dysentery, the climate, and by ailments consequent upon processing pepper, the survivors lived in a continual state of siege. “I protest before GOD,” Scott confesses at one point, “I would not sleepe so many nights in feare againe for the best Shippes lading of Pepper that ever came from thence.” Some men were driven insane by lack of sleep. The greatest threat, to their lives as well as goods, came not from the occasional raid by neighboring headhunters, but from arson: attempts by certain of the Javans, or those other foreign intruders the Chinese, to lay hands on the Englishmen’s gold by burning them in their compound.

“Our men,” Scott relates, “many times have sounded a Drum at our Chamber doores, and wee never heard them; yet presently after, they have but whispered to them selves of Fire, and wee all have runne out of our Chambers.” Nerves overstretched by the need to keep all-night vigils against flaming arrows from without, the English never dreamed that the Chinese next door, by digging an underground connecting tunnel, would introduce fire from within. In the aftermath of the night of horror in which they did so, Scott and his companions lost all self-control. The Hakluyt Society editor, and consequently Greenblatt, leaves out the words italicized below: “Wherefore, because of his sullennesse, and that it was hee that fired us, I thought I would burne him now a little, for wee were nowe in the heate of our anger.” Without in any way justifying what was done to the Chinese prisoner, these omitted words at least point to the horrible symmetry of the revenge—a retribution overseen and in part directed by officers of the Javan king.

The torture passage is stylistically different in its sustained piling on of detail from anything else in Scott’s narrative. Greenblatt himself remarks upon its similarity to the execution passages in Nashe’s popular fiction, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). Yet although he proceeds to insist on the need for new historicists to “read all of the textual traces of the past with the attention traditionally conferred only on literary texts,” he declines to do so in this instance himself: to comment on the sudden, almost hallucinatory quality of Scott’s prose, the way its sentences seem to gather momentum not simply from their accretions of pain, but a kind of Ancient Mariner’s compulsion to recreate a nightmare in its entirety. “If we discovered that Scott’s account was a fabrication,” Greenblatt concludes of the Exact Discourse as a whole, after observing that we have no corroborating testimony to the truth of the torture passage, “his text would thereby be revealed to be not a work of art but a lie.” The judgment seems odd, fueled less by Greenblatt’s conviction that “the post-structuralist confounding of fiction and non-fiction is important but inadequate” than by a moralist’s hatred of Scott and everything he believes him to represent.

Elsewhere, in the essay “Towards a Poetics of Culture,” Greenblatt is willing to countenance Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, a “truelife novel” that “brilliantly combines documentary realism with Mailer’s characteristic romance themes,” and (if more uneasily) the bizarre transference of material “from one discursive sphere to another” in Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast, with all its attendant confusion of historical and aesthetic events. We require, Greenblatt maintains, a new critical terminology to deal with such cultural phenomena, and also to recognize that they are not exclusively contemporary, but have existed in the past. If that is the case, it seems unreasonable to rule out the possibility that Scott, when he came to write about his Chinese victim, might legitimately have emulated Nashe as a way of distancing and coming to terms with what he and his men had done.

Atrocities of various kinds are much in evidence throughout Learning To Curse. “Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion,” in some ways the richest of these essays, moves from the fanciful design, in Dürer’s treatise on geometry (1525), for a civil monument commemorating the crushing of the Peasant’s War, through selected passages in Sidney’s “New” Arcadia and Book V of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, to the Cade and Iden episode in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI. The pose of the solitary, hunched figure on top of Dürer’s column, a sword protruding from his back, is almost exactly, he points out, that of Christ as Man of Sorrows in contemporary German art. (See illustration on the facing page.) We should not, however, be misled by our own latter-day sympathy for the rebellious poor into crediting Dürer with similar compassion. What Dürer has really done, according to Greenblatt, is to invoke the possibility of feeling for the peasant in a form that would exorcise such feeling, rendering it harmless within the authoritarian statement made by the monument as a whole. It is, in fact, another example of what has become a cliché of Greenblatt’s: what looks to us like subversion in the art of the past, whether in Dürer or in Shakespeare’s histories, is merely something orthodoxy makes strategic use of, in order to sustain itself.

There are some dubious tactics here. Although Greenblatt, in a note, cautions the reader against believing that even the discovery of a letter in Dürer’s hand, whether supporting or vilifying the Peasants’ War, could provide clear evidence of his attitude toward it, he does not scruple in the text to adduce Dürer’s devotion to Luther, and Luther’s well-known antagonism to the movement, to strengthen the case against compassion. He uses Dürer’s single, apocalyptic watercolor of an inundation, also produced in 1525, for the same purpose, while ignoring all his drawings and engravings of actual peasants. Those studies, however, some portraying individuals, most showing groups of two or three, are informed by a sympathy unusual in the art of the time. They suggest that Dürer, whatever his fear of a populist deluge, might well have regarded a single peasant, stabbed in the back at the summit of a victory column, as an object of pity.

No hand wields the sword in Dürer. The victors are absent, their social status, Greenblatt claims, vulnerable to compromise by any association with ignoble foes. In Sidney’s Arcadia, on the other hand, the two princes Pyrocles and Musidorus are shown personally despatching the churls who have risen against Basilius, their king. Sidney can allow this, according to Greenblatt, only because the princes are disguised at the time as an Amazon and shepherd respectively. “Conspicuously marginal in class and gender,” they cannot be contaminated by the encounter, any more than the rebels can gain prestige. The savage wit Sidney exercises here in describing the death or wounding of individual insurgents is equivalent to the comic lard tub and chicken basket featured on Dürer’s victory column: the inscription of “ineradicable difference” between social classes. Genre, he concludes, “the aesthetically codified stock of social knowledge,” was primarily responsible for leading the normally sensitive and generous Sidney to write with such brutality, although he also senses a subsidiary explanation in the fact that “Penshurst, where Arcadia was written and revised, was itself the result of early sixteenth-century enclosures bitterly resisted and resented by the poor.”

Arcadia was not, in fact, composed at Penshurst, Sidney’s childhood home, but at Wilton, the home of his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. That the grotesque hewing down of the Arcadian rebels reads unpleasantly can hardly be denied. It needs, however, to be scrutinized not only with attention to the circumstances (which Greenblatt blurs) but within the context of Arcadia as a whole. If the princes are to be castigated for their response to a rebellion against “foolish, ineffectual, but legitimate King Basilius,” it should at least be remembered that in Phrygia, earlier, they had led—undisguised—an uprising of citizens against a poisonous, tyrannical, but equally legitimate monarch. Sidney was no democrat. His heroes preserve their social distance. Neither Phrygia, nor Sparta—where Musidorus, in another episode ignored by Greenblatt, fights with other gentlemen against rebellious slaves, only to discover that the slaves’ captain is his missing friend Prince Pyrocles—becomes a republic. On the other hand, there is no indication that the honor of Pyrocles and Musidorus is compromised in the least by combat with the lower orders, or by aiding them.

Behind the grim particularities of death in battle as handed out by the princes and others in Arcadia runs Sidney’s consciousness of all those dismemberings and shatterings of bone in Homer and Virgil, descriptions he accommodates to his own humbler and more various epic style. In general, Greenblatt’s essays on early modern culture display alarmingly little awareness of something enormously important to that culture: the legacy of the ancient world. Nowhere, for instance, in “Filthy Rites,” Greenblatt’s discussion of scatology in the Renaissance (by way of a nasty experience suffered in 1881 by Captain John G. Bourke, Third Cavalry, US Army, among the Zuñi Indians), does he think to discuss the excremental in Aristophanes, and the extent of knowledge in the period of his distinctively pagan attitude to the human backside. The essay “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture,” an examination of the questions raised by the story of the return of Martin Guerre, is weakened by a failure to notice the widespread currency of the classical Amphitryon myth, as dramatized by Plautus. Greenblatt writes interestingly about the anachronistic inadequacy of Freudian assumptions about personal identity to explain the experience of sixteenth-century French villagers struggling to recognize the real as opposed to the impostor husband of Bertrande de Guerre. It is difficult, however, to believe that the existence in the literature of the period of so many analogues to what he perceives as the obscure but “peculiarly Renaissance story” of Martin Guerre has nothing to do with Alcmena’s difficulty, and that of Thebes generally, in distinguishing her husband Amphitryon (on his return from war) from the god Jupiter in his likeness.

“Veneration of the past or of tradition,” Greenblatt declares in “Resonance and Wonder,” is one of the things most new historicism, “and certainly my own work, has set itself resolutely against.” A reaction against what he describes as “the relentlessly celebratory character” of his own literary training, it nonetheless tends to alienate him from the early modern period itself, which by and large did venerate the past, while refusing to be brow-beaten by it. Although Greenblatt is now urging “resonance” to embrace “wonder,” as a companion more acceptable than veneration, it is by no means clear what this new acquaintance really looks like. When he claims, in the introduction, that all that is initially required to understand Scott’s narrative of torture is “a hatred of cruelty and a capacity for wonder,” he presumably means something different from the “arresting sense of uniqueness,” the admiring and “exalted attention” invoked later in connection with the masterpieces of Cézanne and Monet. Equally open to doubt is the relationship of those Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces now in the Musée d’Orsay to the wonder-cabinets of the Middle Ages and Renaissance from which, Greenblatt believes, the cult of the marvelous derives.

“Resonance and Wonder” never seems to take into account what the Renaissance itself regarded as the Seven Wonders (mira, miracula) of the ancient world, or that later list of seven, the Wonders of the Middle Ages: Stonehenge and the Colosseum, or the Great Wall of China, which replaced such vanished classical marvels as the Colossus of Rhodes, the hanging gardens of Babylon, or Phidias’ statue of Zeus. Babylonian, Greek, Roman, or British, the work of known or anonymous hands, these objects all had one thing in common: their magnitude. The products, certainly, of particular social and cultural transactions, they also transformed the world around them. None was collectible, or even in any strict sense owned. And the Renaissance believed their equivalents could still be created. It is of a work generically like them that Vasari writes in his life of Michelangelo, when he describes how the Sistine Chapel was finally thrown open, and people from all parts came, and were rendered speechless by the marvel within.

Greenblatt seems at ease with “wonder” in this final essay only when it is evoked by nautilus shells and ostrich eggs, fossils, stuffed crocodiles, or oddly proportioned bones: all those curiosities lovingly collected and displayed by princes and virtuosi. Learning To Curse is itself a cabinet of this kind, an assemblage of disparate and fragmentary things, arbitrarily juxtaposed, their asserted cultural interconnections all too often depending on Greenblatt’s skill at arrangement. That is considerable, and yet in technical terms the exhibition is rather carelessly presented. Despite the stress laid in the introduction on the evolution of his critical thought, Greenblatt’s publishers have allowed the book to appear without an acknowledgments page, leaving the reader to puzzle out not only where but when individual essays first appeared. The introduction is new, but Greenblatt seems to have made no effort to revise or correct the essays. That is excusable in a collection of this kind. More perplexing is his decision not to update the notes, either in terms of subsequent scholarship or a case like that of Don E. Wayne’s Penshurst, where “a fine unpublished study” has long ago metamorphosed into a book. The collection as a whole seems to be innocent of proofreading.

The intelligence at work in these essays is alert, imaginative, and humane. Like Wordsworth’s Newton, Greenblatt voyages enterprisingly through strange seas of thought, and although he scarcely does so “alone”—he is too often content to deploy research done by other scholars as opposed to undertaking his own—the cargo he brings back is various and rich. His work has many merits, including that (essential in a master storyteller) of never being dull. Learning To Curse is flawed, however, not only by a worrying insensitivity to the internal complexity of works of art, but by its inability to track down and accommodate “wonder,” a quarry as elusive and insubstantial as Lewis Carroll’s Snark. Truly wonderful things, such as The Tempest or The Faerie Queene, are reduced to sites from which resonance emanates. Even Renaissance cabinets of marvels turn out to be resonance by another name. Either bizarre, or something artificially induced by the trick lighting employed in certain contemporary museums, Greenblatt’s “wonder” seems to be merely an emptiness at the heart of resonance.

This Issue

March 28, 1991