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.

Here, and in his treatment of Harvey’s bantering replies, Helgerson mistakes the tone entirely; his inferences are inflated interpretative fantasies. We are asked to believe that an argument occurring within a small group of poets about the relative merits of “Classical” and “Medieval” (native) verse—the work of “bold rhymers”—was of vast cultural and political significance. In opposing Spenser’s suggestion, Harvey is said by Helgerson to be resisting his “version of the absolutist cultural politics of antiquity…. Here Spenser and Harvey together discover, almost inadvertently it would seem, an oppositional politics of national literary self-representation.”

Spenser very soon gave up quantitative verse and got on with his “Gothic” rhyming, which hardly suits the argument that he had a humanist preference for the Classical over the Medieval; but you can always say, with Helgerson, that presence depends on absence, so that what is not so is as important in its way as what is. This device facilitates a good deal of conjuring with “systems of difference.” Thus Helgerson argues that Classical epic and Medieval chivalric romance coexist in The Faerie Queene. Virgilian aspirations and the ceremonial cult of the Queen stood on one side, and “Gothic” romance, representing the aristocratic opposition which favored “a partially refeudalized English polity,” on the other.

Since Spenser sympathized not with the absolutist but with the refeudalizers he never brings the Faerie Queene into the poem. It is therefore legitimate, Helgerson writes, to speculate that his wicked females as well as his good or heroic ones may be covert representations of Queen Elizabeth. The important figure of Duessa, Una’s opponent, identifiable as the Whore of Babylon as well as other wicked ladies, might be hard to work into this theory, but she seems, discreetly, not to be mentioned in Forms of Nationhood. Perhaps we are to assume that her absence from this surely absurd conjecture is as important as her presence would have been. We can bear to be reminded that the great poem has multiple political bearings, but these selective overinterpretations are hardly the way to identify them.

The chapter on legal discourse is much better. Roman law had been revived in Europe, and it seemed to some humanists in the time of Henry VIII that England, which had been part of the Empire, should receive it also. Helgerson is interested in the later contest between common law and royal prerogative—judge-made law versus king-made law. Here he identifies, more plausibly, another clash between Classical and Gothic, or Medieval, the Classical favoring the absolutism to which James I aspired, the Medieval more attentive to the rights of the subject, and insistent that the monarch remain under the law.

The great Edward Coke, in defending the common law against the King’s prerogative, can intelligibly be said to have written the law of England. True, he depended partly on the bogus argument that English law, descending from the legendary Trojan emigrant Brutus, was actually more ancient than the Roman; but in his Institutes, as unwieldy as they were authoritative, he codified English law—and paradoxically, by writing down “unwritten law,” provided a satisfactory native rival to the Institutes of Justinian. In a characteristic sentence Helgerson remarks that both Institutes were “ideologically motivated, and each depends on the other (even if only as a signifying absence…).” But he does illuminate this issue, and the conflict between the absolutist tendencies of James I and Coke’s common law was of real constitutional importance.

Of course nothing is quite simple in matters of this kind: Coke thought well of the Court of Star Chamber, a court not of common law but of the King’s prerogative, but only on condition that the monarch never showed up, so that the royal presence in the court was merely symbolic, the law being left, as Coke thought it should be, to learned judges. Later, when the monarchy was tottering, Parliament was quick to abolish Star Chamber, but Coke preferred to keep it, not wanting, as Helgerson puts it, to weaken altogether the “oppositional prerogative.” This seems right, and it might have been worth considering the degree to which “oppositional” options sometimes continue, for whatever reasons, to be respected—the Classical bias in English culture did not, after all, cease with the seventeenth-century victory over absolutism. What is not right is the unbalanced claim that Coke’s defense of native law is to be thought of as having merely the same kind of importance as the defense of native English verse against the Classicizers, since both are ways of “writing England.” One is, one isn’t; these discourses won’t negotiate.

The chapter on maps is also interesting. Helgerson shows that royal emblems and portraits gradually disappeared from maps, which thereafter bore the names of their true makers. Place names now crowded in, for the nation, no longer dominated by the monarch—whose image might occupy much of the space on a map—insisted on its diversity. The nation, that is, was “writing itself,” in protest against monarchical presumption. Individual historians and geographers asserted their rights, and those of the land at large. And thus “royal power [was] disabled.” But it fought back: James hated maps, fearing that they would make the land seem more important than the crown. Map-making became a political, even a “whiggish” act. All this is new, at any rate to me, and seems largely plausible.

The chapter on voyages compares the mercantilism of the rather belated English ventures with the more aristocratic ethos of the Portuguese, at any rate as professed in the epic of Camões; the English were clearly more interested in profit than in honor or the augmentation of royal power. “Vent and commodity,” in Hakluyt’s words, were the main point of voyaging. “Commerce is the life of England and the world”; this being understood, token words could be added concerning the Queen’s “honor, reverence and power,” and the virtuous spread of Christianity.

Helgerson duly explains that the financing of the great expeditions altered social balances, mingling aristocrat and merchant. Yet here “old” historians might complain of puzzling omissions. Very little is said about the enormous and rapid transformation of the life and culture of London consequent on these and other mercantile ventures; perhaps this is old history, too well known to deserve new historical attention. At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign England was a poor country, well behind its European rivals in technology and production. By the end of the reign London was rich and powerful. Profits, from voyages and from domestic enterprise, could be fantastic. That part-time old historian J.M. Keynes pointed out in his Treatise on Money that with the profit on Drake’s venture in the Golden Hind Elizabeth “paid off the whole of her foreign debt,” which was considerable, and had a nice sum left over to invest in the East India Company, so preparing the way to the larger empire of the future. For other speculators, though not for the poor, who were badly hit by rising prices, the London market, usurping the position of Antwerp, created vast wealth: “Never in the annals of the modern world,” said Keynes, who did not live to see the international markets of the Eighties, “has there existed so prolonged and so rich an opportunity for the business man and the speculator.” These new riches founded what might be called proto-bourgeois luxury. Ostentation in dress, hairstyles, and weapons spread throughout society, and so did the expensive tobacco habit. The plays that exposed or satirized city greed and display—Jonson’s, and later Massinger’s and Middleton’s—get no mention here. Indeed it is extraordinary how lifeless this new history can seem—a bloodless ballet of social practices, danced high above the scams and the traffic jams, the noises of dog eating dog, in the City where they are said to have interacted.

There follows a chapter on Shakespeare in the currently fashionable disparaging manner. Socially insecure, the playwright sought to be taken up by the aristocracy. He progressively excluded the commons from his stage, and when he showed the populace at all it was engaged in “demonized revolt.” The success of his social climbing was such that he eventually secured the position he now holds in bourgeois aesthetic valuation. Yet there were other theaters than his, now neglected, which had a different attitude toward the common people—which dealt in carnival, and relished popular sentiment.

Much is made of the replacement in Shakespeare’s company, around the turn of the century, of the Clown Will Kemp by the Fool Robert Armin. Was the departure of the more popular, “broader” comic related to the dramatic dismissal of Falstaff, played by Kemp? Well, no, “but the fictional event does have a proleptic relation to the factual one”—another of those hocus-pocus passes that enable the writer to say what he wants to say even though he knows better. “Clown” and “Fool” aren’t all that sharply distinguished in Shakespeare’s terminology—Lavatch in All’s Well is called “Clown” throughout, yet he is obviously the Countess’s Fool. Of course there was some difference, and Armin had a distinctive style, of which Shakespeare, who wrote for his actors, took account when writing Feste and the Fool in Lear. But to make Armin out to be another sign of Shakespeare’s “infatuation with kingly power” is excessive. So is the notion that by losing “the common touch” Shakespeare eventually excluded the common people from the canon of literature.

Shakespeare has stood, as he still stands today, for Royal Britain, for a particularly anachronistic state formation, based at least symbolically on the monarch and an aristocratic governing class.

There is little evidence that modern royalty would agree that he stands thus, and it is now a long time since Britain had an aristocratic prime minister. It is hard to imagine that Heath, Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher, and Major, to say nothing of the hereditary peerage, think of Shakespeare as contributing to their power. Their opinion is more likely to have been that of George III: “Was there ever such stuff as a great part of Shakespeare?”

Again, too much is left out. Coriolanus is unkind to the mob but unkind also to the aristocracy, and Shakespeare, as Wyndham Lewis remarked, knew a lot about really nasty supersnob aristocrats and remembered them in his plays. And who has authorial sympathy in the first scene of The Tempest, the courtiers or the common sailors?

It is a real difficulty to distinguish what Dr. Johnson called the praise “paid by perception and judgment” from that which is “given by custom and veneration,” but it is not a difficulty admitted by Helgerson, who only rarely and then almost inadvertently hints that the plays are of any value except for what they seem to reveal, willy-nilly, about the contemporary conflict between absolutism and popular nationalism, and about the bardolatrous machinations of later ideologists.

The chapter about religion makes its point by contrasting the apocalyptic populism of Foxe’s book of Protestant martyrs at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign with the suaver conservative apologetics of Richard Hooker at the end. They are said to offer “differing discourses of nationhood.” Indeed they do. It is possible that both Foxe and Hooker, each in his own way but also by expressing oppositional attitudes, played a part in opening up “a discursive space”—i.e., set the terms of discussion on ecclesiastical establishment—for future generations. For as Helgerson remarks, there were and are “competing and even contradictory ways of being English,” that is, “most literate and mobile Englishmen belonged to several discursive communities, were traversed by a plurality of nationalist discourses.” And so they are still, though they might not put it just like that.

It seems sad that a scholar who obviously knows how to find things out, and can write well when he chooses, should feel compelled to deal in imaginary trouvailles, and to use this modish jargon. For it is surely not impossible that lively cultural history could be written, and indeed better written, if the desire to astonish by novelty were moderated, and the new cant purged or given up altogether.

This Issue

June 25, 1992