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.
Another prime concern of the school is “the unsettled relation between ‘the real’ and its licensed representations,” and the most remarkable chapter in this book professes to demonstrate a crisis of representation in an altarpiece, now in the Palazzo Ducale at Urbino, by the fifteenth-century Netherlandish painter Joos van Gent. This huge painting (in oils, a novelty in the Italy of the time) is called The Communion of the Apostles. After the Last Supper Jesus administers the sacrament to his kneeling disciples. The communion wafer, held between Jesus’ thumb and forefinger, is in a position a little to the left of the center of the composition. Jesus’ left hand, pretty well in the true center of the work, holds a paten, the plate for holding the wafer, as a priest’s might (see detail on page 61).
Jesus in this unique situation is both sacrifice and priest, administering his own body to the faithful by means of the transubstantiated bread. The communion wafer, represented in the painting as a white ellipse in Jesus’ extended right hand, is not in reality a representation of the body of Christ but his actual body; faith requires that the morsel of bread of which one sees only the species, the accidental appearance, be accepted as that real body. This, it is here argued, is a situation which defies representation; so the space where the wafer should be is said to have been left blank. The picture thus affirms the doctrine of the Real Presence as insisted on by the Church, so expressing “the ideological consensus of a dominant institution, a ruling class, or a hegemonic elite.”
The turbaned figure on the right of the picture is thought to represent a recently converted Jew, privileged to be present at the celebration of the Eucharist. The original viewers of the altarpiece would have known this, and been aware of the “wave of anti-Semitic agitation” that occurred in Italy in the 1460s. But despite such contemporary references the primary interest of the painting is theological, having to do with what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls “the eternal priesthood of Christ.” The people represented in the painting are in this sense marginal. Given the theology of the Real Presence, the central point of the work is of course the wafer.
But the heart of the argument is that the wafer is not in fact represented. The bit of bread “under whose accidents that body supposedly exists and is eaten is a small blank….” Later the blank becomes “this dab of white,” though later still it is again a “blank spot.” So it is “less a representation than a space where visual representation is emphatically refusing to happen.” Thus it complies with the “ideological” demands of the Church.
Under van Gent’s painting there was a predella, or decorated altar-step, by Paolo Uccello, telling in six episodes the story of a Jewish “Profanation of the Host.” The story, extant in many versions, is of a Jew who sought to disprove the Christian doctrine of the Real Presence, in this case by procuring the wafer and cooking it to test whether it behaved like a real body. So the predella provides a narrative supporting the relative abstraction of the altarpiece. The altarpiece is theologically abstract, but Uccello’s painting, though sharing an interest in the theological doctrine, is in other respects very different: it tells a story. However, it also has a telltale luminosity: “the wound in the wall.” The Host that the Jews are secretly cooking gives out blood, and the soldiers outside could not have known this had the blood not trickled across the room and out through this hole in the wall, which is not only a structural element in the representation but “a tear in the fabric of that representation.” The doctrinal point is that the experiment of the Jews proves the Real Presence by a test no Christian would make. Only a Jew would dare to have doubted it. The consequences for the family concerned are depicted by Uccello as very severe.
The authors’ analysis of these paintings, though avowedly incomplete, is far more detailed than my account of it, but it should be clear that the hole and the blank Host together do the work of anecdote or revealing luminosity. We have been shown a general truth about representation: the blank spot and the hole are “tears where energies, desires, and representations flow out into the world.” These paintings together “both bear and efface the marks of the eucharistic doctrine of the Real Presence, especially its anti-representationalism.”
So the works of van Gent and Uccello reflect what was to become a doctrinal dispute, with powerful political and social implications, that would soon split the Church and set nations against one another. All this is deduced from one blank spot and a hole in a wall. The ingenuity and assurance of the essay are extraordinary, yet it may well be that its argument is doubtful, like others that depend on anecdotes to transcend the understanding of more conventional historians.
Joos van Gent’s enormous painting is in poor physical condition. The color, especially the white, was always thin, and some of the work, apparently done in a hurry and perhaps by assistants unfamiliar with painting in oils, was inexpert. The work has suffered much from traveling to exhibitions, from worm damage, and from inept restoration by painters unfamiliar with Flemish techniques. An examination made in 1899 detected cracks and whitish stains where the paint had fallen off (macchie biancastre pel colore caduto). In 1931 it was reported as almost irretrievably damaged, but it was then once again subjected to restoration (a round window previously painted out now reappeared).2
The authors say nothing of the dilapidated condition of the picture, a consideration which might have suggested other reasons for the state of the paint, if there is any, on the place of the wafer. Their description of it seems to say either that there is no paint or that there is at best a dab of white paint—surely a point they should have made up their minds about. But if the more or less paintless state of the wafer does show that the Host could not be represented, the implication is that the painter and his patrons knew this, and so did the restorers, clumsy yet providentially endowed with New Historicist sensitivity, over the next five hundred years. It is hard to believe they would see the profound purpose of a small blank patch in a large picture from which the paint was falling off anyway. And as far as I can discover, there is no parallel in the history of quattrocento or indeed of Italian art at any time for this reverent abstention from representation. After all, there seemed to be no problem about representing the blood of Christ by red paint. It would seem that the linking of that small blankish patch to the whole desperate history of the doctrine of the Real Presence is a conceit rather than a fact.
The presence in the painting of the converted Jew Isaac, emissary of the Persian king, is important to the argument because it brings in the matter of Jewish attitudes toward the Christian doctrine, and allows the authors to introduce the theme of anti-Semitism, with much detail about the Franciscan effort to provide alternatives to usury. They therefore choose one out of several available explanations for the presence of this figure. Their candidate happens, conveniently, to be a converted Jew. Another candidate considered by scholars is Caterino Zeno, a Venetian, who was also, as it happens, an emissary of the Persian sovereign, but not a Jew, indeed, presumably, a Catholic, which suits the present argument much less well. Moreover the painting as a whole may have a much simpler theme than is here proposed; for example, it may commemorate the moment when the sacrament is administered to Saint Peter, appropriately the first-ever communicant.
Authors as sophisticated as these are, as we’ve seen, well aware of the danger that the “luminous detail” may be chosen not at random and not for its simple luminosity but because it can be made to “resonate with” an idea they already have in their heads. The Host is like the anecdote, valued because it is in a way “a horrific outside to any conceivable historical order.” It can serve to pierce the defenses of conventional historiography. So can Uccello’s hole in the wall. The idea is rather thrilling, and it enables the authors to get where they want to be, into the network of the theological and social conflicts of the time. But what is exciting is not necessarily true. And to have discussed the van Gent painting in such detail without reference to its condition is arguably to reject hard historical fact in favor of fantasy.
A chapter on “The Potato in the Materialist Imagination” is a sort of learned scherzo, basing its own “much quirkier analysis” on R.N. Salaman’s famous book The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949). Irish peasants, close to the soil, cultivated and lived solely on potatoes while they were employed to grow the grain that provided bread for their betters. The potato, dug up and boiled and eaten straight from the pot, required none of the technology necessary for breadmaking; it was basic, humble, and earthy, as were its consumers. Indeed it came to be identified with the peasants who lived on it, and who, like the potato, appeared to be molded of earth or dirt. “Hence,” the authors claim, “[the potato] seems an appropriate topic for launching a discussion of the modern materialistic imagination.” This discussion is rather insecurely linked to that of “the elusive object,” the unrepresentable Host, by the statement that the potato, coming right out of the earth, is the opposite of transcendent and immortal, being associated with filth and infirmity. “Perhaps it was because the Irish peasantry was in the grip of superstition, because they thought they could eat God’s body, that they uncomplainingly lived on a hog’s diet.”
Well, perhaps. This chapter again demonstrates what serious fun these new games can be. Less persuasive and amusing is a chapter intimately relating Reformation theology to Hamlet. Here the arguments about the Real Presence are juxtaposed rather uneasily with certain scattered passages in Hamlet, such as the hero’s remarks about the body of Polonius. Much is made of the ritual care taken in church to avoid unseemly disposal of any remnants of the wafer, lest it be consumed by a mouse, for instance; and Hamlet tends to dwell on the indignity suffered by a king’s body if it has to make a progress through the guts of a beggar:
The play enacts and reenacts queasy rituals of defilement and revulsion, an obsession with a corporeality that reduces everything to appetite and excretion.
The book ends with a chapter on the novel: “Novels,” we are told,
may…be said to activate a fundamental practice of modern ideology—acquiescence without belief, crediting without credulousness—while significantly altering its disposition, transforming the usually guarded wariness into pleasurable expectations.
This account of the novel would with some adaptation apply well enough to the book that includes it: we “assent for the moment while keeping our readiness to depart from the fictional world.”
However, the centerpiece of the chapter is an analysis of Great Expectations notable for its flourishes of far-fetched but not always irrelevant learning, as in the treatment of the passage at the beginning of the novel where Pip studies the gravestone of his father, and, later, the description of the thirty-two convicts in their pen, with Magwitch and Pip safely outside. In the opening scene Pip is associated with the tradition of “the wicked son,” a tradition that the authors now recount and explain:
Pip’s expectations have nothing to do with his father, for no one could seem more completely defunct in body, spirit, and fortune than the “Philip Pirrip, late of this parish” who is declared “dead and buried” (along with “Georgiana wife of the above” and “Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid”) in the opening pages of Great Expectations and never mentioned again. The wicked son’s nefarious suggestion that the past is past, over and done with, and that none of it has anything to do with him is at once common sense and painful reality to little Pip as he scans his surroundings and sees only a landscape like a blank sheet, ruled but not lettered: “The marshes were just a long black line…; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed.”
As a figure for the as yet unwritten social world of this (or perhaps any) orphan, the blankness of the initial setting makes Pip’s wicked-son mentality seem like an opening gambit: tell me the story, it seems to say, that will people this desolation and end my isolation. But the letters in the churchyard promise no stories; they are comically complete, words and icons combined, and seem to leave no room for curiosity about their overly represented and therefore everlastingly finished referents: “The shape of the letters on my father’s [tombstone], gave me the odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.”
The discussion involves a wide-ranging investigation of nineteenth-century ideas, medical information on real and apparent death, and the relation between Marx on fetishism and other evidence of the period’s “willingness to enter into known illusions”:
The pleasures of pretending to flesh out a moribund structure, to put blood and muscle on a conceptual abstraction, to lay it by for future use, then to resuscitate it are the pleasures of the fictional mode. These pleasures are all the more apparent in serial publications like Great Expectations, which require that the reader’s interest be suspended from one installment to the next, often through the technique of a suspenseful plot. And, since we know that the periodically reappearing simulacra, indicating absence as they do, will necessarily have a whiff of death about them, it seems only appropriate that Great Expectations should linger in the graveyard to bare its rites of fiction.
…The novel’s generic readiness to disclose the open secret of its fictionality would seem to fit a dominant nineteenth-century “ideological” tendency toward epistemological flexibility. Complicating Marx’s formulation that ideology entails a “fetishistic” belief in the independent life of mere human inventions, we’ve argued that instead ideology has required a mode of supplementing disbelief with a willingness to enter into known illusions, a disposition to take obvious inventions of the human hand and brain for independently living entities under certain conditions and for certain purposes.
The continuity of skepticism underlying both fiction and the ideology of the modern period would, then, seem an obvious nexus in which to place Great Expectations’ revenants, since they, too, invite us to play with the difference between animate and inanimate beings. Explicitly, in this case, we are invited to pretend that bodies can be held at the brink of life or move gradually in and out of a vital state through the operations of the mind. Pip becomes an allegory for the reader, both frightening himself with the ghastly figures and indulging the wish that he had the power to think the dead back to life.
The scope and daring of the exercise are notable, but one cannot help regretting that the game is being played in just the spirit of skeptical pretense that the authors attribute to the “fiction and the ideology of the modern period.” One of the more basic problems of New Historical writing is that one cannot be sure whether one is being asked to believe something, or merely entertained by dextrous performers.
David Scott Kastan thinks the moment of New Historicism has passed. It is “neither new enough nor historical enough to serve.” What is more, it assumes a certain coherence in a culture, such that one can begin from some obscure or startling anecdote and find it consonant with the culture at large, which, for Kastan, is a reprise of the despised formalism of a previous generation. Specifically he complains about the “notorious anecdotalism” of New Historicism, “with its habitual gesture toward historic specificity.” What he wants is history with more facts, although he is anxious that this development should not be seen as a return to an obsolete, pre-New, form of historicism. We are now, it seems, in “a post-theoretical moment.”
Yet he admittedly owes much to New Historicism and other aspects of “Theory,” and uses a lot of the now familiar patter (“mystified,” “demonize,” “imbricate,” “articulation,” including “highly mobile articulation”), without which it seems the business of modern criticism cannot be conducted. And like some New Historicists he seems to think that until the arrival of their own way of doing it all thinking about history had been “positivist” and “untheoretical.” “Older historicisms found it simpler to pretend that their constructions were limpid, objective accounts of the past, unfiltered by the interests of the observer.” Unsurprisingly, such names as R.G. Collingwood and W.B. Gallie (to name but two) are absent from the indexes of both these books; The Idea of History was published in 1946 and Philosophy and the Historical Understanding in 1964, presumably too early to be of interest to modern thinkers about historical explanation, who regard the writing of history with reference to the interests and presumptions of the observer as their own discovery, and sum up all former inquiries by reference to positivism and Ranke’s remark about telling it as it really (“actually”? “essentially”?) was.3
Kastan’s book, a collection of disparate essays on related themes, involves a good deal of repetition, both of its main positions and of its illustrations (for example, we are told three times that in 1612 Thomas Bodley, despising such cheap literature, forbade the acquisition of playbooks by the great library he founded at Oxford). His main insistence is on the fact that Elizabethan and Jacobean plays “were not autonomous and self-contained literary objects but provisional scripts for performance.” They originated with an author, or authors, who did not own them and (usually) had no control over what became of them in the playhouse or, if they were among the rather small proportion of plays published, in the printing house. “Actors, prompters, collaborators, annotators, revisers, copyists, compositors, printers, and proofreaders all would have a hand in shaping the play-text.”
Shakespeare’s income, as Kastan correctly observes, would have derived not from authorship but from his being a “sharer” in the company he wrote for, claiming a tenth of its profits. As a playwright he would simply turn in the original provisional scripts, taking little or no more interest in them—a plausible view, supported by Shakespeare’s apparent indifference to the fate of his published plays, and by what is known in general about theatrical and publishing practice. Modern editions, with their emphasis on the importance of what Shakespeare actually wrote, neglect the circumstances that diluted his influence on the dramatic product.
At one point Kastan remarks that to old-fashioned editors the “Bad” quarto of Hamlet (1603) is of less value than the “Good” quarto of 1604, whereas to anybody interested in “the social text” the Bad “speaks the material and institutional conditions of the production every bit as fully” and is called “Bad” only because of its lesser proximity to Shakespeare’s manuscript. He means that the Bad quartos are certainly related to performances controlled by theatrical conventions and interventions, just as the Good ones were, and only seem to lack authority because various unknown hands had messed about with them; eliminate the unthinking desire of editors to know what Shakespeare actually wrote, and there can be no point in thinking them inferior to Good quartos.
This is an interesting idea, though apparently hard to hold on to, and before long Kastan is himself talking about a “defective” quarto and the “flawed text” of the 1597 Romeo and Juliet. Why don’t these meet the obligations of “social text” every bit as well as their legitimate congeners? On this argument they are flawed only in the least important way, their dubious relation to what Shakespeare originally wrote. The fetishizing of that original began, in Kastan’s view, with Heminges and Condell, colleagues of Shakespeare, when they published the posthumous First Folio in 1623 and claimed that they were providing texts of Shakespeare’s plays “absolute in their numbers, as he conceiv’d them.” Kastan claims that they were not only lying but “erasing the very conditions of his art” and falsely representing the nature of his authority.
These considerations, so agitating to Kastan, would be less worrying if we were content to think of the word “Shakespeare” as simply a convenient way of referring to the plays as we have them and not primarily to a single author, a person who has been so badly misrepresented by naive biographers and editors. And although Kastan offers much detailed supporting material, none of this is really new. However, he proposes a new use for it, the exploration of the “richly productive interactions” between Shakespeare’s art and “other intentions that interact with his work.”
The second half of the book con-sists of chapters dealing with a vari-ety of problems encountered by post-theorists animated by a renewed passion for fact. His argument against Gary Taylor, the Oxford editor who, with exceptional implausibility, insisted on renaming Falstaff Oldcastle in 1 Henry IV and changing the title of the play, is clearly correct, and along the way contains an interesting argument that Lollards (of whom Oldcastle was one) had come to be regarded by adherents of the Elizabethan Settlement not as heroes but villains.
A substantial group of articles explores the idea that “representation itself became subversive” and that the theater, simply by existing, was working “to expose the mystifications of power.” The mere fact that an actor could play a king, wearing the royal insignia, was enough to weaken “the structure of authority,” the more so since by prancing around London in their fine clothes the actors were threats to “the culture of degree.” Representing nascent capitalism, they were a menace to older systems of authority. And the claim is made, not for the first time but still rather absurdly, that these theatrical subversions led, in the long run, to the execution of Charles I.
But the authority flouted by the theater was civic, not royal. Elizabeth enjoyed plays, though insisting on control and moderation, while James I made Shakespeare’s company the King’s Men, royal servants. The threat to the monarchy cannot have been considered very great. Indeed in his last chapter Kastan himself argues that in closing the theaters in 1642 Parliament was acting not against royalism or from doctrinaire puritanism but in its own defense against criticism, at a time when its rule was as unpopular as the King’s.
The chapter which best illustrates the author’s desire to outdo all historicisms, new and old, is on The Tempest. For a good while the standard approach to this play has been to situate it in “the discourse of colonialism.” It has long seemed evident enough that it alluded to the colonialist Virginia ventures, but more than that was wanted, and the “discourse of colonialism” was ransacked by academic commentators to a degree that showed they would go to any lengths to avoid talking about the play itself. Kastan agrees that the Virginia connection has been overdone, but moves it aside only to demonstrate that the play is really quite minutely concerned with European dynastic politics.
The Tempest was performed as part of the festivities preceding the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick, the Elector of Bohemia, in 1613. Does it “resonate,” as Kastan believes, with the forthcoming marriage and with political issues concerning Bohemia? Before answering this one should remember that it was only one of fourteen plays given during the celebrations, and that among the others were Othello and The Winter’s Tale. It is surely harder to make these plays resonate with nuptial celebrations. However, the politics of the Holy Roman Empire and especially the position of the Emperor Rudolf still seem more promising material than the play itself.
“This all may seem to be taking us far from the island world of The Tempest,” says Kastan, but only to take us closer to the true “historical center.” The reclusive Rudolf was interested in magic and was deposed, as Prospero was. (Strangely, there is no mention here of Frances Yates, who had so much to say about Bohemia and the Princess Elizabeth, Rudolf, and his English mage John Dee.4)
When the play mentions a son of Antonio drowned in the wreck, it is customary to regard the reference as one of those quite common Shakespearean slips. To argue that this drowned son existed within the terms of the play may help to complicate its dynastic plot; but it quite unnecessarily makes Ariel a liar when he says the storm produced “not so much perdition as an hair.” (Kastan, almost incredibly, here proposes a pun on “heir.”) But what is supposed to have happened to this ghostly character? He is not mentioned again, neither included in nor excluded from the reconciliations at the end. Nobody, not even his father, laments or even notices his death. It seems that in this kind of historical criticism you can say anything you like, however fanciful, without expecting common-sense objections.
Kastan remarks that orthodox historians—historians de métier—find it hard to take the New Historicism seriously, and it seems unlikely that they will bother much about this post–New Historicism. An interest in fact is admirable, but theory has given it perhaps too much license, for all fact is now somehow interrelated; text and context are “imbricated” (i.e., overlapping, as with fish scales) so that one can say almost anything and claim its relevance to whatever is being talked about. Much intelligence and much scholarly labor is thus thrown away; while the plays themselves, puritanically denied “aesthetic” attention, are, like the theaters in 1642, declared off-limits.
July 5, 2001
In Stephen J. Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (Routledge, 1990). ↩
These facts are derived from the minutely detailed study of the painting by Jacques Lavalleye in Le Palais ducal d’Urbin (Brussels: Centre national de Recherches “Primitifs flamands,” 1964), a work which escapes attention in the present book. ↩
For an acute study of the various interpretations of Ranke’s famous dictum, see Stephen Bann, The Clothing of Clio: A Study of the Representation of History in Nineteenth-Century Britain and France (Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 8–31. ↩
See, for instance, Theatre of the World (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), and Shakespeare’s Last Plays (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975). ↩