Stephen Greenblatt is an exponent of new historicism, a rather trendy theory that has divided academics. Now he has been asked by publisher Norton to help edit its Shakespeare. Jennifer Wallace talks to the US professor who has evolved from trendiness to weightiness
To begin with a typical Greenblatt anecdote. When publisher Norton first contacted Stephen Greenblatt at Berkeley, California, about its Shakespeare project five years ago, he was taken by surprise. "I had a call out of the blue, saying that Don Lamb from Norton would like to meet with me," he remembers. "I thought that this was the publishers' representative who tries to encourage you to order books for your class, so I showed up in my office in my jeans and workshirt and was surprised to see this rather elegantly dressed man who turns out to be the president and chairman of the board of Norton."
The meeting was auspicious. Despite his attire, Greenblatt was asked to join the team preparing the Norton one-volume edition of Shakespeare and quickly agreed. The partnership meant that effectively he had joined the literary and academic establishment in America. "It is the ultimate accolade to get the Norton," Lisa Jardine, professor of Renaissance literature at Queen Mary and Westfield College, confirms. "It's a mark of how far he has risen above trendy criticism and proves that he wasn't just 'an oil slick on the water'."
For the past decade and a half, Stephen Greenblatt, professor of English literature at the University of Berkeley, has been the major trend setter in literary criticism. His name has become synonymous with new historicism, the critical movement that replaced American new criticism and the collection of theories that disparagers termed structuralism. His book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, published in 1980, pioneered the new approach to texts, rejuvenating Renaissance studies and also affecting literary criticism of all periods. That first "ground-breaking" work has been followed by several more: Shakespearean Negotiations, Marvellous Possessions, about Columbus's encounter with the New World, and a collection of essays entitled Learning to Curse. But new historicism has proved to be as academically divisive as it is inspiring. For many academics, particularly those in America, such as Louis A. Montrose and Jerome McGann, it has become a philosophy vital to their engagement with literature and to their identity as critics. But for many others, it is a closed book, a talismanic name that means nothing beyond trendiness. "What is new historicism?" asked one emeritus professor of English, baffled by all the new terminology.
Greenblatt's new historicism is primarily concerned with negotiating the relationship between the present and the past, between the contemporary critic's present-day culture and the historical difference of the text, or what new historicists call the "historicity". To understand the problem of bridging the epistomological gap between ages, Greenblatt draws upon the work of anthropologists, particularly Clifford Geertz, so that texts become as symptomatic of 16th-century English culture as pots and rituals are of Javanese culture, both stored in the "display-cases" of cultural heritage. Besides anthropology, Greenblatt is influenced by Marxist criticism, and particularly by Raymond Williams, whose lectures he attended in the sixties while a Fulbright scholar in Cambridge. Texts, he argues, are embedded in material culture and in their historical context. "I long for the touch of the real in the way that earlier generations longed for a touch of the transcendent", he says. Yet he also argues that literary writers necessarily have to try to downplay that context to achieve the magical power of literature. "I'm at least as much interested in what mechanisms exist which make it possible for works to pull away from or to be identified as distinct from the general social mix, discursive mix, of a given time," he explains.
What has proved most controversial is the methodology that results from these beliefs. Key to the emphasis upon the historical context of literature has been Greenblatt's determination to rediscover other marginal texts, archival accounts not normally associated with the literary canon. "One of the impulses for me deeply over the last 20 years is some idea of democratic literary space," he explains. This entails the "recovery of voices that have been suppressed or lost" and "an interest in the margins as well as in the centre". In keeping with this impulse Greenblatt begins his introduction to the Norton Shakespeare not with an account of Shakespeare or even with his plays but with details of the 16th-century birthrate and the frequently occurring threat of the plague. "I wanted to begin with a sense that it is as much about a culture, a place, a time, as it is about a person."
Perhaps more controversial - and certainly more notorious - is Greenblatt's love of the anecdote as a critical tool. His work is punctuated by off-beat and entertaining stories, drawn from history and from his personal experience, which are used to illustrate the larger point he is making. The introduction to Learning to Curse recounts the story of his father's rivalry with his cousin to illustrate the problem of the anxiety of self-identity. Greenblatt also quotes the description by an English colonialist in the early 17th century of a sadistic torture and execution of a Chinese man as a means of graphically depicting questions of historical difference and cultural relativism. In the Shakespeare introduction he goes one better by including not an anecdote but "biographical fantasies", stories he has made up to explain the problem of Shakespeare's education and which he hopes readers will interpret ironically.
One particular anecdote sparked the biggest Greenblatt spat so far. An essay in Learning to Curse kicked off with an account of Cardinal Wolsey's hat displayed in a "glass case" in Christ Church College, Oxford. The hat, according to Greenblatt, had passed through various hands, including a spell as a costume prop for a theatrical company, before finishing up at Oxford. Greenblatt argued that the hat illustrated the close connection between pre-Reformation ritual and later post-Reformation theatricals and served also as a symbol for the transmission of texts through time. But Anne Barton, professor of English at Cambridge, seized on the story as a means of attacking the Greenblatt phenomenon. The hat, she pointed out in a four-page review in the New York Review of Books, had in fact belonged to far more owners than Greenblatt had acknowledged, had only been attributed to Wolsey in a much later auctioneer's catalogue and was displayed anyway in a wooden case, not a glass one. She had caught him out in "an embarrassing error". The error was symptomatic of a wider problem, what Barton described as "Greenblatt's tendency to handle historical circumstances approximately", fitting his texts and contexts around his argument, so that his literary criticism became "an assemblage of disparate and fragmentary things, arbitrarily juxtaposed, their asserted cultural interconnections all too often depending on Greenblatt's skill at arrangement".
The attack was deeply felt. Greenblatt is concerned about accuracy and is keen to distance himself from critics who argue that literature is based only on subjective appropriation and possesses no objective value. While cultural materialists tend to employ a particular type of reading according to their political positions, and reinvent the text in that light, Greenblatt prefers to think of a meeting between the subjective present and the objective past. "I don't think it's just a neutral field out there, and I think you have to bring what you have in you into some kind of relation to what you want to find objectively out there."
Besides, there are signs that he is even backtracking from the militant new historicism that Barton criticises, or at least is ready to move on. He was, he argues, never a card-carrying new historicist: "I don't have a little card in my wallet that tells me I belong to something called new historicism". He recalls, somewhat nostalgically, the new criticism of the Yale critics, such as Cleanth Brooks and Maynard Mack, who trained him in textual analysis without regard for history and who prompted his rebellion. "I do think," he announces unexpectedly, "that any good literary criticism, including new historicism, has to begin in the close reading of texts, if only to stay with the texts at a very detailed level." And he is now working on 16th-century religion, spiritualism and magic, aspects of Renaissance culture that Anne Barton criticised him for neglecting.
The real change, however, is marked by the Norton project. The Norton Shakespeare actually uses the 1988 Oxford text of Shakespeare, produced with painstaking detail by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Since becoming better acquainted with the Oxford edition, Greenblatt has been astounded by its merits, its method of adjudicating which lines and even words were part of the original Shakespeare text and which bear the mark of later accretions and alterations. "The Oxford Shakespeare," he urges enthusiastically, "coming out of this extraordinary radical new textualism was the most powerful, sustained historicisation of a literary text that ever been accomplished". The experience has affected his work. "I'm aware," he admits, "of the fact that I'd better look at whether I'm using the Quarto or the Folio text and think what the consequences are of what I'm doing."
But if the Norton project is, as Greenblatt puts it, "a mystic marriage of new historicism and the new textualism", it is also a somewhat less than mystic marriage of scholarship and marketing. Stanley Wells wistfully expresses pleasure that his Oxford text, which Oxford University Press failed to market in America, is now getting wider dissemination through Norton. Norton is the "premier publisher of textbooks" in America, with a fierce marketing technique that "encourages" academics to "adopt" their books for university courses by offering them "gifts". The "gift" that accompanies the Norton Shakespeare - at Greenblatt's enthusiastic suggestion - is Wells's Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, which explains the detailed editorial principles behind the Oxford edition and which is enjoying a second print run as a result of being gifted. If academics "adopt" the Norton Shakespeare to the extent that they have adopted the well-known Norton anthologies of English literature, then Greenblatt's introduction to Shakespeare can be expected to be studied in universities across the world, replacing the Arden and Penguin Shakespeares, and being accorded a cultural weight little short of that now given to the bard himself.
Amidst all this, Greenblatt himself is quite humble. On the telephone from Berlin, where he is enjoying a year's sabbatical, he is hesitant, subtle, avoiding the easy soundbite. Compared recently by one colleague to the critical giants I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, what does he think of his now recognised distinction and the end of his trendiness? "I try not to keep track of the stock market in these things", he says. "One tries to have a project and ask a certain set of questions. One tries to keep one's capacity for wonder awake and alive."
Jennifer Wallace is lecturer and director of studies in English at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. The Norton Shakespeare, $44.95 is published on April 23.