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– Niranjan Goswami

As I put pen to paper, I mean finger to keyboard, to write on Stephen Greenblatt I find the flow of my thoughts halted – how does one write on a critic so gifted, so fluent with words? The kind of writing he practices is known as New Historicism and we are mostly familiar with its greatest fruits. Probably, I should begin with an anecdote as is the fashion of New Historicist writers – weaving a paratext around my text, which in this case is Greenblatt. The distance between New Criticism and New Historicism is vast – if the former had focused on the text, the latter would make the ‘historicity of texts’ its material. We know that this historicity is neither simply the context nor the background, a familiar term rejected by Greenblatt but the foregrounded background and the textualised context. Of the famous formulation of Louis Montrose, the other half is the ‘textuality of history.’ The anecdote is the decentered, always overlooked and marginalized narration in history that is picked up by the New Historicist as his material, as a co-text rather than context; like a bricoleur he builds his narration by accumulating the bric-a-brac of history, forgotten tales to illuminate a text that is at the centre of a particular culture like a Shakespearean text. i
I will not talk on Greenblatt’s whole literary career here but will limit myself to the discussion of three Shakespearean plays following Greenblatt: Othello, Henry IV Part 1 and King Lear. In the process it would be wise to touch upon the basic premises of New Historicism. Historians of New Historicism have pointed out that this way of writing was a result of many other intellectual movements that in post-1968 France questioned the totalizing tendency of Marxist historicism. Richard Wilson has mentioned how Neo-Marxists, Structuralists and Post-Structuralists investigated the various ways in which capital works and power operates. Foucault pronounced that ‘Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere,’ and that ‘Power is reinforced by the complicity of those who are dominated.’ We find that Greenblatt absorbs Foucault’s doctrine of the collapse of power and knowledge when he theorizes how the European conquistadores asserted their power over American Indians by writing in the special sense of the Book i.e. the Bible overwhelming the natives. ii He is interested, like Said, in the dialogic relationship between the self and the other, laying some of the ground rules of European self-fashioning in the Renaissance that was possible only by marking the alien or the other. For excavating such a history of Europe’s identity, Greenblatt must indulge in a practice that he called poetics of culture. Frederic Jameson in The Political Unconscious spoke of the false distinction between the aesthetic and the political and considered capitalism to be responsible for perpetrating separate discursive domains; Francois Lyotard on the other hand, attempted to celebrate the differentiation of all discourses exposing their fallacious monological unity and found capitalism responsible for the false integration. For Greenblatt, both the Marxist approach of Jameson and the Post-Structuralist approach of Lyotard to the question of relationship between the political and the aesthetic are inadequate. He therefore talks about a cultural poetics that takes into account both these domains through lived life:
I am suggesting then that the oscillation between totalization and difference, uniformity and the diversity of names, unitary truth and a proliferation of distinct entities – in short between Lyotard’s capitalism and Jameson’s – is built into the poetics of everyday behavior in America. (“Towards a Poetics of Culture,” Greenblatt Reader 25)
To investigate the dizzying effects of this circulation or oscillation “between the establishment of distinct discursive domains and the collapse of those domains into one another,” (“Towards a Poetics of Culture,” Greenblatt Reader 24) a new poetics of culture is then needed. But such a poetics would need different tools for interpretation: in a discussion of ethnic encounters leading to the demarcation of the self and the other and an analysis of behaviour as social practice, the best place to look for is Anthropology. Greenblatt mentions a number of anthropologists at the beginning of Renaissance Self-Fashioning but the one who exerts the greatest influence on him is Clifford Geertz whose Interpretation of Cultures provides such tools most suitable for analysis of history at the moment of ethnic encounters during the Renaissance. Thus according to Greenblatt the anthropological moment has arrived for literary criticism.
Geertz in his book referred to an Anthropological mode of writing called ‘thick description’ borrowing the notion from Gilbert Ryle. Ryle proposed the example of a boy twitching an eye which he said could be a natural blink or a wink. A thin description of the event would only refer to the contracting eyelids whereas a thick description would involve laying down the cultural code of a wink as a conspiratorial signal in order to make possible the reading of this act in its proper cultural context. There could be another boy faking the original blinker or parodying the original act. Different meanings could be read into the act if all the cultural codes are made available.
With a wink in our mind or in our eyes, let us read Greenblatt’s essay “The Improvisation of Power” in Renaissance Self-Fashioning which introduces the mode of improvisation as a cultural strategy in order to understand and impress the other. Whether it is the Spanish cheating the Lucayan Indians by reading their religion as ideology or the Italian nobles exercising their sprezzatura – the basic strategy behind these cultural exchanges according to Greenblatt is improvisation, i.e. absorption of the other’s culture in order to distort and manipulate the other’s reaction. It is a characteristically Western mode, a “mobile sensibility so adaptive to change that rearrangement of the self-system is its distinctive mode” as Greenblatt appropriates the definition from the sociologist Daniel Lerner’s book The Passing of Traditional Society. (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 224) What Lerner calls “empathy” Greenblatt calls “improvisation”; now comes the surprise as Greenblatt announces that Shakespeare calls it Iago. (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 225) With a single stroke he has demolished our understanding of Othello as a literary text in the reading of which we are conditioned to apply judgment of a particular type with respect to character and themes and to ask certain questions about its form, Aristotelian or otherwise. According to Greenblatt Othello is a text of cultural negotiation between two peoples, the Western and the Moorish and Iago is the name of improvisation. iii I am not suggesting that Greenblatt reads Othello like a parable of ethnic encounter but the heavy anthropological reading tends to put out of sight the tension of individual gain and loss. Iago has power over Othello because of his improvisational skills that Othello lacks; without the mobility of understanding Venetian culture, Othello is too embedded in his one-directional virtue of heroism. Even his love is channeled with great force in a single direction. This constancy or honesty makes him vulnerable to Iago’s strategy:
The Moor a free and open nature too,
That thinks men honest that but seems to be so:
And will as tenderly be led by the nose…
As asses are. (1.3.396-400)
Greenblatt finds Iago’s writing the narrative in which he plots to engender a love situation between Cassio and Desdemona to be an act of inscription: “Lechery, by this hand: an index and a prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts.” One is reminded of the writing of the Spanish that deceived the Lucayans; Iago “by this hand” inscribes Othello in his story. Greenblatt continues to read Othello as a narrativization of life in which power operates through language, through stories. He writes:
The question remains why anyone would submit, even unconsciously, to Iago’s narrative fashioning. Why would anyone submit to another’s narrative at all? (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 237)
The suggested answer is that in this play characters have always already experienced submission to narrativity. Othello tells his “round unvarnish’d tale” in reply to Brabantio’s charge and that tale contains Othello’s telling of his life story to Desdemona. Othello thus runs the risk of being a representation, a story that is open to interpretation. Greenblatt comments: “But Iago knows that an identity that has been fashioned as a story can be unfashioned, refashioned, inscribed anew in a different narrative: it is the fate of stories to be consumed, or as we say more politely, interpreted.” (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 238) Othello’s subjection to narrativity appears to Greenblatt as loss of his subjecthood. He compares this surrendered subjectivity to Lacan’s description of how a subject feels when being analysed by a psychoanalyst. (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 244)
Othello’s disintegration, his alienation from himself is powerfully conveyed through Greenblatt’s appropriation of Lacan. His comparison of the talking cure of Lacanian psychoanalysis to Catholic confessions and Protestant self-scrutiny render the thick description of Western assumptions of the self, the codes of sexuality, narcissism and adulterous love. Augustine’s doctrine of passionless conjugal love that eluded even Adam and Eve (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 242) or Saint Jerome’s quotation of Seneca to prove that too ardent love even between husband and wife constitutes adultery (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 248) is relentlessly piled up one upon another by Greenblatt to assert Othello’s inability to appropriate Western values, a failure to improvise. All this comes as a gloss to two lines of Iago’s ambiguous speech: “to abuse Othello’s ear, / that he is too familiar with his wife.” Does Greenblatt suggest that Othello’s rage and frustration stem from this failure to assimilate with Venetian society or his failure to see Western morality as ideology? Can the believer ever be the improviser? The third person pronoun in Iago’s speech could be Cassio, Othello himself or any believer in Western morality on sex; a system of morality that could never properly distinguish between love and lust. Greenblatt goes on to say that Othello transforms his complicity in erotic excess and his fear of engulfment into a “purifying,” saving “violence” and quotes:
Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up. (3.3.460-467)
Greenblatt sees in this speech how Othello’s sexual experience has been displaced and absorbed by the act of revenge which can swallow up the guilty lovers and his own “bloody thoughts.” I do not contest that this is an apt interpretation in terms of displacement and absorption, techniques of construction and preservation of the self in a Christian economy. But it lacks the layered analysis of a close study which would reveal the domination of the idea of vengeance in Othello’s mind – a shadow of Seneca the playwright than Seneca the philosopher; the Seneca who displayed the most cruel and gory pageants of human passion, the passion of the great-souled man that overflows legitimate bounds of calculating, improvising seekers of power. Clearly, Greenblatt is more interested in Iago than in Othello as it suits the paradigm of Western improvisation. iv Shakespeare, however, made the thick-lipped moor win in the violence of his self-destruction:
[T]hen must you speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely, but too well:
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away,
Richer than all his tribe: (5.2.344-349)
Perhaps, the base Indian who stands for a different order of values, a different cultural code, provides a consolation to one who is enmeshed in a culture that is not his own. Surely, Othello lacks wisdom but not love. The idea is confirmed in the speech: “I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee, no way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (5.2.359-360). One is reminded of Antony’s speech before his death:
I am dying, Egypt, dying; only
I here importune death awhile, until
Of many thousand kisses, the poor last
I lay upon thy lips. (4.15.18-21)
Shakespeare’s lovers are always victorious in love: only his readers are now interested in another empire than the empire of love. v

In “Invisible Bullets” Greenblatt examines how power operates through ideology and how lack of knowledge constitutes lack of power. His point of departure is Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588) which reports how the Indians in Virginia were subjugated by the Europeans not only by military prowess but also by manipulating their superstitions and falsely interpreting the Christian religion as a potent weapon of God to its enemies. When Algonquian Indians were dying of various diseases like small, pox, measles or influenza because of their lack of immunity to the new diseases brought by Europeans they falsely believed that the God of the enemy was persecuting them. They even imagined that Europeans who were yet to arrive were in the air and shooting invisible bullets to kill them. (“Invisible Bullets,” Greenblatt Reader 132) For the land-grabbing English it was a Machiavellian moment when they could realize that the religion of the Indians was a construction of the mind, a false ideology and by extension they had a glimpse about the truth of their own religion, a truth that was subversive but did not force the Europeans thereby to affirm it as false.

Greenblatt uses three ethnographic steps of testing, recording and explaining to elucidate how the European’s construction of knowledge depended upon testing the other’s belief, recording the other’s reaction to their own culture and finally explaining it in order to assert their own superiority. He finds the Machiavellian moment in the history of European culture to be a moment of keeping in suspension any metaphysical veracity of Christian truth as the moment was intent on the progress of capitalism and colonialism. Greenblatt concludes from Harriot’s anecdote:
That we do not find such notions subversive, that we complacently identify them as principles of aesthetic or political order, replicates the process of containment that licensed the elements we call subversive in Renaissance texts: that is our own values are sufficiently strong for us to contain alien forces almost effortlessly. (“Invisible Bullets,” Greenblatt Reader 134)
The anecdote from Harriot is however a preamble to Greenblatt’s discussion of Shakespeare’s History Plays. He proposes to analyse these plays by applying to them the notions of testing, recording and explaining as it was found applicable to a text like Harriot’s. Here is to be traced the oscillation between the political and the aesthetic in Greenblatt’s examination of capitalism. He suggests that in Henry IV Part 1 the power of the state, centred in Hal, is able to contain its subversion not only through the figure of Falstaff but by the Prince’s own attempt to learn the culture and language of the hoi polloi, in this case the people represented through Falstaff and his associates.
Hal is the prince and principle of falsification – he is himself a counterfeit companion, and he reveals the emptiness in the world around him. […] The dreams of plenitude are not abandoned altogether – Falstaff in particular has imaginative life that overflows the confines of the play itself – but the daylight world of Henry IV Part 1 comes to seem increasingly one of counterfeit, and hence one governed by Bolingbroke’s cunning (he sends “counterfeits” of himself out onto the battlefield) and by Hal’s calculations. (“Invisible Bullets,” Greenblatt Reader 136-137)
Improvisation, falsification and calculation are the prime qualities of Hal, a prince who is found by Maynard Mack to be “an ideal image of the potentialities of the English character.” Yet Greenblatt says that he does not contradict Mack because all that he points out is how “such an ideal image involves as its positive condition the constant production of its own radical subversion and the powerful containment of that subversion.” (“Invisible Bullets,” Greenblatt Reader 135) Falstaff’s recruits are “the very types of Elizabethan subversion – the masterless men who rose up periodically in desperate protests against their social superiors.” They are not only food for powder as Falstaff asserts but also for power according to Greenblatt and “this food is produced as well as consumed by the great.” (“Invisible Bullets,” Greenblatt Reader 137)
Henry IV Part 1 further helps to illustrate Greenblatt’s point about role playing and improvisation. Hal’s penchant for falsification and role playing makes him one of the great improvisers in the play:
Hal’s characteristic activity is playing or, more precisely, theatrical improvisation – his parts include his father, Hotspur, Hotspur’s wife, a thief in buckram, himself as prodigal, and himself as penitent – and he fully understands his own behavior through most of the play as a role that he is performing. (“Invisible Bullets,” Greenblatt Reader 139)
Greenblatt’s chief purpose in this discussion is to render how power is retained better through providing or even creating subversion to enable the operation of containment to work. For this he must singularly focus on Hal’s actions which suit the said purpose perfectly. Falstaff is too big a subject to be broached in this discussion, and in fact even in his discussion of Henry IV Part 2 that is out of my purview here, the fat knight is slightly overlooked. The only character who seems to be unjustly neglected in Greenblatt’s discussion is Hotspur. He is a brave warrior, “the king of honour,” as Douglas says, who is not afraid to face the combined army of the King, Prince Henry, Prince John and the Earl of Westmoreland even though his father the Earl of Northumberland and ally Glendower could not join his side. When Hotspur is killed by Hal Shakespeare gives a few memorable lines to him:
O, Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh:
But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. (5.4.77-83)
These lines do not convey the cunning of the improviser but the surrender of a hero to man’s ultimate limit, his death. Hotspur is sad about the loss of his titles more than that of his life. He is not a man of thought, nor a slave of life; being no time-server or strategist he stands for values very different from that of Hal. The conflict between Hal and Hotspur is not the encounter of nations that fits Greenblatt’s paradigm. Percy’s championing of the value of honour is contradicted by Falstaff’s sacrilegious dismantling of it:
Well, ‘tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. (5.1.130-137)
How do we make sense of such conflicting views in the same play? These are not just conflicting subject positions; they do not cancel each other out. Ronald R. Macdonald suggests that Bakhtin’s theory of utterance is of great help in understanding Shakespeare’s History Plays. He speaks of a return of heteroglossia in Henry IV Part 1:
And the flyting match of competitive rhetoric between Prince Hal and Falstaff is only the first indication of a thoroughly heteroglot world, which will finally comprise, without really containing, the accents of workers, countrymen, middle-class tradespeople, unlettered apprentices, northern lords as well as southern (the distinction is real and important in this play), speakers of Welsh and French, and many others. […] 1 Henry IV reveals a world that seems to have many more meanings than any single, monoglot language can readily dispose of (Macdonald 81).
Greenblatt not only neglects the heteroglossia and the many-sided complexity of issues in Henry IV Part 1, but he also makes the monomaniac pursuit of power by Henry IV and Hal the cornerstone of his analysis.
If the Bakhtinian perspective does not suit Greenblatt’s purpose in this play, it is evoked in his discussion of King Lear in the essay “The Cultivation of Anxiety”:
Works of art are, to be sure, marked off in our culture from ordinary utterances, but this demarcation is itself a communal event and signals not the effacement of the social but rather its successful absorption into the work by implication or articulation. This absorption – the presence within the work of its social being – makes it possible, as Bakhtin has argued, for art to survive the disappearance of its enabling social conditions, where ordinary utterance, more dependent upon the extraverbal pragmatic situation, drifts rapidly towards insignificance or incomprehensibility. (“The Cultivation of Anxiety,” Greenblatt 168)
The absorption of the social in King Lear is the subject of this essay but King Lear is a very different order of play and unlike Henry IV Part 1 it is both a political play as well as family drama. Greenblatt’s purpose in this essay is to draw a parallel between the state and the theatre, one of his perennial notions, only that in this case the state conflates with the family. The examination of authority here is not in such a broad sweep as in the History Plays but is carried out through domestic struggle within the families of Lear and Gloucester. Necessarily, the anecdote culled from the science of man in this case is also leveled down from inter-ethnic exchange to inter-family broil. Greenblatt compares the way Francis Wayland in the nineteenth century disciplined his fifteen month old son into taking food from him by breaking his will by refusing him food with Lear’s failed attempt to discipline Cordelia by refusing her share of the state. Greenblatt calls the anxiety created by the father in both cases salutary anxiety. It does not matter for him that the two examples are taken from periods three hundred years apart from each other, or that one is about a royal family while the other is about a private individual. We may overlook these discrepancies because in both these periods some sort of gerontocracy was evident. In a sense there was a continuation of the Puritan sensibility coming down to the nineteenth century Reverend all the way from the sixteenth and the seventeenth century. Greenblatt is never far from religious history, a hallmark of New England, particularly of Harvard, the cradle of American Puritanism. vi Thus he compares this anxiety to a Puritan’s anxiety over sin and election, a salutary anxiety created by God, the arch-patriarch of Calvinistic ideology (“The Cultivation of Anxiety,” Greenblatt 170).
In short the essay is concerned with but one small event in King Lear, the love test. The purpose of this test, Greenblatt tells us, is to “suggest that Lear wishes his full value to be recognized and that he stages the love test to enforce this recognition, which is crucially important to him because he is about to abdicate and hence lose the power to compel the deference of his children.” (“The Cultivation of Anxiety,” Greenblatt 172) vii So, we have come to the crux of Greenblatt’s analysis – the love test stands for a power struggle and he goes on to establish the anxiety of the old in the seventeenth century about being neglected by their children, something that can be established with the statistics of maintenance cases filed by old men in the period. Greenblatt quotes from Edgar’s forged letter:
This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffer’d (1.2).
Greenblatt acutely points out that Lear cannot have any maintenance agreement with his daughters though he asks for food, clothing and shelter from them because of his very nature as an absolute monarch. Being sovereign he cannot have any contract with anybody – this puts Lear to some extent in the position of the homo sacer or bare life, as Giorgio Agamben explains the concept; the sovereign and the sacrificial man both belong to the twilight zone between the dead and the living. For such a man, what is the need for even a single follower, Regan had asked. The play is not only about the contest of power between two generations it is a contest between man and death; Lear is threatened with nothing less than death, as Edgar and many others in the play. Whether the storm is a sufficient symbol for death oppressing man is of secondary importance; what is more important is man in the world, Shakespeare’s ‘unaccommodated man’, Agamben’s bare life, the Jew in the holocaust – it is an argument that motivates Greenblatt’s criticism as a subtext. Greenblatt has moved further away from the idealist humanism of the Shakespearean critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His concern for a micro-analysis of how Shakespeare represents the operation of power in the world leads him to seek help from the science of man; the lessons Greenblatt learnt from anthropology do not allow him to focus on the issues of love, plenitude and idealism. Therefore, Othello, Hotspur, Falstaff and Cordelia must fall on the wayside. His humanism looks at man in the world but this man is homo politicus, Machiavelli’s prince rather than Castiglione’s courtier; it is a dark humanism that must take into account ubiquitous power which unfolds and imbricates the text of man in/and the world.


i I am applying here Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous distinction made between a bricoleur and an engineer in The Savage Mind (1966). The New Historicist’s way of functioning is like the bricoleur, making do with the material available at hand without any grand plan whereas the old Historicist must build a grand narrative looking for new materials and tools if necessary for the purpose.

ii In Marvellous Possessions, Greenblatt makes the point further clear: “The culture that possessed writing could accurately represent to itself (and hence strategically manipulate) the culture without writing, but the reverse was not true.” See Stephen Greenblatt, Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1991) 11.

iii It is difficult to exactly seize upon Greenblatt’s theory behind his micro-analysis of power. Koenraad Geldof finds him more Adornian-Neo-Marxist than Foucauldian. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning we discern the Adornian pessimism in the centrality of Iago. See Koenraad Geldof, “Modernité, excès, littérature: une lecture contrastive de Michel Foucault et de Stephen Greenblatt,” Littérature 151 (2008): 90-110, 104.

iv Iago assumes a greater importance than Othello even in Greenblatt’s later book as his proposed torture by the Venetians at the end of the play leads Greenblatt to generalize on the penal situation in London in Shakespeare’s time. See his Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004) 279-280.

v I do not agree with Jùrgen Pieters that the ideas of “containment” and “mobility” in Renaissance Self-Fashioning is in itself problematic and the idea of “zones” in Shakespearean Negotiations is more fluid per se. “Mobility” has remained an abiding concept in Greenblatt’s ouevre e.g. see Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010). See Jùrgen Pieters, Moments of Negotiation: The New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2001). Also see Daniel T. Lochman, Review of Pieters in The Sixteenth Century Journal 35 (2004) 501-503.

vi Another instance of his fascination with religion as a special cultural practice may be seen in his Hamlet in Purgatory in which Shakespeare’s play becomes an excuse for delving into the imagination of purgatory in Roman Catholicism and the notion of memory in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. See Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001).

vii Stephen Greenblatt, “The Cultivation of Anxiety” in Kiernan Ryan ed. William Shakespeare: King Lear, 172.


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