17 November 2009

MCT: Stephen Greenblatt

Another chapter from Modern Criticism and Theory, I've turned to this one after a reference in Frank Kermode's Pleasing Myself to 'New Historicism', a largely American tendency to treat literature (and everything else) as a pattern of 'ceaseless interreletions or "negotiations" between all manner of contemporary social and cultural practices'. His essay ("On a New Way of Doing History") is about a book by Richard Helgerson and is generally scathing, but Kermode refers to Greenblatt as the 'chef d'├ęcole'. The weakness Kermode sees in the approach is that:
since all discourses interract equally you can talk, as for example Greenblatt does, about the relation between the Elizabethan practice of exorcism and Shakespeare's King Lear without assuming that the play is somehow more valuable than Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures.

[Actually, in that discussion, why would you need to compare the value of the play and the declaration?]

Kermode's concern, I think, is that this kind of approach undervalues texts, and that if it is applied to the study of literature, rather than of society or culture more generally, the relativism makes it impossible to recognise the greatest works.

The extract from Greenblatt in MCT is the opening chapter of his book Shakespearean Negotiations (1988), "The circulation of social energy". Greenblatt talks of his initial view that it was necessary to understand the text as fully as possible, and of how that view changed, to accept that the plays are not isolated items, but the work of a whole culture. He gives a lot of time to the structure of theatre as an example of how social energy is created and exchanged. For example, the theatre uses elements of real life either freely (in appropriation) or in real or symbolic trading relationships. So religious beliefs and practices can be simulated on stage, but no-one believes a real religious activity is taking place.

But an introduction is an introduction. The full details of how this approach is applied is no doubt obvious in the four chapters of the book, each of which covers a (loosely defined) genre of Shakespeare's plays. It's clear that Greenblatt, however, somehow is able to say that the plays are exceptional in their power to move and inspire, and his effort is to understand why. I don't think there's any doubt that he appreciates the plays' qualities.

1 comment:

Gabbriel Claudio said...
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