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Stephen Greenblatt: The Critic as Anecdotalist

Summer/Fall 2009 - Vol. 51, Nos. 3 - 4

R.V. YOUNG is a professor of Renaissance literature and literary criticism at North Carolina State University and the editor of the Modern Age.

In "The Forms of Power and Power ofForms in the Renaissance," a widelycited introduction to a special issue ofthe academic literary journal Genre, StephenGreenblatt provides a fanfare for thearrival of "what we may call the new historicism,set apart from both the dominanthistorical scholarship of the past and theformalist criticism that partially displacedthis scholarship in the decades after WorldWar Two." This older scholarship, Greenblattmaintains, "tends to be monological;that is, it is concerned with discoveringa single political vision, usually identicalto that said to be held by the entire literateclass or indeed the entire population.""Literature," he continues, "is conceivedto mirror a period's beliefs, but to mirrorthem, as it were, from a safe distance." Bycontrast, "The new historicism erodes thefirm ground of both criticism and literature.It tends to ask questions about its ownmethodological assumptions and those ofothers."1

The introduction that is credited withintroducing the term "new historicism"concludes with this peroration:

The critical practice represented inthis volume challenges the assumptionsthat guarantee a secure distinctionbetween "literary foreground"and "political background" or, moregenerally, between artistic productionand other kinds of social production.Such distinctions do in fact exist, butthey are not intrinsic to the texts;rather they are made up and constantlyredrawn by artists, audiences,and readers. These collective socialconstructions on the one hand definethe range of aesthetic possibilitieswithin a given representational modeand, on the other, link that mode tothe complex network of institutions,practices, and beliefs that constitutethe culture as a whole. In this light,the study of genre is an exploration ofthe poetics of culture.2

The phrases in this definitive accountof new historicism (which apply likewiseto its variants, cultural poetics and culturalmaterialism) have been repeated and mimicked,triumphantly brandished and solemnlyinvoked—usually with the implicationthat any demurral has been renderedirrelevant—for more than a quarter of acentury. They are the key terms of a quasiscientific account of literature that reducesit to just so much data at the disposal of anew "critical practice." A more revealinginsight into the sources of the new historicism,however, emerges in the prologue ofa later book, Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblattrecounts the surprising discoverythat his deceased father "had left a sum ofmoney to an organization that would saykaddish for him—kaddish being the Aramaicprayer for the dead, recited for elevenmonths after a person's death, and thenon certain annual occasions." This prayer,Greenblatt adds, "is usually said by thedeceased's immediate family and particularlyby his sons. . . . Evidently, my fatherdid not trust either my older brother orme to recite the prayer for him. The effectthe bequest had on me, perhaps perversely,was to impel me to do so, as if in a blend oflove and spite."3

If the earlier remarks set forth the methodsof the new historicism and, in somerespects, its goals, the anecdote about Greenblatt'sfather furnishes a provocative hintabout its motives. The man who proposesto explain—if not explain away—Shakespeareand other major authors by tellinganecdotes here reveals a great deal abouthimself. The new historicism, as practicedby its leading exponent, manifests a tirelessfascination with the culture of the pastin all its myriad forms, but it is relentlesslyreductive: the distinction between literaryworks of art and other kinds of writing—like anecdotes—is subverted; every sampleof writing is a "social production" that maybe treated as a document. In Greenblatt'sinfluential phrase, they are "collectivesocial constructions." There is love, then,but also spite. Attention is lavished uponShakespeare and his plays, but the poetbecomes a case study and the poetry is notscrutinized because of its intrinsic worth;rather the worth is determined by the theorist'sscrutiny. Greenblatt, surprised by hisevidently irreligious father's concern to beremembered in prayer, says the kaddish,but "perversely." By the same token, thenew historicist, scandalized by how seriouslyboth the older historical scholars andthe new critics took the works they studied,continues to examine and interpret them,but with the goal of draining them of anyinherent significance.

The works that constitute the "canon" ofEuropean literature, which provide so vitala part of Western Civilization's self-understanding,are a monument or testimonyto the authority of authors. That authorityis by analogy paternal: great writers areamong the fathers of Western culture. Inan age that "is pleased to understand itselfas constructed on the idea of autonomy,"4the wishes of a father may be recognized,but not really respected. As the "father" ofthe new historicism, a method of scholarshipthat subjects every tradition to a bathof solvent skepticism, Stephen Greenblattflaunts a paradoxical anti-paternal paternity.He appropriates, as it were, the authorityto call into question every traditionalauthority with respect to familial, social,and political relationships and, above all,with respect to sexuality and religion. Inrendering any and all cultural institutionsand moral expectations problematic, hebecomes an exemplum of one of the waysWestern Civilization is crumbling fromwithin as a result of the relentless triturationof its academic elites.

Greenblatt's first book was a study ofSir Walter Raleigh, but it was RenaissanceSelf-Fashioning that made his reputationand inaugurated the predominance of thenew historicism in academic literary studyin America.5 The latter book manifests aremarkable array of rhetorical skills, oftenwith great verve, in dismantling the originalityand wisdom of the authors whoare its objects and reducing them to creaturesof the social matrix from which theynever quite emerge. The opening chapterdeploys a brilliant conceit by creating ananalogue between Hans Holbein's famousanamorphic painting, The Ambassadors,and Sir Thomas More's career as a courtier.Viewed head-on, the painting displaystwo sumptuously dressed French diplomatssurrounded by articles symbolic of affluence,power, and learning; viewed from anacute angle, the peculiar shadowy imageat the feet of the two courtiers is revealedas a death's head or memento mori. Greenblattfinds a similarly unbridgeable crevassein More's life and work opening up—anirresolvable contradiction between idealismand ambition.

Greenblatt's discussion offers numerousshrewd, arrestingly formulated insightsregarding particular texts; after all, helearned to read literature with close attentionto detail as a graduate student at Yale,when it was the vital center of academicnew criticism in the 1960s.6 Nevertheless,his interpretation rests on a popularbut inadequate and, frankly, banal understandingof More himself and especiallyhis masterpiece, Utopia. According to thisview, the young, idealistic (sc. "liberal")More, who wrote "the truly golden littlebook" (libellus uere aureus), basically agreedwith his character, Raphael Hythlodaeus,and accepted the notion that Utopiansociety does represent the "best state ofa commonwealth" (optimus reipublicae status).Regrettably, his involvement in thecontroversies of the Reformation and hisposition in the government of Henry VIIIturned him into an increasingly stridentpolemicist and severe persecutor on behalfof reactionary politics and religion. Some(but certainly not all) will allow that hiseventual oppression and suffering at thehands of King Henry and his henchmenrestored to him a measure of equanimity.

Greenblatt thus assumes that the authorof Utopia shares Raphael's belief that sinfulpride can be uprooted by the eliminationof private property, because of his "insightin Utopia that there is an essential relationshipbetween private property and privateselves." The objections to communism bythe character "Thomas More" that menwho can count on others to work will notwork themselves and that a utopian societywill inevitably founder on the innatetendency of fallen men and women tofavor their own interests are discounted:"Such arguments assume a selfishness thatis canceled by the Utopian reduction of theself."7 The character "More" remarks, "Thatall things might be well cannot come to pass,unless all men might be good, which I donot anticipate for some few years to come."8The rueful irony of this observation is, forGreenblatt, no part the author's awarenessof the literary significance of his ownwork. "The passion for social justice, theconviction that pride and private propertyare causally linked, the daring attack on'the conspiracy of the rich' give way tothe demand for discipline and the extirpationof dissent," Greenblatt writes ofMore's works of religious polemic. "Morehas recast as hateful, as deserving extermination,some of the qualities of mind wemost associate with the author of Utopia.To search for causes, to question the given,to rely on one's own probing 'wit' are nowmanifest signs of evil, evil that must beridiculed in print and persecuted remorselesslyby both church and state."9

Without dwelling upon how fair anassessment of More's life and career isimplied by these comments, it is sufficientto note how feeble and simplistic a readingof Utopia they suggest. In the introductionto his definitive translation of this work,Clarence Miller points out that skepticismof the Utopian ideal is built into the stylistictexture of the work. The awkwardand eccentric complexity of the Latin syntaxof Hythlodaeus's lengthy rants againstEuropean political conditions in Book Icontrasts sharply and meaningfully withthe clarity and brevity of the sentences inBook II, as he describes the social institutionsof Utopia.10 This stylistic incongruityis epitomized in his name: Raphael,meaning "God's healing" (the name ofthe archangel in the Book of Tobit), andHythlodaeus, meaning "dispenser of nonsense."The only connection between theadmittedly grim reality of sixteenth-centuryEurope and the "Nowhere" (Greekutopos = "no-place") of idealistic dreamsis this dubious and contradictory figure, sothe journey from one to the other wouldrequire more than a sea voyage. As Millertrenchantly maintains, Utopian institutionswill only work for citizens who havealready been brought up with a Utopianeducation.11 In the twentieth century,serious efforts to construct Utopia withexisting peoples resulted in Stalin's SovietUnion, Mao's China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia.

Greenblatt's blunder in reading Utopia isa failure of literary interpretation: it comesof the determination to break down "thedistinction between 'literary foreground'and 'political background'"—between awork of imaginative literature, a fiction,and a treatise. The division that he sees inMore's soul is actually a feature of the visionof reality presented in Utopia. With hisacute sense of sin, as well as of the intrinsiclimitations of mortal creatures, Morerecognizes and finds a memorable meansof dramatizing how perfection will alwayselude the best efforts of human beings. Topursue it too intensely and persistently willend in something far worse than ordinaryimperfection, as Greenblatt also sees: "Thepublic quality of Utopian space renders thisgaze inescapable, for ordinary citizens aswell as slaves. Being seen is central to theexperience of shame (and, for that matter,of praise), and thus Utopia is constructedso that one is always under observation."12The critic fails to acknowledge, however,that what he has perceived is what the poethas created.

The poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt is subjectedto a similar reductionism. Greenblattis bent on exposing the fragmentation ofthe poet's self through the poems: "I wouldsuggest that there is no privileged sphereof individuality in Wyatt, set off from linguisticconvention, from social pressure,from the shaping force of religious andpolitical power."13 While he concedes apoint suggested by Donald Friedman, thatin both Wyatt's translations of the Psalmsand his Satires "the poet discovers his truevoice," in the next paragraph he underminesthe concession: "Thus though boththe psalms and the satires self-consciouslygive voice to a 'true' self, stripped of falsification and corruption, we encountertwo distinct versions, the former producedby submission, the latter by negation."14 Thecritical procedure in play here requiresthat generic differences be elided, that thepenitent voice of psalm-imitation, a dramatizedversion of David as everyman, andthe sophisticated indignation of the satiricalpersona be treated as indistinguishableand, finally, as identifiable with the poethimself. The purpose of writing in a particularconventional genre (satire, pastoral,sonnet, devotional lyric) is, however, preciselyto assume a mask or voice or roleindependent of the personal identity of thepoet, so that he might embody a perspectiveand utter sentiments unavailable to anhistorical individual in a particular timeand place.

The new historicist thus devalues bothliterature and the men who create it bydemanding, in effect, that the poet andthe poetry be interchangeable. Greenblattavers that Wyatt achieves in his satires "thevoice of what Courthope in 1897 calledwith perfect precision 'an English gentleman conversant with affairs.'" But he proceedsto denigrate the achievement becauseit doesn't square with the details of Wyatt'sbiography, because "it is important tounderstand how much of the self is left outof this self-presentation, how tightly thenexus of power, sexuality, and inwardnesshas been reined in."15 The detached personaof the poem, critical of court corruption,is tainted by the historical compromises ofthe poet: "We may remind ourselves thatthe estate to which the poet retreats frompower is the reward for royal service andthat the pleasant acres are swelled withconfiscated monastic lands." This smugdismissal is accomplished "only by standingoutside the poems and questioningtheir fundamental assumptions."16 A fundamentalpurpose of poetry, to providea space in which a man can escape frompressing circumstances and the weight ofhis own interests and partialities in order tocontemplate human experience with disinterestedperception, is thereby subverted.

In the course of his various arguments,it becomes clear that what Greenblatt mostloathes is Christianity, not merely as themediator of God's authority, but indeedas the channel of God's intimacy with thehuman soul—what a Christian would callgrace. This intense encounter necessarilyentails a modification, rather a transfiguration, of human desire: "Blessed arethe clean of heart: for they shall see God"(Mt. 5.8); and it is this turning of desiretoward a different, infinite object—whichseems just a limitation or barrier to a carnalman—that generates such resentment:

The goal of steadfastness or boundednesswas, as we have seen, centralto the careers of both More andTyndale; it is for both Catholic andProtestant the response to a crisisin political and spiritual authority.Wyatt's penitential psalms offerus an almost formulaic reductionof the historical, psychological, andliterary forces that we have repeatedlyencountered: power over sexualityproduces inwardness. In other words,the inner life expressed in the penitentialpsalms owes its existence to awrathful God's power over sexuality;before the Lord's anger was stirredup by "filthy life," David was blindto his own inwardness, an inwardnesshe is now driven to render inspeech.17

It must be acknowledged that, despitethe elements of hysteria in this portrayal,Greenblatt has located and been repelledby Christianity in its essence, not by anEnlightenment caricature. Rémi Bragueperceives the same power in the faith,although he is seeing it in its clarity andintegrity, not myopically from an occludedvantage point:

The new law is the law of faith, law ofliberty. Christ does not give that newlaw, for example, by dictating it inthe Sermon on the Mount; rather, bymaking the grace of the Spirit overflow on the believers who form hismystical body, as communicated bythe sacraments and in the faith.18

Following St. Thomas Aquinas, Bragueplaces at the heart of Christianity the veryinwardness that Greenblatt rejects: "Thomasdefines law as the way we act when in fullpossession of our freedom."19

For Greenblatt, however, freedom isan illusion, power the only reality. Whenhe turns to a discussion of the destructionof the Bower of Bliss by Sir Guyon, theKnight of Temperance at the end of thesecond book of Edmund Spenser's FaerieQueene, there is a long preamble in whichJacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is extolled, but its 'assertionthat, in the process [of establishing "newforms of identity'], these men emergedat last as free individuals must be sharplyqualified."20 Greenblatt then offers a gooddeal of anecdotal material about Sir WalterRaleigh and Queen Elizabeth I, whichpurports to reveal "the transformation ofpower relations into erotic relations, andappreciation of the queen's ability at onceto fashion her identity and to manipulatethe identities of her followers."21

It is against this backdrop that Spenser'selaborate allegorical epic is considered andits moral fiction trumped by gossip aboutcourt intrigue. Greenblatt dismisses C.S. Lewis's classic discussion of the contrastbetween the sterile, sickly sexualityof the Bower of Bliss in Book II and thehealthy, procreative sexuality of the Gardenof Adonis in Book III, by observingthat the latter, "that great 'seminary' ofliving things, has almost no erotic appeal."By contrast, Acrasia, the seductive witch ofthe Bower, "offers not simply sexual pleasure—'long wanton joys'—but self-abandonment,erotic aestheticism, the meltingof the will, the end of all quests; andSpenser understands, at the deepest levelof his being, the appeal of such an end."Greenblatt cannot conceive—or at leastwill not accept—the paradoxical notion ofthe law of grace, of the liberation of thewill, rather than its "melting," in conformityto the divine will. "The Bowerof Bliss must be destroyed not because itsgratifications are unreal but because theythreaten 'civility'—civilization—whichfor Spenser is achieved only throughrenunciation and the constant exercise ofpower." According to Greenblatt, Spenser'svision foreshadows the melancholyvision of Civilization and Its Discontents, andhe "participates with Freud in a venerableand profoundly significant intertwiningof sexual and colonial discourse, acceptssexual colonialism only with a near-tragicsense of the cost." 22

Spenser himself may provide, however,the most effective rebuttal to Greenblatt'seffort to expropriate the poetic vision ofthe Faerie Queene for a program of reductiveFreudian despair. At the end of thesecond book of the poem, after he hasdestroyed the Bower of Bliss and takenthe witch prisoner, the Knight of Temperanceand his accompanying Palmercome upon a group of "wild-beasts" that"fierce at them gan fly, / As in their mistressreskew." After "pacifying" them, thePalmer explains:

These seeming beasts are men
Whom this Enchauntress hath trans
formed thus,
Whylome her louers, which her
lusts did feed,
Now turned into figures hideous,
According to their minds like

After the Palmer with his "vertuous staffe"transforms them back into men, they still"vnmanly looke" and "stared ghastly,"either for "inward shame" or for "wrath"to see Acrasia taken prisoner. One calledGrill is especially enraged to have beenchanged from a pig back into a man, andwhen Sir Guyon is incensed that a manwould choose "To be a beast, and lackeintelligence," the Palmer assures him thatindignation is useless:

The dunghill kind
Delights in filth and foule
Let Grill be Grill, and haue his
hoggish mind,
But let vs hence depart, whilest
wether serues and wind.23

Now it is, doubtless, excessively harsh toparaphrase Spenser thus: "Let Greenblattbe Greenblatt and have . . ."; nevertheless,his materialist conception of humanity andhis asseveration that the only alternative tothe dissolution of rational identity in theindulgence of desire is the anguish of anunsatisfying, socially constructed, artifi-cial morality implies that men are in principleno different from hogs. The price ofChristian civilization is self-control, andself-control is repressive and destructive.In Greenblatt's discussion of Othello, theinwardness that develops from Christianity'sfocus on spiritual growth and selfmasterybecomes the gnawing misery ofself-consciousness; and the shared spiritualawareness of empathy is merely a meansof manipulation. In a derisory accountof sociologist Daniel Lerner's theory thatempathy, "the mobile personality of Westernsociety," is the source of the West'sdominance, Greenblatt quips, "what ProfessorLerner calls 'empathy,' Shakespearecalls 'Iago.' "24 One need not accept whatGreenblatt sees as Lerner's cheery rationalizationof Western imperialism to questionthe former's reduction of the growth ofconsciousness and conscience in the Christianworld to a restless urge to manipulateand deceive.

Before turning to Othello, Greenblatttells another of his signature anecdotes,borrowed from Peter Martyr Vermigli,about how the Spaniards took advantageof the religion of the natives of the Lucayas(nowadays the Bahamas) in order tobeguile them into believing that they weretransporting them to a paradise where theywould rejoin their deceased relatives, whilein fact they were enslaving them in the goldmines of Hispaniola. He then maintainsthat Thomas More's celebrated "improvisationalgift" is likewise "the mystificationof manipulation as disinterested empathy."As evidence he adduces "More's controversialworks, such as The Confutation ofTyndale's Answer, whose recurrent methodis through improvisation to transform theheretic's faith into a fiction, then absorbit into a new symbolic structure that willridicule or consume it."25 Greenblatt thussuggests that there is in principle no differencebetween the Spanish conquistadors'mendaciously luring the Lucayansinto servitude and death by exploitingtheir religious beliefs and More's refutingof Tyndale's religious beliefs by drawingout implications that Tyndale had notintended. Ironically, Greenblatt seemsoblivious to the possibility that his owntreatment of More and the other authorswhom he discusses might easily be subjectedto the same strictures.

Iago becomes in Greenblatt's telling theepitome of Western Christian civilization,which through its feigned empathy, its sinisteridentification with the "other," inevitablyleads to violence and servitude:

Such is the relation Iago establisheswith virtually every character in theplay, from Othello and Desdemonato such minor figures as Montanoand Bianca. For the Spanish colonialists,improvisation could only bringthe Lucayans into open enslavement;for Iago, it is the key to a masterywhose emblem is the "duteous andknee-crooking knave" who dotes"on his own obsequious bondage"(1.1.45–46), a mastery invisible tothe servant, a mastery, that is, whosecharacter is essentially ideological.26

But Iago is not in fact the ultimate villainof the play; he is merely an instrument of"the centuries-old Christian doctrine ofsexuality, policed socially and psychically,as we have already seen, by confession."27

Othello's tragedy turns out to be "amanifestation of the colonial power ofChristian doctrine over sexuality."28The unmistakable implication is that therepressive colonization of the New Worldwas the ineluctable result of Christendom's"colonization" of men's souls. The richcomplexity of Othello as a tragic characteris thus diminished into a caricature—the dark-skinned "native" inveigled bythe crafty white man. Although Iago is amilitary subordinate, his "attitude towardOthello is nonetheless colonial"; his inferiorposition "enables him to play upon theambivalence of Othello's relation to Christiansociety: the Moor at once representsthe institution and the alien, the conquerorand the infidel."29

Greenblatt thus misses one of the mostsignificant features of the play: Othello isa tragic hero—not a helpless victim, butan imposing, noble figure, whose catastropheresults from his failure to maintainhis own standards. The only characterswho make an issue of Othello's skin colorand foreignness are Brabantio, the franticfather, Rodrigo, the most despicable characterin the play, and Iago, surely Shakespeare'smost appalling villain. WhenLodovico, an emissary from the Venetiancouncil, sees the Moor strike his wife,he cries out, "My lord, this would notbe believed in Venice / Though I shouldswear I saw't" (4.1.241–242). When laterhe questions Iago, there is no reason todoubt the sincerity of his bewildermentand shock:

Is this the noble Moor whom our
full senate
Call all in all sufficient? This the
Whom passion could not shake?
whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of
Could neither graze nor pierce?

Greenblatt's anecdote about the Lucayans—so typical of his interpretive tactics—serves only to reduce Othello to a dupe,and his tragedy to a melodrama of ideologicalsentimentality. He misses the trulycrucial point that Shakespeare is free of theracialism that will taint Western culture insubsequent centuries and evidently expectsthe same of his audience.31

To be sure, Greenblatt is a skillful critic,and he rightly calls attention to Othello'slyrical outburst when he and Desdemonaare reunited on Cyprus after comingthrough a storm at sea on separate ships:

It gives me wonder great as
my content
To see you here before me! O my
soul's joy,
If after every tempest come such
May the winds blow till they have
wakened death,
And let the labouring bark climb
hills of seas,
Olympus-high, and duck again as
As hell's from heaven. If it were
now to die
'Twere now to be most happy,
for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like
to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

The last few lines, especially, are ominous:the extreme idealization of the love of aman and his wife is not only in conflictwith Christian teaching; it also portendstroubles for the marriage. But the problemis not what Greenblatt suggests in associatingit with rigorous Christian condemnationsof excessive eagerness for pleasure inmarital relations, an attitude that he tracesback to St. Jerome's defense of the superiorityof virginity to marriage in AgainstJovinian. In this discourse, Jerome (followingSeneca) famously remarks, "A wiseman ought to love a wife with judgment,not passion. Let him rule the urge to pleasureand not be carried away headlong intocopulation. Nothing is fouler than to lovea wife as an adulteress."32

This and other passages quoted byGreenblatt are plainly preoccupied byexcessive sensual lust, which can becomean obsession that diverts a man's attentionfrom everything else—most particularlyfrom his relationship with God—and leadshim to treat his wife as the mere object ofcarnal desire. One has to wonder whetherthe knowing modern commentators whosneer at Jerome's words think that a manought to treat his wife as an adulteress orconcubine, whose only purpose is to providephysical gratification.33 But the attitudeexpressed by Othello in the passagequoted above is the adoration of the courtlyor Petrarchan lover, not simple sensuality.Greenblatt rightly observes that Desdemona's"erotic intensity" and her "frankacceptance of pleasure and submission toher spouse's pleasure" arouse a "deep currentof sexual anxiety in Othello" and thuscontribute to his credulous acceptance ofIago's accusation of infidelity.34 But Othello'sshock and dismay at Desdemona's uninhibiteddelight in their conjugal relations ishardly the result of the Church's admonitionthat men should bridle their carnaldesire and treat their wives with delicaterestraint. His delicacy and idealism go farbeyond the Christian standard. If there is aharmful ideology in play here, it comes notfrom St. Paul but from Francesco Petrarcha:Othello wants Desdemona to be his "soul'sjoy," the angelic, spiritualized "Donna" ofthe Rime sparse and the medieval traditionof amour courtois. Such is hardly the ideal ofChristian "misogyny"!

"The historical anecdote," Greenblattclaims, "functions less as explanatory illustrationthan as a disturbance, that whichrequires explanation, contextualization,interpretation."35 His handling of Othello,however, suggests that the drive to "contextualize"the floating anecdote leadsnot to explanation or interpretation, butto ideological imposition: the critic is sointent on laying the tragedy at the feet ofthe "patriarchal" authority embodied inChristianity that he fails to see that thereis fuel enough for Othello's destructionin his own ideal vision of himself, whichrequires an equally sublime idealism in hiswife. "You were best go in," Iago warnswhen Brabantio arrives with his retainersto seize the Moor. "Not I," he replies, "Imust be found. / My parts, my title andperfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly"(1.2.29–32). It is an absurd diminutionof Othello to regard him as the victim ofanyone's "colonization." If he is a victim,it is of his own virtues—of a genuine anddignified nobility fatally entangled withan aloof, fastidious pride. He is not at all anaïve savage undone by a wily European;he is a civilized gentleman, ruined by theideal grandeur of his self-conception.

Stephen Greenblatt's anecdotes are asubstitute for works of literature, just as thenew historicism is a substitute for subtleliterary interpretation. If the distinctionbetween works of imaginative literatureand other "documents" and "texts" isexpunged, then what is intricately structured,dense, and profound will give wayto what is random, thin, and shallow, withno real enhancement accruing to the latter.Epic and dramatic poems of high qualityare intrinsically more meaningful andinteresting than anecdotes, but a materialistview of human nature and of reality makesauthentic meaningfulness problematic. Iflife itself lacks purpose and significance,then the superb formal achievements ofartistic works can only be illusory, and thecasual comment and fortuitous observation—anecdotes, in other words—may betaken for a more credible account of reality.Stephen Greenblatt is a stylish writerand a keen analyst of literary texts, but thedominance of his materialist approach toliterature has impoverished our understandingand undermined our confidencein our culture.


  1. Genre 15 (1982), 5.
  2. Ibid., 6.
  3. Hamlet in Purgatory(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 6–7.
  4. Rémi Brague, Th e Law of God: Th e Philosophical Historyof an Idea, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: Universityof Chicago Press, 2007), viii.
  5. Sir Walter Ralegh:Th e Renaissance Man and His Roles (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1973); Renaissance Self-Fashioningfrom More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of ChicagoPress, 1980).
  6. Cf. the introduction of Learning to Curse:Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge,1990), 1–2, where Greenblatt presents a rather self-servingportrait of himself as a disillusioned sophisticate whowas too knowing to be bothered with the education hewas being off ered: "I was only mildly interested in theformalist agenda that dominated graduate instructionand was epitomized in the imposing figure of William K.Wimsatt. His theory of the concrete universal—poetry as'an object which in a mysterious and special way is bothhighly general and highly particular'—seemed almostirresistibly true, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to enlistmyself for life as a celebrant of the mystery. I would goin the late afternoon to the Elizabethan Club—all-male,a black servant in a starched white jacket, cucumbersandwiches and tea—and listen to Wimsatt at the greatround table hold forth like Dr. Johnson on poetry andaesthetics." Of course Greenblatt never attempts to refuteWimsatt's theory and never actually says that it is taintedwith racism and sexism; it's so much easier to gesture dismissivelytoward the "black servant in a starched whitejacket, the cucumber sandwiches and tea" than to engagein an actual argument.
  7. Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 47.
  8. Utopia, ed. Edward J. Surtz, S.J., and J. H. Hexter, Th eYale Edition of the Complete Works of Th omas More, vol. 4(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965, 100: "Namut omnia bene sint, fieri non potest, nisi omnes bonisint, quod ad aliquot abhinc annos adhuc non expecto."
  9. Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 64–66.
  10. Utopia, trans.Clarence Miller (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,2001), x–xi.
  11. Ibid., xviii.
  12. Renaissance Self-Fashioning,49.
  13. Ibid., 120.
  14. Ibid., 127.
  15. Ibid., 131.
  16. Ibid.,132.
  17. Ibid., 125–26.
  18. Th e Law of God, 224.
  19. Ibid.,223.
  20. Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 162.
  21. Ibid., 169.
  22. Ibid., 171, 173.
  23. Th e Faerie Queene II.lxxxiv–lxxxviiis quoted from Th e Works of Edmund Spenser: A VariorumEdition, ed. E. Greenlaw, C. G. Osgood, & F. M. Padelford(Baltimore: Th e Johns Hopkins University Press,1933), II, 180.
  24. Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 224–25.Cf. Daniel Lerner, Th e Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizingthe Middle East (New York: Free Press, [1958]1964).
  25. Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 231.
  26. Ibid., 233.
  27. Ibid., 246.
  28. Ibid., 242.
  29. Ibid., 234.
  30. Othello, ed.E. A. J. Honigmann (Walton-on-Th ames, Surrey: Th omasNelson & Sons, 1997).
  31. See R. V. Young, "Th e Bard, theBlack, and Jew," First Th ings 141 (March 2004): 22–28.
  32. S. Eusebii Hieronymi Stridonensis Presbyteri AdversusJovinianum Libri Duo 49, Patrologia Latina 23, 281A-B:"Sapiens vir judicio debet amare conjugem, non aff ectu.Regat impetus voluptatis, nec praeceps feretur in coitum.Nihil est foedius quam uxorem amare quasi adulteram."Greenblatt neglects to consult the original text and takeshis quotations from John T. Noonan, Contraception: AHistory of Its Treatment by the Catholic Th eologians andCanonists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,1966), 47, 80. It is not without interest that in his neglectof usual scholarly procedure, Greenblatt turns to a volumethat was, among other things, part of a "Catholic" campaignto change the Church's teaching on artificial birthcontrol.
  33. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 305,n. 56, refers disdainfully to a 1978 speech by Pope JohnPaul I, who reproves "the destructive attitude of sheerpleasure seeking, which snuff s out life."
  34. Ibid., 250.
  35. Learning to Curse, 5.