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Portraits by Mark Alcarez
Also see Out with the Sake, In with the Ale.

Stephen Greenblatt
Professor of English and American Literature and Language

"Works of art that we encounter aren't raw--they're cooked," says Stephen Greenblatt. "I'm interested in the cooking and what the ingredients were and where they came from." Greenblatt is a Shakespearean who has been called "easily the most prominent [Renaissance scholar] of his generation." Harvard wooed him for 10 years before he finally accepted a tenured professorship in the English department last year. He has dubbed his critical approach--which he downplays as merely a "way of thinking about literature in context," rather than a set of propositions or dogmas--New Historicism.

Don't try to pigeonhole him or his recently published Norton Shakespeare as New Historicist, though; Greenblatt takes evasive maneuvers. He sometimes refers to the movement in the past tense, as in "New Historicism was about trying to imagine and analyze works of art and literary art not as separate from the world that surrounds them, but as one kind of negotiation and exchange with the world." The impact of his approach within his field he attributes to the existence of "such a strong counterpoint for such a long time." The counterpoint is Harold Bloom, who would argue that great works of art are entirely transcendent: both of their own time and of ours. Greenblatt, on the other hand, says he is "interested in learning how all works of art relate to the historical and cultural and social world which they come from and which I come from. It's not just historical things," he says. "It's our own existence; what it means to be here now."

In its simplest expression, that means that in the Norton Shakespeare, of which Greenblatt is general editor, when Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing says he'd marry Antonio's daughter "were she an Ethiope," Greenblatt remarks on it with this footnote: "In other words, black, and therefore, according to the Elizabethan racist stereotype, ugly." Says Greenblatt, "Were she revealed to be an Ethiope means to an Elizabethan 'were she the most ghastly thing to marry imaginable.' Which I think is funny, because I think in our own aesthetic we regard Ethiopians as ravishingly beautiful." The footnote is just one of thousands written by Greenblatt and his fellow editors, but he cites it because, he says, it reflects a "combination of understanding something about the period--that black meant ugly--and understanding something about what our needs are. From our perspective, that's a racist stereotype." The Riverside Shakespeare doesn't footnote the word at all. "Maybe they thought it was a little embarrassing to notice it, that you might sound--I don't know--too politically correct," he says pointedly.

The Norton Shakespeare is not entirely Greenblatt's creation. It is based on the Oxford University Press edition that burst onto the scene in England, controversially, in 1986. What made the Oxford Shakespeare radical was its rejection of the centuries-old practice of silently stitching together discrepant versions of Shakespeare's plays. No manuscript in Shakespeare's hand is known to survive. Early printed versions of his plays often contain passages substantially different from one another. Hence, there is no authoritative or "master text" that could be regarded as a direct link to the author's pen. What editors since the eighteenth century have done is to weave together multiple versions of a play to create the "perfect" play they believe Shakespeare intended to publish, generally trying to include as much material as possible from all the available texts. The Oxford edition dispensed with these conflations. Its editors argued that the distinct versions were historical documents, that it was wrong to hide the fact that they were discrepant, and that to pretend one could recreate Shakespeare's ultimate intent was folly. Or more properly, they asserted that Shakespeare, a working playwright and actor by profession, never had an ultimate intent; he never finalized his plays because they were not intended to be published, only played on the stage, revised as the playwright and his fellow actors saw fit for performance. "It's very likely that Shakespeare himself was involved in the revision," says Greenblatt, "and even if he wasn't, these plays are the products, like plays now or like television shows, of elaborate social, collaborative enterprises--they're not the product of an artist in a garret somewhere scribbling this down for eternity."

The Norton Shakespeare is largely an improved Oxford edition with introductions, textual notes, and a glossary added to make the material more accessible to undergraduates. (Norton bought the English-language world rights to the Oxford text, but changes to the presentation had to be negotiated with the Oxford editors.) Unlike the Oxford edition, the Norton Shakespeare prints discrepant versions of King Lear on facing pages, so you can actually compare the texts line by line. (Hedging a bit, Greenblatt also includes a conflated version of Lear, edited by his Harvard colleague Barbara K. Lewalski, "so that students can see what that looks like," he says.) In presenting two versions of Hamlet, Greenblatt chose to indent the additional lines from one text within the body of the other, using a different typeface and numbering system to differentiate them. A few lines are necessarily repeated this way, "but what you gain," says Greenblatt, "is a remarkable sense of the differences between the two texts and what that means historically."

One change to the Oxford text that Greenblatt insisted on was the reinstatement of the name Falstaff for Prince Hal's boon companion; the Oxford edition calls him Sir John Oldcastle. The Oldcastle family, evidence suggests, brought pressure on Shakespeare to change the original character's name to Falstaff, and he did. "The Oxford editors are trying to save Shakespeare from the social process by which he made the name change," says Greenblatt. He argues that "the social negotiation has happened already and Shakespeare was part of it." If that weren't reason enough for saving Falstaff, there is the huge body of literary criticism, a rich web of allusion, and Falstaff's standing as "a character who, like Don Quixote, has taken on a life of his own in the culture," Greenblatt says.

Some scholars say that Greenblatt's critical approach can obscure the shaping role of the artist, so the whole idea of genius might appear antithetical to the New Historicist point of view. Greenblatt does seem a little uncomfortable talking about whether Shakespeare was a genius. "People do think that the idea of genius is contaminated itself," he says. "As a category of explanation, it tends to end the conversation rather than do much more." But then Greenblatt relents. A little. "Every once in a while, you do see somebody who is unbelievably good at this one particular game. I think that's manifest in this case here. He's not the only person who was good at it, and he wasn't good at it alone," Greenblatt says. "Somebody else was making the basketballs and someone made the court; the notion that this was all just done by one person is as silly as it would be to think that Michael Jordan created the NBA. He didn't. The game was in place."

"That's not to take away from Shakespeare," Greenblatt says. "It's just that anyone who has stuck his nose in the theater knows that it's only a puppet theater that involves one person, and even then someone had to make the puppets." In fact, Greenblatt's historically rooted approach sometimes leaves him "absolutely astonished" at how Shakespeare could have derived the play he wrote from its source materials. Othello, for example, despite having "lots of things that, correctly, should make one uncomfortable...is light years beyond the materials" Shakespeare was working with. "Far from collapsing Shakespeare and the play into one context," says Greenblatt, "it makes me feel a greater sense of wonder at what it means to take certain materials and fashion things out of them. But it's a wonder that I see coming from a very different place than if I hadn't had the historical work that I do." In other words, it's okay to talk about Shakespeare's genius as long as you know what you're talking about.

For some people, the question of genius is related to the question of Shakespeare's biography. There is a perception that we know very little about Shakespeare the man, that we know him principally through his plays. "Actually, we know a lot about him," says Greenblatt. "It's just that what we know is a little dull. They're the details of a fairly well-to-do bourgeois provincial. I regret that we don't have a lot more about Shakespeare, not because I think it could answer a lot of questions, but because it would teach us a whole bunch of other questions to ask."

The idea that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays is due at least partly to the tedium of Shakespeare's life as reflected in the historical record. But Greenblatt thinks he "can show very easily what kind of life experiences you could have" that would have allowed the playwright "to imagine the things he imagined. It's the wonder of the ordinary that Shakespeare is very, very good at getting," he says. "What it means to put on and take off clothes, what the tensions are between a husband and wife. Macbeth, full of witches, charms, and all sorts of weird things being thrown in pots, is actually most brilliant not about death, but what it means for a wife to say to a husband, 'Then you were a man, when you did this'--that form of sexual terrorism in ordinary, everyday, domestic life."

Greenblatt doesn't take theories of an alternative authorship very seriously. "They're largely focused on the tremendous anxiety that Shakespeare didn't go to Harvard, or some other university," and that he didn't have aristocratic blood, says Greenblatt. "It's a wacky perennial subject." He does, however, respond in an original way. He writes in his introduction to the Norton edition, "To integrate some of the probable circumstances of Shakespeare's early years with the particular shape of the theatrical imagination associated with his name, let us indulge briefly in the biographical daydreams that modern scholarship is supposed to have rendered forever obsolete. The vignettes that follow are conjectural, but they may suggest ways in which his life as we know it found its way into his art." The following example is titled "The Gown of Office."

Shakespeare was a very young boy--not quite four years old--when his father was chosen by the Stratford council as the town bailiff. The bailiff of an Elizabethan town was a significant position; he served the borough as a justice of the peace and performed a variety of other functions, including coroner and clerk of the market. He dealt routinely with an unusually wide spectrum of local society, for on the one hand he distributed alms and on the other he negotiated with the lord of the manor. More to the point, for our purposes, the office was attended with considerable ceremony. The bailiff and his deputy were entitled to appear in public in furred gowns, attended by sergeants bearing maces before them. On Rogation Days (three days of prayer for the harvest, before Ascension Day) they would solemnly pace out the parish boundaries, and they would similarly walk in processions on market and fair days. On Sundays, the sergeants would accompany the bailiff to church, where he would sit with his wife in a front pew, and he would have a comparable seat of honor at sermons in the Guild Chapel. On special occasions, there would also be plays in the Guildhall, at which the bailiff would be seated in the front row.

On a precocious child (or even, for that matter, an ordinary child), the effect of this ceremony would be at least threefold. First the ceremony would convey irresistably the power of clothes (the ceremonial gown of office) and of symbols (the mace) to transform identity as if by magic. Second, it would invest the father with immense power, distinction, and importance, awakening what we may call a lifelong dream of high station. And third, pulling slightly against this dream, it would provoke an odd feeling that the father's clothes do not fit, a perception that the office is not the same as the man, and an intimate, first-hand knowledge that when the robes are put off, their wearer is inevitably glimpsed in a far different, less exalted light.


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