Who Is Stephen Greenblatt? Why Should You Care?

Stephen Greenblatt (b. 1943) is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, a Shakespeare biographer, and a recent recipient for general nonfiction of the Pulitzer Prize, but most importantly, he is the founder of “the new historicism,” and this is why you should know and care about him. New historicism is the critical practice of tracing the life of such things as ideas, cultural objects, and texts through their historical contingencies.

As Greenblatt tells it in his essay, “Resonance and Wonder” (1990), the new historicism began as a pun on the new criticism (the critical practice of close reading literary texts as if they’re self-contained artifacts without specific histories):

Several years ago, intending to signal a turn away from the formal, decontextualized analysis that dominates the new criticism, I used the term ‘new historicism’ to describe an interest in . . . the embeddedness of cultural objects in the contingency of history—and the term has achieved a certain currency.

In the same essay, Greenblatt discusses his own fascination, as a new historicist, with certain “transmigrations,” not of souls, but of ideas, objects, and literary texts through four stages or zones. These include:

  • “Theatricalized” religious ritual.
  • The dramatic stage.
  • The university library.
  • The museum.

He offers each as illustration of his own interests as a new historicist. The first concerns the following lines from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which a blessing consecrated with “field-dew” is offered to the beds of newlyweds (5.1.415-20):

Every fairy take his gait,

And each several chamber bless,

Through this palace, with sweet peace,

And the owner of it blest

Ever shall in safety rest.

Notice the issue Greenblatt is raising by quoting these lines. He wants to know how a sacred Catholic ritual–the blessing of the marriage bed–has moved from Christian solemnity to the secular stage, thus being transformed by Shakespeare into something pagan. Greenblatt calls Shakespeare’s lines “a witty allusion to the traditional Catholic blessing of the bride-bed with holy water, [...]”. As such,

I want to ask what is at stake in the shift from one zone of social practice to another, from the old religion to public theater, from priests to fairies, from holy water to field dew, . . . on the London stage.

Shakespeare’s imaginative movement of the bride-bed blessing from religion to the stage, suggests Greenblatt, “at once naturalizes, denaturalizes, mocks, and celebrates” Catholic ritual. Shakespeare naturalizes it by turning holy water into field dew; denaturalizes it by turning human priests into fairies; mocks it by treating the ritual as a “histrionic illusion”; and celebrates it via “the charismatic magic of the theater.”

Presumably, Greenblatt’s own 1990 analysis, through the ironic intellectual medium of the essay (“all the world’s a stage!”), and that essay’s placement in a book–itself being placed on a shelf in a bookstore or secular university library, is yet another transmigration of the Catholic ritual’s meaning, with traceable social consequences.

Another of Greenblatt’s examples is English Catholic Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s (1475-1530) red priest’s hat, which rests “in a glass case” radiating “a tiny quantum of cultural energy” at “the library of Christ Church, Oxford.” Playing detective, Greenblatt asks, How did it get there?

First he notes that Wolsey founded Christ Church, a college at Oxford, so the connection seems pretty obvious: it was given to the college on the priest’s death. But it wasn’t. A note card accompanying the hat informs the observer that it was purchased from “a company of players” (that is, an acting troupe) in the eighteenth century. Greenblatt thinks about this. Had the hat ever found its way onto the head of an actor playing Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (the king under which Wolsey served as Lord Chancellor)? And when, exactly, was it placed under glass? Greenblatt wonders whether Cardinal Wolsey’s hat is, in fact, a fraud.

Such issues are the stuff on which the new historicist gnaws. By asking questions like these, Greenblatt provokes us to give attention to the contingent processes “through which objects, gestures, rituals, and phrases are fashioned and moved from one zone of display to another.”

Zones are important for Greenblatt. If you want to start analyzing things like him, locate something in space and time and see if you can discover how its character changes when it shifts from one space and time zone of your “map” to another. For Greenblatt, “The peregrinations of Wolsey’s hat suggest that cultural artifacts do not stay still, that they exist in time, and that they are bound up with personal and institutional conflicts, negotiations, and appropriations.”

Some other things new historicists like Greenblatt give special critical attention to are the following:

  • The particular and contingent, not the universal and inevitable. New historicists are not especially interested in “man” in the abstract, nor in the (supposed) inevitability of history’s direction through an identifiable dialectical process (as posited, for example, by Hegelian Marxists), but in particular men and women making choices in contingent and very specific existential situations. Greenblatt writes that these individuals, though “conditioned by the expectations of their class, gender, religion, race and national identity” are nevertheless “constantly effecting changes in the course of history” through their agency: “[E]ven inaction or extreme marginality is understood [by new historicists] to possess meaning and therefore to imply intention. Every form of behavior, in this view, is a strategy: taking up arms or taking flight is a significant social action, but so is staying put, minding one’s business, turning one’s face to the wall. Agency is virtually inescapable.” As is obvious from the above quote, Greenblatt has been deeply influenced by existentialists like Sartre, noticing how individuals choose in very particular and contingent situations.
  • Where acts of agency get coopted, and where they don’t. If human beings in fact display real agency or Nietzschean will in the world (and Greenblatt thinks they do; the title of his widely-acclaimed biography of Shakespeare has the punning title, Will in the World), is agency or will ever effective? This is a concern of the new historicists, noticing when the will is effective and noticing when it isn’t. Thus a Marxist critique of the new historicism—that it bears a logic of “human helplessness” because time and contingencies so readily undo acts of will, revolutionary or otherwise—Greenblatt replies thusly: “The Marxist critique . . . rests upon an assertion that new historicism argues that ‘any apparent site of resistance’ [to power] is ultimately coopted. Some are, some aren’t.”
  • How the past connects with the present. Having come of age in the Vietnam-era of the “American 1960s and early 70s,” Greenblatt writes that he and other new historicists felt that “Writing that was not engaged, that withheld judgments, that failed to connect the present with the past seemed worthless.” He still does, and so sees the new historicism as a socially and politically engaged form of criticism, informing the present via two avenues: “bring[ing] out homologies” between the past and the present; and tracing past circumstances to their “generative” effects on today.
  • Where the past surprises and gets interesting. Greenblatt sees his own scholarly practice as akin to a crime detective, not an ideologue: “Some of the most interesting and powerful ideas in cultural criticism occur precisely at moments of disjunction, disintegration, unevenness. A criticism that never encounters obstacles, . . . [and] finds confirmation of its values everywhere it turns, is quite simply boring.”
  • Where wholeness and resolution fail. Greenblatt, recalling his own student days, recalls with annoyance the “relentlessly celebratory character” of his “own literary training,” in which those who wrote literary works were presumed to be smarter than the reader and always deliberative, never accidental, in their productions. Greenblatt calls this “secular theodicy” (the idea that behind every seeming accident in a text is an author’s higher purpose). Thus, “every tedious bit of clowning in [English dramatist Christopher Marlowe’s] Doctor Faustus was [presumed to be] richly significant. Behind these exercises was the assumption that great works of art were triumphs of resolution, that they were, in Bakhtin’s term, monological—the mature expression of a single artistic intention.” By contrast, new historicists “have been more interested in unresolved conflict and contradiction than in integration; they are as concerned with the margins as with the center,” and want to know where “a stubborn, unassimilable otherness, a sense of distance and difference,” occurs in texts and social dynamics.
  • Where butterflies change the weather. In chaos theory, a small effect (a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon) can render precise weather forecasting in England a week later impossible (for want of a wing flap, a slight tug of breeze went slightly right instead of left; for want of that breeze going left it was blocked by a particular tree, and so on). By analogy, new historicists foreground history’s butterflies: how small things, like a dream written in a Renaissance diary or a costume worn to a ball, can change or reveal the course of history and help critics come “to terms with the period’s methods of regulating the body; its conscious and unconconscious strategies, its ways of defining and dealing with marginals and deviants, its mechanisms for the display of power and the expression of discontent, its treatment of women.” Such things as “witchcraft accusations, medical manuals, or clothing” are “complex symbolic and material articulations of the imaginative and ideological structures of the society that produced them.”
  • How wonder’s boundary might be extended and made to resonate. Greenblatt describes part of his project as the extension and resonance of wonder beyond the artifact of contemplation: “By wonder I mean the power of the object displayed to stop the viewer in his tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” This wonder should move “beyond the formal boundaries of works of art” to things discovered outside of them, and this should “intensify resonance” between what’s in and what’s outside of the artifacts themselves.

To illustrate how he brings such concerns to the analysis of something quite specific, Greenblatt directs our attention, at the end of his essay, to fragility and how museums function as monuments to it:

Museums function, partly by design and partly in spite of themselves, as monuments to the fragility of cultures, to the fall of sustaining institutions and noble houses, the collapse of rituals, the evacuation of myths, the destructive effects of warfare, neglect, and corrosive doubt.

Greenblatt would also direct our attention to displacement. For preservation, restoration, and fresh display, things get:

. . . pulled out of chapels, peeled off church walls, removed from decaying houses, seized as spoils of war, stolen, ‘purchased’ more or less fairly . . . [from] hard-pressed heirs of fallen dynasties and impoverished religious orders.

The clean stage of the museum room effaces these displacements and restorations, giving objects a quiet mausoleum-like life, their meanings resonant not in time but space (that is, in relation to one another). Thus a map displayed on the same wall as a painting may be “drawn into the aesthetic orbit” of the painting (or vice versa).

But every artifact has had another life—a life in time where it was subject to touch. The “openess to touch,” Greenblatt reminds us, “was the condition for their creation” and preservation through history. And there are more ways to “touch” things than just with care. Animals and elements may touch a thing. A thing can be jostled, or touched by accident, or touched because someone wishes to make use of it. A person can also touch a thing with the intent to harm, alter, or deface it, and so Greenblatt would have us notice how artifacts in museums have been marked by time:

[W]ounded artifacts may be compelling not only as witnesses to the violence of history but as signs of use, marks of the human touch, [...]

Greenblatt points to such things as “the attempt to scratch out or deface the image of the devil in numerous late-medieval and Renaissance paintings,” and “cutting or reshaping” paintings “to fit a new frame.” He also points to how museums replace histories of touch with text:

The most familiar way to recreate the openness of aesthetic artifacts without simply renewing their vulnerability is through a skillful deployment of explanatory texts in the catalogue, on the walls of the exhibit, or on cassettes.

These texts function to “introduce and in effect stand in for the context that has been effaced [...]” As example, Greenblatt offers his recollection of an exhibition he once attended in which artifacts of the French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) were on display, one of which was, ironically, “a small, patched, modest vase with a notice, ‘This vase broken by Marcel Proust.’”

Museum texts also provide one with the brief illusion that time has ceased to touch the artifacts; that the texts, because they lack physical fingers for probing, are a pause on the change of meaning, and do not really shift fundamentally the way we experience the artifacts. The texts pretend to be neutral windows we see through rather than yet another iteration of glasses we see with.

Thus, when attending a museum, Greenblatt would suggest asking questions like these:

How have the objects come to be displayed? What is at stake in categorizing them as ‘museum-quality’? How were they originally used? What cultural and material conditions made possible their production? What were the feelings of those who originally held these objects, cherished them, collected them, possessed them? What is my relationship to these same objects now that they are displayed here, in this museum, on this day?

Greenblatt is frequently associated with the postmodern turn in academic studies, but as you can see, he is neither obscure nor self-referential (as is characteristic of so many other postmodern writers). He is, rather, an exceptionally clear writer, a rigorous thinker, and a creative interpreter–and this is why he’s worth knowing and caring about.


The quotations from Stephen Greenblatt’s essay, “Resonance and Wonder,” are taken from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition 2010, pp. 2150-2161).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Who Is Stephen Greenblatt? Why Should You Care?

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