Study Guide

Stephen Greenblatt Quotes

The notion of authenticity seemed and continues to seem misplaced, for new historicism is not a coherent, close-knit school in which one might be enrolled or from which one might be expelled. The term has been applied to an extraordinary assortment of critical practices, many of which bear little resemblance to our own. This book will not attempt to capture that rich variety; here we will speak only for ourselves, to whom "new historicism" at first signified an impatience with American New Criticism, an unsettling of established norms and procedures, a mingling of dissent and restless curiosity. [From Practicing New Historicism]

Like I said before, I'm not really keen on labels, or on the idea that what I'm up to constitutes a single school of thought. I say that New Historicism is simply a methodology, and it's one I share with many other scholars from all over the academic map.

One thing I should point out is my group's dissatisfaction with New Criticism, a critical school that focuses solely on the text—and nothing but the text. Look, I've got nothing against the quasi-egalitarianism that comes from approaching a text without any contextual baggage, but that's just it: we all have that kind of baggage.

That's why I start all my work by setting up where I'm coming from. We can't escape our own contexts any more than we can ignore the context of the text. I'm not being an elitist here: I truly believe that "the exercise of reason is not available only to specialists; it is accessible to everyone" (source). We all have the right to dive into literature; we just have to play responsibly.

After considerable debate, we settled on representation as the central problem in which all of us--literary critic and art historian; historian and political scientist; Lacanian, Foucauldian, Freudian, neopragmatist; deconstructor and unreconstructionist formalist--were engaged. It was tempting then to call the proposed journal "Representation," but the uneasiness some of us felt with theoretical abstraction, our skepticism about the will to construct a unified theory, led us to adopt the plural. Whatever progress we were likely to make in grappling with the contested status of representation would occur, we were convinced, only in close, detailed engagement with a multiplicity of historically embedded cultural performances: specific instances. images, and texts that offered some resistance to interpretation. [From Practicing New Historicism]

See, I told you we're an eclectic group. Here, I'm just going over the origins of our academic journal, Representations.

As I said, I'm not interested in having a one-size-fits-all approach to literary analysis, and I want to steer clear of theories that claim to have all the answers or that claim to provide a framework that results in cookie-cutter analysis. What I do want is for scholars to pay careful attention to what a text is saying, and to do that you, I think that scholars have to also pay attention to the non-literary texts and historical events that work behind the scenes of great works of literature.

New Historicism is all about making a connection with peoples of the past by means of an analysis of everything they've left behind. We also need to make sure that we're fair and open about where we're coming from as interpreters. I, for one, am not interested in misrepresenting myself or the literature I love.

Now, let's not forget that historical evidence is unreliable. Even in the absence of social pressure, people lie readily about their most intimate beliefs, so think about how much more they must have lied in an atmosphere of true oppression.

And that's just one thing we have to worry about when we try to interpret history. Think about how much people must have kept secret for political reasons. Did you know, for example, that treason was punished as harshly as atheism in the 16th century, yet while there are tons of documented instances of treason during that century, there are virtually no professed atheists? That doesn't mean there were no atheists back then; it means people were afraid to say they were atheists... so they didn't.

I am arguing not that atheism was literally unthinkable in the late sixteenth century but rather that it was almost always thinkable only as the thought of another. This is one of its attractions as a smear; atheism is a characteristic mark of otherness--hence the ease with which Catholics can call Protestant martyrs atheists and Protestants routinely make similar charges against the pope. [From Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England]

It's high time I offered a quick look at what exactly it is I do. I mean, how many times can I reiterate that New Historicism is a method without giving you an example of that method?

Here, I'm making a case for the way the concept of atheism worked in the Early Modern (or Renaissance) period. It gets a little tricky, and I've been criticized for making interpretive claims about what may or may not have been historical realities. What I'm trying to do here, anyway, is figure out how people thought about during the Renaissance period—and I'm basing my analysis on the way the term "atheist" was documented during that period.

Maybe I'm overreaching? Who knows? The fun part for me is tracing how institutionally generated power dynamics made the term "atheist" an insult during the period—at least, that how I think it worked. Why do I think so? Because it turns out that people used the term "atheist" as an insult, but nobody used it describe him- or herself. I think that this is related tot eh way people make outsiders of their enemies.

Another slick New Historicist move? Bringing in heavy artillery like Machiavelli and Montaigne. Who's gonna argue with people like that?

I am committed by trade to urging people to attend carefully to the verbal surfaces of what they read. Much of the pleasure and interest of poetry depends on such attention. But it is nonetheless possible to have a powerful experience of a work of art even in a modest translation, let alone a brilliant one. That is, after all, how most of the literate world has encountered Genesis or the Iliad or Hamlet, and, though it is certainly preferable to read these works in their original languages, it is misguided to insist that there is no real access to them otherwise. [From The Swerve: How the World Became Modern]

Look, I do think that words matter. Word choice, turn of phrase, rhythm, syntax—all of it is super important. It's the object of every English major's obsessive pursuit.

Here's the thing, though: if you read a translated work, you're not getting the texts actual words, turns of phrase, rhythm, and syntax. Some people might say that this mean you'll never be able to understand or appreciate translated literature, but I think that's totally wrong. Literature is literature, and I think people can get a lot out if it, even if it's translated.