Some Current Issues in Contemporary Criticism of Renaissance Literature

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Reading the writings of any culture which is unfamiliar, distant in time or space, undoubtedly requires both knowledge and leaps of faith. Stephen Greenblatt, probably the most widely read commentator on Renaissance literature in the last twenty years characterised his task as 'the desire to speak with the dead':

  This desire is a familiar, if unvoiced, motive in literary studies,
  a motive organized, professionalized, buried beneath thick layers
  of bureaucratic decorum: literature professors are salaried,
  Middle-Class shamans. If I never believed that the dead could hear
  me, and if I knew that the dead could not speak, I was nonetheless
  certain that I could re-create a conversation with them ... the
  dead had contrived to leave textual traces of themselves, and those
  traces make themselves heard in the voices of the living. (1)

Greenblatt's point is that we must translate the words of dead writers into our own idiom in order to be able to speak to them and comprehend their world. Critics are not unlike intermediaries between the mundane and the spiritual. Were the writers of the sixteenth century people who were completely different from us, who had totally alien conceptions of themselves to those that we possess, who would have found the most basic assumptions that most of us who read their work tend to make-that men and women should have equal rights, that everyone should be allowed to play some part in deciding who should govern the country in which they live and be equal before the law-ridiculous, blasphemous, or treasonable? Or were they really, beneath the obvious differences-education, clothes, housing--quite like us? How does either position affect our reading of the texts in question? How much do we really need to know in order to be able to speak with the dead? (2)

I raise these questions, which may seem rather banal to some readers, for a number of reasons. They constitute, in a crude form, the basis of the central difference of opinion between scholars who study the Renaissance, a difference which has often been the only point of contact between the world of scholarship and wider journalistic and political debates. Some critics argue that it is impossible to understand the early modern period without appreciating the vast historical gulf between then and now; others see analogies between the two periods enabling them to compare and contrast both societies and their respective literatures. Students of literature are used to being told that the central conflict in literary studies is between those 'traditional' critics who believe in timeless, universal human truths and avant garde left-wing critics who insist that literature is culturally specific and speaks to us only from its particular historical moment. However, to draw up battle lines so straightforwardly is misleading and confusing. The first point one needs to make is that if we cannot read a work beyond its specific historical context then how can we ever understand anything? Unless we accept that things can be understood beyond their immediate cultural location, every action, phenomenon, and piece of evidence, written or physical, becomes unique, unrepeatble, and, therefore, beyond our understanding. Scholars who insist that we cannot understand aged texts because we do not have enough knowledge of the context are deluding themselves. We can never completely cover the context surrounding the production and reception of any given text: there is always more that could be known. Everything must be either repeatable or translatable into another mode in order for us to understand historical difference. Paradoxically, in order to be historically specific we must acknowledge that nothing can be truly unique.

On the other hand, to imagine that everything has been the same since the dawn of time, because the world and 'human nature' are both constant, is a problematic assumption to make. There will always be questions of the social conditions under which a work was produced, the education the author received, the books he may or may not have read, the gender roles that were available to him or her, the range of political beliefs possible, the question of certain details within a text and whether they provide keys to our understanding, and so on. …