Shakespeare at Liberty

By Canter, Paul A. | The American Conservative, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare at Liberty

Canter, Paul A., The American Conservative

Shakespeare at Liberty

[Shakespeare's Freedom, Stephen Greenblatt, University of Chicago, 144 pages]

WHEN I SAW the title of Stephen Greenblatt's new book, I wondered: what paradoxical sense of freedom is he going to use in order to attribute it to Shakespeare? After all, as a leader of the movement in literary criticism known as the New Historicism, Greenblatt is famous for treating Renaissance authors as unfree, as operating within the confines of the settled beliefs and assumptions of their own day. Indeed, Greenblatt has made a career out of arguing that, even when Renaissance authors appear to have been challenging the reigning dogmas of their age, deep down they were captives of them and actually re-enforcing rather than subverting them.

I therefore anticipated that in Greenblatt's hands, Shakespeare's freedom would magically mutate into some form of servitude to the Elizabethan regime. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the book begins with this simple declarative sentence: "Shakespeare as a writer is the embodiment of human freedom." Not only does Greenblatt unequivocally attribute freedom to Shakespeare, he also seems to believe that such a thing as "human freedom" really exists. This claim is reminiscent of the kind of old-fashioned humanism that flourished among literary critics in the middle of the 20th century and that scholars of Greenblatt's generation have taken great pains to deconstruct.

Consider Greenblatt's account of the genesis of his Renaissance Self -Fashioning, the book that marked his emergence as a pre-eminent critic, as well as of the New Historicism as an influential movement:

When I first conceived this book . . . I intended to explore . . . the role of human autonomy in the construction of identity. It seemed to me the very hallmark of the Renaissance that middle-class and aristocratic males began to feel that they possessed such shaping power over their lives. . . . But as my work progressed, I perceived that fashioning oneself and being fashioned by cultural institutions - family, religion, state - were inseparably intertwined. In all my texts and documents, there were, so far as I could tell, no moments of pure, unfettered subjectivity; indeed, the human subject itself began to seem remarkably unfree, the ideological product of the relations of power in a particular society. Whenever I focused sharply upon a moment of apparently autonomous self-fashioning, I found not an epiphany of identity freely chosen but a cultural artifact. If there remained traces of free choice, the choice was among possibilities whose range was strictly delineated by the social and ideological system in force.

Here Greenblatt is implicitly arguing against the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, who in the 19th century established what was to become the dominant conception of the Renaissance in the first half of the 20th. He characterized the period as the birth of the modern, free, autonomous individual out of the corporate and tradition-bound identities of the Middle Ages. Following Burckhardt, scholars learned to celebrate the great creative spirits of the age - such as Leonardo and Michelangelo - as "Renaissance men" who fundamentally reshaped the world.

Early in his career, Greenblatt set out to debunk this idealistic humanism, and identified Shakespeare as one of the central objects of the cult of the creative individual. In a 1982 essay on "King Lear," he tried to reverse the Burckhardtian image of Shakespeare as an icon of human freedom:

Celebration of Shakespeare's profundity is an institutionalized rite of civility in our culture. We tend to assume, however, that Shakespearean self-consciousness and irony lead to a radical transcendence of the network of social conditions, paradigms, and practices in the plays. I would argue, by contrast, that Renaissance theatrical representation itself is fully implicated in this network and that Shakespeare's self-consciousness is in significant ways bound up with the institutions and the symbology of power it anatomizes. …

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