Shakespeare’s Freedom, Stephen Greenblatt, University of Chicago, 144 pages

By Paul A. Cantor

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:

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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.

It is, then, truly a significant moment in contemporary literary criticism when Stephen Greenblatt evidently has chosen to repudiate his earlier repudiation of the Burckhardtian interpretation of the Renaissance. Greenblatt states clearly that the goal of his new book is to show “the extent to which Shakespeare fashioned individuality by departing from his culture’s cherished norms.” Perhaps aware of how strange this assertion sounds coming from a New Historicist, Greenblatt repeats the point in the very next paragraph: “Shakespeare understood his art to be dependent upon a social agreement, but he did not simply submit to the norms of his age.” But “submitting to the norms of his age” is exactly what every author must do according to the doctrine of historicism, which denies the very possibility of any kind of transhistorical truth (except perhaps its own validity as an understanding of the permanent limits of the human condition). Historicism is precisely the idea that all thought and all cultural expression necessarily occur within the distinctive horizons of a particular age; an ancient Greek must think like an ancient Greek and an Elizabethan like an Elizabethan.

In breaking with historicism, Greenblatt analyzes the varied ways in which Shakespeare challenges authority, calling into question the established truths of his day in the realms of morality, politics, religion, and aesthetics. In particular, Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare rejected the many forms of absolutism that prevailed in his day, including royal absolutism. For example, in a well-illustrated chapter devoted to the subject of beauty in the Renaissance, Greenblatt discusses how Shakespeare dismisses the overly idealized and abstract notion of the beautiful embodied in the image of the perfect mistress that dominated several centuries of Petrarchan love poetry. Instead, Shakespeare celebrates an idiosyncratic and individualized form of beauty, one that incorporates imperfection according to conventional poetic norms; hence his preference for the dark lady of the sonnets, whose eyes—in stark contrast to the standards of the sonnet tradition—are “nothing like the sun.”

Greenblatt does not develop this point at length in terms of Shakespeare’s plays, but he has hit upon a central idea in the tragedies and comedies. Pursuing the absolute in love—a kind of heavenly perfection in a realm that is decidedly earthbound—can only lead to disaster. With their uncompromising devotion to a perfect love, Shakespeare’s tragic lovers—Romeo and Juliet in particular—end up destroying themselves, while Shakespeare’s comic lovers learn to accept some form of compromise in their passion, settling for a less intense but more durable kind of romance, namely marriage.

The most important chapter in Greenblatt’s book is called “Shakespeare and the Ethics of Authority” and it deals with the view of politics developed in the histories and tragedies. In highly condensed form, Greenblatt gives a balanced and nuanced account of Shakespeare’s portrayal of everything that renders political life deeply problematic. Contrary to most historicist readings of the plays, for example, Greenblatt documents how suspicious Shakespeare was of the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Once again, Greenblatt aptly highlights a central pattern in Shakespeare’s plays: characters who seem admirable in ethical terms often display a disinclination for political life, while those who eagerly pursue power are ethically defective.

The result is to make political life fundamentally tragic in Shakespeare’s view. It destroys good people, partly because they are not sufficiently motivated to contend successfully for power, while the evil people who seem to triumph in the political realm—such as Richard III or Edmund in “King Lear”—are eventually themselves destroyed, usually in a web of intrigue of their own making. As Greenblatt sums up the situation: “Shakespeare did not think that one’s good actions are necessarily or even usually rewarded, but he seems to have been convinced that one’s wicked actions inevitably return, with interest.”

This understanding of Shakespeare is strangely similar to ideas developed by the great English critic A.C. Bradley at the beginning of the 20th century in his book Shakespearean Tragedy (1904). In both a general chapter on “The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy” and chapters on “King Lear” in particular, Bradley also argues that Shakespeare, avoiding absolute extremes, does not portray either a world of perfect justice or a world of perfect injustice. His good characters often suffer, even when they have done nothing wrong, but his evil characters are never secure in their triumphs. As Bradley writes of “King Lear”:

We see a world which generates terrible evil in profusion. Further, the beings in whom this evil appears at its strongest are able, to a certain extent, to thrive. … On the other hand this evil is merely destructive: it founds nothing, and seems capable of existing only on foundations laid by its opposite. It is also self-destructive. … Thus the world in which evil appears seems to be at heart unfriendly to it.

As his affinities with Bradley suggest, Greenblatt is now taking an ethical view of Shakespeare’s plays, an approach that groups him with the traditional brand of humanist criticism he rejected throughout much of his career. Greenblatt quite perceptively uncovers all the questionable aspects of political life as Shakespeare portrays it, but he does not infer from this analysis that Shakespeare simply rejected politics per se: “The conclusion toward which these stories tend is not the cynical abandonment of all hope for decency in public life, but rather a deep skepticism about any attempt to formulate and obey an abstract moral law, independent of actual social, political, and psychological circumstances.”

In distinguishing a healthy skepticism from a corrosive cynicism, Greenblatt gives a judicious formulation of Shakespeare’s complex understanding of politics. Shakespeare manages to call into question the political absolutes of his day without undermining all sense of an ethical basis to politics.

Accordingly, Greenblatt concludes his chapter on politics in Shakespeare by analyzing a seldom noted moment in “King Lear,” the scene in which one of the Duke of Cornwall’s servants rises up against his master and tries to prevent him from torturing the Earl of Gloucester any further. In the second half of the 20th century, it became fashionable to offer readings of “King Lear” as nihilistic, as a forerunner of Samuel Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd (an attitude perhaps best reflected in Peter Brook’s famous film of the play). With all the moral horrors on display in “King Lear,” it is easy to view the play as calling morality itself into question. But as Greenblatt points out, the scene of Cornwall’s servant rebelling against his master offers a moment of genuine moral clarity: “He has an ethically adequate object—the desire to serve the duke his master by stopping him at all costs from performing an unworthy action.” As Greenblatt suggests, “King Lear” can raise doubts about any simple moralistic understanding of the world while still embodying a moral teaching about politics.

In the end, then, Shakespeare’s Freedom does seem to mark a fundamental turn in Stephen Greenblatt’s work. I wonder what his fellow literary critics will make of the fact that he is now talking about “the play’s moral vision” or “fundamental ethical responsibility, reduced to the simplest elements.” In their evocation of what appear to be eternal moral truths, these words seem antithetical to the spirit of the mainstream of literary criticism in the past few decades, especially to its historicism.

April 2011 coverI welcome these new developments in Greenblatt’s work, but I somehow doubt that they foreshadow a basic or widespread reorientation of contemporary criticism. Although Greenblatt has been a trendsetter, he has always stood out from the crowd of literary critics, if only by virtue of his exceptional intelligence and sensitivity as a reader of texts. Even when one disagreed with him, as I often have, one always learned from reading his work. Ultimately I am not surprised to see that he for one appears to have broken out of the historicism that I always felt inhibited his insights as a critic.

Shakespeare’s Freedom is Greenblatt’s best book and a tribute to Shakespeare’s power. If we read his plays long enough with care and intelligence, he will free us from the critical blinders we impose upon ourselves and open our eyes to the deepest truths about human nature. That is the way in which Shakespeare’s freedom can become our own.

Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. His most recent book, co-edited with Stephen Cox, is Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture.

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