Shakespearean Negotiations, the Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, by Stephen Greenblatt. Oxford University Press, 1988, 2001 edition. Read in March and April 2012.
“...language itself, which is at the heart of literary power, is the supreme instance of a collective creation.” This excellent quote comes from page four in the book and is indicative, I think, of one of Professor Greenblatt’s most important contributions to the study of Shakespeare – the understanding that Shakespeare, and all other cultural phenomena, do not happen in a vacuum but are a part of history and the society as a whole.
This book explores how Shakespeare’s works are an integral part of the Renaissance but also how he helped shape it by recycling the events and the literary ideas of his time. Also in the beginning chapter Greenblatt declares, “There can be no appeals to genius as the sole origin of the energies of great art” (page 12) and “as a rule, there is very little pure invention in culture” (page 13).
I could go on quoting the whole book but it would be better if you just read it. Here’s what you have to look forward to:
“Invisible Bullets” is a chapter on how the English colonies in America and especially the reports from them, served as a subversive influence on the “concept of divine power” (page 39), and how Shakespeare responded to this in his Henry IV plays.
“Fiction and Friction” addresses the question of how the unclear gender roles of Twelfth Night reflect the Renaissance realisation that “sexual difference, the foundation of all individualisation, turns out to be unstable and artificial at its origin” (page 76).
In “Shakespeare and the Exorcists” Greenblatt explores how “institutional strategies” were a “part of an intense and sustained struggle in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England to redefine central values of society...transforming the prevailing standards of judgment and action, rethinking the conceptual categories by which the ruling elites constructed their world and which they attempted to impose on the majority of the population” (page 95). One could argue that Shakespeare dealt with this is all of his plays and indeed Greenblatt, after analysing the role exorcism played in society at the time, touches upon The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, All’s Well that Ends Well, King Lear and several others.
Chapter Five, “Martial Law in the Land of Cockaigne” contrasts the anxiety created by the church in order to scare sinners into accepting the power of Christianity to the anxiety of the theatre. In Shakespeare’s day there was a “startling increase in the level of represented and aroused anxiety” (page 133) and Shakespeare’s plays are filled with “currents of sympathy” and “efforts to make us identify powerfully with the dilemmas that his characters face” (page 134). Here Greenblatt focuses on Measure for Measure and The Tempest.
This review in no way does justice to the book. It is filled with exhilarating ideas and perspectives on the plays while enriching the reader’s knowledge of the very complex and quickly-changing society of the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s world.
It is very much a must read.