Cristina Nehring’s Atlantic review of Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespeare biography, Will in the World , is sharply critical of Greenblatt’s New Historicism: “The ‘commitment’ of New Historicists is to ‘particularity’ – or, one might say, to peculiarity. ‘Trans-historical’ dilemmas like ‘to be or not to be,’ to love or not to love, leave them cold. They pride themselves on their ability to look at literature and discover the forgotten customs, cultural quirks, and social idiosyncracies behind it . . . . Greenblatt’s critical approach turns gold into led. It takes texts of universal appeal and authors of individual genius and reduces them to catalogues of culturally particular ?Eand contemporarily irrelevant – minutiae.” Though Greenblatt is no Oxfordian, this criticism suggests that his approach shares some moves with the Oxfordians. Just as Oxfordians plunder Shakespeare’s plays for evidence of his “true identity” and for contemporary political allegory (Polonius is the Duke of whatever, Gertrude a stand-in for the Countess de something or other), Greenblatt’s interest in the plays sometimes focuses on bits of trivia about Elizabethan custom.
Nehring has a point. And yet. I’ve found the New Historicists to be illuminating in a number of respects. Greenblatt’s own Renaissance Self-Fashioning fastened on a central theme in Renaissance culture, one often reflected in Shakespeare’s plays. And, Nehring’s dismissal notwithstanding, the New Historicists (including Greenblatt) have highlighted the religious and theological contexts of Shakespeare’s plays, and the ways the plays enter into the theological discussion. (Nehring is mostly right that “the Bard seems blithely indifferent to theological niceties,” but that only means that he is a latitudinarian humanist. It hardly means that he is is indifferent to large theological issues, though perhaps Nehring cannot think of a theological issue that is other than a “nicety.”)
Besides, is a concern with “trans-historical” issues really incompatible with historical particularity? There is no reason to think so. Let’s see, was Dante interested in the petty and long-forgotten quarrels of Florentine politics or with the justice and love of God? Well, golly, both, I would think. Why not Will?