Attacking the Cult-Historicists



  1. In a sequence of recent articles Richard Levin and Tom McAlindon have attacked what they see as the slipshod criticism and political dogmatism of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. There is, of course, nothing new about such attacks. As Richard Dutton points out in the postscript to his volume on New Historicism and Renaissance drama, such iconoclastic approaches 'could hardly fail to stir up controversy' (Wilson and Dutton 1992, 219), and he goes on to detail some of the objections raised to New Historicism both by other theorists and traditional scholars. Most telling perhaps are the objections of Carol Thomas Neely (the ambivalent term 'cult-historicists' is hers) that the 'new approaches are not new enough' (Wilson and Dutton 1992, 221), and those of Alan Liu that New Historicism is 'in fact a version of neo-formalism, applying the methodologies of New Criticism' to what might best be termed cultural history (Wilson and Dutton 1992, 225). Levin and McAlindon echo some of these accusations, but they do so from a position of hostility rather than sympathy, focusing on questions of methodology, and in particular on the relationship between theory and practice in the readings produced by the leading figures associated with the movements, Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Dollimore.

  2. A similar stance underlies Levin's earlier attack on feminist readings of Shakespeare which produced a vigorous reply by leading feminist critics (Levin 1998; Forum 1989). Undeterred, Levin, in what seems to be a personal crusade, has continued to snipe away at the new theorists and their apparent disregard for sound scholarship and intellectual rigour. Something more is at stake, however, than academic infighting. One of Levin's most recent pieces appears in the same volume of Studies in Philology as an essay by McAlindon berating New Historicism, so that between them they dominate much of one edition of a major journal. In this sense Levin and McAlindon, along with Studies in Philology, seem to be claiming that what they have to say is both of significance and importance; that it needs to be considered and weighed not merely as part of a debate but as a set of serious charges which New Historicists and Cultural Materialists need to defend themselves against. The rest of this article will be taken up with looking at what Levin and McAlindon write and with trying to sift through their essays to see if they really are as provocative and contentious as they appear to claim.


  3. I start with the essay produced by Levin in 1992 called 'The Cultural Materialist Attack on Artistic Unity, and the Problem of Ideological Criticism'. This is the most approachable of the group of essays, perhaps because it was part of a conference. Levin's paper, though caustic, has that conference air about it - witty, direct, and intended to generate cheers of support from the audience. Not that Levin is a lightweight opponent. He has obviously read widely in theory and handles all the big names with barely a show of respect. Indeed, central to Levin's (sometimes knockabout) method is a deliberate strategy of running critical names and points together in a sort of pastiche.

  4. Levin's quarry in the essay are 'the new Marxists or cultural materialists and feminists associated with them' (Levin 1992, 39). The slightly insensitive phrasing here is typical of Levin's style and the way he conducts his case. This, in essence, is to defend the idea of artistic unity together with the New-Critical formalist approach to texts that is associated with it, a defence he mounts through ridicule, lumping together various statements from Eagleton, Barker, Hulme, Stallybrass and others which apparently demonstrate an attack on the idea of organic unity as merely a strategy to smooth out contradictions, a fraud perpetrated either by formalist criticism or 'the literary text itself' (Levin 1992, 41). Levin goes on:

    Although these two explanations differ in their location of the blame, they yield the same result: a literary work that appears to be unified ... but that actually turns out to be disunified when interpreted correctly

    (Levin 1992, 42).

    Levin argues (not without insight or cleverness) that by taking this model of surface and deep meaning for its analytic base, Cultural Materialism is in fact acting like New Criticism, and that, ironically, the Cultural Materialists have merely changed the critical terms of what they do, not the basic mechanism of interpretation (Levin 1992, 43). With further irony Levin then notes how difficult it is to detect the grounds for the Cultural Materialists' distinction between the surface and the real meaning since they deny that texts can have meaning not produced by the criticism that reads it. Yet, Levin continues, the critics themselves seem to suggest that the disunity is actually there; it is 'within', 'innate'; it 'is always affirmed in the language of real presence' (Levin 1992, 44). Surely, however, Levin continues, what they should be saying is that this 'disunity is no more real than ... unity' and 'must be "produced" by their own approach' (Levin 1992, 44).

  5. Teasing out such apparent inconsistencies and contradictions is the keynote of Levin's analysis, though whether he also realises that his irony also works to undermine his own position so that we start to see that the opposite case must also be true - that unity is produced by the criticism that reads texts as well as disunity - is unclear. Perhaps he does, because at this point Levin turns back to the old New Criticism and how it searched for unity but did not always find it except in 'superior works' (Levin 1992, 45), whereas Cultural Materialists 'never fail to find' disunity (Levin 1992, 45). Once on this tack Levin lets himself score a number of easy goals against a criticism that always seems to read texts in a certain way. Levin is not, of course, interested in what these readings produce or whether they add to our sense of the texts or of criticism as an activity, only in mocking the apparently rigid determinism of the Cultural Materialists in their quest to find disunity at the expense of the notion of artistic unity.

  6. At this stage Levin turns towards the concept of unity itself. He suggests that the term has several meanings, including 'thematic unity' whereby a work has a central theme or meaning as well as the Aristotelian unity of plot (Levin 1992, 46). A third kind favoured by Levin has to do with 'unity as something that is intended by the author' so that it can be 'employed both as a working hypothesis for interpreting works ... and as one of the criteria for judging them' (Levin 1992, 46). However, Levin is keen to point out that unity is something of an ideal, ''a target to aim at', not 'an all-or-nothing proposition' (Levin 1992, 47). Whether this means by definition that authors never achieve unity is not raised by Levin who instead seeks to argue that 'artistic unity as the intended goal of authors ... seems to be confirmed by actual experience' (Levin 1992, 47). Thus Hamlet's instructions to the clowns '"to speak no more than is set down for them"' (Levin 1992, 48) are read as confirmatory evidence that Renaissance dramatists thought of their plays as unified wholes. And, Levin continues, 'if audiences then were anything like us, they assumed that the play they were witnessing was meant to provide a complete, unified experience' (Levin 1992, 48).

  7. Having made this somewhat simple-minded appeal to common experience, Levin switches direction once again by noting that Cultural Materialists are not interested in this kind of artistic unity but rather in the ideology of texts, their political unconscious. He therefore starts another attack on the Cultural Materialists as really rather old-fashioned, like those critics who saw literature in terms of a conflict between classicism and romanticism. As throughout the essay, Levin's tactic is to identify Cultural Materialism with its opposite and to make it look ridiculous by showing, for example, the way Cultural Materialists always seem to deny the idea of the universal and of essences and then constantly talk about literature in terms such as '"always already"' (Levin 1992, 50). Again, Levin notes how Cultural Materialists always discover disunity as if it were a constant feature of all texts, so espousing the idea of eternal verities. Here Levin is clearly astute as he is also when he sees how the Marxist system of base and superstructure always-already leads to this kind of epistemological trap.

  8. In place of this dispute about whether a work is 'really unified' (Levin 1992, 51) Levin offers another proposition. He suggests we insert the term qua into criticism so that this allows for different perspectives: we could 'adopt the formalist perspective and look at a literary work qua artistic product' (Levin 1992, 51) or read texts qua other approaches. Levin, however, well knows that this is barmy and that neither Cultural Materialists nor anyone else could or would accept such a proposition. Indeed, as he admits at the end of his essay, 'it is difficult to see how non-Marxists could ever be persuaded by a Marxist interpretation' (Levin 1992, 54) or a non-feminist by a feminist given the lack of 'any neutral or agreed-upon evidence' (Levin 1992, 54). Yet even as he reaches this conclusion Levin wants to back away from it and plead for the rejection of the 'cultural materialists' rejection of objectivism and pluralism' (Levin 1992, 55). What thus becomes evident as Levin draws his argument to a close is a sense of a deep gulf between the two sides, of all critical approaches 'hermeneutically sealed off' (Levin 1992, 55) from one another by their interpreters' ideologies.

  9. The rather gloomy ending to Levin's article may reflect the state of things in 1992 when the rival camps were much more intense in their mutual contempt than perhaps now. One of the things about theory, however, is that it shifts all the time. Levin constructs a battle scenario with old adversaries who may well have moved on and become something else, discovered new texts and topics for their energies. This is a problem with any attack on theory: it is not a fixed entity and is much more protean than Levin's pluralist yet strangely rigid criticism allows for. But there are, too, other problems with Levin's attack which it shares with the more recent articles. Levin sees Cultural Materialism as producing the text's disunity, but does not acknowledge the extent to which New Criticism's search for unity was predicated upon certain political values and ideas. Might there not have been something seriously wrong with the New Criticism model? Why should authors strive to produce so much unity and harmony, searching only for order? Have authors no political commitment to change or to challenge? These are simple questions that won't go away by quoting Hamlet's directions to the clowns; at that moment Hamlet is engaged on the most dangerous project in the Renaissance, of trying to prove the king is a murderer; small wonder he doesn't want the clowns messing with the text.


  10. Levin takes up the case of traditional criticism again in his article on 'The new and old Historicizing of Shakespeare'. In many ways this a follow-on piece with the same quarry of New Historicists, Cultural Materialism and feminists, though oddly Levin ends by saying he supports the feminist agenda for political action. His particular argument in the essay is about historical criticism of Shakespeare and how far theory accords with practice. As in the first essay, Levin's method consists of comparing the old and the new, but also of teasing out the implications of Montrose's famous 'chiasmus':

    The new orientation to history in Renaissance literary studies ... may be succinctly characterized, on the one hand, by its acknowledgement of the historicity of texts ... On the other hand, this new orientation is characterized by its acknowledgement of the textuality of history

    (Levin 1995a, 426).

    Here is plenty for Levin to get his knife into, and he wastes no time in emphasising what he sees as a central contradiction in New Historicism: for all their talk of the reciprocal interaction between texts and history, the New Historicists often begin their essays with the same historical facts as traditional scholars and then apply these to the texts 'just like the old historicists' (Levin 1995a, 426). As Levin also notes, New Historicists do tend to treat historical fact as facts, and, secondly, they do tend to start with history and then go to texts. (The exception here is the very brilliant Richard Wilson who gets no mention in Levin.) Levin rightly criticises what he sees as the sloganising of everything as textual as if were the end rather than the beginning of an epistemology (Levin 1995a, 429), a point he demonstrates by looking at the different textual status of the Stationers' Register entry and King Lear and how we interpret them differently.

  11. Levin presses on with this analysis of history, politics and King Lear in a comparison of various conflicting readings by New Historicists of the play and its sexual politics. As usual, Levin capitalises on the differences among the New Historicists about the play, though he doesn't go as far as suggesting that Lear may be simultaneously, for example, criticising and supporting patriarchy. Instead what Levin proposes is that the new historical criticism is thesis-driven (Levin 1995a, 431), caught in its own imperatives, and determined by the critics' politics. Paradoxically, however, Levin also contends that the methodology of the new historicizing replicates the three basic approaches that underpin the old historicizing. First, suggests Levin, is occasionalism, 'where the critic argues that a play was designed ... for a special group assembled at special occasion' (Levin 1995a, 432). Levin as usual is more than a little astute at spotting how old and new criticisms follow the same pattern of linking texts to specific moments or time. He is, however, less than keen to admit that this might be a strength, that what the new historicizing does is reread the old context, that there is nothing wrong with the notion of occasionalism per se. The same holds good for the idea of topicalism where the implications of the new reading might be very different as, say, in Marion Wynne-Davies' partial identification of Tamora with Elizabeth. What Levin seems unwilling to accept or cannot see is that the new historical critics may recognise that the older history may still be useful.

  12. The third area of overlap in methodology is that of 'the ideas-of-the-time approach' (Levin 1995a, 435). Even Levin is forced to admit that the New Historicism has routed the old Tillyard world of peace and harmony (although this was already under severe attack in the 1950s) and that we should be grateful we can now see there were 'different and even contradictory "Elizabethan ideas" on most subjects' (Levin 1995a, 435). However, characteristically here Levin side-steps once again and takes up the New Historicists' claim that texts had a real effect on the audience and shaped their view as opposed to the passive view attributed to texts by traditional criticism. Levin is right to say this misrepresents the position though in general it is the case that older critics tended to present texts as non-interrogative and offering rather boring and obvious moral lessons.

  13. Levin's conclusions from this stage of his analysis are that there is an 'irreconcilable contradiction' (Levin 1995a, 437) in the New Historicists' treatment of history and texts and that it is impossible to put into practice Montrose's chiasmus. But there is, contends Levin, a further set of problems entangled in the new historical approaches, and that is the apparent split between radicalism and accuracy. Political readings of texts, Levin argues citing various critics, do not pretend to be more accurate but only more radical. Levin rejects this position and suggests that persuasion is more likely by an accurate than just a political reading and that radicalism itself depends on accuracy. And here Levin's real project becomes much more obvious - to depoliticise criticism, even though he admits that '"Everything is political"' (Levin 1995a, 440). This, however, he regards as another useless slogan, one he interrogates by exploring the idea of how plays are still politically relevant. The trick as usual with Levin is to push together several quotations from his enemies and then change register by slipping into some journalistic writing about how these critics derive 'Marxist or feminist messages' (Levin 1995a, 440) from past texts. Cleverly Levin sees this kind of politically relevant reading as dehistoricizing Shakespeare since it makes no recognition of change over time. And he goes to argue, again with the appearance of great logic, that what is going on here is an essentializing of the force of history and of capitalism outside of history (Levin 1995a, 442).

  14. Not perhaps surprisingly, the conclusion that Levin reaches is that the political commitment of the new historicizers inevitably undermines their commitment to the textuality of history, for time after time what they show is that events are real and really existed. In that sense old and new historicizers end up carrying out the same process and doing the same thing, that is 'creating a history of the Renaissance that fits their own preconceptions' (Levin 1995a, 444). But more, Levin sees the new theory as simply replacing the old one of a society in harmony with a society torn apart in real material conditions as in Kathleen McLuskie's reading of the socio-sexual relations in Lear. Levin's attack on McLuskie, though, itself raises a number of problems about the way he uses evidence for his case. He omits, for example, her larger reading of the play and its dynamic of the conflict between emotive and contractual obligations and the way older critics simply stressed the emotive. The effect of this, ironically, is to reduce Levin's own position to one where he seems just to focus on slogans or headlines from his opponents, and this throws doubt on his argument and his methodology. Can you really lump all Cultural Materialist critics together in this way and take odd one-liners from here and there? The article is a defence of artistic unity - what of critical unity, of the details of the case made? When it comes to generalising to make a point, Levin is just as guilty as his rivals, and not a bit ashamed of doing so.


  15. Levin's third attack is titled 'Negative Evidence'. He starts with the double premise that we 'cannot hope to prove any proposition unless we look for negative evidence that might contradict it', and that we tend 'to look only for positive evidence that confirms a proposition we want to prove' (Levin 1995b, 384). He illustrates his thesis by applying it to a series of critical positions, beginning with the way older critics cite parallels between texts and how such parallels cannot prove anything. Of course, it might be objected that nobody ever really thought that such parallels proved anything definite but had more to do with ideas and possibilities than hard evidence. The same objection might be levelled at Levin's analysis of the failure of old historicism and its attempts to relate texts to topical circumstances or to connect dramatic characters to real figures.

  16. At this point Levin introduces a further condition into his argument, that not only must we examine negative evidence but 'also that we cannot hope to prove any proposition unless this negative evidence could exist' (Levin 1995b, 389). Put another way, this seems to mean that a proposition cannot be tested unless it invites 'disconfirmation': 'If it is not disprovable, it is not provable' (Levin 1995b, 389). This is an apparently sound scientific principle, though its logic seems to be that something which is provable is also disprovable. In which case both sides presumably cancel each other out. Not that such problems bother Levin who sets about demolishing various studies, including such occasionalist critics as Josephine Bennett on Measure for Measure (Levin 1995b, 391). He then goes on to the New Critics to prove that the themes they found in texts were already there, that they have 'a serious methodological flaw' (Levin 1995b, 392) and no way of proving what they want to prove. Having attacked the old historicists and the New Critics, Levin turns, not without some predictability, to the New Historicists who are seen to repeat the mistakes of the old historicizers of occasionalism and topicalism (though Levin offers no negative evidence that this is so, and so presumably proves nothing by his attack). More narrowly, Levin focuses on Marxism and Freudianism both of which he sees as totalising schemes that won't admit of negative evidence; they are 'self- confirming rather than self-correcting' (Levin 1995b, 399), predetermined by theorists who attack 'the motivation of objectors' (Levin 1995b, 400). We might notice that this once more is a universalising statement made by Levin - all Marxists, all Freudians - without any real consideration of other evidence.

  17. Here and there Levin seems to make a fair point in his attacks, so that, for example, we might have some sympathy with the case he puts about neo-Freudian readings of Othello which claim 'Othello treats Desdemona as a mother figure' (Levin 1995b, 403). 'The most important negative evidence, of course', writes Levin, 'is that Othello never expresses this attitude toward her' (Levin 1995b, 404), which seems correct until we remember that Othello gives her a handkerchief made by his mother and we start to think about its implications. A similar pause for reflection follows Levin's ridiculing of Kiernan Ryan's reading of Lear as a play about class division: 'He does not confront the obvious negative evidence that all the tragic actions in both plots involve relations between members of the same ruling class and so cannot be caused by class divisions' (Levin 1995b, 407). This is not an argument likely to convince many.

  18. Levin ends by saying that evidence is under attack in the academy, that it has been associated with naive right wingers. He claims evidence is not like that even though he clearly has a political agenda throughout his work. He denies this and cites other humanists who support his view that the new theorists are intolerant of all opposition. But where in 'Negative Evidence' does Levin offer any positive examples of modern theorists working with evidence? Where does he make his concessions? Is there any point in evidence if all criticism is so deeply flawed as Levin's article makes out? The obvious riposte to Levin is that you must cite the positive as well as well the negative view, that the appeal simply to what is not there doesn't work in literary studies.


  19. As I noted above, Levin's essay is followed by a complementary piece by Tom McAlindon in Studies in Philology called 'Testing the New Historicism: "Invisible Bullets" Reconsidered'. Where Levin generalises his attack, McAlindon examines specific examples of the new theoretical criticism, in this case Stephen Greenblatt's famous essay on Henry IV and Henry V reprinted and revised in his Shakespearean Negotiations. McAlindon sees the essay as having 'cult status' (McAlindon 1995a, 411), and suggests that because of its importance his investigation of the coherence, evidence and methodology of Greenblatt's argument should be seen as 'in effect a localized inquiry into standards of excellence in the professional study of literature today' (McAlindon 1995a, 411).

  20. McAlindon starts by outlining Greenblatt's influential thesis about power, that 'Shakespeare's subversive conservatism is the product of an unjust social order which sustains itself by means of deceit and illusion.... and so subversion is both produced and contained' (McAlindon 1995a, 412). McAlindon's analysis, however, initially focuses on Greenblatt's discussion of the discourse of power in Machiavelli, Harriot's Brief and true report of the new found land of Virginia, and Harman's cony-catching pamphlet on vagabonds and the resulting interpretive model that is applied to Shakespeare. Greenblatt argues that Machiavelli sees Old Testament religion originating '"in a series of clever tricks, fraudulent illusions perpetrated by Moses"' (McAlindon 1995a, 413), but, as McAlindon notes, even Greenblatt admits that his argument is '"not actually found in Machiavelli"' (McAlindon 1995a, 413). Equally revealing is McAlindon's demonstration of how Greenblatt sometimes runs texts or ideas into one another, or fails to make clear where his evidence exactly comes from. Indeed, McAlindon argues that Greenblatt is 'circuitous and entirely incorrect' in his reading of Machiavelli, Moses and religion. We need here, of course, to judge several kinds of evidence - Greenblatt, Machiavelli and also McAlindon. My view of the evidence sides more with McAlindon than Greenblatt, though a difficulty arises here. In a literal sense McAlindon seems right, but there is always something more in a text than the literal sense and how we read it does matter.

  21. There can, for example, surely be no denying Greenblatt's seizing on the Virginia narrative is brilliantly done. The original title of Greenblatt's essay, of course, relates to the attempts by the Indians to explain why so many of them died of diseases introduced by the English. Some thought that:

    it was God punishing them for their hostility to the English ... some thought they were being shot at by invisible English bullets.

    (McAlindon 1995a, 418)

    It is this last explanation, 'the invisible-bullets theory', notes McAlindon, which Greenblatt sees as 'the subversive voice' (McAlindon 1995a, 418):

    it is the materialist explanation - viral infection - which science will discover centuries later, and which invalidates the moral 'Christian' explanation: 'In the very moment that the moral conception is busily authorizing itself, it registers the possibility (indeed from our advantage point, the inevitability) of its own destruction.'

    (McAlindon 1995a, 418)

    McAlindon's objection - that both explanations are moral and that the invisible bullets theory is in no sense subversive - is, on one level, fairly put. Again, the point that Greenblatt changes his mind about whether Harriot was or was not aware of testing out the idea of religion as a means of control and so simply ends up with 'impressively phrased' (McAlindon 1995a, 418) paradoxes is not without weight. But, of course, what Greenblatt up to is not so much a totalising reading as exploring the relationship between subversion and containment.

  22. This is not an easy relationship to figure, as McAlindon's own essay suggests in its careful examination of Greenblatt's discussion of Harman. Thus, while McAlindon shows how Greenblatt's claim that subversion occurs again and again in rogue literature but only offers one example as evidence, McAlindon himself supplies evidence that Greenblatt's interpretation of how writing and printing are caught up in deceit and treachery is correct, even though in McAlindon's example 'it is not the upper but the lower classes who excel in the arts and crafts of deceit' (McAlindon 1995a, 423). In turn, as McAlindon notes, this raises some interesting problems about culture and power that Greenblatt cannot go into since for him power is always contained and is always directed downwards. It also, however, raises a number of political problems that disturb McAlindon's counter-reading of Greenblatt's analysis of Henry IV and Henry V.

  23. Greenblatt's reading of Shakespeare's plays, McAlindon notes, appears to be systematic and consistent with his analysis of Harriot's text and its practices of testing, recording and explaining. What is less consistent is McAlindon's unexpected interpretation of Greenblatt's view of Hal as the embodiment of self-subverting power:

    If Greenblatt, as seems likely, sees the modern state very much in terms of the government which sacrificed a generation of young Americans to the killing fields of Vietnam, we may have a clue to the extraordinary picture of Hal offered in these pages.

    (McAlindon 1995a, 424)

    This is precisely the sort of double guessing that McAlindon accuses Greenblatt of. But what McAlindon also does at this point is characterize his opponent as a sort of leftish draft-dodger sympathiser who cannot get his head round the Shakespeare text.

  24. Having slipped this in McAlindon goes on to examine some of the key moments in the play where Greenblatt's thesis about the production and containment of disorder comes into focus, starting with Hal's soliloquy at the end of the second scene. Greenblatt argues that here Hal is deceiving men's hopes, but for McAlindon the only one who is deceived is Falstaff. McAlindon may be factually right, but does not Hal also mislead his father, Hotspur and others who see him as a wastrel? McAlindon also contends that Greenblatt is wrong to see Falstaff's conscripts as subversive voices and denies that Falstaff is their apotheosis since they are rather his victims. Again, McAlindon has to be correct as far as he goes, but isn't it also the case that Falstaff no less than Hal functions on a number of different levels and that the problem of subversion and authority is bound up in the dramatisation of the two figures, not separated out into individual character?

  25. A third moment involves Francis the drawer and again McAlindon takes issue with Greenblatt's view about how we are to make sense of the curious incident where Hal brings Francis to a standstill. For McAlindon this is a moment of 'exuberant humour' (McAlindon 1995a, 427), for Greenblatt it is sinister cruelty. We might ask why Hal needs to demonstrate such linguistic power, turning Francis into a sort of human parrot. 'Only a determinedly humorless response could produce the interpretation of the scene offered by "Invisible Bullets" (McAlindon 1995a, 427), McAlindon contends, but perhaps humour, cruelty, authority and subversion are not exclusive categories. McAlindon is so eager, however, to maintain that Hal is a figure of good that slowly the discussion of power and subversion is lost sight of as the argument becomes more and more about character and essences. Indeed, there is an almost stubborn resistance by McAlindon to the idea of any sort of real political issues in Shakespeare's history plays. Greenblatt may be wrong to miss the difference between John and Hal in 2 Henry IV, but that does not invalidate his point that Hal looks good at court because John tidies up the rebels through treachery. But McAlindon can't see this; indeed, for McAlindon '[i]n this world of lies and broken promises Hal is in fact the exception' (McAlindon 1995a, 429); he is 'a prince who from the start invites us to match his words against his deeds, actively repudiating the Machiavellian ethic' (McAlindon 1995a, 429).

  26. More interesting is McAlindon's discussion of Greenblatt's reading of Henry V. Greenblatt sees the play as combining '"every nuance of royal hypocrisy, ruthlessness, and bad faith"' with a '"a celebration, a collective panegyric" to a "charismatic leader"' (McAlindon 1995a, 431). McAlindon accuses Greenblatt of using paradox to 'gloss over the contradictoriness and implausibility' (McAlindon 1995a, 431) of his reading, but there is more than paradox to Greenblatt's argument about how subversive doubts about royal power might serve to strengthen rather than lessen its grip. There is, to begin with, the problem over the question of national unity in the play and whether, as Greenblatt proposes, the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish are symbolically in an analogous position to the American natives. McAlindon rejects this, arguing that 'unity in diversity is a conspicuous political ideal in the play' (McAlindon 1995a, 431). It might well be argued, however, that unity in diversity, both in the sixteenth and twentieth century, invariably means English unity (and language) overriding others' diversity, and that this holds good as much for pluralism in criticism as in politics. No less problematic is the question of Bardolph's being hanged for stealing the pax (no one seems to have noticed the considerable irony of that word in a play about war, but no matter). Henry's action in approving of the sentence is upheld by McAlindon and one can see why: given his favourable view of Hal he's not likely to be convinced by Greenblatt's reference to 'Henry's "responsibility for the execution of his erstwhile boon companion"' (McAlindon 1995a, 432). On Greenblatt's side is Pistol, on McAlindon's Fluellen's, but the issue might be more correctly put in terms of the evasion of responsibility by Henry.

  27. Perhaps the key area of contention in Henry V is the debate in Act IV between Henry, Bates, Court and Williams. While McAlindon is correct to state that Bates endorses part of Henry's reply about who is responsible for men dying badly in war, he, like Henry, evades the major question raised by the speech of the king's overall responsibility; nor does he note that Henry never admits to the other three that he is the king. The debate is fought with one side in the dark. McAlindon, though, believes Greenblatt is determined 'to damn Henry' (McAlindon 1995a, 434) and therefore 'simply dismisses' (McAlindon 1995a, 433) or ignores any evidence that might weaken his case. The trouble is that McAlindon is all too willing to defend Henry, including, for example, his stratagem of persuading Harfleur to surrender under threat of violence and rape:

    We cannot disprove that Henry would have expected his men to commit such crimes, or condoned them if committed, had his oration failed; but it would have been entirely out of character if he had done so.

    (McAlindon 1995a, 435)

    This looks like pretty flimsy criticism by any standard, but especially in an 'inquiry into standards of excellence in the professional study of literature' (McAlindon 1995a, 411).

  28. McAlindon's concludes his examination of Greenblatt by suggesting that the 'novelty of his argument lies mainly in pushing the New-Critical position to an extreme point where ambivalence becomes a schizoid condition...represented as profound paradox' (McAlindon 1995a, 437). He describes him as 'audacious' but maintains that he disregards 'the principles of scholarly inquiry and sound reasoning' (McAlindon 1995a, 437) - he is inconsistent, he inflates his evidence or wraps it in 'ambiguous phrasing, and insinuating collocation' (McAlindon 1995a, 437). And McAlindon ends by suggesting how the American academy is losing respect for 'certain values which should endure through changing fashions' of criticism and 'without which it is impossible to lay claim to disciplinary vigor' (McAlindon 1995a, 438) High moral stuff, indeed, but there is little point in clinging to such values if it involves reading Shakespeare, as McAlindon evidently wishes us to, through the lens of character. Such a reading, it needs to be said, offers the modern reader nothing. At least Greenblatt tries to suggest that Shakespeare may have been caught up in something more serious than the depiction of Prince Hal: in McAlindon's essay Shakespeare has stopped speaking to us.


  29. Clearly McAlindon has little time for Greenblatt, but he saves his real wrath for his assault on the Cultural Materialists in an essay which has the rather long title of 'Cultural Materialism and the Ethics of Reading; or, the Radicalizing of Jacobean Tragedy' and which is aimed specifically at Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy. McAlindon admits this is the most 'engaging and substantial example' (McAlindon 1995b, 830) of Cultural Materialism, 'a key work in the history of postmodernist Shakespearean criticism' (McAlindon 1995b, 830). As in the previous essay, what McAlindon does is to test 'Dollimore's use of evidence and the reliability of his claims and conclusions' (McAlindon 1995b, 830), though first of all he gives Dollimore a chance to put his case. In sum this is that the more important tragedies of the period

    demystified and subverted two beliefs which were fundamental to the dominant ideology of the time: God's providential ordering of human affairs, and the existence of an essential human nature which is fundamentally the same throughout history.

    (McAlindon 1995b, 831)

    In turn these twin beliefs, McAlindon contends, reflect the twin assumptions in Dollimore's position, that 'a radical transformation in society' (McAlindon 1995b, 831) is only possible once we recognise that human nature is constructed and that 'belief in an essential human nature' (McAlindon 1995b, 831) functions to maintain the political status quo. In addition, McAlindon notes how Dollimore's thesis involves the idea that the drama along with other important texts of the period 'severely interrogated "the essentialist view of man" inherited "from sixteenth-century Christianity and its stoic and humanists derivatives"' (McAlindon 1995b, 832).

  30. From this point McAlindon goes on to subject to careful questioning the contextual evidence provided by Dollimore to support his contention that many of the major thinkers shared this anti-essentialist outlook - More, Castiglione, Machiavelli, Bacon, Montaigne, and Hobbes. McAlindon takes each of these by turn and seeks to refute Dollimore's assertions. In the case of More McAlindon simply cites a brief piece of evidence that More wrote about a hellhound called Pride 'deeply rooted in men's breasts' (McAlindon 1995b, 832) and so clearly held an essentialist conception of human nature. This piece of allegory hardly seems a substantial or impressive refutation of Dollimore; nor is the similarly short analysis of Castiglione and the passing attempt to refute Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning. More successful is McAlindon's analysis of Machiavelli's position on human nature, for it is generally agreed that Machiavelli's premises depend much on men as unchanging, and that a good number of Renaissance historians were indeed of the same belief. By contrast, where Dollimore at least acknowledges that Montaigne 'contradicts himself in his restless search for self-knowledge' (McAlindon 1995b, 835), McAlindon seems unwilling to acknowledge that even the 'Apologie of Raymond Sebond' is a serious questioning of human nature as fixed.

  31. After this examination of Dollimore's contextual evidence McAlindon analyses Dollimore's 'centre-piece' (McAlindon 1995b, 836) chapter on King Lear as the key example of cultural materialism. Dollimore's position is that the humanist interpretation of the play is misguided 'because it mystifies suffering and invests man with a quasi-transcendent identity' (McAlindon 1995b, 836) instead of showing how the text makes visible '"social process and its forms of ideological misrecognition" ' (McAlindon 1995b, 836). Also involved is Dollimore's rejection or contestation that the play repudiates 'all claims for the value and importance of pity, fortitude, and knowledge, together with the concomitant belief in an essential human nature' (McAlindon 1995b, 836). It is each of these that McAlindon takes in turn as he attacks Dollimore's reading. Dollimore, says McAlindon, argues that Gloucester's response to Poor Tom 'might seem "callous" to us but is in fact no more than the type of casual "unkindness that is built into the social consciousness" in such a society' (McAlindon 1995b, 837). 'A look at the context', says McAlindon, makes this suggestion 'seem preposterous' (McAlindon 1995b, 837). And it does seem as if Dollimore has missed the significance of Gloucester's action and of Lear's concern for the poor. Dollimore does not, however, deny that Lear feels pity but only that such pity is ineffectual: 'it cannot generate justice' (McAlindon 1995b, 837). McAlindon, though, is in no doubt that pity - 'the notion of sym-pathy/compassion/feeling with' (McAlindon 1995b, 838) - has 'political value' (McAlindon 1995b, 838); he cites the action of the servant who kills Cornwall at the cost of his own life. Characteristically McAlindon turns this into an example of a figure redeeming 'human nature from the depths to which it has sunk' (McAlindon 1995b, 838) rather than seeing what mixed signs we get here of a peasant standing up against injustice but also acting out of loyalty to protect a corrupt feudal system.

  32. The play, it has to be recognised, won't easily settle down in the way that either McAlindon or Dollimore wants. Where McAlindon scores over Dollimore is, for example, in the latter's reading of the killing of the soldier hanging Cordelia which Dollimore somehow sees as displacing '"his transitory pity"' (McAlindon 1995b, 837) for the poor. On the surface this seems a slightly bizarre view; the play clearly wants us to approve of Lear's act given that Cordelia is being hanged. Indeed, McAlindon goes on to propose that a central idea of the play is that 'people commit and tolerate injustice precisely because ... they will not "feel"' (McAlindon 1995b, 839). Conversely, Dollimore's argument about stoic fortitude - that it is 'a mystification of suffering which simply supports the notion that the human condition cannot be alleviated' (McAlindon 1995b, 839); that 'both Lear's madness and Gloucester's near-madness' (McAlindon 1995b, 839) subvert such implicit essentialism; and that the play '"is, above all, a play about power, property and inheritance"' (McAlindon 1995b, 840) and that '"the cherished values of kindness and fortitude, as well as human relations and "even identity itself"' (McAlindon 1995b, 840) are all informed by this - has much to be said for it. The play manifestly begins with issues of inheritance and power; the great mad speeches do expose the real bonds that exist between injustice and wealth. None of this, however, need necessarily vitiate fortitude which, as McAlindon notes, seems central to the tragic mode: indeed, there seems every reason to see the play as simultaneously endorsing stoic fortitude while recognizing its political ineffectualness, as being caught between opposites that it cannot reconcile.

  33. McAlindon perhaps too often gives the impression that Dollimore sees Lear as a thesis play with everything clear cut. McAlindon himself argues rather strangely that 'at least half the inhabitants of the Lear world are not subjects of the dominant ideology' (McAlindon 1995b, 842) of power, property and inheritance'. But this is to misunderstand what the play represents as the dominant material conditions governing life: the fact that some of the characters resist its most obvious excesses does not free them from it: Kent, after all, wishes Lear to maintain the kingdom and his power; his loyalty is not in a vacuum. Again, McAlindon's reading of how the text 'forces upon our attention from the outset the often startling autonomy of the self; its baffling individuality; its resistance to environmental "subjection" and formulaic explanation' (McAlindon 1995b, 842) may not be without its attractions, but it omits any account of the political thrust of the play, of what happens or of the relationships between the state and human actions.

  34. That McAlindon wishes to defend the traditional reading of the play as one of growth in knowledge for the hero is self-evident. But more than that he also wants to return Shakespeare to humanist criticism, and this may explain the way he rather oddly shifts his focus at the end on to Alan Sinfield and attacks him for using the 'methods and materials of historical research to give authority' (McAlindon 1995b, 845) to his reading of Macbeth while also allowing himself 'complete liberty of interpretation as and when he chooses' (McAlindon 1995b, 845). McAlindon sees such 'insidious confusion' (McAlindon 1995b, 845) as the very heart of Cultural Materialism and its 'propagandist mode' (McAlindon 1995b, 845), and he ends with a tirade that 'justice is not divisible' (McAlindon 1995b, 846), that it is due 'not only to the oppressed and the marginalised but also to the dead authors' (McAlindon 1995b, 846) whose texts critics feed off:

    It is due also to those educable young readers who will lead better and richer lives if their minds are opened to the full variety and complexity of great literature, instead of being told that texts, if they mean anything at all, mean only subjection, oppression, and deception.

    (McAlindon 1995b, 846)

  35. Such a conclusion has, of course, little to do with the problem of history, theory and texts which lies at the core of the modern debate about literature. Self-evidently it has everything to do with McAlindon and Levin wanting to take us back to where we were, with self-perpetuating readings advocating tired ideas. But educable young readers surely want to know what critics today are saying, about how theory has shaken up the old eternal verities and given criticism a new significance. Greenblatt and Dollimore may have got it wrong, their evidence may be shaky, they may be no more than passing fads, 'cult-historicists' of the moment, but that doesn't mean that their questions are wrong, that there isn't a problem about our understanding of the early modern period. What Dollimore and Greenblatt offer us is another way of reading that past which might enable us to move forward towards new ideas and even towards a clearer sense of justice. This is not to advocate that we should abandon rigour, scholarship, discipline, but it is to maintain that we should not abandon the possibility of change, of rethinking, of making a difference. That is the real challenge of the new theorists, as both Levin and McAlindon well know.

List of Works Cited

Forum. 1989. Publications of the Modern Language Association 104:77-79.
Levin, Richard. 1988. 'Feminist Thematics and Shakespearean Tragedy.' Publications of
the Modern Language Association 103:125-38.
Levin, Richard. 1992. 'The Cultural Materialist Attack on Artistic Unity, and the Problem of
Ideological Criticism.' In Ideological Approaches to Shakespeare, edited by R.P. Merrix
and N. Ranson. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 39-56.
Levin, Richard. 1995a. 'The new and old Historicizing of Shakespeare.' REAL: Yearbook of
Research in English and American Literature 11:425-48.
Levin, Richard. 1995b. 'Negative Evidence.' Studies in Philology 92:383-410.
McAlindon, Tom. 1995a. 'Testing the New Historicism: "Invisible Bullets" Reconsidered.'
Studies in Philology 92:411-38.
McAlindon, Tom. 1995b. 'Cultural Materialism and the Ethics of Reading.' Modern Language
Review 90:830-46.
Wilson, Richard, and Dutton, Richard. 1992. New Historicism and Renaissance Drama.
London and New York: Longman.

[Back to Contents] [Back to top of page]
Contents © Copyright 1996 Martin Coyle.
Format © Copyright 1996 Renaissance Forum. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 1, Number 1, March 1996.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 11 September 1997.