Robin Headlam Wells, Glenn Burgess and Rowland Wymer. Eds. 2000. Neo-Historicism: Studies in Renaissance Literature, History and Politics. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. 270 pp. ISBN 0-85991-581-6. £45.00.
- Since this volume of essays appeared, the historical approach to the interpretation of Renaissance English literature has been practically abandoned by its most famous practitioner. The publishing event of the last quarter of 2004 has undoubtedly been Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, his beautifully written biography of Shakespeare, and we may say that this address to the broader reading public marks the final leaving behind of the inquiry into the historicity of literature, in favour of the aesthetic, a preference marked in style and format as well as substance, not only in polished phrases but also in no cloying footnotes. Greenblatt assumes the reality of history of course (how can biography do otherwise?), and there are plenty of historical questions touched upon (not least the issue of, for some, Shakespeare's purported Catholicism), but the very matter of the historicity of the literary has been forgotten, where it had been so prominent an issue in the 1980s. Many specialists in the field are now proclaiming the age of aestheticism.
- Is Neo-Historicism then a monument to the past, or a volume that holds out hope for the future to the ranks of the historicist faithful? We might feel less hopeful when three of the contributions here were published formerly, two in 1995, one in 1997, and one of these is a chapter from a well known and influential study. I confess also to mental jitters when Stanley Stewart re-opens the (now seemingly pre-historic) dispute between Rosamund Tuve and William Empson, in order to expose the latter as an anachronist and also as a hero of the New Historicists (and hence, it is implied, New Historicists are anachronists), only to finish in a well-founded but unremarkable contextual reading of George Herbert among other seventeenth-century devotional poets. In or out of a historicist mode, driven by ambiguity or not, Empson was at least interesting.
- One purpose of this volume, so its editors proclaim, is to focus on what they regard as a missing element in historicist attention: the absent dialogue between historians and literary critics, so that for instance, the New Historicists and Cultural Materialists paid little attention to the revisionist historians, who were busy tearing up Whig and Marxist accounts of early modern British history. We are entertained by a dense, impressively-referenced, undoubtedly chewy, discussion of the successive notions of the historical from the nineteenth century onwards among historians and literary critics. The drift here, in no less than twenty-seven pages, is to show that the limitations of historical enquiries conducted either by historians or literary critics were well known to those older practitioners often characterized as naÔvely objective (and the implication here might be that the New Historicists and Cultural Materialists are themselves credulous in their quest for the revealing of the 'poetics' of history). There is a good deal of finger-wagging at the New Historicists for their demonstrable misreading of their predecessors. While the reader is given a thorough excursus through historicist debate, this sanctimoniousness does not leave a good taste in the mouth, especially when one uncovers what appear to be, to say the least, unusual interpretations of New Historicist gurus: pace the editors (13-14), I'm sure Foucault firmly believed in forms of connection between the present and the past (how could the author of The History of Sexuality not think so?). Or when lame conclusions are offered such as the hope that if literary critics can do real historical interpretation, so historians can reconsider the place of value judgements in historical writing. We do not see in the volume itself an essay by a historian that foregrounds the issue of value judgement. This is a shame: a recent conference in Princeton witnessed the delivery of a position paper by Quentin Skinner in which he offered a view of how he believed his enquiries into the history of political thought had changed, or were changing, the world.
- What's also missing here is an encounter with the problems of handling the different kinds of evidence that critics and historians handle, whether in the library or the archive. That would have been very valuable, although the editors have been fortunate to include Malcolm Smuts's 'Occasional Events, Literary Texts and Historical Interpretations', which does indeed make a platform for the serious consideration of material objects in the writings of courtly artists. Smuts's attention to the different kinds of texts, manuscript and printed, involved in court art is salutary and confirms the direction that much recent research has followed. I'm invoking here the history of the book, and of material culture; whatever their limitations, these fields of enquiry do at least provide a compelling rationale for a meeting of historians and literary scholars. But fashions of enquiry are slow to change: one might wonder why, after Orgel, Butler, Norbrook, and a host of others, that Rowland Wymer should spend so much time in a lucid and intelligent essay justifying a closely contextual study of the Jacobean court and the continuity of the corruption issue with the late Elizabethan period (of course there was also a sense of entering a new era with a new reign). But Wymer's point is that the Elizabethan dimension of Jacobean political tragedy has not been fully registered by many critics. New Historicist and Cultural Materialist books (stressing James's absolutely new 'absolutism') carry an interpretative authority away from campuses where empirical work on primary sources goes hand in hand with literary interpretation.
- The essays dealing with literature are generally promising, more pleasing and edifying to read, more in tune, in fact, with the editors' aims for their volume. Thus Graham Parry provides an excellent account of the relationship between the Jacobean historians' construction of an ancient British past and the figuring of that past in poems and plays. The recuperation of this world as part of the Parliamentarians' ammunition is well known; what is not is how closely integrated were the projects of committed historians like John Selden and poet-playwrights like Jonson, or poets like Drayton. Parry's deft flips between historiography and poetry or drama are themselves highly skilled. The same might be said for Heather Dubrow's intelligent investigation of the trope of thievery in Shakespeare and how the social historian can help the literary critic here, and probably vice versa.
- As usual, Blair Worden produces a fine essay on Ben Jonson's hopes and fears when a new monarch came to the throne in 1603. There could be some harder questioning of context here. The interest of some powerful Jacobean people in Jonson's possible connection with the gunpowder plotters is indicative of a closer connection with the aristocratic 'outs' of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean years: the enemies of the Cecils. The argument that Sejanus lines up with the classical republicanism of excluded Catholics, recently made by Peter Lake, repays attention. Worden writes extremely well on Jonson's exposure of the machinery of tyranny in a number of works (powered of course by his interest in Tacitus), and on Jonson's decision to accommodate himself to the new regime after the Gunpowder Plot, but the time has come to push further into the context. Wymer also sees this connection, but then asserts 'There is no need to argue for a precise topical allegory'. Similarly, in his chapter concerned with the political valency of the Jacobean world, Glenn Burgess frees Sejanus from a number of mistaken assumptions applied to it by critics (that it reflects constitutionalist versus absolutist versions of the state, that Providence is undermined by realpolitik), but at best this merely clears the ground for further informed thinking, and actually risks a history emptied of interest. If you can see a context, and see how crucial it is to Jonson's creativity, why not explore it? Is Catiline, to take a different example, in some sense connected with the decline of Cecil?
- By the time we reach Robin Headlam Wells's well-informed discussion of the political contexts for Shakespeare's The Tempest, and before it, Steven Zwicker's penetrating discussion of the political ramifications of the portrayal of affection in Restoration literature, we might feel that we've heard it all before, not so well constructed as in these two examples, but there in several earlier discussions none the less. And this is something of a crunch point for the volume in so far as it highlights enquiries that would have taken place without New Historicism, albeit if not with such an opportunity for such rich gatherings of evidence, the privileging of the anecdote, or such a sharp focus on historical themes.
- Even a slightly older piece (the reprint from Katherine Eisaman Maus's Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance of 1995) is notably less well-informed than the other essays. For all its brio, and its compelling disagreement with the Cultural Materialists, it is in respect of its account of atheism and scepticism, poorly informed, even in 1995, ignoring for instance the important work of Michael Hunter and David Wootton, and blundering with ecclesial categories (as in the claim that 'Anglican' was not used until the nineteenth century; try instead 1635 on the authority of OED). It is an indication of how far church history has come in the last decade, and of how much it now matters to critics as well as historians, that these shortcomings can be so evident in a work that has become widely regarded as an authority on its topic. Its great strength in pulling together so may different categories in order to make a case for understanding the construction of 'inwardness' on the stage now looks also like a weakness: fadging together discourses from different contexts misses or 'crops' their particular meanings in those contexts. It is a fuller understanding of those contexts that remains to be pursued in the future.
- Significant, innovative and influential literary critics often trade in the sensational and the outrageous: that is how they generate interest and followings. The New Historicists and the Cultural Materialists were no exception. Along with sensation come allegations of misprision and error: inevitable in a forum of interpretation and judgement. In these circumstances, the more interesting project might be to empower students as well as researchers with the tools in primary materials that make an ongoing research agenda in the historical interpretation of Renaissance literature possible. Digital resources are making this prospect increasingly likely, even if it remains a pedagogical challenge. Many of the discrete readings of texts and authors in this collection make this agenda apparent, and encourage it, as they argue out interpretations in assured and suggestive ways. But haranguing earlier works of criticism for their shortcomings at such length, without having substantially documented better solutions, risks trying the reader's patience. Carping is no substitute for interesting research. What is clear is that the conjunction of literary and historical study will continue, and that the questions this meeting produces will find no final answers in any near future. The challenge will be to make these and the more valuable discoveries of this volume interesting to the people out there beyond academe who read biographies, as well as to those within it.
UNIVERSITY OF PRINCETON
© Copyright Nigel Smith 2004.
Renaissance Forum 2004. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 7, Winter 2004.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated
24 December 2004.