The Bard’s Evangelist

Stephen Greenblatt
Shakespeare’s Freedom
(The University of Chicago Press, 2010)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the idolatrous cult of Shakespeare was born, grew up, and thrived, it was common to hear over-the-top praise of the Bard. Shakespeare was called divine, immortal, the greatest genius ever, and the like. Stratford-on-Avon became a destination for pilgrims, and the Shakespeare tomb and birthplace there became shrines. Recognizing the absurdity of such “bardolatry,” scholars have since adopted a more restrained tone. Nonetheless, worshipful enthusiasm for Shakespeare has never appreciably diminished, and even in the top rank of Shakespeare professors today, it persists.

“Shakespeare as a writer is the embodiment of human freedom,” Stephen Greenblatt’s new book, Shakespeare’s Freedom, begins. “He seems to have been able to fashion language to say anything he imagined, to conjure up any character, to express any emotion, to explore any idea.” Shakespeare has an “aura of divinity,” and though “he was, after all, a mortal,” Greenblatt is “struck rather by the apparently unbounded power and visionary scope of his achievement.” Shakespeare’s work is “alert to every human fantasy and longing” and “is allergic to the absolutist strain so prevalent in his world, from the metaphysical to the mundane.”

It is true that Shakespeare is enormously important and that the work is at the bedrock of English literature and has had far-reaching influence, but Greenblatt crosses the line between critical appreciation and ardent fervor: “The only power that does not seem limited in Shakespeare’s work is the artist’s own. In the sphere of his sovereign genius the authority of the playwright and poet seems absolutely free and unconstrained.”

Greenblatt is one of the best known Shakespeare professors in the world, with 40-plus years’ teaching and endowed chairs galore, including two since 1997 at Harvard. He has published extensively on the English Renaissance and particularly on Shakespeare, with his 2004 “Will in the World,” an imaginative reverie on Shakespeare’s life, making the New York Times best-seller lists. He is the leader of the New Historicism movement in literary studies, and the lead editor of the Norton edition of the Shakespeare canon. Honors and awards for his work have been numerous. For his many admirers, one adjective comes readily to hand: “brilliant.”

In Shakespeare’s Freedom, his writing flows mellifluously from assertion to assertion, exuding authority and sophistication. The book comprises an introductory essay and four themed essays that Greenblatt has delivered widely as lectures. Three of the four were first presented in the Adorno lecture series at Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt in 2006, and then revised for the Campbell lectures at Rice University in 2008. Greenblatt cites 43 other occasions in which he presented parts of the book as lectures, from the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America (Bermuda, 2005) to invitations to speak at universities in the United States and abroad over the last several years, and every time, he says, “I have received valuable suggestions, questions, and alternative perspectives.”

His voice is soothing and persuasive, pressing toward some realization, as he examines religious and ethical issues and interprets Shakespeare’s response to them. Religious concerns are so important that Greenblatt makes a point of qualifying Shakespeare’s theological standing: “Shakespeare was not a theologian, and his work does not meddle in doctrinal claims, but he was raised in a culture whose official voices insisted on absolute divine freedom, unbounded divine love, faith alone, prevenient grace, eternal damnation, once-for-all salvation.”

Given his religious focus and reverential inclination, Greenblatt’s essays can seem like sermons. Mediating between the secular deity and the lecture audience, which, analogously, is like a congregation, Greenblatt sounds at times like a quasi-religious cult leader. His lack of concern with giving readers the means to judge his reasoning reinforces the illusion. Informed by reading and discussing, he imparts his impressions on the author and the work he venerates. As he makes transitions with dexterity and flair, listeners or readers are lulled into a state of quasi-religious torpor, projecting Greenblatt as the Bard’s evangelist.

Just as sermons use Bible stories, three of the five essays in Shakespeare’s Freedom utilize long interpretive retellings of Shakespeare scenarios, eliciting or hinting at lessons to be gleaned from them. The essay on hatred draws heavily on The Merchant of Venice; the discourse on authority dissects some of the Gloucester plot in King Lear. Of the 17 pages in the introductory essay, nine are devoted to recounting the scenes in Measure for Measure that wrangle with the question of whose decapitated head will be presented to the Duke’s deputy. Then Greenblatt tries to show how a minor character in the play illustrates the four preoccupations he has developed in the essays that follow—on beauty, hatred, authority, and autonomy.

Barnardine, a prisoner who is scheduled to be beheaded and whose head might serve the purpose, evokes beauty, Greenblatt says, because his “irreducible individuality” is “at once ugly and oddly beautiful,” an awfully weak association; hatred because he is linked to “intractable murderous hatred,” though the play provides no details about the murder he committed nine years earlier or what motivated it; authority because by the Duke’s authority Barnardine is “inexplicably pardoned,” though if Shakespeare had had him executed it would have ruined the comedy’s ending; and autonomy because it is a dream glimpsed “in Barnardine’s peremptory refusal to consent to his hanging.” (Of course, Greenblatt meant beheading, but that’s the kind of sloppiness that might cause an A student to get a C.)

In the beauty essay, “Shakespearean Beauty Marks,” which purports to show how Shakespeare turned, “again and again, to forms of beauty that violate the prevailing cultural norms,” Greenblatt touches on topics like the “beautiful wounds” of the crucified Jesus and of Christian saints and martyrs; a 17th century clergyman’s musings on the divine beauty of Jesus’s body and soul in contrast to other humans’ defects and “the inner sin that stains all humans from their conception”; the view of theologians, among them Thomas Aquinas, that at the Last Judgment all bodily defects are restored for the saved, except the martyrs, who wear their wounds with pride; the “misogynistic anxiety and disgust” about “licentious” women who wear makeup; and “the most violent expression of misogyny in all of Shakespeare,” Posthumus’s remark, in Cymbeline, that Imogen’s mole, which is used to convince Posthumus that she was unfaithful, confirms “another stain as big as hell can hold.” The lesson ends with the cloying observation that Imogen’s mole “is a mark of all that Shakespeare found indelibly beautiful in singularity and all that we identify as indelibly singular and beautiful in his work.”

The next essay, “The Limits of Hatred,” opens with Greenblatt’s own parable about another “unsightly stain,” that of “an alien population,” living among us, “who hate us.” The parable goes on for about four pages, but it doesn’t take more than a few sentences to get the idea that he is projecting bigoted Christian attitudes toward Jews, or alternatively Muslims, as a prelude to a lesson on The Merchant of Venice.

“It can hardly be an accident,” Greenblatt writes, “that the two principal historical enemies of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, succeed each other so easily in the imaginative structure created by Shakespeare’s comedy of friendship and enmity.” If they do, it is only because of the imaginative effect of Greenblatt’s parable.

While still grounded in religious issues, the sermonizing in this essay takes a political direction, comparing the fear of Jews over the centuries to the fear of Muslims today, and cites “significant differences between the enemies.” A relationship between “a militant, murderous strain of fundamentalist Islam” and “real and quite terrible events,” like suicide bombing, “is borne out by the express declarations of the perpetrators themselves and by their leaders,” whereas “the sinister fantasies of world domination by ‘Jewish capitalism’ or ‘Jewish communism’ disseminated by the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ or Der Stürmer did not find even remote echoes in the official or unofficial language of Jewish religious leaders.”

It’s a headache trying to follow the setups and twists threaded through this discussion, while untangling Greenblatt’s extraneous concerns, which range from the righteous to the ridiculous. What possible transcendent good does he find in The Merchant of Venice? Well, Shakespeare “chose not to” put blood libel fables into his play, he notes. And the “final solution” of the play, “the forced conversation [sic: conversion] of Shylock to Christianity,” makes Christianity’s Jewish problem disappear and thus “redeems a play that had veered perilously close to tragedy.”

You may have heard the story that begins the essay “Shakespeare and the Ethics of Authority,” because Greenblatt has told it over and over again, in print and in person. It boils down to this: Greenblatt got to attend a reception at the White House in 1998. He wasn’t personally invited, but the poet laureate Robert Pinsky took him along as his guest. In the receiving line Greenblatt impishly decided to stick it to Bill Clinton on the Lewinsky matter, and show what he had going for himself at the same time. Shaking Clinton’s hand, he said, as he reports it, “Mr. President, don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things that he knows are politically and morally disastrous?” Clinton didn’t let go of Greenblatt’s hand, thought for a moment, and replied, “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”

The answer blew the questioner’s mind. “Ethically inadequate object” is Greenblatt’s mantra for the rest of this essay, as he turns it over in exploring Shakespeare’s views on government, morality, and ethics. Sometimes he inflects the mantra, accentuating the positive, as when he asks whether Shakespeare was able “to discover an ‘ethically adequate object’ for human ambition.” Here amid ruminations about the sacredness of kingship, ostentatious shows of faith, and the persecution of Jesuits in Early Modern England, Greenblatt meditates on the “political defects” of the age of Shakespeare.

Though unacknowledged in the book, versions of this lecture (it’s the one not included in the Adorno-Campbell group) were published at least twice previously, in the New York Review of Books in 2007 and in Deutsche Bank’s Corporate Citizenship Bulletin in 2004. The bank’s corporate elite were no doubt nodding their heads in agreement when Greenblatt told them: “Power exists to be exercised in the world. It will not go away if you close your eyes and dream of escaping into your study or your lover’s arms or your daughter’s house. It will simply be seized by someone else, probably someone more coldly efficient than you and still further from an ethically adequate object.”

Greenblatt here seems to be performing a “quasi-priesthood” function Péter Dávidházi describes in The Romantic Cult of Shakespeare: “interpreting Shakespeare apologetically to make his supposed message morally acceptable and to acquire a fully legitimized place among the established institutions of society.”

Greenblatt has performed a similar but adversarial function, wielding religious invective against scholars who doubt the Stratfordian tradition. When I criticized his book Will in the World in the New York Times in 2005, saying the suppositions of anti-Stratfordian scholars were at least as valid as Greenblatt’s fantasies about Shakespeare, he wrote a letter to the editor, which was published, equating doubts about the authorship to “claims that the Holocaust did not occur.”

In Shakespeare’s Freedom, Greenblatt is careful to avoid authorship issues and the sticky problems that he and a considerable majority of Shakespeare professors refuse to face as they ridicule the subject and preclude it from academic study. But there are clues in the book that Greenblatt may have some sense of the problem.

At one point, he notes: “Many of Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights—Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nashe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, and Thomas Dekker, among others—spent time in prison as a direct or indirect consequence of their writing.” Shakespeare, however, “managed to avoid this fate throughout his life.”

Three essays later, he reaches what might have been an interesting continuation: Not one Shakespeare play “condemns as necessarily unethical the use of violence to topple the established order. Unlike the most conservative voices in his time, Shakespeare did not position himself squarely against the bloody unthroning even of anointed monarchs. Violence, as he well understood, was one of the principal mechanisms of regime change.”

It is a vexing question for Stratfordians how Shakespeare escaped the fate of his fellow playwrights, given the political views Greenblatt notes. And one historical point he does not mention: Shakespeare’s Richard II, according to Queen Elizabeth’s own testimony, was “played 40 times in open streets and houses” as propaganda for the Essex rebellion.

In the book’s last essay, “Shakespearean Autonomy,” Greenblatt quotes “Sonnet 111,” including the line, “Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,” and says: “‘Shakespeare’ became in the playwright’s own lifetime what we would call a brand name—it could be invoked in advertisements to get the crowds to part with their money, and it was sufficiently marketable to be assigned fraudulently to plays he had certainly not written—but this success was, or so he writes, like having his name receive a brand.”

No other playwrights of the time are known to have pitied themselves for their names’ receiving a brand on account of their being successful. Quite the opposite in the case of Ben Jonson, who was so proud of his success that he himself prepared the first folio of his plays for publication.

A little farther along, Greenblatt writes: “This exposure to the masses was, Shakespeare understood, diametrically opposed to the privacy that had been the traditional privilege, or at least the fantasy, of the aristocracy.” Aristocrats who supported play companies were vulnerable to embarrassment, he explains, because they “were themselves drawn (or compelled) to acts of theatrical self-display.” Actors could bask in the warmth of applause but “a true aristocrat would despise such public exposure.”

 Clearly aristocrats worried about their names receiving a brand. But why would an actor? Unless Shakespeare was—? No, Greenblatt won’t consider that possibility.

The type of scholarship that seems the most commendable is thorough in exploring a subject, leaving no stone unturned to discover all and to get as near the truth as possible. The scholar presents information as clearly and completely as she can and, when conclusions are drawn, goes over any possible arguments that can be raised against them.

Practitioners of another type of scholarship skim the surface of selected data, and with a degree of mastery of the art of writing, which they may regard as a performance, mask their assertions, which may be superficial, distorted, insinuating, or even reckless. Such craftsmanship can easily be employed to create propaganda.

In 2006, Greenblatt provided an astonishing analysis of his work in progress on Shakespeare’s Freedom in his Gordon Gray Lecture on the Craft of Scholarly Writing, and he published it in Harvard Magazine a year later as “Writing as Performance.”

“The Gordon Gray Lecture,” he writes, “is an invitation to lift the curtain and reveal the calculation that underlies the appearance of effortlessness.”

As one example of the effort that went into his work, he discusses the way he grazes in libraries, particularly one in Florence. For the essay on beauty, “ten minutes in the Widener Library took me to a translation of [Leon Battista] Alberti’s tract on architecture and fifteen minutes more turned up the quotation that I needed” (italics mine). It sounds as if Greenblatt is not reading for discovery but rooting out what he wants to support his preconceived conclusions.

He speaks of the value of anecdotes as a way to begin an essay, saying the Clinton story “enables me to stay entirely within the text of King Lear, patiently explicating its horrific representation of torture, and at the same time, without any explicit reference, to evoke that text’s uncanny relevance to the current national and world crisis.” The Clinton story is an adequately enabling object, and there is nothing uncanny about how Greenblatt exploits it.

He explicates his parable for the hatred essay, extolling its “several long, unnerving pages” and adding: “Only after I have fully mimed a voice of fear and hatred, do I turn in the direction that some of you may have anticipated. For, as you may have noticed, I have already begun to conjure up the situation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.” Greenblatt is performing to predispose readers to accept his tenuous political take on the play.

The essay on autonomy in Shakespeare’s Freedom begins by discussing early uses of the words “aesthetic” and “autonomy,” cited in the Oxford English Dictionary. In his Gordon Gray Lecture, Greenblatt gives students a research tip, pointing out “the fantastic usefulness, in writing virtually anything, of the Oxford English Dictionary, which as a Harvard student you can consult online.” He adds: “This is an historical dictionary which tracks the evolving meanings of words and provides key examples of the first known written use of each of these meanings. You can in effect watch the moment when every word, and hence every concept, in our language emerged into the light of public discourse.”

The regurgitation of historical dictionary cribbing should take care of a good 200 words for any student’s paper, as it does for Greenblatt’s autonomy essay. But the idea that one can see the birth of words and concepts in the O.E.D. is fanciful, and using the dictionary in such a way is pedantic.

It’s bad enough that Greenblatt’s brand of scholarship has become so pervasive. What’s worse is that for more than a generation, Shakespeare students have been taught to emulate it.

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