Greenblatt’s Post-Theory Catholic Bard

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt
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Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004)

I graduated from the University of Illinois in the mid-70s. By that time the leading edge of Theory had poked its nose through door of the academic tent of English Lit studies in the form of “Semiotics.” In truth I don’t recall having had a clue what the word meant at the time, let alone what it portended.

But by the early nineties, when I began researching Shakespeare lit crit for a novel about a bunch of English Lit grad students,Theory, in its many guises, had by all appearances run amok in the hallowed halls of Academe. What a shock then to discover, as I scanned the pages of The Shakespeare Quarterly, that I could no longer make do with comfortable old familiars like A.C. Bradley and Tom Eliot, but had to learn a whole new mode of “discourse” in a whole new vocabulary, or at least jargon, concocted seemingly from whole cloth by a bunch of (frequently French) thinkers who obviously weren’t reading Shakespeare (or anybody else) for the same reasons I was.

In truth, it often proved a tedious and occasionally smelly exercise for me to slog through deconstructed and “contextualized” autopsies of my beloved Bard, incensed as they often were with the over-ripe perfume of “transgressive” and “subversive” ideologies. Moreover, more often than not, “power” was the only value that seemed to matter to any of these Theory-imbued scholars: who had it, socio-politically, who didn’t; which notions or groups were “valorized” and which were “marginalized.”


Few if any of these people (thank God) bothered to write literary biographies. After all, authors were viewed, according to these methods, either as negligible (viz. the Deconstructionists), or else wholly overshadowed by the preoccupations of the historical context (viz. the New Historicists).

Having heard for a year or two from academic friends that Theory was rapidly losing its cachet and becoming just another set of techniques to be employed or not as a scholar found useful, I didn’t quite believe it until I read this excellent and lively, but otherwise fairly traditional literary biography of William Shakespeare by—gasp!the Dean of Shakespearean New Historicists himself, Stephen Greenblatt.

Beside the fact that there’s hardly more than a couple “trasgressives” and “subversives” in the entire 430 pages, Greenblatt, always one of the readable N.H.-ers, actually employs his interest in historical context to a humanistic end here: to help the reader get a fuller picture of the historical context in which this famously slippery playwright wrote his ambiguous plays. Moreover, the “context” Greenblatt’s primarily interested in, because it’s what he thinks Shakespeare was interested in, without having the liberty to be open about it, is not Elizabethan attitudes towards gender and homosexuality, but—prepare for a shock—religion. Specifically, the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism in the wake of Henry VIII’s break from Rome and the persecution of Catholics during the reigns of Elizbeth I and James I.

Greenblatt, as it turns out, is a cautious but firm proponent of the notion that the evidence, both historical and literary, points towards Shakepeare having been reared in a family of well-to-do Catholic loyalists who lost the better part of their fortune in the 1570’s as the result of ruinous government fines imposed on “Recusants”—Catholics who refused to attend legally-mandated Protestant services. Greenblatt also writes positively for the so-called “Lancashire theory” —the theory that Shakespeare’s “lost years” (during his late teens and early twenties) were spent as a tutor in the employ of a prominent Catholic Recusant family in Lancashire—a family related to Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, and closely connected to the Jesuit martyr, Fr. Edmund Campion.

For sure, Greenblatt’s portrait of these perilous times for Catholics is as interesting as his portrait of Shakespeare, which must needs be written, for lack of more evidence, in a largely speculative vein. The scene-setting also goes a long way to explain, at least in part, Shakespeare’s famous “opacity”—that hard-to-pin-down quality that continues to fascinate and perplex. After all, Greenblatt points out, if the playwright didn’t dissemble and disguise his pro-Catholic themes, he might well have ended up hung, drawn, and quartered like the martyr Campion himself.

Heretofore this so-called “Catholic” theory has largely been the province of a few writers, such as the Jesuit Peter Milward, whose own Catholicism tended to render the position partisan in the view of other scholars—just another in a long series of “Shakespeare and us” scenarios, perhaps, that persist in seeing the Bard as a mirror-reflections of one’s own passions: as a lawyer, perhaps, or a Puritan; a doctor or a Jew or an Occultist, what you will; even as people other than Will Shakespeare.

In that sense, Greenblatt’s award-winning biography may not only mark the close of the age of Theory in Academia (pray God), it may also mark, coming as it does in the wake of recent work done by Peter Milward, Richard Wilson, Michael Wood, Eamon Duffy, et al, the coming-of-age of a “Catholic” understanding of William Shakespeare.


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