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Stephen Greenblatt "Shakesperean Negotiations"

Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England

Cover Shakespearean negotiationsStephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations (1988) is a modern classic of Shakespeare criticism and continues to inform studies of Renaissance writing and Elizabethan and Jacobean culture to this day. Greenblatt’s work remains a milestone in literary criticism, because it is the first to fully apply a New Historicist approach to the study of Shakespeare. New Historicism began to take shape in Greenblatt’s previous work Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) and was then developed more comprehensively in Shakespearean Negotiations. As a method of analysis, New Historicism gives equal attention to literary and non-literary texts, relates them to each other, and proposes that they continuously inform each other. Following this approach means to equally attend to literary and non-literary texts and contexts: there is no “literary ‘foreground’” and “historical ‘background’” (Barry 2002: 172); rather, both are equally important, both are expressions of their particular historical and cultural moment, and both equally merit careful analytic engagement and attentive study. In Shakespearean Negotiations, Greenblatt puts this approach into practice in a series of essays that examine plays including King Lear, Henry IV, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night in relation to non-literary writing of the English Renaissance, including accounts of colonial activity in Virginia and religious pamphlets. Greenblatt presents a new reading of Renaissance politics and culture and how key issues such as cross-dressing, exorcism, martial law, and colonial politics inform Shakespeare’s tragedies, histories, romances, and comedies. “The circulation of social energy,” meaning the circulation of everything that is produced by society, is the underlying assumption of Greenblatt’s investigation as he posits that all works of art “are the products of collective negotiation and exchange” (vii). Crucially, this is not a mere question of establishing the “influence” of certain Renaissance contexts for the works of Shakespeare, but a matter of tracing and understanding the dynamic processes that perpetually inform and shape Elizabethan playwriting and Renaissance theatrical culture, for, as Greenblatt writes, “art does not simply exist in all cultures; it is made up along with other products, practices, discourses of a given culture” (13). Chapter two of Greenblatt’s work shows this idea in practice: “Invisible Bullets” establishes the discursive relationship between Thomas Harriott's A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588) and Shakespeare’s history plays. Greenblatt suggests here that Harriot’s text, written to reassure investors that the colonial enterprise in Virginia was both financially viable and politically stable, continuously displays a tension between authority and subversion and thereby “meditate[s] on the consolidation of state power” abroad (40). This consolidation of power is a central issue which, in turn, also appears as the major concern of Shakespeare’s history plays. Greenblatt then proceeds to examine the representation of “self-undermining authority” in Richard II and Henry IV:
we are invited to understand these costs [of power] in order to ratify the power, to accept the grotesque and cruelly unequal distribution of possessions: everything to the few, nothing to the many. The rulers earn, or at least pay for, their exalted position through suffering, and this suffering ennobles, if it does not exactly cleanse, the lies and betrayals upon which this position depends. (54)


Reading Renaissance theatre as a “primary expression” of Elizabethan power and authority, Greenblatt suggests that the stage at once expresses, but also helps to contain the “radical doubts” and subversiveness that the plays produce (65). At its core, both Harriot’s reassuring account of the colony in Virginia and Shakespeare’s history plays dramatize and reflect the fundamentally Machiavellian idea that power “originates in force and fraud” (65). Chapter five, “Martial Law in the Land of Cockaigne”, addresses “techniques of arousing and manipulating anxiety” as both a state-mandated practice and a key element of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre (133). Anxiety, Greenblatt asserts, had long been used as a tool for controlling and educating others: threats or fear of humiliation could be powerful strategies to exert power and control and public executions were “designed to arouse fear” in order to ensure civil obedience (cf. Greenblatt 134-137). Tracing this social and political practice within Shakespeare’s plays, Greenblatt argues that The Tempest features similar practices of facilitating anxiety in order to establish power and control. Prospero’s magic is used mainly to “harrow the other characters with fear and wonder and then to reveal that their anxiety is his to create and allay” (142). The Tempest “seems to act out a fantasy of mind control” (155) in Prospero’s attempt to establish control through fear. However, the play also appears to pose uncomfortable questions about the establishment of absolute authority and power. The opening storm of The Tempest, for instance, shows a force beyond human control and Prospero, ultimately, admits his dependency on others. Throughout Shakespearean Negotiations, Greenblatt shows how the New Historicist approach produces a reading of the Elizabethan theatre as a theatre of “unresolvable doubleness” (158) that reflects and negotiates the tensions of its time. The Renaissance stage both appropriates and subverts ideas about power and Shakespeare’s plays, like all other forms of art, are products of (and testimonies to) the exchange between social, political, and cultural dynamics.