In LEARNING TO CURSE, Stephen Greenblatt presents a collection of his essays on the works of Shakespeare, Spencer and other authors of the 16th century. The book takes it's title from his first essay, an examination of "The Tempest" by Shakespeare. Greenblatt asks if one can understand a work of art without reference to the artist, his audience, and the social context of period within which the artist worked. He also asks if different audiences in different periods have had similar reactions to the work or even if different people in the same audience in the same period have had the the same reaction. Does a work of art have an intrinsic value that transcends the individual experience over time? On the other hand, Greenblatt says that while the historical context within which the work of art was created is important, it is critical the scholar realize history is not fixed. Using ideas gleaned from the "new historicism" as well as ethnographic and sociological notions, Greenblatt provokes the reader to rethink the idea of 'historical context'. He says his critical approach has been concerned with recovering "as far as possible the historical circumstances" of aesthetic production without viewing history "as a stable prefabricated background against which literary texts can be placed." Instead, he sees the historical context as a "dense network of evolving and often contradictory social forces." The essays in this little volume investigate and interpret a series of literary works by authors from Shakespeare to Martin Luther and Thomas Moore. Greenblatt has included a interesting essay on the case of Martin Guerre in 14th Century France in which he explores the ideas of crime and capital punishment in association with the theft of personal identity in the Middle Ages.
On a scale from stillborn to born with a finger finger cosmic pogo stick up brain hopping into a conversation about torture, Stephen J. Greenblatt was born in a society of copycat crimes ready to figure out how stories generate pleasure. Life has words, and literary life reflects the psychological motivations that clash in conflicts of subjective intensities. Religion is a higher swindle that pops up in the third chapter for a character named Karl Marx.