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Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare Paperback – October 1, 2005
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"No one who has read [Greenblatt's] accounts of More, Tyndale, Wyatt, and others can fail to be moved, as well as enlightened, by an interpretive mode which is as humane and sympathetic as it is analytical. These portraits are poignantly, subtly, and minutely rendered in a beautifully lucid prose alive in every sentence to the ambivalences and complexities of its subjects."—Harry Berger Jr., University of California, Santa Cruz
About the Author
Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of many books, including Hamlet in Purgatory, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
- Publisher : University of Chicago Press; New edition (October 1, 2005)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 332 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0226306593
- ISBN-13 : 978-0226306599
- Item Weight : 14 ounces
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #527,008 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The term proper "new historicism" was still a few years away from a widespread verbal coinage. Greenblatt used "self-fashioning" as a sort of pre-new historicist wedge to shrink a text's purported autonomy and expand the role of the de-legitimated voices lurking in the margins of literary and historical texts. For a Renaissance scholar like Stephen Greenblatt, the notion of self-consciousness was ripe for an overhaul. He noticed that prior to the sixteenth century, self-consciousness had remained a remarkably stable concept for centuries. It was assumed to be stable, progressive, and autonomous, in short the antithesis of the very logocentric bulls-eye that Derrida had assailed in his various essays and books. Greenblatt noted with satisfaction a quote from a philosophical soul-mate Clifford Geertz: "There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture." Greenblatt in the years to come would add that anything that the human mind could construct from artifact to the printed word would have a similar limitation. But in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, he would begin to overturn the "old" historicism with a novel definition of the self.
He would begin with a fresh look at "culture." Culture could no longer be seen as a totalization of human abstractions like custom, usage, tradition, and habit clusters. Now for Stephen Greenblatt, culture had to be viewed under what he saw as a burgeoning Renaissance sixteenth century prism of culture as a "control mechanism" that governed human behavior. It is this concept of "control" that forms the core of all new historicist thought. Control implies power but not the raw power that most think of. In the discourses of Michel Foucault, power is softer and less obstrusive than the head-bashing version that sticks in most people's minds. Foucault's power is web-like, wending its way through all strata of human endeavor. Those who control power tend to live lives centered at the hub of their culture. Those who endure power tend to live marginalized lives at the periphery. Greenblatt assimilated this Foucaldian hybrid of power to postulate a means by which the disenfranchised--the gays, the insane, the deviants--would find a forum from which they could verbalize their long repressed voices.
In the six essays that comprise Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt presents a view of the culture behavior matrix that constructs a mutually engaging human consciousness that is at once shaped by its environment and shapes it in turn. This brings in the chicken or the egg conundrum. If human consciousness is both source and result of this matrix, where then does free human will lie? The key words here of course are "free" and "will," with neither having autonomous existence. In the new historicist world of Stephen Greenblatt, nothing is "free." Everything is subject to endless negotiation, and "will" is nothing more than a catch-all amorphous phrase that has tendrils of thought flowing in and out of human consciousness so subtly that one never knows whether any one thought is truly originary (a Greenblattian impossibility) or merely the latest result of a nearly infinite loop of negotiations of which one is very likely totally unaware. In his introduction, he introduces the phrase poetics of culture, which he thinks of as a balancing act between customs/institutions and the interpretive constructions society applies to their experiences.
Greenblatt applies this balancing act to More, Wyatt, Spenser, and Marlowe and sees a common denominator in the mutuality of the self-consciousness hybrid. All three are non-titled middle-class writers, a fortuitous designation that prevents them from being indelibly rooted into an autonomous bear hug of impermeable cultural identity. He also sees a parallel between self-fashioning (as an early version of new historicist dominance and subversion paradox) and submission to an absolute power or authority. Greenblatt would later drop this emphasis on submission to some threatening alien authority in favor of creation of a national self-identity that deliberately seeks to undermine itself so that this undermining comes close to but never quite succeeds in eliminating the royal ethos as a continuing entity. He would later pick up this thread of creation through seeming submission in Shakespearean Negotiations, when he sees the Prince Hal/Falstaff rascality duo as strengthening the monarchy even as it seemingly appears to subvert it. Thus, Renaissance Self-Fashioning sets out the initial groundwork for a theory that in just a few more years would become the most dominant discourse of the twentieth century.
Perfect for any student of Renaissance literature, or the Renaissance intellectual.
Greenblatt boldly asserts that there is no individual genius behind Shakespeare's plays, an example of the end toward which his brand of reading techniuqes are directed. Early on, he claims that his technique is not a "theory" per se, but a reading "practice," a set of approaches to literature. This claim is not fully convinving, though, and while his assessment of how people create books and books create people is thoughtful, it is hard to accept his claim that his position is free from the totalizing assumptions of every other theory.