Greenblatt, Stephen

Assigned: Greenblatt, Stephen J. From “Resonance and Wonder” (2029-40). Also read the editors’ introduction (2027-29).

From “Resonance and Wonder” (1990)

1. On 2029-31 (“In a small glass case in the library…”), as so often in his work, Stephen J. Greenblatt begins with an anecdote, this time about a red cap said to have once belonged to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in the time of Henry VIII. What twists and turns did this cap go through in its history, and in what sense does Greenblatt see in that history a compelling “vision of cultural production” (2029)? How might the cap itself be seen as an artifact of the Cardinal’s fall from grace, given what Greenblatt tells us about the way Protestant Reformers viewed such symbol-rich finery (2030)? Finally, what complexity does Greenblatt see in the way such a real-life historical artifact signifies when a company of “players” (actors) gets hold of it?

2. On 2031-32 (“Tiny indeed—I may already have…”), what “textual equivalent of Wolsey’s hat” (2031) does Greenblatt examine in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What happens when a bit of “Catholic ritual” (2031 bottom) like the verses in question (5.1.415-20) is inserted into a play created for a Protestant English audience? How, according to Greenblatt, might we understand such an insertion and performance as simultaneously mocking and validating the ritual language of these verses spoken by the Fairy King Oberon? (2032)

3. On 2032-33 (“Several years ago, intending to signal…”), Greenblatt refers to a dictionary definition of the word “historicism,” and takes issue with each element of the definition. The first meaning of “historicism” in the American Heritage Dictionary is “1. The belief that processes are at work in history that man can do little to alter” (2032). As a “new historicist,” on what basis does Greenblatt take issue with this definition? How does he view key concerns such as human agency in the historical process? What critiques of the new historicism have been offered, according to Greenblatt, by those who either don’t like its focus on the power of agency, or who, alternatively, don’t care for its way of handling the potential of resistance to dominant political and social structures in literature or in life beyond literary works? (2033)

4. On 2033-34 (“I argued in an essay published some…”), Greenblatt answers Marxist critics who believe the new historicism fatalistically embraces the claim that resistance to power always ends up being co-opted. How does he use his own reading of Shakespeare’s history plays as part of that answer? In what sense does Shakespeare’s “second tetralogy” (2033), in Greenblatt’s interpretation, all but force us to accept the transformation of the wayward “Prince Hal” into the great King Henry V, victor of the Battle of Agincourt over the French? Since Greenblatt argues that he is by no means promoting fatalism or apathy, what is the point of his interpretation? (2034) Even so, what does he say he finds “dubious” (2034) about the facile presumptions of political relevance and even “liberation” that many of his fellow political liberals bring with them to complex literary works?

5. On 2034-36 (2. “The theory that the historian must…”), Greenblatt registers his opposition as a new historicist to the second definition in The American Heritage Dictionary: “2. The theory that the historian must avoid all value judgments…” (2034). How does he draw upon his own background and history as a scholar to suggest why this definition simply doesn’t fit his practices as a new historicist or those of others who belong to the same critical camp? In what sense does he also argue against taking an overly programmatic approach to one’s critical practices and assumptions—what happens, according to Greenblatt, when a critic does that? (2035-36)

6. On 2036-37 (3. “Veneration of the past or of tradition…”), Greenblatt discusses the third  definition in The American Heritage Dictionary: “Veneration of the past or of tradition…” (2036). What does he say he found annoying during his own college years with regard to the attitude taken towards the most highly regarded literary authors? In what sense did he feel as if he was participating in a discourse that amounted to “a kind of secular theodicy” (2036) rather than a reasonably scientific or professional endeavor? How, according to Greenblatt, has the new historicism tried to restore a healthy “sense of distance and difference” (2037 top) to Renaissance studies of culture and literature? How does he defend the new historicist habit of addressing supposedly “out of the way” things, people, practices, and events in one’s research and writing?

7. On 2037-39 (“I have tried to deal with the problem…”), Greenblatt explains the two key terms from his article’s title: “resonance” and “wonder” (2037-38). How does he define these terms? In particular, how does he explain the new historicism’s “distinct affinities” (2038) with the resonance of a literary text or other artifact? How does Greenblatt compare the “openness” and vulnerability of literary texts with visual art pieces such as paintings and statues? In what sense is the “historicity” (2039) of a piece of visual art connected with its vulnerability, and how are museums “monuments” of a sort to the vicissitudes of chance and time?

8. On 2039-40 (“I am fascinated by the signs…”), Greenblatt explains his fascination with “the signs of alteration, tampering, even destructiveness which many museums try simply to efface” (2039). What kind of resonance does he attribute to the visible indicators of such changes in the status or condition of an art object? How do many museums, according to Greenblatt, try to restore some sense of context to an object on display, some sense of that object’s “openness” to the world beyond itself? (2039) What does he describe as being “[a]mong the most resonant moments” (2039 bottom) in the context of a museum’s display of artifacts? To what extent can the “distinction between art and non-art” (2040) be maintained in the museum setting in a way that does not merely amount to a “celebration of isolated objects” (2040)?

9. General question: In our selection from “Resonance and Wonder,” Stephen J. Greenblatt explores the advent and prominent features of what has come to be called “the new historicism.” It makes sense to say that literary and critical “movements” or “schools” are generally founded against some other movement or school. To what extent is the new historicism, then, founded against formalist theory and practice as well as against the approach to art taken by “old” historicists? Furthermore, what positive influences or models does Greenblatt mention in connection with the development of the new historicism? On the whole, how does the historical information you take in about a given literary work affect your appreciation of it?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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