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Stephen Greenblatt

Have you ever heard of the literary theory New Historicism? If you have, then you may know it was pioneered by the theorist Stephen Greenblatt (1943-). Greenblatt is a hugely influential American theorist and professor who has had an undeniable impact on modern literary theory. Below is Greenblatt's biography, along with an exploration of his work through books he has published and quotes from the theorist himself.

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Stephen Greenblatt

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Have you ever heard of the literary theory New Historicism? If you have, then you may know it was pioneered by the theorist Stephen Greenblatt (1943-). Greenblatt is a hugely influential American theorist and professor who has had an undeniable impact on modern literary theory. Below is Greenblatt's biography, along with an exploration of his work through books he has published and quotes from the theorist himself.

New Historicism is a literary theory that involves considering the historical context that a text was produced in when analysing it. The author's time period is highly influential on the work they produce. Similarly, the time period a critic lives in is key to how they analyse and interpret a text. New Historicism promotes nuance in analysis and a recognition of the ever-changing nature of history.

Stephen Greenblatt: biography

Stephen Greenblatt was born Stephen Jay Greenblatt on 7th November 1943 in Boston to a family of Jewish heritage. Greenblatt was raised by his father, a lawyer, and his mother, a housewife, in the small city of Newton, Massachusetts.

Stephen Greenblatt, a shot of the Boston skyline from the river, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The city of Boston, where Greenblatt was born.

After finishing his high school education, Greenblatt went to Yale University, where he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in English in 1964. Greenblatt then attained a scholarship which allowed him to attend Cambridge University and gain another bachelor's degree along with a masters. Returning to Yale in 1969, Greenblatt completed his PhD in English. He then took up a lecturing position at the University of California, specialising in Renaissance literature and the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Greenblatt remained in his position at the University of California for close to the next three decades. During this time, he also lectured extensively at several universities across the globe, including in Kyoto, London, and Rome. In 1997, Greenblatt took a professorship at Harvard University.

Greenblatt is best known for founding the study of New Historicism, in which critics view a text within its historical context. Greenblatt first mentioned New Historicism in his book The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (1982). After the theory gained traction within the academic world, Greenblatt wrote a text with another theorist, Catherine Gallagher (1945-), entitled Practicing New Historicism (2000). This gave extensive explanations of the theory and how to practically apply it.

As a Shakespearean scholar, Greenblatt has also published numerous texts analysing the works of the world-renowned playwright. These include Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004) and Shakespeare's Freedom (2010). He is also the editor of various editions of the Norton Shakespeare. These are authoritative anthologies of the works of Shakespeare published by the prestigious and long-standing W.W. Norton publishing company.

Today, Stephen Greenblatt is still actively writing and is heavily involved in academia. His latest book was Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (2018). Although ostensibly about politics in the works of Shakespeare, much of the text is a criticism of the Trump administration.

Donald Trump (1946-) was the 45th President of the United States from 2017 until 2021. Trump represented the Republican Party, America's right-wing political party. A businessman and celebrity before running for president, Trump's time in office was marked by controversy. Most notably, his claims that the 2020 election that he lost to Joe Biden (1942-) was rigged against him.

Stephen Greenblatt: New Historicism

The influential literary theory of New Historicism is attributed to Stephen Greenblatt. It advocates for viewing a text within its historical context. All factors are considered by New Historicists: social, cultural, economic, political, etc. New Historicism developed from Old Historicism which has similar ideas, but New Historicism formed many of its own practices that separate the two theories. New Historicism promotes nuance above all else in an analysis of any text. It also views history as central to literary criticism, whereas Old Historicism saw history as more of background information.

As well as taking the time period of an author into consideration, New Historicism also considers the society of the critic or individual analysing a text. As an author is shaped by their particular time period, we are also shaped by ours. This can lead us, as readers, to take our biases into our textual analyses. New Historicism sees literature as part of history and history as part of literature; everything is connected.

Another important element of New Historicism is its rejection of elitism. It is sometimes considered an anti-theory literary theory. New Historicism avoids much of the academic terminology found in literary criticism. Instead, New Historicists attempt to be more grounded and accessible, focusing on the study of history.

Stephen Greenblatt: theory

Begun in the 1980s, New Historicism as a practice gained popularity throughout the 1990s. Previous to this, literary criticism had moved in favour of theories that focused on a text's formal and aesthetic value rather than the cultural conditions that produced it. However, New Historicism and its focus on history became extremely influential in English Literature departments worldwide. Today, it is one of the most commonly used theories, being taught in the majority of English Literature degrees.

Task! From what you have learned about New Historicism so far, pick your favourite book and try to do a brief New Historicist analysis of it. Consider the political, social, cultural, and economic conditions that may have impacted the author in their life and writing.

Stephen Greenblatt: books

Stephen Greenblatt has written a number of influential theoretical texts so far in his career. Read on for a selection of Greenblatt's books.

Stephen Greenblatt: The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (1982)

The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance is a collection of essays edited and organised by Stephen Greenblatt. It was the first text in which Greenblatt mentioned and conceptualised the idea of New Historicism. There are several essays in the collection that Greenblatt believes utilise New Historicism effectively.

An example of a New Historicist analysis can be found in Greenblatt's introduction to his text. He looks at William Shakespeare's play Richard II (1597) through a New Historicist lens. In original performances of Richard II in the 1590s, a key scene in which the elderly Richard II (1367-1400) gives up the throne was removed from the play. This was because those involved felt the character of Richard II had too many similarities to the current Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), and showing him give up the throne on stage may have been considered treasonous.

Stephen Greenblatt, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in elaborate clothing with a frilled collar, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch that Shakespeare feared upsetting with his play.

Five years later, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (1565-1601), paid Shakespeare's company to perform the play with the controversial scene included as he was planning a rebellion the next day, which came to be known as the Essex Rebellion. The Essex Rebellion was a definitive failure, and the Queen then asked Shakespeare's company to perform Richard II again the night before Devereux was executed.

Greenblatt's analysis exemplifies how external historical factors can impact a text. The inclusion of a central scene in Richard II was decided based on political conditions occurring in Shakespeare's society.

Stephen Greenblatt: Practicing New Historicism (2000)

Stephen Greenblatt wrote Practicing New Historicism in collaboration with fellow theorist Catherine Gallagher. It expanded on the definition of New Historicism that Greenblatt had previously established. The text also acted as a defence of the theory as it had come under some criticism since being established. For example, some critics asserted it was vague and lacking in definition. Greenblatt and Gallagher's rebuttal to this was that New Historicism was an expansive and over-arching theory. It did not have a strict definition for a reason. New Historicism was designed to give readers the tools to interpret a text the way they see fit by judging its historical conditions. While certain things are true for the majority of New Historicist analyses, there are no rigid boundaries that everyone must stick to.

The chapters of Practicing New Historicism showcase different examples of how the theory can be applied in literary criticism. These examples are wide-ranging and various, just like the theory itself.

Stephen Greenblatt: New Historicism quotes

Below are some important quotes from Greenblatt's Practicing New Historicism.

QuoteLocationExplanation
'The notion of culture as text has a further major attraction: it vastly expands the range of objects available to be read and interpreted. Major works of art remain centrally important, but they are jostled now by an array of other texts and images. Some of these alternative objects of attention are literary works regarded as too minor to deserve sustained interest and hence marginalised or excluded entirely from the canon.'Introduction.Greenblatt and Gallagher make the point here that viewing literature, history, and culture as linked expands what critics can analyse. New Historicism promotes analysing all texts, regardless of whether they are seen as great works of literature or not. Even minor works can enrich our knowledge of literature and history.
'New Historicism is not a coherent, close-knit school in which one might be enrolled or from which one might be expelled.'Introduction.Here, Greenblatt and Gallagher defend New Historicism from accusations of being too vaguely defined. The theory is expansive and covers many different areas. This is a conscious choice made in forming New Historicism. History is always changing, and, therefore, a theory based on it must also be able to adapt.
'The cultural matrix out of which representations emerge.'Introduction.This is how Greenblatt's book describes what texts are formed from. A cultural matrix is all the different cultural conditions that members of a given society experience. Every text is centrally impacted by the cultural matrix of the society they are written in. In New Historicism, a text is a representation of its time period.

Stephen Greenblatt - Key takeaways

  • Stephen Greenblatt is an American literary theorist and professor.
  • Greenblatt is credited with founding the study of New Historicism.
  • The theory of New Historicism involves considering a text within its historical context.
  • Two key texts by Greenblatt are The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (1982) and Practicing New Historicism (2000).
  • Greenblatt is also an experienced Shakespearean scholar.

Frequently Asked Questions about Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt is known for founding the study of New Historicism.

Greenblatt has defined culture as a society's 'ensemble of beliefs and practices' that limits people's behaviour when enforced.

Greenblatt observes that literature and history are inextricably linked. Just as literature impacts history, history impacts literature.

Greenblatt is an American literary theorist and professor.

The poetics of culture is Greenblatt's preferred and frequently used term for New Historicism.

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