In 1981 Stephen J. Greenblatt coined the phrase “the new historicism” to describe the practice of a rising group of critics with whom he was affiliated. Against the narrow focus on language of both the New Criticism and deconstruction, they emphasized “the embeddedness of cultural objects in the contingencies of history.” And against conventional history, they stressed that history was a discourse rather than simply a recounting of objective facts. Using anecdotes and other sources to animate old texts, Greenblatt himself has become the leading commentator on Shakespeare of our day, with books such as Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (University of California Press, 1988), The Norton Shakespeare (1997), for which he serves as founding editor, and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton, 2004), which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
Born in the Boston area in 1943, Greenblatt is the son of a lawyer and grandson of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, as he recounts in some of his essays. He attended Yale, where his undergraduate thesis won a Yale College Award and was published as Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley (Yale University Press, 1965). After spending two years in England at Cambridge University, where he studied with Raymond Williams and George Steiner, he returned to Yale to finish his PhD in 1969. His book, Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (Yale University Press, 1973), expanded on his dissertation and discussed how authors fashion their personas—but it was with his next book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (University of Chicago Press, 1980; new ed. 2005), that he captured wide attention in literary studies. Beginning in 1969, he taught at the University of California-Berkeley, and while there he co-founded the journal Representations, from which he edited two collections: Representing the English Renaissance (University of California Press, 1988) and New World Encounters (University of California Press, 1993). He has also edited Allegory and Representation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), with a lead essay by Paul de Man, mentioned below; The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), which introduced “the new historicism”; and Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (with Giles Gunn; MLA, 1992).
After visiting intermittently, in 1997 he moved permanently to Harvard University, where he holds a vaunted University Professorship. In the meantime, he has continued his survey of Renaissance culture, with Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (Routledge, 1990; new ed. 2007); Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (University of Chicago Press, 1991); Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton University Press, 2001); and the more programmatic exposition, with Berkeley colleague Catherine Gallagher, Practicing New Historicism (University of Chicago Press, 2000). In 2006, he replaced M.H. Abrams to become general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (8th ed. 2006; 9th ed. 2012). Since the time of this interview, he has published the co-written play, Cardenio (2007), The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton, 2011) and Shakespeare’s Freedom (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Greenblatt has received a good deal of critical attention, including a selection of his writing in The Greenblatt Reader, ed. Michael Payne (Blackwell, 2005); a volume in Routledge Critical Thinkers, Stephen Greenblatt by Mark Robson (2008); and a New York Times Magazine profile, “The Tempest around Stephen Greenblatt,” by Adam Begley (28 Mar. 1993). For interesting accounts of his position and method, see also James J. Paxson, “The Green(blatt)ing of America,” minnesota review 41-42 (1994) and Ivo Kamps, “New Historicizing the New Historicism; or, Did Stephen Greenblatt Watch the Evening News in Early 1968?” in Historicizing Theory, ed. Peter C. Herman (SUNY Press, 2004). On Greenblatt’s roots at Yale addressed in the second question, see Jeffrey J. Williams, “Prodigal Critics,” Chronicle of Higher Education 11 Dec. 2009.
This interview took place on 8 December 2008 in Stephen Greenblatt’s office in Widener Library at Harvard University. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams and transcribed by Gavin Jensen.
Jeffrey Williams: You’re known especially for the new historicism, which by my surmise is the dominant mode, even if in a dispersed way, of contemporary literary criticism. Many of the younger people I see coming up do new historicist projects, like “The Eighteenth-Century Novel and English Gardens” or “The Eighteenth-Century Novel and Vacation Culture at Bath.” Can you give a capsule definition of what you think the new historicism is?
Stephen Greenblatt: There isn’t a capsule definition—but it had a historical trajectory and purpose. That is to say, my own training and that of my generation was dominated by a model that was largely decontextualized and intensely formal. The genius loci of Yale when I was there was William Wimsatt, and he thought that you should judge poetry the way you judge, as he wrote somewhere, a pudding or a machine. Obviously, if you are judging a pudding you might be interested in what its ingredients are or how it tastes. If you’re judging a machine, you might be interested in its structure, why it functions the way it functions, what happens when it breaks down. But in either case you’re not interested, or at least not predominantly, in anything about the cook, the mechanic, the inventor, or even the consumer, strictly speaking. You are interested in the object, insofar as you can detach it from the surroundings. That is the way I was trained and I’m the product of that. But at a certain moment this approach seemed, the way everything eventually gets to seem — intolerable or grossly distorted — and so I and other people began to do something else. What the other thing was slightly resisted, and still resists, definition. If I simply say that it’s about recontextualizing works, or resetting them in their cultural and historical moment, or treating them as objects of anthropological analysis—if I say any of those things, I slightly distort the origin and the impulse.
The first example you gave, “Eighteenth-Century Literature and Gardens,” is actually what Maynard Mack [a Yale professor] was doing in the 1960s. It wasn’t called “new historicism”; it was an historical approach to literature of the kind that Mack and many other scholars of his generation did, where you learned about Pope’s grotto at Twickenham, about Capability Brown and so forth. Whatever happened with us happened not because we were suddenly awakened to the fact that there were gardens in the eighteenth century, but because we were reading Althusser and trying to figure out an alternative to the formal study in which we were being trained.
JW: It seems striking to me that Harold Bloom went to Yale for grad school, Stanley Fish went to Yale and you went to Yale. It’s striking because each of you rebuts precisely the prohibitions that Wimsatt issued, against the intentional fallacy, the affective fallacy and looking at context: Bloom talks about the author, Fish talks about the audience and you talk about the historical context. It’s interesting that as a generation—well, they’re older than you are…
SG: Absolutely! Harold Bloom was my teacher! He was a young man when he was my teacher, but he was my teacher nonetheless.
But that’s interesting, I hadn’t put the three things together that you did just now. In general there was in the late 1960s and 70s a growing determination to rethink what it was one was doing. Not because of hard times, but because of exuberance and anger and the sense that everything was up for grabs and that one could remake, as one went along, what the project was.
For me it had everything to do with the extraordinary place that Berkeley, California was. In the 1970s there was a sense of excitement, of disorder, of the dream of reconstituting the world—a sense that hierarchies were breaking down. It was a great institution for that. Someone said to me when I was leaving Yale, “Oh, you’re going to Berkeley to sit at the feet of Jonas Barish.” I never dreamt that I would do anything of the kind. Berkeley wasn’t that kind of place, certainly not in the 1970s. I smoked some dope with Jonas Barish, but I wasn’t sitting at his feet.
Renaissance Self-Fashioning comes out of an exuberant moment of generational insurgency. I was trying to think about where we were then. In the late sixties at Yale I had come back from England, from Cambridge…
JW: When was this? You finished undergrad, if I recall correctly, in ’65?
SG: ’64. I came to Yale in the class of ’65, but I skipped a year. I thought I should save my parents money, so I graduated in ’64, and then I had a Fulbright to Cambridge for two years. And I studied with a bunch of people, including George Steiner, F. R. Leavis, among others. The one who made the most powerful impression on me, intellectually, was Raymond Williams. So I came back…
JW: Why did he make such an impression?
SG: It was a revelation to me that one could think about literature in terms so different from the Yale critics. Anything to do with Marxist literary criticism had been routinely treated by my teachers with dismissal and contempt, as hopelessly crude and boring. So I was amazed, in a series of lectures I eagerly attended, to see a rather complicated, subtle and compelling way of dealing with the literary consequences of the class struggles of the seventeenth century. The period focus was outside Raymond Williams’ usual orbit, although some of it got into The Country and the City.
He was a marvelous presence, and I went out of my way to arrange tutorials with him. The tutorials weren’t so wonderful, I have to admit, but the lectures were marvelous. So I came back thinking I would try to work with some of the tools that I had learned from him. And I also was thinking about working in the Renaissance because, in the course of studying for the tripos at Cambridge—I had done the “1579 to 1603 paper,” as one part of the exam was called—I had read Sir Walter Ralegh, and I was completely haunted by Ralegh for a strange reason. Ralegh’s great, unfinished poem, “Ocean to Cynthia,” struck me as sounding uncannily like T. S. Eliot. I was trained as a formalist, and it was one of those odd moments, like when you look at a seventeenth-century painting and realize that if you can just isolate the depiction of the mirror in the back of the room, if you cut the mirror out with a scissors—it looks like a tiny Rothko, even though it’s impossible for it to be that. From a certain ahistorical loop, Ralegh’s poetry, in its broken fragments, was weirdly like “The Waste Land.”
With that bee in my bonnet, I returned to Yale, and I remember asking around, “Whom should I speak to? Who’s the most interesting person here in the English department?” and people said, “Geoffrey Hartman, without a doubt.” So I went to Geoffrey Hartman and proposed to write a dissertation about Ralegh, not just about his poetry—because it seemed to me it would have to be about his life in some sense, about what it meant that this poetry came out of someone who was an adventurer and a speculator, a monopolist, a courtier. It was not so much a biography that I was interested in, but what a lived life would be like that would produce this weird T. S. Eliot-like imitation in the 1590s. I’ve since laughed with Geoffrey about his response. He looked like I had made an embarrassing noise, and said, “If you want to do that kind of work, why don’t you do an edition of an obscure work of Ralegh’s? Not with me, but do an edition.”
In 1966 or ’67, as I understood very well, this was like suggesting that I man the hydroelectric plant in Ulan Batar. Something about my proposed project seemed absurd to Geoffrey. But I was not deterred. I went to Al Kernan, who had been my undergraduate thesis advisor and whom I liked very much, and he said, “Go for it.” So that’s what I did. The point was that I wasn’t going to go in the approved Yale route, either to formalism or to the incipient high theory.
JW: Were there a lot of people doing theory at the time?
SG: New Critical formalism remained dominant, but there were the beginnings of theory. There was Geoffrey Hartman, who was already an imposing figure and was bringing the news. At that point, the news was probably more about Georges Poulet than it was about Merleau-Ponty or Bataille. Anyway, I was determined to do my Ralegh project, even if Hartman didn’t like it. Looking back on it, I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to do what the smart kids were doing; I was going to do this other thing, end of story.
JW: It’s the door you went through that brought you to new historicism…
SG: Yes. As I said, it came out of the Marxist ferment of the late sixties. I was passionately reading Benjamin and Althusser, and I was not alone. A lot of us were thinking along the same lines. In my first years at Berkeley, my ex-wife used to say I was going out to a cell meeting, because we were all reading and brooding about a set of Marxist texts.
JW: I want to ask more about that, but first I want to look back for a second. You mentioned Alvin Kernan, who was your undergraduate as well as graduate advisor. He directed your undergraduate thesis, on three modern satirists, Waugh, Orwell and Huxley. (I read part of it, and your style is already quite nimble.) Clearly you were interested in modern writers then; what prompted the turn to the Renaissance? Was it when you went to England?
SG: I told myself—wrongly, as it turns out, because I really didn’t understand anything about the way in which one’s life develops—I could always do modern British literature at some point in my career. I thought, “The modern is my world, I know it in my blood and bones, but if I don’t do the earlier thing now, I’ll never get back to it. I’ll never be able to write about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries unless I do it now.”
In reality, once you begin in a particular historical direction, it’s extremely difficult to take a turn. That’s one of the weird, unwritten, but almost universal rules in our profession. If you begin as a Victorianist, you don’t wind up as a Medievalist. It almost never happens. It’s very peculiar that the work you did for a couple of years when you were 20 should be so determinate of the rest of your career.
JW: In England it seems as if people migrate among fields more.
SG: In England there are people who go back and forth from one historical period to another, but usually those people start early and go later.
JW: Do you ever wonder if you had done modern literature? I guess part of the problem is all the work that gets published every year in one’s field.
SG: I tend not to think that way, but I do feel, as I get older, more free to do what I want. I occasionally review some contemporary works, though usually they have some kind of connection to the past. And I wrote this play with Charles Mee [Cardenio]. I don’t feel that my orbit is oppressively small; on the other hand, despite the fact that I adore Dickens, let’s say, or James, I haven’t actually thought, “That’s what I’ll do next. I’ll do a project on James.”
JW: People would be surprised to see a book by Stephen Greenblatt on Henry James.
SG: It would be fun. If Robert Pippin can write one, I suppose that I could.
JW: Another thing I noticed was that Robert Penn Warren was one of your advisors on your undergraduate thesis. He’s probably more known now for All the King’s Men, but he was an important poet as well as a key New Critic. Did you ever, when you were an undergraduate, think about becoming a novelist? There’s that cliché that critics are writers manqué.
SG: No. Whatever narrative gifts I have, whatever pleasure I take in crafting prose, I satisfy fully in the things I write. It’s not that I’ve turned away from or failed to do something else. The closest I’ve come to an alternative was, late in my life, writing a play, and I did that in the company of a fantastically gifted playwright.
JW: You also do travel writing, but that does seem to link with your criticism. Sometimes you start with anecdotes about travel.
SG: That I do love to do. Yes, it comes out of the criticism; it’s not fiction. There’s something about fiction, about making something up, that I find difficult to do.
JW: To go back to the seventies, you were at Berkeley, and you were reading all these different things. It seems as if it was a vibrant moment. You were in a crew of younger faculty and reading the new theory.
SG: I don’t know why we had so much time, but we did. I used to sit in on lots of classes. That’s how I got to know Foucault. If I’d hear someone interesting was coming to campus, I would decide to take the course and keep up with the reading. I took a course on medieval monasticism, I recall, and several in art history. I guess if something struck me as interesting, I would do it.
JW: I think that it’s the speed-up that everyone, at every level, feels. Even grad students are scrambling—which is bad, since having the time to explore things is one rationale of the university. But you mentioned Foucault. Did you know him well? And who were the key people at Berkeley?
SG: I didn’t know him enormously well, but well enough. Someone in the French department told me an interesting guy was coming from Paris to give a course on Zola, and I might stop by. So I went. Zola, in fact, wasn’t mentioned in the course, which turned out to be on medieval manuals of confession. I was completely hooked after the first seminar. I had never heard anyone give a seminar in the French manner. They talk for two hours without break and are not interested in questions or dialogue. Foucault would speak in beautiful whole sentences and paragraphs, and the work itself was thrilling. I remember running out after the first one and finding a friend, who happened to be Fred Crews, and saying, “I just heard the most exciting and unbelievable seminar on masturbation and penance in the medieval church!” He looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I couldn’t get anyone to go. It was partly because the seminars were conducted in French and were a little difficult, partly because the subject seemed weird. There was a very small group of people, maybe a dozen. Looking back on it, I was probably dragged in to keep the number up so as not to embarrass the French Department. Between that year and the next year…
JW: What year was that?
SG: When was Discipline and Punish out? 1975? It must have been that. So the next year he came and there were gigantic crowds. But there was that one year in which there was nobody.
Anyway, I got to know Foucault a little bit. We would see each other and talk. The theorists who I knew better and more intimately were Louis Marin, Michel de Certeau and Tzvetan Todorov. Lots of people percolated through Berkeley in those years. That French department, with Leo Bersani and Denis Hullier, was very alive.
The Practice of Everyday Life was, and is, a very important book for me. But I loved the extraordinary human being that de Certeau was: a deep and complex person, haunted, playful and spiritually powerful.
JW: What did you take from him about everyday life? Sometimes your anecdotes capture a scene of everyday life from which you spin the fuller cloth of that culture.
SG: The first book of his I read, La possession de Loudun, was the one that, as a writer, I learned the most from. (I wrote a little introduction for a translation of it that came out a few years ago.) It’s a fantastic book in which he strings together excerpts from the documents with a theoretically informed (but not particularly sustained) commentary, and tells an astonishing story. It’s an unbelievable case—Ken Russell made a movie about it—but La Possession de Loudon is not one of de Certeau’s great theoretical books. That probably says something about me, but if I was thinking about writerly influence, I probably learned the most from that.
Actually, for me, de Certeau’s work is still quite productive because I’ve been thinking a lot the last few years about mobility. The reflections in The Practice of Everyday Life, on what it means to walk in a city, seem to me still quite generative.
JW: I just want to ask you one more question about Foucault, because I’m sure people automatically assume you were influenced by him and that this affected how you did the new historicism, digging up archives and such.
SG: Well, Foucault did influence me. A lot of work gets worn out, but his remains terrifically interesting. A certain paranoid style in the theoretical writings of the seventies—to create the vision of the locked box in as full, complete and detailed a way as possible—was deeply suggestive. Bourdieu, another figure who was significant for me, does it as well. The creation of the locked box, along with the impulse to break it, all comes from Nietzsche.
In fact, my single most powerful experience of theory remains something I read in high school, which is The Genealogy of Morals. That is, in my life, the work of the greatest theoretical power, import and disturbance. Whatever I picked up from Foucault, or from Derrida for that matter, seems to me traceable back to that. The Genealogy of Morals is a perfect instance of the locked box and the rebellious impulse, and it’s also marvelous for its weird conjunction of wild speculation and historical claims. Though Nietzsche does not claim to do empirical work, his is a fundamentally historical account of the origins of moral affect and moral principle, out of the cunning ressentiment of the weak.
The argument, along with the rhetoric in which it is couched, completely shocked and outraged me. It’s partly the effect we get from Foucault, too—this slap that is offensive and disagreeable, but that startles you in trying to undo the argument being made. It depends upon the touching of the wires of an anthropological-historical-ethnographic account with a set of abstract philosophical or moral principles. That seems to be hugely generative. Nietzsche is an interesting example, because I certainly don’t feel that I’m a disciple of his account of the universe, which seems to me hateful.
JW: That explains a certain route to Foucault and contemporary theory. Also there was a lot going on at Berkeley—not only Foucault, but all the people that you were working with and talking to. And you founded Representations, with Svetlana Alpers, in 1982.
SG: Yeah, a bunch of us were bouncing off each other. I was hugely lucky to have decided to start my career at Berkeley, rather than, say, Yale. It happened to be a moment with lots of interesting colleagues. First, there was, as I say, my little cell, meeting for several years to read Marxist texts. The group included Joel Fineman, Cathy Gallagher, Tom Laqueur, Mike Rogin, Marty Jay, myself…
Then when that fizzled out after a couple years, I was at a loss briefly, craving the opportunity to show work to other people and to talk about things. So then I wrote to a bunch of friends and said let’s have a little group. For a while we called it “The Friends of Stephen Greenblatt,” with some irony or playfulness, because none of them knew all the others but they all knew me. I had sent my note out to Svetlana and Paul Alpers, Mike Rogin, Cathy, Steve Knapp, Walter Michaels, Howard Bloch, Randy Starn, Frances Ferguson and Tom Laqueur. Anyway, we started meeting and circulating our work and arguing, and we were having a very good time with it. That went on for a bunch of years, all through the later part of the 1970s. It was exciting and genuinely engaging, arguing late into the night, usually about each other’s work—basically attacking one another is what it mostly was, but in a very intimate environment. We knew each other; we liked each other; we were not afraid of each other, so we would be fantastically frank about what we thought were the limitations and contradictions of our work. I learned a ton from it.
I saw that it might go the way of the little cell—that it would have a couple years and we wouldn’t do it anymore. How many papers of your own are you going to circulate in this process? So at a certain point, in ’79 or ’80, I said, “We can’t let this go. It would be nice to figure out how to keep it going.” I had an offer from somewhere, and I went to the university and asked—maybe it was 81’—”Could you come up with some money to start a journal?” The journal existed to make the evenings continue. The trouble is that, inevitably, the thing you want to hold on to is precisely what gets routinized in the construction of a journal. On the other hand, we did keep the thing going for a long time and it became, in some ways, much more than the English department—the center of my intellectual life. I treasure it.
JW: Another thing I want to ask about is politics. I imagine that time in Berkeley must have been politically charged, although it might have been tailing off after you got there.
SG: There had been a huge wave in 68’, and then in ’69 and ’70. After I arrived, there was the Martin Luther King killing, Kent State, the eruption of riots and protests. The shit was hitting the fan. The university was in complete turmoil.
JW: And Vietnam was in the background. So, at the time you were developing what some have called the paradigm of subversion and containment in criticism—with Michaels in American literature, you in Renaissance, others in different periods—you were having these exciting intellectual conversations, and they’re not unrelated to what’s going on in politics…How did that political background bear on the work you did? Or was it a tapering off of politics?
SG: I don’t know if I ever, even in my most heady moments, believed that regime change would take place through literary criticism. But it’s not clear to me that criticism represented a tapering off of politics, as you say. There was a moment within the discipline of literary criticism in which it felt like a political act in itself, just to open the windows and bring other things to bear on literature. For one thing, it seemed politically important to argue that the human imagination was not the possession of a tiny number of well-tenured academics and a tiny number of artists, but that the whole reason literature existed was because the imagination was democratically distributed across large populations in different places, including women, as well as men, and gays and Jews and blacks. No one thought it was going to force Lyndon Johnson to end the war, but there was a political feeling in the field, a feeling of necessary change in the discourse of the profession. I am a huge believer in the expansion of the canon in the wake of women’s studies and African American studies and the full realization that English is a global language. But, for me, that wasn’t the central issue. The central issue was to understand that the boundaries in which we had been trained to study the human imagination were too narrowly drawn. We had to grasp that imaginative creation was going on in lots of other places, and could be detected for good and ill in phantasmatic commitments, other than the tiny number of books we had identified as the canon. That felt like, and still feels like (broadly speaking), a political act.
JW: There’s a famous moment in Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City where he says, finally, that you have to answer “Where do you stand?” One criticism that some, primarily Marxist, critics make regarding your work is that you don’t have a stand in that way. I can see what you were saying before about opening up literature and literary studies, but that would likely be seen as a liberal remedy.
SG: I am a liberal. I voted for Obama in the last election; I didn’t vote for someone to the left of Obama. I didn’t vote for Ralph Nader before that; I voted for Al Gore. At a certain point I realized that I had a stake in constitutions and in liberal democracies, rather than people’s democracies. Nothing in my experience, including the recent experience of the refugee scholars in Harvard’s Scholars at Risk program, which I chair, has made me question this basic stand.
JW: I want to ask more about how you do criticism. The source everybody cites for the new historicism is Foucault. But one less expected source for you is Erich Auerbach. There’s a section in Practicing New Historicism where you talk about Auerbach and how he starts each chapter in Mimesis with one passage, which, in a way, is how you unpack things from an anecdote.
SG: It is, after all, what you have to do as a literary critic; otherwise, you talk about Don Quixote by reciting the novel in the most boring way. But what is wonderful about Auerbach is that he managed the magic trick of making you feel that the whole culture was being conjured up out of these little fragments.
JW: One other source I wanted to ask about might be a stretch, but I read your introduction to Allegory and Representation, the volume from the English Institute of 1979, in which you talk about de Man quite knowledgeably and sympathetically. De Man had a famous early essay distinguishing between symbol and allegory, and it strikes me that he was an allegorical critic, whereas you focus on the symbol. The allegorical critics are the ones who discern master narratives, like Fredric Jameson. I think your disposition is away from the allegorical mode; you take one event or example as a symbol of other things, part of the point being that the symbols don’t comprise a full, allegorical pattern.
SG: It seems completely possible because, among other things, the analysis of symbols is consonant with the kind of education I had at Yale. It often happens that the thing you think you are saying farewell to forever turns out to be the thing you are slowly working to arrive at. It’s also a reflection on my complicated relation to high theory. I have often felt, thinking about Fred Jameson, whose work I hugely admire, that his way of being a true intellectual is one by which I would have to judge myself a failure. The embrace of the big account, the grand narrative, has always seemed to me one I had to shun.
Now that I’m thinking about historical moments, in 1989 I was at a conference at Irvine with Fred Jameson and Robert Weimann, who was the head of the Akademie der Wissenschaft in the GDR and hence a very high-ranking figure. When we heard that the Berlin Wall had fallen, Robert Weimann was ashen, as you could imagine—his whole world had been turned upside down. I’ll never forget Fred Jameson saying that he felt a blow had been struck against human freedom. It was that moment in which I thought, “If that’s what it is to be an intellectual, I can’t be that.” I could not persuade myself, in the name of a theory, that to have the Wall come down, and to stop shooting people when they tried to go west, was a blow struck against human freedom.
JW: From the nineties on you seemed to take a different public position, or were raised to a different public position, with The Norton Shakespeare and with Will in the World, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer. You became a kind of popular voice of literary study, especially as the leading commentator on Shakespeare. And you also took over as general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature from M. H. Abrams. This is a digression, but I interviewed him last year and he told me that the anthology first started because an editor showed up at his office door. In any case, how do you reflect on your public position?
SG: I don’t. The Norton Shakespeare came about in a way quite comparable to the way you say Mike Abrams reported. Someone called from Norton to schedule an appointment with a man named Don Lamm. My thought was of the salesman from the publisher who comes and wants you to order their books, and I said alright. I sailed in wearing torn jeans and an old sweater and Don Lamm turned out to be the president of Norton, who was coming to talk to me about a possible Shakespeare edition. It seemed like an interesting project to do, but I wasn’t planning a long campaign. The edition reached a lot of people, so reaching a broader audience suddenly seemed possible.
JW: I really like the intro to The Norton Shakespeare. It seemingly effortlessly encapsulates an incredible amount of historical information, makes it lively and illuminates Shakespeare’s time, and it’s paced perfectly. You write differently than most academic critics, especially from the theory generation. It makes sense that you could write a trade book like Will in the World. It’s not just anecdotes; your writing is grounded in a scholarly way, but it has the pacing that good historians have. You don’t fall into the cumbrous manner that much academic criticism does. What do you see as the prospect of critical writing?
SG: If you mean my own critical writing, I hope to do a bunch of different things. I don’t think one has to do one single kind of writing. I am currently redoing the Adorno lectures on Shakespeare that I published in German. It’s a university press book. I hope it will have a reasonable readership, but it’s not meant to appeal to an enormous number of people.
Then I will, at some point, write a book that I hope will reach a larger audience about my Cardenio project—a project on culture mobility that also involves travel writing. With a marvelous contemporary playwright, Charles Mee, I wrote a play inspired by a lost play by Shakespeare. The play had its U.S. premiere last spring at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. I contacted, somewhat randomly, a set of theater companies in different parts of the world and said I would pay for a translation of our text into their language. Our text is contemporary, but based very loosely on Shakespeare’s source, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which has already been translated into almost every language. I said, “You can’t do our version of the play, but you can use this to do something that would be appropriate for your culture and place.” I’ve now seen adaptations in Calcutta (in Bengali), in Japan, in Croatia and in Madrid. There are ones coming up in South Africa, Brazil and Argentina. I’m going to go to Egypt, and talk to someone about doing an Arabic one. I’m interested in tracking what happens—a little bit like the telephone game in elementary school—when this same story, which is about friendship, sexual betrayal and jealousy, moves to completely different cultural frameworks.
The project was a way of trying to create an experimental space to test the cultural mobility of narrative objects and to see them firsthand. If you saw these plays laid next to each other you would not see much resemblance among them, though I can see the resemblances because I know what the structure is. It’s partly a structural experiment and it’s partly a cultural-imaginary experiment. It’s also about what happens when objects travel and when people travel. My theoretical interest is in cultural mobility and the constraints on cultural mobility, constraints that are much, much greater than we imagine. I also wanted to exploit my long-term interest in travel writing. It goes back to the book on wonder I did, Marvelous Possessions.
That’s the second project, and then I have another project that I hope will be for a large audience, but may turn out to be the smallest! It’s about the moment at which Lucretius’ De rerum natura was recovered in the early fifteenth century. It’s a hard project to do as a popular book, but I’m going to try and do this if I can. In one moment, 1417, the Western world gets back a robust theory that the universe consists of atoms and emptiness and nothing else—no intelligent design, no divinity pulling the strings, endless time with atoms pulling together and separating, no afterlife, no judgment—effectively the whole tool kit of modernity. It’s like a huge injection to the bloodstream of European intellectual life, and they can’t figure out what to do with it. So I’m interested in what happens when something very radical, totally unacceptable and, in my view of things, largely true, comes as if dropped from outer space. It had been out of circulation for more than a thousand years. It completely violates everything that Jews, Muslims, Christians—you name it—believe in, and it’s suddenly there on the table. When you encounter it you have to figure out what the fuck to do with it. I’m calling the book The Swerve.
From a certain perspective, a book on the recovery by a professional bibliophile of the lost copy of De rerum natura should have an audience of, say, 12. But if I can convey what I want to convey, it should be possible to get lots of people to see how their world originated in this astonishing moment, and to see that the recovery is actually more compelling than the recovery of a crystal skull or lost goblet. This story actually happens to be true, so why should it have a less compelling force than a set of imaginary objects?