Stephen Jay Greenblatt and His Contributions to New Historicism

Stephen Jay Greenblatt has had a profound effect on the study of literature. He introduced the concept of New Historicism, which, during his first mention of the term, was nothing more than an afterthought. The concept has grown to change the way literary works are studied in their historical context, and how history can be studied by deep analysis of literature. Greenblatt holds the view that examining the historical backdrop, against which a piece of literature is written, gives unprecedented insights into the meaning and intent of the piece of literature. Moreover, a close study of a piece of literature may help shed light into the happenings of the times, when the piece was done.

The concept of New Historicism developed largely as a backlash generated by the approach that was given by New Critics to the study of literature. When Greenblatt first mentioned the term New Historicism in 1982, he sought to set the concept apart from earlier historicism, which he described as “monological”. He wished to distinguish New Historicism from the linear, fact and evidence-based study of history that was employed by historical critics in the 1930s and 1940s. The first important contribution of Stephen Greenblatt to new historicism was to distinguish it from historical criticism employed in the 1930s. He proposed that literary works would best be studied if phenomena and incidences from time periods that are seemingly unconnected are brought together to attempt to make sense of the event in question (Griffith, 2010). Hence, new historicism should redefine the boundaries and limits of historical enquiry.


Greenblatt punctuated some of his the most influential essays with apothegmatic formulations that define new historicism. Greenblatt could, for instance, synthesize two texts and, from this synthesis, draw terse conclusions to the nature of the cultures, in which the two texts were developed. For instance, Greenblatt juxtaposed “1 Henry IV” of Shakespeare against “Invisible Bullets” by Thomas Harriot, and the conclusions he drew from this summary comparison lived up to the basics of New Historicism. He concluded that the Elizabethan vision of princely power and the vision of the Algonquians in the New Found Land in Virginia were aligned and pointed to the fact that power originated in fraud and force.

Greenblatts tried to reaffirm the connection of history and literature by his apothegmatic affirmations. To clarify his position, in his book Learning to Curse, he declares that history should not enable him to escape the effects of the literary, but to deepen the understanding of literary works by causing it to “touch” the real (Greenblatt, Stephen Jay). His concepts were similar to the Marxist idea of historical materialism. In fact, his idea attracted mordant attacks from his critics. They claimed that he collated related texts, events or practices, never quite going out of his way to explain the connections among them. However, for the historical materialism of Marxists, there is not an apothegmatic formulation, but a hollow dogma. This is what set Greenblatt’s idea of New Historicism and the Marxist idea of historical materialism apart. For example, in his book Learning to Curse, he argued that the elements of the Zuni rite were not fully integrated, and could not form a unified whole (Greenblatt, Stephen Jay). In so doing, he downplayed Marxian expressions to employ more intriguing Foucauldian expressions.

Greenblatt’s understanding of New Historicism or, as he preferred to refer to it, “cultural poetics” undermined the deconstructive underpinnings that other people had understood to be one of the cornerstones of New Historicism (Thomas 1991). In particular, the way he addressed the topic of wonder elided the deconstructive footing of New Historicism. In Resonance and Wonder, the ultimate essay of Learning to Curse, he states definitively that he approaches literary works in a state of veneration and wonder (Greenblatt, Stephen Jay). He describes wonder as the power of the displayed object to engender an exalted attention. Moreover, the wonder is the central theme of his book, Marvelous Possessions (Greenblatt, Stephen). He presents the dialogue that took place at Cardinal Woolsey’s banquet table and makes sure to bring out the power of the language to the understanding of the text (Greenblatt, Stephen). He asserts that language is influenced more by topological registers than by historical forces. Therefore, he skillfully isolates history from language, thereby underscoring the importance of leaving deconstructive methods out of the study of New Historicist techniques.

Greenblatt took pains to differentiate New Historicism from traditional historicism. He claims no respect at all for the approach of chronological regularity and causality that is used by the traditional historicists. On the contrary, he emphasized the treatment of the distinction between literary and historical texts as a problematic issue (Levinson 2012). He described New Historicism as a study of history that takes into account “the entire field of word-made objects” and one that does not assume a fixed distinction between any two pieces of literature. Thus, Greenblatt sets his New Historicism apart from the traditional historicism, whose main interest lies in the chronology and organization of historical events, and thus, separates literary works on this line. Rather, he underscored the idea that literary creativity involved an intricate global sharing of “social energies” (Pieters, 2001). Thus, his approach to literary criticism took the form of a collective appreciation of these global social energies, drawing from texts written in different places and even different time periods to synthesize the true meaning and intent of the words of each of these texts. To put it in another way, Greenblatt led the pack of New Historicists in scorning the idea of looking at history as having a factual background. Rather, he preferred looking at history as many concurrent discourses that should be interpreted by recognizing the writer’s inherently biased perspective.

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Stephen Greenblatt also borrowed from Clifford Geertz’s use of thick description to lay one of the foundations of New Historicism (Dobie 2001 ). Geertz asserts that thick description, which is to look at human activities outside the literal meanings of any human act and behavior and attempt to explain minute, seemingly inconsequential acts in the context of their preferred meanings in that society. Greenblatt accepted the concept of thick description as a cornerstone of New Historicism because even minute actions had various meanings in different cultures. Therefore, a literary critic had to realize that when approaching a literary work, his (or her) own biases may influence his own interpretation of the little actions that depict various moods of characters within literary works. As such, drawing from the belief of Foucault, Greenblatt observed that critics had to confront their own biases as they approached literary works, because they were subject to their own epistemes.

To put into practice Geertz’s techniques, Greenblatt stirred a mounting interest in pieces of literature that had been ignored by mainstream critics, and thus, brought back to life priceless works that had compacted meaning, which had been cast into the darkness of oblivion. These pieces of literature offered insight into the episteme of the Renaissance period and other historical periods, thus, giving life to the theory of thick description propounded by Geertz.

Greenblatt also set out to trample upon the deconstructive approach employed by most literary critics of his time. He held the view that deconstruction was an inadequate method of putting the pieces of literature together, and that it could not explain the historical subtleties of these pieces of literature. This, he believed, stripped the glamour and purpose of these literary works away, for he believed that authors of excellent pieces, consciously or otherwise, would have loved to pass a message about the generation, in which they lived. In a 2008 interview with Jeffrey J. Williams, Greenblatt told Williams that he and some of his contemporaries at Yale wished to challenge the view of William Wimsatt that held that poetry (and other literary pieces) should be judged as a pudding or a machine (Williams). During the interview, he said that he had all along felt that the treatment given literary pieces by the deconstructionists was not palpable to him. He scorned the idea of detaching the object of study from its surroundings and studying it in isolation. Thus, Stephen Greenblatt held out that studying literary pieces by remaining within the confines of language was an insufficient approach if one sought to unearth the true meaning and intent of the text.

This is not to trash the precedence that Greenblatt tagged on the English Renaissance. In fact, he had an acute awareness of language as a potent force that created a profound impression on the temporal facet of history (Lai 2006). In his essay Marlowe and the Will to Absolute Play, Greenblatt discusses how language helps bring out the characters. While he stresses how language is epistemologically divided from existence. He says that speech only expresses a feeling or a perception, but it is different from what veritably exists. Greenblatt recognizes the role that language plays in holding people off from the past and, at the same time, drawing them into it in a bid to gain an understanding. Therefore, this text must not undermine the importance that language holds in the understanding of the past.


However, Greenblatt stops anyone, who thinks that he compromises on his stance on words dead in their tracks by his thesis on Self-fashioning during the Renaissance. He argues that no matter how powerful words may be, they are, ultimately, never enough. He asserts that language alone will never allow the formation of identity. He draws a sharp boundary between language and time, and this has attracted criticisms from people, who believe that language helps to solve the temporal problem presented in history.

Stephen Greenblatt’s contribution to New Historicism is unique to him in a number of ways. Being the “father”, as it was, of this school of thought, he had some pretty radical ideas about the concept, which were shared by few, if any, of the other New Historicists.

First, his treatment of wonder and resonance as a go-between that attempted to bridge the wide divide between New Historicism and postmodernism was adopted by few else, who claimed to fall within the family of New Historicists. In his book Practicing New Historicism (2000), Greenblatt attempts to compromise the stand-off between New Historicism and postmodernism into a utopian point of balance by introducing the concepts of wonder and resonance (Gallagher and Greenblatt 2011). James Paxon gives some insights into how Greenblatt attempts to build this bridge to fill the gap between New Historicism and postmodernism (Paxon 2012). According to Paxon, Greenblatt suggests “wonder” and “resonance” mutually exist. Wonder and resonance, in Greenblatt’s view, are mutually permeable, and, therefore, not entirely separated entities.

Moreover, Greenblatt’s contribution to the revamping of allegory is spectacular. As he introduces a collection of pieces on allegory by Hugh Kenner, de Man, Michael Holquist and Joel Fineman, he avoids the use of rigorous post-structural macro-metaphors. However, he fails to concur with the de Manian’s sentiment that subtle discursive manipulations call for deep self-investigation in Marvelous Possessions (Greenblatt, Stephen Jay). He thus brings to light his tolerance for allegorical expressions and acknowledges their importance in the interpretation of literary works.

Greenblatt endeavored to release the concept of New Historicism from deconstructive discourse. In contrast, other New Historicists, such as Billy Budd, believed that New Historicism is inexorably indebted to deconstruction. Greenblatt held the view that language was an inadequate tool for the expounding of literary works because of various reasons. Language, for one, did not change too much over the years and could thus mislead the critic if they relied on it for their literary interpretations. Language, Greenblatt asserted, was nearly inconsequential in placing a piece of literature in its historical context. Inasmuch as he did not deny that language had a profound effect in the Elizabethan times in history, he continued to assert that the mainspring, from which literary understanding arises, is the contextual framework of the literary work, whose underpinnings are the textual support.

Greenblatt made a point to emphasize the fact that the critic ought to be careful and guard against drawing his or her own cultural bias into the interpretation of the piece of literature. Rather, the potency of the non-discursive text should be employed. Greenblatt thus backed the idea of thick description, as we have seen already, and even more importantly, the consequences of the literary works. This would enable a fuller appreciation of the reaches of the literature piece in the realms of history and all other facets of human experience. The exploration of the consequences of a piece of literature would, in Greenblatt’s opinion, enable a cross-checking mechanism for the trueness of the findings of the critic.

It would be appropriate to contrast Greenblatt’s view on New Historicism and another influential New Historicist, Jerome McGann. Contrary to Jerome McGann and other New Historicists, Greenblatt sought to treat the Marxist idea of cultural materialism and New Historicism as totally different entities. Although the two concepts seemed to be linked fundamentally by the idea of using what is known of past human events and social works to study of societal history, they crossed their paths at the juncture, where new historicism avoids being too evidence-based and instead focuses on the likely nature of the history or culture, which forms the backdrop of the piece of literature.

Stephen Greenblatt’s contribution to the understanding, study and adoption of New Historicism goes way beyond the christening of the concept. Stephen Greenblatt strove to prove, through his works, that New Historicism was a workable way of gaining a deep understanding of the culture of the people when a piece of literature was written, and also understanding the text within its historical backdrop. The voice of Greenblatt resonates throughout the proponents of this concept because, besides being its “father”, he has been its most prolific contributor. The concept of New Historicism has received sufficient backing from different quarters, but Greenblatt remains the most influential figure in its development. No doubt, Greenblatt’s way of looking at New Historicism will, for a long time, remain the yardstick, against which all new historicists measure the accuracy of their interpretation of this method of study.

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