The Touch of the Real: Essays in Early Modern Culture, in Honour of Stephen Greenblatt, edited by Philippa Kelly

Reviewed by L. E. Semler

© all rights reserved

This collection of essays arises from the Touch of the Real symposium co-convened by  Philippa Kelly and Iain Wright and held at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU, in June 1998. The volume is fortunate in its authors and consequently reveals the diversity and relevance of current Australian explorations of early modern English culture. The essays are unified in tone by their authors’ pervasive focus upon Shakespeare, their involvement in contemporary theoretical mappings of the English Renaissance, and their foregrounding of the critical issues of historical distance, recovery/refraction and loss.

Of particular interest are the essays that tackle head-on various contemporary givens of modern and early modern historicism. Stephen Greenblatt draws attention to the way new, politically-correct constructions of a usable past by re-emerging, often previously disenfranchised, cultures are frequently modeled upon old-style nineteenth century romantic grand narratives of cultural identity. The result is that literary and physical monuments (not to mention socio-cultural mechanisms) which attempt to recuperate a people’s singular, coherent heritage, their unique voice and roots, end up reifying a privileged narrative of one’s blood, race and nation. This narrative masks as much as it exhumes and despite its strategic usefulness may be as ideologically constrictive as it is liberating. Greenblatt is wary of the dangers of newly recuperating traditional nation narratives that are teleological, essentialist and monological, and argues instead for a literary and historicist praxis characterised by rupture and accident rather than fictions of racial purity, organic growth and historical inevitability. There is, he argues:

a potential that lies in the impurity of languages and ethnicities, in tangled lines of access and blockage, in the flesh-and-blood intensity of loss, assimilation, and invention, and in the daring intersection of multiple identities. The new literary histories that these groups are poised to write should do more than put them on the map; they should transform the act of map-making (18-19).

The post-New Historicism climate in literary studies is very much one that endorses the making of fresh maps. The essays by Conal Condren, Bob White and Geoffrey Borny engage in exactly this exercise. Condren provides a useful précis of his important work-in-process which is devoted to extricating the praxis of early modern literary historicism from its conceptual containment within the Burckhardtian model of the Renaissance (currently enjoying a Greenblattian Indian summer). Condren emphasises the critical importance of identifying anachronism in the conceptualisation of history and cogently argues the need for early modern scholars to think outside the now-naturalised framework of Renaissance culture as an ecosystem of individuals negotiating personal freedoms. It is a category mistake to introject modern individualism into Renaissance textual evidence that reveals more plainly a concern for the duties and prerogatives of offices. In a culture woven of the inhabitation of offices, of social duties and responsibilities, the introduction of a modern autonomous individual seeking liberty brings with it all manner of collateral damage to our understanding of the past.

At the same time as Condren is helpfully pushing the Renaissance further away from us, Bob White is highlighting evocative parallels with contemporary thought. White matches a number of concepts in humanist practise with traits of postmodernism to contend ‘that recent theory involves largely and fundamentally an unacknowledged revival of early modern literary theory’ (97-98). This view usefully provokes us to closer examination of sixteenth-century humanism so that we may guard against any naïve construction of a postmodern early modernity as well as any naïve acceptance of an inherited Victorian view of humanism. In the process of explicating our theoretical continuities with the past, it would be wise for us to bear in mind the essay in this volume by Ronald Bedford on the extreme difficulty we have (or should have) in determining the nature of historical uses of irony. Equivalence and similarity of referents (even when signifiers remain the same) are not to be blithely assumed and the case of ‘irony’ (which foregrounds questions of recognition and audience) illustrates how supertextual aspects of literary history are especially hard to determine with finality.

If these essays suggest that modern historians are also inevitably master-storytellers, Peter Holbrook’s persuasive piece explains how the reverse is also true. The form and pressure of Shakespeare’s brand of storytelling was essential to the origin and nature of modern historicism in nineteenth-century Germany. The German Romantic exaltation of Shakespeare’s art as expressive of raw empirical realities and thus as an exemplary model of human existence in general, goes hand-in-glove with the form of historical narrative developing through the nineteenth century. Shakespeare becomes a model for the dominant genre of history writing reaching into our own time: ‘he may perhaps be said to have been a progenitor of historicism’ (32). Holbrook’s essay is important as we attempt to understand the peculiar pull of Shakespeare for the modern (historically interested) mind.

Holbrook’s symbiotic birth of historicism and the ‘genius of Shakespeare’ is a fascinating backdrop against which to read Geoffrey Borny’s excellent critique of the contemporary, generally Stanislavskian, performance of Shakespeare. In an argument that highlights the valuable insights of older Shakespeare critics, Borny brilliant poses the question: ‘It is not enough to say that it is possible to play characters as though they were real people; one must also look at what is lost by doing this’ (232). Borny relies on his own directorial experience to argue that Stanislavskian psychological realism and ‘fourth wall’ acting conventions are neither true to original presentations of early modern drama nor, in fact, unproblematic in modern renditions of particular scenes. A more fluid mode that allows direct address to the audience and is aware of Renaissance conventions of rhetoric and performance is likely to resolve problematic scenes and rescue the past from the present.

The focus on Shakespeare in performance is continued by a number of contributors including a brief and performatively inclusivist word on playing Shakespeare by John Bell. Lee Scott Taylor examines Richard III as a text that not only illustrates Shakespeare’s subtle grasp on the fabrication of history but as one that is also productive of modern filmic versions that complexly marry ideology with aesthetics. Susan Penberthy discusses Henry IV in terms of a Shakespearean defence of acting as recreation and profession in the wider context of puritan charges of idleness. Idleness itself is developed in Elizabeth Moran’s nicely unfolding discussion of the positioning of the female consumer in early modern proto-capitalist culture as exemplary of carnality, whoredom and ultimately the destruction of masculine order in family and society.

It is wholly appropriate in a collection such as this that Christopher Wortham should deal with map-making in the period as expressive of what is ‘inside people’s heads’ (177) and particularly with the sort of cartographic and mental disorientation at work in Othello. In valuable complement to this is Lloyd Davis’ vivid evocation of the social mechanics of postal networks on the ground in early modern England. These increasingly wideranging (and international) networks of communication serve to unify a kingdom as much as the quintessentially centralised spectacles of royal triumph that Anthony Miller discusses in Tudor to Stuart literature and pageantry. Miller shows how often early modern consolidations of power, and their literary problematisations, are effected via nuanced redeployments of the ancient form of the Roman triumph. We know now that global communication has overtaken local spectacle as the most powerful administrator of earthly power but what remains a fascinating mystery is that so much of this communication is still concerned with both history and Shakespeare. This collection could not be more timely in a cultural moment when postmodernism has expanded beyond its first dazzling flash to broader attempts to deal with ‘the real’: attempts in which, as it turns out, the past and Shakespeare play major roles.


Liam Semler is an Australian Research Fellow in the English Department, University of Sydney. He is author of The English Mannerist Poets and the Visual Arts (1998) and editor of Eliza’s Babes, Or The Virgin’s
Offering (1652): A Critical Edition (2001).

The Touch of the Real: Essays in Early Modern Culture, in Honour of Stephen Greenblatt, edited by Philippa Kelly was published by the University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, in 2002.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]