Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt’s most recent book is Hamlet in Purgatory. He is working on a biographical study of Shakespeare.

In Memory of Michael Rogin

Stephen Greenblatt, 3 January 2002

‘After the first death,’ Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘there is no other.’ I know what he is getting at, I suppose, but it isn’t true, at least not for me. I have had other deaths, but the death last month of my friend Michael Rogin was a shock. It’s not that we had, in recent years, spent much time together. I left Berkeley, where we taught together on the faculty...

The Inevitable Pit: Isn’t that a Jewish name?

Stephen Greenblatt, 21 September 2000

I am an American who thinks of himself (interchangeably, with increasing degrees of specificity) as an Eastern European Jew, an Ashkenazi and a Litvak, but this self-identification, I have to acknowledge, is strange. It is true that my grandparents were born in Lithuania: my father’s parents in Kovna, my mother’s in Vilna. But they left for America sometime in the early 1890s, and, with a single exception, it was more than a century before anyone in my family returned for a visit. No one seems to remember the precise year of their departure or even the precise occasion, though there was somewhat vague talk, when I was growing up, about the need to escape a tsarist Russification scheme that centred on drafting eligible young Jewish men into the Army for 25-year terms of military service. I know that the Russian Government lurched between wanting to isolate Jews in a carefully demarcated Pale of Settlement, as if they were a dangerous virus, and wanting to swallow and absorb them by destroying their separate identity. Twenty-five sounds suspiciously like a mythic number, but Russian reality has often had a mythic quality, so it is possible that some such scheme at one time existed, and even a much shorter term of military service would have seemed almost unendurable, particularly to anyone who was committed, as were both my grandfathers, to observing Kashrut and keeping at least a reasonable number of the other commandments.

The closest analogues in the West to Borges’s ‘Chinese encyclopedia’, if not its direct source, are the Wunderkammern, strange collections in cabinets that signalled the prestige of many princes and prelates and served as Early Modern tourist attractions. In Borges’s description of the encyclopedia – perhaps the most famous passage in his work, and famously celebrated by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things – we are told that animals are classified as follows: ‘(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.’ The contents of the Wunderkammern are no less striking – coconut-shell goblets, elaborately carved ivory knick-knacks, seashells, bits of coral, antique coins and cameos, stuffed armadillos, geodes and fossils, polished rocks that looked like landscape paintings, unicorn horns, birds of paradise, aberrant fruits and monstrous animals, anamorphic pictures, mechanical ducks that quacked and flapped their wings, Indian featherwork capes, Turkish shoes, barnacle geese that grew on trees in Scotland, mummified hands, dragons’ teeth, ostrich eggs and so on and so forth. They are likely to evoke in us something like the laughter that the passage in Borges aroused in Foucault: a shattering, liberating laughter, ‘breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things’.

Wild Bill

Stephen Greenblatt, 20 October 1994

It would be easy for a reader who was encountering Empson for the first time to wonder what on earth this critical performance was about and why these ragged relics – the second part of a two-volume edition of his miscellaneous writings on Renaissance literature – were being presented with such thoughtfulness and scrupulous care. About half of the present volume’s contents have been previously published, from a 1956 essay on The Spanish Tragedy, through essays from the Sixties on Volpone and The Alchemist, to a pair of reviews. None of this is close to the level of Empson’s major work. To the uninitiated these pieces will, I think, often seem cranky and arbitrary, skirmishing with enemies who have long since vanished, condescending to the views of ‘lady students’, and assuming a virtually direct access both to the mind of the maker and to the responses of the original audience. The hitherto unpublished pieces – a letter to a colleague who had ventured to disagree on a point of interpretation, an unfair and largely tedious drubbing of a critical essay on Volpone, and unfinished essays on The Ducless of Malfi and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – pose even more of a problem. For apart from the repetitions that would certainly have been eliminated in a finished version, these pieces – especially the crucial long essay on the Dream – indulge in speculations that seem, well, zany.’

Where little Fyodor played

Stephen Greenblatt, 24 January 1991

The small dacha in Peredelkino outside Moscow where Boris Pasternak lived for several years and where in 1960 he died is now a museum. It was there that the Writer’s Union representative took us – a group of jet-lagged American journal editors – on the first afternoon of our recent visit. The books and the furniture and the grand piano and the drawings by his father Leonid, all of which had been carted off after Pasternak’s death, when the dacha was unceremoniously assigned to another writer, have been brought back, and the poet who had been expelled by the Writer’s Union in the wake of the publication of Doctor Zhivago, is now given culture’s highest tribute – museumification. This means a woman at a desk, tearing tickets printed on cheap paper; another woman with a feather duster and an expression of unutterable boredom; and a voluble young man with mad eyes who conducts a tour. He shows us the drawing-room, the dining-room, the small bedroom where Pasternak died. A framed reproduction of his father’s portrait of Tolstoy hangs on the wall; on the bed lies a wilted bouquet of flowers, a reminder of the thousands of mourners who showed up to pay their last respects, lining up for three days on the lanes that ran through the birch woods, even though there had been only the smallest death notice in the newspapers and though public expressions of grief were not, to put it mildly, encouraged.’

Loitering in the Piazza

Stephen Greenblatt, 27 October 1988

Giovanni Levi’s Inheriting Power bears a generic resemblance to those recent historical studies that illuminate the lives of European peasants by isolating and reconstructing a single resonant story. The best of these microhistories – Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre – succeed in making their stories what Kenneth Burke calls ‘representative anecdotes’, reflections of reality that are inevitably selections of reality. The selections work if they manage to convey a sense of both resonance and particularity. The particularity functions rhetorically to persuade the reader that she has made contact not with another statistical table or an allegorical idea but with a palpable life and its concrete material world (‘to take note’, Hal tells Poins, ‘how many pairs of silk stockings thou hast, viz., these, and those that were thy peach-color’d ones’). The resonance functions to raise this enumeration of particulars above the trivial or the random, to evoke what Yeats called the emotion of multitude, to make the anecdote representative.’

That’s America

Stephen Greenblatt, 29 September 1988

The 15th-century classic of paranoid witch-hunting, Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum, provides a convenient gloss on the word ‘glamour’. Witches, the Dominican inquisitors tell us, can rob a man of his penis or at least make him think that he has been robbed. The victim wakes up in the morning, looks down and sees nothing there – or rather he sees, where his penis should be, what is called a ‘glamour’.’


Stephen Greenblatt, 19 June 1986

A few months ago, in California, I had a message that a New York Times reporter had telephoned. I conjured up a half-dozen possible reasons for the call, all of them unabashedly narcissistic, only to find, when I finally reached her, that the reporter wanted to know what I thought of a scholarly book that had just been published. Such a question from the press is highly unusual in the United States: American newspapers rarely interest themselves in scholarship, and our reporters, like our politicians, have failed to develop a public discourse that can accommodate ideas of a complexity greater than that conveyed in advertising jingles. Even papers that take themselves very seriously indeed regard cultural and intellectual life as generally beyond the pale of the ‘news’. (The exception proves the rule: when the New York Times Sunday Magazine decided recently to run an article on deconstruction, the reporter wrote as if he couldn’t believe not only the outlandishness of the intellectual movement he was purporting to chronicle but the peculiarity of writing about it at all.)


One Sex or Two

8 November 1990

Poor Thomas Laqueur! According to Michael Mason’s review of his book Making sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (LRB, 8 November), Laqueur was once a respectable scholar whose work on Victorian Sunday schools produced a ‘plausible insight about our ancestors’ – but then, alas, he came down with a disease. What is this ‘new and potent intellectual virus’...

They rudely stare about: Thomas Browne

Tobias Gregory, 4 July 2013

It is still often proposed that religion and science need not conflict. Stephen Jay Gould held that they occupy ‘non-overlapping magisteria’: science deals with questions of fact,...

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As I was reading Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare on the train there was a woman sitting near me doing a deal on the phone. She was getting agitated. ‘But I have to...

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New historicism was a 1980s thing, a literary critical movement that took shape on the West Coast, becoming established there and elsewhere as what one could talk about after having talked for...

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Elegant Extracts: anthologies

Leah Price, 3 February 2000

Anthologies attract good haters. In the 1790s, the reformer Hannah More blamed their editors for the decay of morals: to let people assume that you had read the entire work from which an...

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Point of Wonder

A.D. Nuttall, 5 December 1991

‘Greece, having been subjected, subjected her wild conqueror and introduced culture into boorish Rome.’ The poet Horace, himself a Roman, can take a stylish pleasure in describing the...

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Hail to the Chief

Frank Kermode, 10 January 1991

As befits an undisputed chef d’école, Stephen Greenblatt includes in this latest collection an account of his own ‘intellectual trajectory’, which features a decisive...

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Like sociology and anthropology, the study of art and literature, especially the art and literature of the Renaissance, seems to be taking a historical turn in the Eighties. To a historian like...

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