Saturday, July 15, 2006

2 Henry VI - Stephen Greenblatt's Henry VI

I have not read Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, but after picking out the 2 Henry VI passages, I think I will. I know Greenblatt as a New Historicist, and I am always wary of postmodernists, but he is also the mentor of a Colorado State colleague, Barbara Sebek, whom I admire immensely. Also, starting the book on p. 167, I'd guess he is using his historicism to account for Shakespeare psychologically, another aspect that usually makes me nervous. Usually, though, the psychological folks tend to translate the text to fit their jargon, and to my limited eye, Greenblatt seems to interpret history/psychology parallel to the way I might interpret metaphors, etc. So, heeere's Stephen:

Greenblatt uses 2 Henry VI for two points:the idea of the city and the lower class, and Shakespeare's relation to Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare is a country boy. Of the idea of the city: though certainly the site where Shakespeare remade himself, "what principally excited Shakespeare's imagination abut London were its more sinister or disturbing aspects" (162). Jack Cade, descending on London to overthrow the social order, promises a kind of primitive economic reform. "In the sequence of wild scenes, poised between grotesque comedy and nightmare, the young Shakespeare imagines...what it would be like to have London controlled by a half-mad belligerently illiterate rabble from the country" (167). "While the upper-class characters are for the most part stiff and unconvincing...the lower-class rebels are startlingly vital" (167).

Greenblatt then does a psychological job, "possibly" detecting a shakespeare self-portrait in Cade's first victim, the literate clerk, who is hung because he can read and write, noting Shakespeare's self-consciousness about what separates him from Stratford, his literacy, a self-consciousness also identified in Cade's "inveterate pretending, his dream of high status" (169). Shakespeare's fixed point of urban reference was London, even if the plays calls it Rome, Ephesus, Vienna, or Venice. Only in 2 Henry VI does Shakespeare place the London crowd firmly in the city in which he lives and works, without disguise (170). And Cade's condemnation of Lord Say for the grammar school, the paper mill, and the printing press (anachronisms) shows him "interested in the sources of his own consciousness" (171).

"Shakespeare was fascinated by the crazed ranting of those who hate modernity, despise learning, and celebrate the virtue of ignorance. And it is characteristic of him even here -- when he was imagining those who would have attacked his own identity -- that he heard not only the grotesque stupidity but also the grievance" (171). Greenblatt cites IV.vii.34-39 -- Cade condemning Lord Say for appointing justices of the peace who hang poor men because they cannot read -- with a description of how this condemns English law at the time.

Lastly, Greenblatt says the three plays about the troubled reign of Henry VI are Shakespeare's counter thrust to Tamberlaine. The Queen's men needed to write historical epic, like Marlowe's, but needed books to make an English epic. "In Shakespeare's vision of English history, vaunting ambition leads to chaos, an ungovernable, murderous factionalism and the consequent loss of power at home and abroad -- Shakespeare's petty Tamberlains, even though they are queens and dukes, are like mentally unbalanced small-town criminals: they are capable of incredible nastiness, but cannot achieve a hint of grandeur" (197). For instance, in comparison to Tamberlaine, Greenblatt finds Talbot ("shrimp") an ordinary mortal. I'm sure there is much more on Marlowe, but this is the fragment relative to Henry VI.

So, except for Mike, I just saved you part of $26.95.


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