Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Jay Greenblatt (born November 7, 1943) is a literary critic, theorist and scholar.

Greenblatt is regarded by many as one of the founders of New Historicism, a set of critical practices that he often refers to as "cultural poetics"; his works have been influential since the early 1980s when he introduced the term. Greenblatt has written and edited numerous books and articles relevant to new historicism, the study of culture, Renaissance studies and Shakespeare studies and is considered to be an expert in these fields. His most popular work is "Will in the World", a biography of Shakespeare that was on the New York Times Best Seller list for nine weeks. []

He is also co-founder of the literary-cultural journal "Representations", which often publishes articles by new historicists. Greenblatt shares many anecdotes about his academic and non-academic experiences in interviews and in his writing.

Biographical information

Education, academia and employment

Greenblatt was born in Boston and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was educated at Yale University (B.A. 1964, M.Phil 1968, Ph.D. 1969 and Pembroke College, Cambridge (B.A. 1966, M.A. 1968). Greenblatt has since taught at University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University. He was Class of 1932 Professor at Berkeley (he became a full professor in 1980) and taught there for 28 years before taking a position at Harvard University where in 1997 Greenblatt became the Harry Levin Professor of Literature; he was named John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities in 2000. As a visiting professor and lecturer, Greenblatt has taught at such institutions as the universities of Berlin, the University of Florence, Kyoto University, the University of Oxford and Peking University. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has been president of the Modern Language Association. Greenblatt was "a key figure in the shift from literary to cultural poetics and from textual to contextual interpretation in U.S. English departments in the 1980s and 1990s" (Leitch 2250).


Greenblatt has three children. He was married to Ellen Schmidt from 1969-96; they have two sons (Joshua and Aaron). In 1998 he married fellow academic Ramie Targoff, also a Renaissance expert and a professor at Brandeis University; they have one son (Harry).

General interest

Greenblatt shares many personal anecdotes in interviews and in his writing. Greenblatt has stated that as counsellor at a summer camp, he spent some time playing guitar and singing “mournful folk songs” with co-counsellor Art Garfunkel, who talked about introducing him to Paul Simon so that they could sing together—Greenblatt declined in favour of college ("Greenblatt Named"). Greenblatt has also stated that while pursuing his Ph.D. at Yale he "rushed out of a corner drugstore and knocked down an elderly man who turned out to be T. S. Eliot… he survived" ("Greenblatt Named"). Greenblatt also notes that he performed, "usually in grotesque situations and invariably drawing a somewhat mysterious laugh from the studio audience," with the group that would become Monty Python's Flying Circus troupe ("Greenblatt Named").

Literary interests, influences and personal favourites

"At a certain point I passed from the naïve to what Schiller calls the sentimental—that is, I stopped reading books of marvels and began reading ethnographies and novels—but my childhood interests have survived in a passionate curiosity about other cultures and a fascination with tales" (Greenblatt, "Marvelous Possessions" 2).

"My students... have had a profound influence upon everything I have written. And at the center of my intellectual life at Berkeley is the group of colleagues who have... shared ideas, argued, criticized, and given of themselves with remarkable generosity" (Greenblatt, "Shakespearean Negotiations" ix).

Greenblatt’s scholarly interests are listed as “Shakespeare; Early Modern Literature and Culture; Literature of Travel and Exploration; Religion and Literature; Literature and Anthropology; [and] Literary and Cultural Theory” on his faculty profile webpage. His critical work is deeply indebted to "Foucauldian and Marxist theories of history" (Rivkin 506). In an interview with Barnes and Noble, Greenblatt stated that the book which most influenced his life/career as a writer was Friedrich Nietzsche's "On the Genealogy of Morals". Though he hated the book, it made him aware that some books have the power to challenge one’s beliefs (Greenblatt, Interview). He lists Michel de Montaigne's "Essais", Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", William Shakespeare’s "Complete Works" and Leo Tolstoy’s "Anna Karenina" among his favourite works (Greenblatt, Interview). Some of his favourite films are "M", "The Third Man" and "Shakespeare in Love" (Greenblatt, Interview). He enjoys classical music, including Verdi's opera "Don Carlo" and Mozart's opera "Così fan tutte", but does not listen to music while writing (Greenblatt, Interview).


Greenblatt on his audience and work: “I've been at this for 40 years. And, as an academic, I've been content with relatively small audiences, with the thought that the audience I long for will find its way eventually to what I have written, provided that what I have written is good enough” ("Meet the Writers").

Greenblatt has written extensively on Shakespeare, the Renaissance, culture and new historicism (which he often refers to as "cultural poetics"). Much of his work has been “part of a collective project,” such as his work as co-editor of the Berkeley-based literary-cultural journal "Representations" (which he co-founded in 1983), as editor of publications such as the "Norton Anthology of English Literature" and as co-author of books such as "Practicing New Historicism" (2000), which he wrote with Catherine Gallagher (Greenblatt, "Greenblatt Reader" 1). Greenblatt has also written on such subjects as travelling in Laos and China, story-telling and miracles.

Greenblatt's collaboration with Charles L. Mee, "Cardenio", premiered on May 8, 2008 at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. While the critical response to "Cardenio" was mixed, audiences responded quite positively. Some audience members even went so far to send the theatre emails to about the unfair treatment of the piece in the press. The American Repertory Theatre has posted audience responses on the organization's blog.

New historicism

Greenblatt is quoted as saying, “My deep, ongoing interest is in the relation between literature and history, the process through which certain remarkable works of art are at once embedded in a highly specific life-world and seem to pull free of that life-world. I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago" (“Greenblatt Named”).

Greenblatt first used the term “new historicism” in his 1982 introduction to "The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance" wherein he uses Queen Elizabeth's “bitter reaction to the revival of Shakespeare’s "Richard II" on the eve of the Essex rebellion" to illustrate the “mutual permeability of the literary and the historical” (Greenblatt, "Greenblatt Reader" 1-2). New historicism is regarded by many to have had an impact on "every traditional period of English literary history” (Cadzow). Some critics have charged that it is “antithetical to literary and aesthetic value, that it reduces the historical to the literary or the literary to the historical, that it denies human agency and creativity, that it is somehow out to subvert the politics of cultural and critical theory [and] that it is anti-theoretical” (Greenblatt, "Greenblatt Reader" 1). Others praise new historicism as “a collection of practices” employed by critics to gain a more comprehensive understanding of literature by considering it in historical context while treating history itself as “historically contingent on the present in which [it is] constructed” (Greenblatt, "Greenblatt Reader" 3).

In an interview with Matthew Norris, he says "I didn’t imagine [New Historicism] as a program, or a long-range ten-year plan. Or a twenty-year plan. It was a way of trying to do a new kind of work. Of course, I hoped it would have an impact, but I wasn’t trying to start a school or imagining myself as founding a new movement. I imagined it as expressing this powerful sense that we need to try to do things differently." [ Paradigm Interview]

Greenblatt's works on new historicism and “cultural poetics” include "Practicing New Historicism" (2000) (written with Catherine Gallagher), in which Greenblatt discusses how “the anecdote… appears as the ‘touch of the real’” and "Towards a Poetics of Culture" (1987), in which Greenblatt asserts that the question of “how art and society are interrelated,” as posed by Jean-François Lyotard and Fredric Jameson, “cannot be answered by appealing to a single theoretical stance” (Cadzow). "Renaissance Self-Fashioning" and the Introduction to the "Norton Shakespeare" are regarded as good examples of Greenblatt's application of new historicist practices (Greenblatt, "Greenblatt Reader" 3).

hakespeare and Renaissance studies

"I believe that nothing comes of nothing, even in Shakespeare. I wanted to know where he got the matter he was working with and what he did with that matter" (Greenblatt, "Hamlet in Purgatory" 4).

Greenblatt states in "King Lear" and Harsnett's 'Double-Fiction'" that "Shakespeare's self-consciousness is in significant ways bound up with the institutions and the symbology of power it anatomizes" (Richter 1295). His work on Shakespeare has addressed such topics as ghosts, purgatory, anxiety, exorcists and revenge. He is general editor of the "Norton Shakespeare".

Greenblatt's new historicism opposes the ways in which new criticism “ [consigns] texts to an autonomous aesthetic realm that [dissociates] Renaissance writing from other forms of cultural production” and the historicist notion that Renaissance texts “ [mirror] … a coherent world-view that was held by a whole population,” asserting instead “that critics who [wish] to understand sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writing must delineate the ways the texts they [study] were linked to the network of institutions, practices, and beliefs that constituted Renaissance culture in its entirety” (Cadzow). Greenblatt’s work in Renaissance studies includes "Renaissance Self-Fashioning" (1980), which “had a transformative impact on Renaissance studies” (Greenblatt, "Greenblatt Reader" 3).

hakespearean Negotiations

:"This book argues that works of art, however intensely marked by the creative intelligence and private obsessions of indivduals, are the products of collective negotiation and exchange" (Greenblatt, "Shakespearean Negotiations", p vii). This book investigates how complex events influenced the works of Shakespeare and how he chronicled them. It takes the form of five essays discussing theory or events of the time and relating them to the plays of Shakespeare. The essays are entitled:
* The Circulation of Social Energy
* Invisible Bullets
* Fiction and Friction
* Shakespeare and the Exorcists
* Martial Law and the Land of Cockaigne

"Norton Anthology of English Literature"

Greenblatt joined M. H. Abrams as general editor of the "Norton Anthology of English Literature" published by W.W. Norton during the 1990s. [Donadio, Rachel, "The New York Times," January 8, 2006, [ "Keeper of the Canon,"] ] He is also the co-editor of the anthology's section on Renaissance literature (Gewertz) and the general editor of the "Norton Shakespeare", “currently his most influential piece of public pedagogy” (Greenblatt, "Greenblatt Reader" 3).


*Fulbright scholarship (1964-66)
*Guggenheim fellowship (1975)
*University of Peking, visiting professorship (1982)
*James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association ("Shakespearean Negotiations") (1989)
*Erasmus Institute Prize (2002)
*Mellon Distinguished Humanist Award (2002)
*Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

elected works

*"Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley" (1965)
*"Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles" (1973)
*"Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare" (1980)
*"Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England" (1988)
*"Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture" (1990)
*"Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World" (1992)
*"Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies" (1992)
*"The Norton Shakespeare (1997)
*"Practicing New Historicism" (with Catherine Gallagher)(2000)
*"Hamlet in Purgatory" (2001)
*"Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare" (2004)
*"The Greenblatt Reader" (2005)
*"Cardenio" (2008) Premiered at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA


Lisa Jardine, Queen Mary, University of London:"I was putting together some lectures in the early 80s and I suggested Greenblatt to the faculty. No one had heard of him. But when he and I arrived at the lecture room we were greeted by a grumpy porter who complained that the event was a fire hazard. The audience was hanging from the rafters. That was Stephen Greenblatt. The faculty hadn't heard of him, but the students were in there." (Miller)

Stephen Greenblatt’s account of his reaction to being told that several American job advertisements were requesting responses from experts in new historicism:"I said, 'You've got to be kidding. You know it was just something we made up!' I began to see there were institutional consequences to what seemed like a not particularly deeply thought-out term." (Miller)

ee also

*New Historicism
*Cultural Materialism (often contrasted with)
*Michel Foucault
*Literary theory


Richard Burt, "Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media" (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008) ISBN-10: 0230601251

Cadzow, Hunter, Alison Conway and Bryce Traister. “New Historicism.” "Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism" 2005. Feb. 2006 .

"Faculty Profiles." 3 Feb. 2006. 7 Feb. 2006. .

Gewertz, Ken. “Greenblatt Edits "Norton Anthology".” "Harvard University Gazette" 2 Feb. 2006. 2 Feb. 2006 .

“Greenblatt Named University Professor of the Humanities.” "Harvard University Gazette" 21 Sept. 2000. 2 Feb. 2006 .

Greenblatt, Stephen. Interview. Barnes and Noble. “Meet the Writers: Stephen Greenblatt.” 2004. 07 Feb. 2006 .

Greenblatt, Stephen J.. "The Greenblatt Reader". Ed. Michael Payne. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. ISBN 1-4051-1566-1

---. "Hamlet in Purgatory". New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2001. ISBN 0-691-05873-3

---. "Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture". New York: Routledge, 1990. ISBN 0-415-90173-1}

---. "Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World". Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. ISBN 0-226-30651-8

---. "Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England". Los Angeles: U of California P, 1988. ISBN 0-520-06160-8

Leitch, Vincent, ed. "Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism". New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0-393-97429-4

“Meet the Writers: Stephen Greenblatt.” 2006. 07 Feb. 2006 .

Miller, Lucasta. “The Human Factor.” "The Guardian" 26 Feb. 2005. 8 Feb. 2006 .

Pieters, Jürgen, ed. "Critical Self-Fashioning: Stephen Greenblatt and the New Historicism". Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1999. ISBN 3-631-34116-4

Pieters, Jürgen, 'Moments of Negotiation. The New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt'. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Pess, 2001. ISBN 90-5356-502-7

Pieters, Jürgen. 'Speaking with the dead. Explorations in Literature and History.' edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-7486-1588-1

Richter, David, ed. "The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends". Boston: Bedford Books, 1988. ISBN 0-312-10106-6

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan, eds. "Literary Theory: An Anthology". 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. ISBN 1-4051-0696-4

Ruder, Debra Bradley. “Renaissance Literature Scholar to Join FAS.” "Harvard University Gazette" 6 Feb. 1997. 8 Feb. 2006 <>.

“Stephen_Greenblatt.” Photo. 2005. 07 Feb. 2006 (dead link)


External links

* [ American Repertory Theatre's production page for Cardenio]

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