Greenblatt, Shakespeare, and the “Intensity of Individuation”

Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare has been sitting on my bookshelves since about 2006, when David Coady, then visiting New York for a study leave, left it behind in my care as he returned to Tasmania (I lie; David’s wife, Diana, included it in a package I was supposed to either mail them or bring with me on my next trip to Australia, and I never did so; so the book is mine now; forgive me, David and Diana). But all that is prelude.

For today, I began reading this purported biography of the Bard, one that aims to make his art comprehensible. (My reading, began, quite naturally, as it does for many New Yorkers, on the subway; in this case, on the Q train, as I headed to Manhattan for some rather mundane chores). As I began, I was struck by the following passage (in reference to Shakespeare’s reworking of sixteenth century morality plays):

Shakespeare grasped that the spectacle of human destiny was, in fact, vastly more compelling when it was attached to not to generalized abstractions but to particular named people, people realized with an unprecedented intensity of individuation: not Youth, but Prince Hal, not Everyman, but Othello.

This is a fine point, nicely put.

First, I like the thought of “the spectacle of human destiny” being “attached” to people; almost as if human beings carried around a stage, a tapestry, of human affairs, fortunes and misfortunes with them, one revelatory of particulars and generalities, capable of telling stories and histories. And each human being, therefore, able to provide a particular perspective on the “spectacle.”

Second, Greenblatt makes us aware of the balancing act that Shakespeare is able to pull off: his characters are realized, indeed, with an “unprecedented intensity of individuation”, and yet, are able to convey the generality of the human spectacle. Indeed, Shakespeare is able to draw an exquisite contrast between the “intensely individuated” character and its ability to make us sense and comprehend broader, universal “truths” about us. As the contrast grows between the highly specific, idiosyncratic, unique character, and its simultaneous familiarity, we are entranced by the artist’s genius. He has managed to introduce us to novelty and particularity, to the familiar and the unfamiliar, all at once. And perhaps more to the point, he makes us aware each person is an “eye on the world” one capable of making us see.

2 thoughts on “Greenblatt, Shakespeare, and the “Intensity of Individuation”

  1. I became a bit skeptical of Greenblatt’s work after reading Alastair Fowler’s devastating takedown of it in the TLS.

    Not to say that there isn’t knowledge to be gained from it, but there are two other similar works that I felt were both more incisive and less speculative: Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, which is sort of a historiography of reactions *to* Shakespeare, and A.D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker, which is a tour of the plays but covers a lot of the same ground in bringing out some of the more remarkable achievements of the work.

    I haven’t read Bate’s more recent book, Soul of the Age, which looks like it’s meant to be in the same spirit as Greenblatt’s book, but appears to focus more on the literary-historical side of things.

    1. David,

      Great to see you here. Could you please give me a reference to the Fowler article? It’d be nice to see if it confirms some of *my* misgivings about Greenblatt’s work. In a later post, I’ll focus on the “knowledge [I] gained from it”. Thanks for the pointers to Bates and Nuttall; I’ll chase those down.

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