Fortunately, there are still articles out there that grease the hands of my mental grandfather clock, like this thought-provoking piece in the New York Review of Books by everyone's favorite Norton Anthology editor, Stephen Greenblatt (lately, it seems like the Bard's the word--April's Harper's cover promises to tell us "How Shakespeare conquered the world"). He opens his piece with a too-good-to-be-true anecdote featuring former Prez Bill Clinton, who, according to Greenblatt, recites lengthy soliloquies from Macbeth and drops intelligent commentary on Shakespearean drama without batting an eyelash (cinematically speaking, he's either characterizing Clinton as an impassioned English teacher at an inner city high school or a devious super villain).
But Greenblatt is, of course, more concerned with the intentions and ideas of another Bill. Demonstrating his admirable grasp of the canon, the New Historicist turns to Shakespeare's work and elicits myriad examples of villains who have willfully sought power, heroes who have wrestled with its consequences, and intelligentsia who have shied away from it. As an astute critic of Shakespeare, Greenblatt transcends high-school aphorisms (power...corrupts) and penetrates the author's deeply nuanced viewpoint--often, his deliberate unwillingness to express a single-minded attitude at all--towards issues like the sanctity of kingship, the utility of democracy and elections, and the plausibility of an ethically-sound system of governance.
This purposeful ambiguity, according to Greenblatt, is intended to encourage a context-bound assessment of morality. He writes:
"The conclusion towards which these stories tend is not the cynical abandonment of all hope for decency in public life, but rather a deep skepticism about any attempt to formulate and obey an abstract moral law, independent of actual social, political, and psychological circumstances."Greenblatt supports this stance, which is firmly entrenched in New Historicism, with beautiful examples such as the story of Brutus, the righteous protagonist in Julius Caesar who participates in the assassination of the titular dictator, his close friend. Brutus' failure, writes Greenblatt, isn't that he was coerced into believing the act was morally justified, but rather than he believes he's ethically autonomous; the Roman senator fails to apprehend the social influences and consequences that precede and follow his deed, waves of events and relations that ripple far beyond his self-contained conception of good and evil (are you listening, George W?). Whether or not one has this awareness, according to Greenblatt, is the true determinant of the relationship--positive or negative--between morality and power.
Therefore, New Historical critics are the ideal inheritors of the throne.
Like any good critical essay, "Shakespeare and the Uses of Power" presents a moderately specific question--how does the Bard approach the issue?--that evokes Big Questions about the relations between ethics, political power, and literature. The article stimulated a quasi-interesting discussion about the first two terms on The New Republic's blog, but it's the association between 1 and 3--ethics and literature--that has occupied my interest as of late, especially after reading an infuriating (this is how I know I've officially become a nerd--I call academic essays "infuriating") piece by Richard Posner, "Against Ethical Criticism."
Rather than delving into all of the unsubstantiated points in Posner's piece (which is intended to argue against the inclusion of literary criticism of law), I'll boil his argument to its core argument: Literature cannot be morally instructive, because writers and their characters are hardly moral paradigms, fiction doesn't spur us to do anything, and Martha Nussbaum's cognitivist approach--the idea that identification may induce us to sympathize with individuals in different situations--is both weak and ethically culpable (we identify with evil and corrupt characters). Tonal, stylistic, and logical problems aside, I think I find arguments like Posner's infuriating because they pose needless ultimatums (Is literature THE correct means of ethical instruction?). Similarly, I find essays like Greenblatt's piece enlightening because they debunk such totalizing queries.
Is literature the perfect, self-constitutive vessel for a moral education? No. Can fiction demonstrate and transmit shaky notions of right and wrong? Of course. But does this mean the medium is totally incapable of conveying such lessons? The sympathetic imagination, which is most readily activated by fiction, is completely fallible, corruptible, and not always strong enough to spur literal action, but so is any cognitive process that drives judgment and alignment. If nothing else, we can depart from a work of literature having learned, as Greenblatt demonstrates, the loss of ethical autonomy that accompanies the acquisition of power; what we choose to do with this knowledge lies in our hands.