Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt bigraphy, stories - American literary critic, theorist and scholar

Stephen Greenblatt : biography

November 7, 1943 –

Stephen Jay Greenblatt (born November 7, 1943) is an American 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. He is also co-founder of the literary-cultural journal Representations, which often publishes articles by new historicists. 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.


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 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 Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While the critical response to Cardenio was mixed, audiences responded quite positively. The American Repertory Theatre has posted audience responses on the organization’s blog. Cardenio has been adapted for performance in ten countries, with additional international productions planned.

New Historicism

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”. New historicism is regarded by many to have had an impact on "every traditional period of English literary history”. 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”. Scholars have observed that “new historicism” is, in fact, "neither new nor historical." 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”.

In an interview with Matthew Norris, Greenblatt said that "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." When told that several American job advertisements were requesting responses from experts in new historicism, he remembered thinking "’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."

He has also said that “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".