Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Renaissance Self-Fashioning

Stephen Greenblatt's book Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare discusses the early-modern desire to manipulate or "fashion" the self using six important Englishmen from 1500-1600: Thomas More, William Tyndale, Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare. The work of self-fashioning might be internal (trying to better one's own nature) or external (trying to control the image of one that others see); it is always, though, a struggle between shaping and mastering one's own destiny, and having that identity shaped and mastered by cultural and social forces.

Greenblatt pairs these six figures off opposition to each other, with a third party as the reiteration or suspension of the tension created between the two. For instance, More and Tyndale are in conflict, with Wyatt as the transformation of that conflict. The conflict between Spenser and Marlowe takes shape in Shakespeare. The third party does not reconcile the conflict; rather, they are shaped by the "historical pressure" of the conflict of the other two.

The act of self-fashioning, Greenblatt argues, always takes place between an authority (or the shadow of an authority) and an alien, an Other, which represents chaos and disruption of the power of the authority. The identity achieved from this encounter has, within itself, the seeds of its own destruction, loss, or subversion.

More's self-fashioning is testified to in many accounts of More and in his own writings. He is interested in the idea of guises, of playing a part in order to gain power, and in allowing authority figures, such as kings, to believe they have ultimate power. He recognizes the fiction that is ultimate power but also recognizes that men go along with it even while they do not believe in it: "men must sometime for the manner sake not be aknowen what they know" (13). And as a primary counsellor to Henry VIII, he accomplished this for years, creating a character 'More' that Henry relied on. At the same time, his character in Utopia, Rafael Hythloday, rejects the idea of pandering to authority or tip-toeing around a king and More himself ultimately rejects it as he cannot give up his allegiance to the Catholic church and sign the Oath of Supremacy. Was this in response to a true self or was this More acting in accordance with the "More" character he had created? At any rate, this act was his undoing. Greenblatt characterizes these opposing forces as "self-fashioning and self-cancellation."

Tyndale represents an acquiescence to the absolute power, God, as opposed to More's allegiance to the king and the church. God in Tyndale's case, though, is represented by the Book, capital B. This book is both the English Bible (Tyndale's translation) and his book, The Obedience of a Christian Man. This second book is something unlike anything we've seen yet in English literature; it is personal, confessional, internal, while yet being a manual for Christian behavior and thought. And it is here, in the locus of the Book, that the self-fashioning takes place. It is internal and external at the same time; Tyndale remakes himself after Christ's model while also putting this work on display in order to inspire the same kind of self-fashioning in believing readers.

Wyatt is something else entirely, and I'm not really clear on how he's the third term in the opposition between Tyndale and More. Greenblatt focuses most closely on Wyatt's translations of the penitential psalms (David's confessional poems in the Old Testment) and his court poetry, especially his translation of "Whoso List to Hunt". Wyatt's writing, although it recycles stale tropes, is fresh and new because of how "internal" and heartfelt it seems. Greenblatt's main point is that he is not More, not completely controlled by court and church, nor is he Tyndale, given over to the Word entirely. He manages to negotiate political and sexual struggles at court without being absorbed into a court-identity. He is a diplomat, a skilled translator (of language and experience), who attempts to conceal his criticism of the court but whose pain is palpable. Greenblatt styles him as a master of "calculated recklessness" (139). Perhaps the thesis is that Wyatt, who is dependent on secular power in ways that More and Tyndale were not, uses "realism . . . and inwardness" in his writing to dominate in the court.

Even though I haven't gotten to the dramatic part of the book yet, I see a real connection between this discussion and one of Barish's prejudicial attitudes he discusses--the concern about how much it is a) possible, and b) moral, to change or shape one's own identity. If it isn't permissible to shave a beard, the idea of fashioning a self, an internal or external identity, must be extremely disconcerting to many.

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