Invading Interpreters and Politic Picklocks: Reading Jonson Historically

Ian Donaldson


A central problem in the methodology of both the new and 'old' historicism turns on the nature of the link that is assumed to exist between historical description and literary interpretation. The monolithic accounts of Elizabethan systems of belief assembled by so-called old historicists such as E.M.W. Tillyard (it is common these days to complain) seem often quite at variance with the diverse and at times rebellious energies of the literary texts which they are apparently devised to illuminate. Even in the work of a more sophisticated old historicist such as L.C. Knights the supposedly related activities of historical and literary investigation seem often to tug in contrary directions. The divergence is apparent, for example, in the very structure of Knights's influential study of Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, the first half of which offers a stolid, Tawney-derived historical account of economic conditions in England during the late Elizabethan, early Jacobean period (entitled 'The Background'), while the second half ('The Dramatists') advances livelier readings ofthe work of individual authors. The connections here between foreground and 'background', text and context, 'drama' and 'society', literature and history are quite loosely articulated and theoretically undeveloped. A similar disjunction is often evident in the work of a new historicist such as Stephen Greenblatt, as he turns from a closely-worked meditation upon a particular and highly intriguing historical incident - often quirky in nature, but assumed also to be in some way exemplary - to ponder the particularities of a literary text. The transition is generally athletic and exhilarating in its unexpectedness: a leap from the historical platform across a void to the literary cross-bar, upon which further agile feats are soon to be performed. This is a thoroughly postmodem manoeuvre, challenging precisely on account of its discontinuity, undertaken as coolly as flipping across the television channels, defying (though not perhaps wholly obliterating) old-fashioned expectations of argumentative sequentiality.

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