A moved Holberg Laureate spoke personally during his address earlier this week. Stephen Greenblatt described an adolescence and an education marked by a period in time when very much was different from how it is today.
Greenblatt depicted a culture often imbued with xenophobia, and he spoke of how having a Jewish background could be difficult in a society unable to rid itself of anti-Semitic dispositions. He depicted a university system with a rigid and old-fashioned view of history and literature studies – but he also described his reaction against this order and the beginning of a lifelong relationship to Shakespeare’s literary work, which so profoundly influenced Greenblatt’s sense of self and others.
A different time in academia
«I went to university not simply in a different place and time but in a different world from the one in which I now teach and live,» Greenblatt said. He pointed to how American universities in the 1960s were marked by division – between races, religions, genders and classes. Yale College had no female students at the time, and women were often referred to in a condescending fashion. The vast majority of students were WASPs – white men with an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant background.
Greenblatt, with his Jewish background, was part of a small minority, and he was met with prejudice from several people of authority. This made him reflect upon his own birthright – as well as the tragedy of how people are often treated with skepticism and scorn when perceived as alien, and how this reinforces the walls of the mental ghettos in which we live.
“I was determined to understand this birthright, including what was toxic in it, as completely as possible, “ Greenblatt said. “Our species' cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work-in-progress.”
Pain, pleasure and determination
Greenblatt describes how this cultural legacy was underscored not only by his reading of classic literature where the author's anti-Semitism showed through, but also by his experience of reading Shakespeare’s «The Merchant of Venice» as a freshman.
The book made him determined not to be broken by resistance from xenophobic people in power, but nor would he adopt his parents’ “defensive posture.” Greenblatt describes a feeling of empowerment: “I would not turn away from works that caused me pain as well as pleasure.”
Shakespeare and otherness
Greenblatt points to how Shakespeare, despite likely having little knowledge of the Jewish ghetto in Venice, still tried to negotiate with what Greenblatt calls “a xenophobic inheritance.” This shows for instance in how Shakespeare pursues the idea of equality before the law, and in his understanding of how “the liberty of strangers” is crucial to Venice’s commerce. But more fundamentally, the texts relay essential truths about human interaction, through Shakespeare’s unique way of conferring life upon the characters of his creation.
In the lecture, Greenblatt explains how Shakespeare's works made him feel closer both to those around him and to people he did not know: “Shakespeare’s works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore, but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake.”