What is “Renaissance Self-Fashioning”?

Stephen Greenblatt

One of the most influential books in the field of English Renaissance studies in the last 30 years has been Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt, the leading light of the school of “new historicism” and a professor of English literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

So, what is “Renaissance self fashioning“?

Greenblatt argues that while there may have actually been more room in the centuries prior to the English renaissance for up and coming young men to “fashion” themselves, the word “does not occur at all in Chaucer’s poetry” (RSF p. 2) but had taken on “special connotations” by the time Edmund Spenser was writing The Faerie Queene. In a prefatory letter addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1589, Spenser seeks to explain the purpose of his poem:

SIR, knowing how doubtfully all allegories may be construed, and this booke of mine, which I have entituled the Faery Queene, being a continued allegory, or darke conceit, I have thought good, as well for avoyding of gealous opinions and misconstructions, as also for your better light in reading thereof, (being so by you commanded,) to discover unto you the general intention and meaning, which in the whole course thereof I have fashioned, without expressing of any particular purposes or by accidents therein occasioned. The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline: which for that I conceived shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the which the most part of men delight to read, rather for variety of matter then for profite of the ensample, I chose the historye of King Arthure, as most fitte for the excellency of his person, being made famous by many mens former workes, and also furthest from the daunger of envy, and suspition of present time.

According to Greenblatt, “it is in the sixteenth century that fashion seems to come into wide currency as a way of designating the forming of a self.” (RSF, p. 2).

In his introduction to Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt lays out “a set of governing conditions common to most instances of self-fashioning”. There are ten key points, which are:

1. The kind of person engaged in “self-fashioning” is typically a middle class man with no “ancient family tradition or hierarchical status that might have rooted personal identity in the identity of a clan or caste.”

2. “Self-fashioning involves submission to an absolute power or authority situated at least partially outside the self.”

3. These men fashion themselves “in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile,” which “must be discovered or invented in order to be attacked and destroyed.”

4. The alien presence in relation to which these men fashion themselves is perceived by their governing authority as a threat that is either “unformed or chaotic” or “false or negative” – a chaos that is a “demonic parody of order.”

5. “One man’s authority is another man’s alien.”

6. “When one authority or alien is destroyed, another takes its place.”

7. Multiple authorities and aliens exist at any given time.

8. Authority and alien are located outside the self, but they are “experienced as inward necessities, so that both submission and destruction are always already internalized.”

9. “Self-fashioning is always, though not exclusively, in language.”

10. “The power generated to attack the alien in the name of the authority is produced in excess and threatens the authority it sets out to defend. Hence self-fashioning always involves some experience of threat, some effacement or undermining, some loss of self.”

Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare